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Inside the Culloden museum

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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The Upstairs set come out to greet the king and queen


The Downstairs set toast the king and queen (Downton Abbey, the film, 2019)

Friends and readers,

The old magic, the trick played on us by Julian Fellowes and his teams of people — for those susceptible to it — does not begin until at least one-third and maybe closer to half the way through. Anibundel over on NBC has argued that this cinema continuation carries on one important characteristic of the 5 year series at its best: nothing much or nothing overt happens to change anything in the visible life of these sets of people very much. I agree with her that the first season was particularly strong because more or less this formula was kept to. A crippled man arrives to become Lord Grantham’s butler (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates), and after much stigmatizing and complaints, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) keeps him on, because “it’s just not right” to fire him. An old suitor of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns up and asks her to go to a fair because at long last free he wants to propose marriage, and after much heart-wrenching, she decides to stay where she is. Lady Mary, the princess of the family, eldest lovely virgin daughter (Michelle Dockery) is (arguably) raped and the cad (Theo James who blackmailed the homosexual butler, Barrow, Robert James-Collier, to sneak him in as a surprise attack) dies during the fuck! But (awkwardly, with difficulty, comically) the corpse is carried back and there is no scandal at all!

But I want to qualify the implications here. The trick of the thing is to present a character in the throes of some inner crisis that matters to him or her and dramatize how some decision no one but the character and his or her closest intimates see, affects in some central way the rest of the emotional temperature or outlook of that character, the decisions he or she make afterwards, for the rest of their lives. This trick is most effective when it’s played out with the Downstairs people who are more vulnerable to deep hurt or an ejection (getting “sacked”) from the apparent social safety of the orderly household. Add to this what you find in many serial dramas, strong emotionalism, the stance that most people behave in warm and even caring ways to one another, at least emotionally. This does not distinguish Downton Abbey from other serial dramas, but Julian Fellowes is good at making this kind of thing believable. In life most people we meet behave anywhere from indifferently or with a hard edge. An adult might be extra benign to a child. I feel this sentimentalism is central to why people watch what are called realistic (naturalistic) domestic drama movies.

As everyone knows who has paid the slightest attention to the advertisements what happens at Downton is George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) invite themselves for a one-night stay at Downton while they are traveling through Yorkshire and this creates an nearly traumatic emotional reaction as everyone in the household gear up to present an appearance of high excellence and welcome. As late as one-third or later the way through it becomes apparent the exclusionary snobbish tactics of the royal household decree that its staff replace any local staff. It also sets up a confrontation between the queen’s lady-companion, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) who are related kin but have been estranged for years; it is rumored she is determined to leave her fortune elsewhere than Lord Grantham. Gradually this visit, these two social dramas ripple outward to affect the inner lives of a number of vulnerable characters and at least momentarily affect the self-esteem and comfort of everyone else.


Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw (a name from Trollope)

The problem the movie has is these things take time, and when you have say anywhere from 8 to 10 episodes (plus Christmas specials) you have the requisite time; so it’s in the third episode of the first season that Mr Bates throws away the torture instrument he has put on his leg to make his disability less apparent. We have learned to feel for him for two episodes before this. Plus since Julian Fellowes has been determined to present the world order as ultimately benign, the last we saw of everyone they were apparently set for life in good and fulfilling circumstances. This was not so to begin with, nor did the shape of the series emerge as benign providential patterning until the fourth season when the series began to have problems finding crucial traumas and had to introduce new characters and put old ones through twists and turns of misery (especially Mr Bates and Anna as his wife, aka Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart).

So, Fellowes strains to invent inner troubles that matter. He has a couple and adds some: Thomas Barrow is still a vulnerable homosexual man; Daisy (Sophie McShea) has not agreed to set a marriage date with a footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); Tom Bransome is still not trusted as an ex-chauffeur radical Irishman; and over the course of the couple of hours we discover Lady Maud is trying to leave her estate to her illegitimate daughter disguised as lady’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).


Anna and Mr Bates — brief scene showing her telling her idea to him and his loving her for it

What’s more: several favorite characters and a couple of new ones become powerful linchpins in securing respect and power for one another. It’s Anna Bates who seems to think up the plot that puts the royal staff out of commission (drugged, locked in rooms, hoaxed away) and recognizes the queen’s lady is a thief; Bransome saves the king’s life and falls in love with Lucy Smith; she likewise and they are last seen dancing a ballroom dance on the terrace in a lovely landscape (since she is not yet acceptable to the Upstairs people in the ballroom). Daisy leads Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) for once to kindly lie to the grocer and accept an order of food she thinks they will not need.


Allen Leech as Thomas Bransome (working with Lady Mary again)

It does not all work: You would think Bransome was trusted by this time and a few others seem a stretch: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still feeling undervalued and left alone; the rivalry of the Dowager and Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) has become tiresome; their quips no longer amuse. Lady Mary is still unsure she doesn’t want to disburden herself of Downton. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is still absurdly proud and wants to work as a butler; Moseley (Kevin Doyle) makes a fatuous worshipper of himself. But Fellowes does have a gift for endowing his characters with good feelings and kindliness towards one another, and those endangered in some way, yearning for some kind of companionship, security achieve this by film’s end.

I’m saying I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Those who like it are giving it slack — extra patience like you would an old friend.

Some will say this is not what draws people to this series. It’s the super-rich glamour of the house, the grounds, the gorgeous clothes, the leisured existences, the evocative music, the nostalgic escape into a world that never was — the servants were not treated in the way this series dramatizes; it omits 9/10s of the population of England. On top of that, the whole idea this order was a non-violent one is ludicrous. I can’t deny that might be why many people watched the TV series year after year and are making the Downton matter once again a big box-office money-maker. Who does not enjoy seeing a ball? I do. I love the beautiful photographed landscapes. There is the reiterated idea that these super-rich privileged people lead troubled lives themselves — so let’s not envy Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) as she tries to have a life with some emotional satisfaction with a cold mean man. (As if this were anything like the desperate needs and anguished conditions of ordinary people everywhere.)


Princess Mary (Kate Phillips who most of the time ends up dead or otherwise pulverized — as in Davies’ War and Peace …)

To that I can only say, I am not fooled, this kind of supposed comfort (?) is not for me. The thought we are offered at the end that the building, Downton Abbey, and this way of life will last another 100 years and more does not make me happy. It’s sad to think that so many will remain without and desperate so that the money may be gathered by this privileged class to live this way. I suggest that there are many like myself — since this trick so in evidence (for at least three years of TV time) is at the core of the plot-design once again. I know I would be an utter outsider and long ago (say the 2nd season) been ejected as unfit, perhaps scapegoated as a seduced woman. I don’t belong in this series anywhere — the closest I come is to Anna as she was presented in the first couple of seasons. Even then she is such a “good” girl, so filled with respect for the order that keeps her at work long hours most of her life — this is wholly anathema to my finding something to live for in my hours of existence as I recall them.

Yet I found tears coming to my eyes when a character is once again rescued from the possible exposure and punishment — Barrow is lured into going to a homosexual club, something very new, taken in to jail by a police raid but then released on the say-so of one of the king’s footmen, himself homosexual. I wish there had been more of the inner life of Anna and Bates (my favorites) but it’s clear their lives are all content, comfortable, good — as are those of Mrs Hughes (now Elsie to Mr Carson) and Mr Carson (Charlie to her) and others. I am fond enough of them all to feel good seeing them surviving still — like Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) still waiting to marry Moseley.


Moseley and Baxter — behind the scenes (promotional) hsppy moment

I am not dead or broke yet myself. The magic is the trick of involving you, getting you to believe and identify.


Thomas finds a friend and ally, the king’s footman, Richard Ellis (Max Brown)

If you can respond to these carefully studied characters presented with tact and mostly compassion, and most of all, if you watched and liked the TV series for that first and second (occurring during WW1) seasons, here it is back again, trying to repeat what it managed in the first season especially. There is something for everyone, some qualification to enable us to identify. I agree with Anibundel the sweetest story is of that Barrow at long last finding a world forming he can join, and that the charm the wanting to hold onto this world is it feels like a blessed escape.  Quiet lives. So if you want a happy ending, yes, that’s there, but if you are into quiet melancholy, it’s here too.


Lady Mary at the opening of the film, tough lady left in charge at the end

And, for those who would find some satisfaction in thinking this meretricious stuff will go away for good after this, in the last scene Violet tells Lady Mary that she has been diagnosed with a mortal illness and will be gone from from the scene before long. It is a moving moment as she turns the Abbey over to Lady Mary as her replacement. One thing I liked across the series (and think it’s what makes it so appealing to women) is that we have strong women characters through out; it’s the woman’s anguish and loss and power that is often focused most upon. And so it is in this installment.

Ellen

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Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

From my house in Alexandria (just outside Old Town) it takes an hour and one half to get to the Phillips Collection in Northwest Washington (a block away from Dupont Circle). My little mildly difficult trek (there is no Metro train stop at King Street, my “natural station” so either I take two buses and walk or a cab — guess which I chose?) was a comfortable secure instant compared to the journeys I witnessed records in all sorts of forms of many different emigrations, migrations by bodies of people and individuals from one part of the earth to another. Do not miss The Warmth of Other Suns — it will make you think of any journeys towards a new identity you have taken yourself. Here are two of mine:

On September 6, 1969 I traveled back to the UK from NYC to join Jim after I had gone home a month before, thinking I might never see him again. I came by car, plane, train, traveling from 9 one evening to 6 the following evening. I had telegrammed him once, we had spoken on the phone once (calling long distance was not easy to Leeds); we had forgotten to make a plan how or where to meet.  And yet there he was, at that train station, on the platform, waiting for me. He had in hand a document signed by his parents giving us permission to marry before October 3rd, for that was his 21st birthday. We set the bans the next day and were married a month later, October 6, 1969, at Leeds Registry Office at 1:30 in the afternoon. It took 5 minutes. I had a VISA whose validity was fast vanishing because it was a student Visa only good to the end of that September. So I was an illegal immigrant for more than a week. I became legal by the simple expedient (at the time) of marrying him; several weeks after the ceremony I had to go to the Leeds Police Station to be finger-printed, passport in hand, and was given temporary papers to stay and to work; and a couple of months after that, I got a document saying “all restrictions were lifted” and I was a British subject. I wonder what would happen to me today? I am white (in case you didn’t know), a native-born American citizen, was at the time nearly 23, with my divorce papers in hand (I had been divorced April 1967 in Spanish at a Juarez, Mexico court). Come to think of it both of us needed documents to do what we wanted to do.

A year and one half later I made the same trip in the other direction, with Jim this time, & after he had secured a green card & full permission to live as a resident in the USA. I had worked as a secretary, personal assistant for John Waddington (game and toy and package manufacturing company). For this green card, we needed more documents, and had taken at least two trips from Leeds to London, coped with much mail & document filling out; & my father had written a six-page document outlining his assets to assure the US gov’t Jim would not be a ward on the state. We had several suitcases, one vacuum cleaner, and the trip took two days: train from Leeds on day one, train to London airport, plane, car to my parents’ apartment on day two. I had thought I would stay in England, become English, but Jim could make 9 times as much in NYC, and the cost of living was nowhere near 9 times as much, and I had a place in a graduate school in NYC to do a Ph.D. in English literature. My parents had rented a one-room apartment for us, with a bed in the wall (not far from them). But we did not stay, and moved to Manhattan soon after. Chelsea.


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

I was much moved by the exhibit – kept going back and forth between parts.  It was not as painful as the permanent history exhibit at the African-American exhibit where towards the end I began to cry (while I was in the tragic Emmet Till memorial), but I felt just indescribably upset as I went. I watched movies (two longish ones, several short), looked at paintings, drawings, sculptures of all sorts, installations, photographs (many many photographs), sculptures of all sorts, drawings using different media from oil or watercolor paintings (also there), documents too. The museum says 75 artists are represented; there is an emphasis on the most recent groups of victimized migrants on the US-Mexican border. The long film, by Chantal Ackerman (among many others), De l’autre cote (From the other side) is filmed all along the US-Mexican border, night-time, day time, rural and city. The conceit is she is interviewing the other side:

a elderly couple (in their 70s) whose son and grandson were killed in Las Vegas and were obviously very poor, still crying; a Mexican fourteen year old who had “crossed” more than once, one time trafficked, who said he wants to cross again to join his parents in New York in order to make more money and build a big house. Another girl said she wanted to cross to eat more, eat better. At the end of the film we hear the voice of a hispanic young man who has migrated legally and is now seeking his mother, a summary of his non-findings and her wanderings through jobs, places, rooms. The wall is filmed with the people on the both sides — it is made of different materials in different places. We also hear from a sheriff (appalled at the deliberate crisis and huge crowds created by Trump’s policies), two people who live on a farm, deeply anti-immigrant, a white man who owns a cafe near the border, watch a heavily armed ICE person or guard with flashlight seeking people on dark meadow — the other side.

It is not just about recent immigration, refuges, but goes back and forth in time. I found “myself” early on: a half a wall of photos of immigrants arriving in 1905-10 at Ellis Island. All four of my grandparents from Eastern Europe came in that way


Refectory

There were artefacts from the Trail of Tears: the horrific 1830 expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren places to start life again.


Trail of Tears

Dorothy Lange and other WFA photographs on the migrants and farm-workers of the US in the 1930s, underpaid in order to force them to keep moving to find more work; African-Americans trekking from the south to the north for decades (Jacob Lawrence’s art); Vietnamese escaping in boats; people from Africa and the Middle East walking, attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean; also photos of The Jungle (denigratingly called), a huge immigrant camp that sprung up in Calais.


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

The second long film, Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (and many others), took you back to eternal time: three screens often filled with the rushing sea, ocean, walls of ice (and expeditions). You were taught how strong, indifferent and dangerous is this medium for travel. Two of the screens at any time were showing fish and animals in large flocks, some surviving, some just living, others in bad shape; or individuals gunned down (I felt so for a polar bear with a man relentlessly pursuing him), dead and trussed up; one huge whale people were crawling around knifing, stripping. The third screen usually had people: Africans transported in terrible conditions,

thrown over board, stories told by narrators of a baby thrown overboard for irritating a sailor, from famous novels (Moby Dick), diaries, poems. Often one person (actor or actress dressed in upper class 18th to 20th century garb) standing out or sitting looking at the sea. Furniture thrown helter-skelter near the sea.

The exhibit fills up one of the two Phillips buildings. The overall impression is of a desperate struggle for survival (one floor is filled with abandoned clothing), a long ordeal of endurance and loss, much rightly to fear, where for the most part the attitudes of those inside the land mass the migrant is declared a foreigner to, where he or she or they have no relative, or friend, or prepared place or job to turn to, and no legal right to be there, ranged from indifference to hostility. You see early in the 20th century officials behaving with minimal decency, but this seems rare. Short films tell of this or that person’s acute misery in say a hotel that is like a prison, grief. Poverty, war as a cause of the flight, fleeing for safety, was most common. Much social and neo-realism, where we see stalwart families holding up, individuals looking out at us proudly or with thoughtful eyes, some famous 19th century engravings (one by Honore Daumier, The Uprising).

Admittedly the exhibit might be accused of being one-sided. In the US there have been periods where those seeking asylum have not been treated cruelly; individuals and families have gone with more belongings, documents and thrive: they quote Richard Wright: I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom (1945)

But the emphasis rightly is intended urgently to bring home to the attendee the new level of depravity the US present gov’t is inflicting on the vulnerable, and include a history of ruthless enslavement and settler colonial destruction against a tragic song of the earth and sea’s rhythms and animals and people displacement and death. You are prompted to re-think and see this general phenomenon in constructive — and generous — ways. Also historical, rational: a nation-state is an invention, it’s a group of people governing a place, often tyrannically; how has it come to be a religion so that borders become sancro-sanct and everyone outside is an “other?”  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refuge Policy in a Changing World is one of several books that are left on a table in a room at the end of the exhibit where you can “reflect” on what you’ve seen.

***************************************

I was led to go because I’m just now reading towards a paper I’m going to give at a coming 18th century conference on Culloden and the highland clearances (as this Scottish diaspora and ethnic “cleansing” is called). A few words on my reading and watching (movies matter) thus far and then I’ll have done:

In general, Culloden literature (as I call it) resembles other literatures emerging from other diasporas. Most of the fiction tells an upbeat story (!): the community somehow moves as a group, or ends up sticking together through re-constitution and individuals finding their way back to “their friends.” The person who suffers badly is the person who falls out, does not obey all the norms & fit into the praised culture the others practice. It becomes hard to find a story of an individual at the crossroads of an existence where the ending and shape of the whole narrative is traumatic. This holds true for Hogg’s Perils of Women (often jocular –eeek!) and the truly tragic story (often a woman ostracized for pregnancy, and gang-rape), the calamity is an interlude got over; Naomi Mitchison’s Bull Calves, even Alistair MacLeod’s contemplative melancholy-lyric No Great Mischief.

You must go to the more thoughtful, less popular memoir, the raw found diary or journal, and good serious non-fiction. The outstanding best book I’ve ever read in emigration, refuges, diaporas is Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth Century History.

Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited. He shows that “ordinary people’s safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them.

Communities don’t survive almost intact; they don’t reconstitute themselves as a mirror image of what was — as we watch the Outlander characters do in North Caroline in Drums of Autumn — I grant she more includes more intermittent tales of desperate tragedies, calamities, cruelty than many such books; tellingly, most of these associated with enslaved people and low status gang-raped women. But what she’s not having is your identity changes and so does everyone else’s under the impress of need and a different world geographically and socially.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in front of their tent – they will soon with Ian’s (John Bell) help build a magnificent log cabin (Outlander, Season 4)

For Culloden and the highland clearances, the recent best is T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Clearances: it’s been praised as showing that John Peeble’s powerful detailed Culloden and indignant Highland Clearances are wrong, unbalanced, far too hysterical, too tragic; in fact Devine ends up telling a similar story, only nuanced and occurring over generations and with many more bad and mixed actors. And I must say, if a literary masterpiece (especially endurable you are not reading but listening to it read aloud by the brilliant David Rintoul (who knew he is Scots?), Walter Scott’s Waverley is as distorted & misleading a book as you can find.

A friend is sending me a copy of Chasing the Deer (1994, much influenced by Peter Watkins’s masterpiece docudrama, Culloden (1965), and said to be a credible depiction of Culloden, with Brian Blessed and Iain Cuthbertson in lead roles.

As these films are mostly all men — male experience –, I’ll end on one of a beautiful cycle of poems on an emigrant’s life experience in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s re-creation of Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush in her brilliant poetic The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently
shaped ears

thought I tried to adapt

(he girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeers at me for my burnt bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. The forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder;
the branches quivered

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen

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The four principals of the film: JRR Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Q Gilson, Christopher Wiseman — at leisure, sports and war

Friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a brief review of the biopic film about Tolkien’s life that is just now leaving most movie theaters after a fairly successful run. The reviews have been mixed, and most resembling John Tuttle’s: he likes the art and filmic aspects of the film, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, moving story, but he complains not so much that what is presented is all that wrong, but that the emphases are inadequate: he wants more about Tolkien’s religion, more about all the sources of his creativity, a more accurate account of this or that aspect of his earlier and later life: it seems that in later life Tolkien again bonded with a small group of like-minded men of similar attitudes and class. Tuttle doesn’t mind that the film made much of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, only says it was presented as suspenseful when it wasn’t. “Everyone” (that is all interested in Tolkien) knows he married her. A similar stance (with different particulars perhaps) is found in Sheila O’Malley’s at RogerEbert.com; David Appleby at Rolling Stone was bored: it was so convoluted and yet did not bring our miraculous author to life. Tellingly, what they all agree on is how grating and excessive are the scenes of war, “oh bother” says Appleby. I could quote others to the same effect.

What no one seems to say is that the this is a film not much interested in Tolkien’s inner creative life: the imagery from his dreams, from his early anguish at the death of his father, mother, fear of being neglected and poor with his brother), and then, as shared with the love of his life, Edith fantasy operas and books, and finally World War One are all in effect decorations; extras piled on to give the film heightened apocalyptic fantasy ominous (exciting?) imagery. The plot-design of this movie is that of the common popular genre, the nostalgic boys’ public school, interlaced with a feminist-inflected romance with strong critiques against class snobbery.

As the film begins, Tolkien is orphaned. His father dies and then his self-sacrificing mother (played to the hilt by Laura Donnelly, familiar to some as Jenny Murray of Outlander), and he and his brother are left stranded. They are taken to live in a boarding house run by a cold snobbish woman (Pam Ferris) by the Catholic priest who has been made their guardian. What saves Tolkien is he is so intelligent, he is taken into the British private aka public school system and there nurtured by deep friendship, and high academic standards that force him to study hard. The public school is presented positively: while there are grossly unfair tutors (one wants to eject Tolkien on the basis he hasn’t got sufficient drive), others (Derek Jacobi) because they are not part of a structured system can eccentrically take him in.


The young man and his professor

The story of Edith is there as part of the usual matter of heritage films.


Courting — the upper class (if orphaned) boy courting the female boarder

It’s worth it to point out the limitations of the heritage tropes: as in so many of them, class is supposedly attacked or critiqued, when we find it is also upheld; in this film, this is done together with religion. Tolkien was a believing Catholic in life; this was his heritage (perhaps from the mother) but also a result of making a priest his guardian. In the film this priest refuses to support Tolkien if he carries on with his courtship of Edith. Tolkien protests, thinks of rebelling but then caves in. We are to feel that he does this out of respect for the guardian as well as concern for his career, but there is a feeling that he recognizes that Edith is indeed not of his class.

As the film moves on, and Tolkien overcomes the prejudices of the people at Oxford, and the war begins, he again meets Edith. Edith is as genteel looking as Celia Johnson in any 1940s film (Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, Happy Days) and now engaged, and it’s made plain she has done so to support herself. It takes only a few minutes of film time for Tolkien to say he still loves her, for her to reciprocate and (presumably) break the engagement. Later in the film the priest admits he was wrong, and sometime after that Tolkien and Edith are married. This may follow Tolkien’s actual behavior, but we can see that class and obedience to religious and parental authorities are upheld.

The second part of the film is the fulfillment of the first, the war story essential to this genre. It is the final proving ground. Instead of showing us that the values that lead to war are the real basis of public school experience, bullying, competition, physical prowess, daring, separation from one’s family (part of the training that teaches you to be part of an upper class negotiating environment), we are repeatedly shown the great joy, manners, bonding that the young men learn from these exclusive groups within an intellectual demanding environment, which in this case included high intellectual camaraderie, and of course also fierce “healthy” competition in games (we are shown the four young men playing rough sports again and again) . Of course war is horrific, and two of them die, a third maimed for life. No heritage film today is openly militaristic, but the scenes that are individualized show our heroes performing utter self-sacrifice for one another. A small subplot includes Tolkien’s batman, of course named Sam, risking his life to save Tolkien from death, and bring him tea too.


Here is Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien searching for his friend (dead elsewhere several days before)

It’s important to bring this central design of the film out because this elite experience is 1) misrepresented and 2) lies at the core of not just militarism and war, but leads to and shapes colonialism and is behind the mindset promoting Brexit, nationalism, arrogance (the boy becomes privileged, and is kept separate from and encouraged to think he know better than the “lower orders. Joanna Scutts lays out the connection in The New Republic: Britain’s Boarding School problem. The war itself is presented as part of the dream life that led to the exciting adventures, violence, monsters of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve seen so many films of this type: Harry Potter feeds into it; Andrew Davies got his start with the multi-episode To Serve Them All My Days (based on Delderfield’s sentimental depiction of the life of a schoolmaster). I do not say I haven’t enjoyed such films. I enjoy heritage films, I loved the romance, and felt for Edith presented as at the time given no opportunity to have a career of her own, but given the times we are living in, when I read several reviews passing by the central explanatory idea of this film, and seemed even unaware of it. I felt something ought to be said.

I’ll add another corrective here too: nowadays upper class and elite girls are sent to such schools regularly too, and then elite universities. Kate Middleton’s great “rise” came from her having gone to the right private boarding school which got her to St Andrews where she met William, the heir. As Scutts points out, huge fees are extracted (such schools are apparently tax-exempt!, like our churches). As a side note I recall now how startled I was at Vicinus’s account of girls’ private boarding schools in her Independent Women: Work and community for Single Women, 1850-1930, because she didn’t seem to care at all and even was for the psychological manipulation of the girls’ friendship patterns and girls-and-female mentors because it trains girls (who thrived in this) to know how to get and keep and use power. As today parents of boys who suffer badly from bullying, and are emotionally twisted or scarred take that as the price of getting them the right connections and “toughening” them, so Vicinus was for allowing girls to emotionally over-wrought, blackmailed, made miserable by girls’ exclusionary coteries as the price of making girls into women who are embedded in power arrangements and understand how they come about.


Tolkien late in life (photo)

As for Tolkien’s actual and later life: the other male group consisted of deeply reactionary Christianizing critics like C.S. Lewis who also wrote an epic of fantasy wars, Narnia, sheltered dons and learned poets like himself. Dorothy Sayers was a hanger-on, for at the time when a young woman finished university there would be no place for her in university. Think of her Lord Peter Wimsey with his batman turned valet, Bunter. Bob Dixon has analysed the fascist vision of life behind Narnia and (dare I say) and other fantasy epics by over-praised writers like Ursula Le Guin. See also Empire Follows the Flag. Tolkien’s later career as a writer included studies and defenses of Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval English and Chaucer, translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl — delicate lovely poetry with subtle ethical ideas.

I was again startled when I first began to watch the Peter Jackson film of The Fellowship. I had read the books in the 1960s when the illustrations were still taken from romance, fairy books, and looked like feminine depictions Arthurian romance. How had it become a boys’ action-adventure story, filled with violence and Dante-like apocalyptic visions? I have since read that the earliest illustrations were delicate fanciful landscapes done by a woman friend of Tolkien. I dare say a film genuinely interested in his creative life and reading, might help rescue his books from being used or packaged the way they are today. I am told that a five part series, Looking for the Hobbit (on Amazon Prime) does justice to other ignored sources, but I wouldn’t count on it.


Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien deeply engaged with his books

Ellen

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Scarlett Johansson by Annie Leibovitz — although Johansson is not capable of nuanced subtlety she was right for Mary Boleyn (the comments has a biography of Mary Boleyn)


Johansson with Javier Bardem (I remember Before Night Falls), another Leibovitz concoction

Instead of the famous “Art of Losing:”

I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain
— witness the diameter of my hatband
and the depth of the crown of my hat.

I will be correct; I know what it is to be a man.
I will be correct or bust.
I will love but not impose my feelings.
I will serve and serve
with lute or I will not say anything.

If the machinery goes, I will repair it.
If it goes again I will repair it again.
My backbone

through these endless etceteras painful.

No, it is not the way to be, they say.
Go with the skid, turn always to leeward,
and see what happens, I ask you, now.

I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
and many colors dropped out.
The rigid spine will break, they say —
bend, bend.

I was made at right angles to the world
and I see it so. I can only see it so.
I do not find all this absurdity people talk about.

Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands
and everything works.
— I am not sentimental.
— Elizabeth Bishop,

Friends,

One blog which should have been two: I got carried away with a woman artist and foremother poet , but it is really not overlong (if you will only visit twice; come two times — why not?):

The second woman photographer the OLLI at Mason class on American Woman Photographers was to watch a movie about and discuss was Annie Leibovitz. In the event, there was a weather report telling everyone in Northern Virginia we were in for some mighty brutal cold and it would rain ice, snow, and just pelt us all. Since the gov’t agencies in charge of cleaning and making the roads safe are underfunded in Fairfax (where the OLLI at Mason resides), all schools were closed as of the early morning. I can’t say the day was warm, but we were nowhere near Antartica, and the precipitation began around 4 when it was still 39F, so it began to rain and eventually it did rain ice for a while and then later 3 inches of snow. The next day the same story: everything closed when it need not have been. So the American Poetry class on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry was also cancelled.


Recent photo

However, the kindly and well-meaning (and frustrated) volunteer teachers sent everyone the URL to the American Masters film of Leibovitz we would have seen, and I watched it by myself and now share it with you

What the film suggests is that Annie Leibovitz is not a woman who can articulate or talk about her art in any coherent reasoned way, at the same time as she takes brilliant shots, has an eye for the arresting costume, gesture, featured actor or actress or somehow semi-numinous person and can capture a portrait of them either in movement among others or facing the viewer which is intensely revealing or (less articulately) riveting to the memory so that we remember the image and want a copy ourselves.


Nelson Mandela

This is unexpected since her longest life partner (15 years) was one of the more articulate writers and speakers of the 20th century, Susan Sontag. Years ago I went to an exhibit of photography by Leibovitz featuring Sontag’s life. She said in the film she loved best photographing beloved family members and friends and those she had been intimate with, could feel utterly comfortable with and hoped her subject felt likewise: ““You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of intimate work except with the people you love, the people who will put up with you. They’re the people who open their hearts and souls and lives to you. You must take care of them.”

She had three daughters (two by surrogate mothers) who mean a great deal to her. Iconic with a dog:

Beyond the bare outline offered by wikipedia, you can read this life story. The magazine Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker have been important in her life. In the film she admits she had periods where taking drugs with her subjects and alone took over too much. Although presented to tempt a student into buying an essay and submitting it as his or her own (plagiarism), this critical analysis of Leibovitz’s art should give us pause: there is voyeurism, sensationalism and a strong bent towards the commercially riveting. You will not find on this blog the notorious photograph of John Lennon clinging to Yoko Ono as if he were cat seeking comfort from his mother, in fetus-like posture. Also not here her many nudes. She photographed to make humane political arguments (so to speak) but also powerful and vulnerable people whose reputation or integrity has since been questioned (see A Decade of Power). She’s published books of photographs, of celebrities; many glamor shots of stars looking ethereally or sexily beautiful. Men too. She captured Mick Jagger and his band leaping through the air.

I was startled by the film, for I found some images I had been drawn to and taken off the Net to save were by her. Especially this of Keira Knightley as Dorothy on the yellow brick road; her famous friends are actors who I recognize but cannot place

In sum, her art is arresting, voyeuristic insightful — she captures the gothic within us. Susan Sontag. Her Three Children too.

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This photograph pf Elizabeth Bishop is not by Annie Leibovitz:


The line from one of her poems: “the island within” is its caption, and that she was “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

She is wondrous at traveling through books: her opening lines are often her best moments and her thesis:

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete
Concordance”

Thus should have been our travels:
serious, engravable.
The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
innumerable, though equally sad and still,
are foreign. Often the squatting Arab,
or group of Arabs, plotting, probably,
against our Christian Empire,
while one apart, with outstretched arm and hand
points to the tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher.
The branches of the date-palms look like files.
The cobbled courtyard, where the Well is dry,
is like a diagram, the brickwork conduits
are vast and obvious, the human figure
far gone in history or theology,
gone with its camel or its faithful horse.
Always the silence, the gesture, the specks of birds
suspended on invisible threads above the Site,
or the smoke ising solemnly, pulled by threads.
Granted a page alone or a page made up
of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles
or circles set on stippled gray,
granted a grim lunette,
caught in the toils of an initial letter,
when dwelt upon, they all resolve themselves.
The eye drops, weighted, through the lines
the burin made, th elines tha tmove apart
like ripples above sand,
dispersing storms, God’s spreading fingerprint,
and painfully, finally, that ignite
in watery prismatic white-and-blue.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
amog the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.
And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly.
Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,
crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.
In Mexico the dead man lay
in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes
glistened like Easter lilies.
The jukebox went on playing ‘Ay, Jalisco!’
And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies
splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eye.
In Dingle harbor a golden length of evening
the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.
The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all:
A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,
one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin
open to every wind from the pink desert.
An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid
with exhortation, yellowed
as scattered cattle-teeth;
half-filled with dust, not even the dust
of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there.
In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on amused.

Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity whlie we were at it?
— the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkles, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets
— and looked and looked our infant sight away.

In a way she’s competing with the pictures: I’ve read
it somewhere that the essence of poetry is in the line;
the unit the line. Each of her lines is a world in itself,
and filled with more serious true content than the
illustrations she looks at.

She begins with the idea that the illustrations tell us what we should have seen, but soon moves on to suggesting that they tell us to be false tourist and not to see what is there.

What is there? This poem comes from a 1955 book called _A Cold Spring_, and we see that the anxiety, fear and prejudice against those who are
different from us which is fuelling the nonsense of the “war on terror” so that we are to ignore every and all statements of the people who rebel against the US in the countries we occupy or use our military to enable other powerful groups to occupy. All these people are simply plotting with hatred against the Christian empire — we are told.

She is as sceptical as Jhabvala. This is the content of the non-western women writer of women’s books, but note here it’s not used to argue for accepting individual repression or escaping it. This world is too relentlessly simply what it is: each living unit intensely going about its egoistic appetitive unexamined life. Bishop records some compassion: the dead man in Mexico, dead nature, the little pockmarked prostitutes.

Yes it is all very frigthening. Maybe better to look at the 2000 illustrations and study the concordance to them and keep our mind on them.

Nothing explained. What have we been missing all this while. What as children we are to allow our time to pass entertained in this way. We should be looking at that dark ajar.

This seems to me as great a poem at Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Maybe Bishop is however distracting us by these illustrations

I find I never wrote a foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79); much as I’m deeply touched by some of her life-writing poetry, her plangent controlled desperation, I find her use of geography and mythic creatures makes up a wall of avoidance I can’t get past except by speculation, which is unsatisfactory. The biography sent us omitted her lesbianism, her years of ceaseless alcholism, that her positions as a teacher were gotten for her by the elite clique of American poets she belonged to (by origin, her family she came from the Boston Brahmin group, which included Robert Lowell who was physically abusive to her as he was to Elizabeth Hardwick). Her early life was very sad, but so too her later sometimes harrowing one abroad and in the US. Strange the flight to Brazil: what did she think of the reactionary gov’ts? No clue is offered. She could not have ignored them altogether — or could she with her books, maps, illustrations. Her work & life crucially significant. Her sad life, her wonderful poems. I print unusual ones: her art of losing through books, illustrations, maps, and alas alcohol and retreat


Don McCullin, from Landscapes: Somerset Levels Near Glastonbury 2010

This New Yorker essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont is superb: Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing. She left a fat book of letters, many on punctuation. She is said to be “the most popular woman poet” after Emily Dickinson (!). I can only understand that if it’s like the popularity of Robert Frost: from misreading or preference for distanced strangeness (and geography) Many of her poems will be well-known to readers of modern American poetry, but here is one you may not have come across:

Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow.

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, hat sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep

She was mistress of the sonnet form.

And this is so kindly to another women poet whose poetry is deliberately set up to keep her life and us at a distance, who apparently was unable to get from under her tyrannical narrow-minded mother’s domination, not even to find an apartment of her own far away from far off Brooklyn:

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemcals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rollng of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capefu of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bride, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

Apologies for not being able to replicate the stanzas.

Bishop to Moore, Elizabeth to Marianne is a beautiful beautiful love poem of longing, friendship as love. It reminds me of a poignant letter by Jane Austen to Mary Lloyd, looking forward so eagerly to when they will be together again. I’m glad to see Jane and Mary did have their night on the floor together, their reading, walking, talking. It appears that Marianne in Brooklyn did not make it to Elizabeth in Manhattan.

One last:

“Crusoe in England”

A new volcano has erupted
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being boonr:
at first a black fleck – basalt, probably —
rose in the mater’s binoculoars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island’s still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books got it right.

Well I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides —
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off …

My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters — their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much …

I often gave way to self-pity.
“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must,
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.”
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiar=ly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
….

There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects,
and so I made home-brew. I’d drink
the awful, fizzy stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries,
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.

Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough fo something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems — well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flesh upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss …” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I’d dream of tings
like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, evntually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came,
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman …
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
— Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides? …
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber …

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
— and Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

(Geography III, 1976)


A painting by Doreen Fletcher of vanishing England (“The architecture of the ordinary”), the area in London called Spitalfields, caught by her and her colleagues with scrupulous reverent meanness (to paraphrase a Joyce phrase for his Dubliner — another course I’m taking) — Bridge over Regents Canal Bow, 2018

Ellen

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One of the many whole family scenes in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008)


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

Over these few Christmas days I watched two new (to me) Christmas movies, read three Christmas stories I’ve never read before, and renewed my acquaintance with a series of Christmas chapters in a strong masterpiece of Victorian fiction. I most enjoyed the extraordinary creation of a several day Christmas time together by Arnaud Desplechin in his much-awarded A Christmas tale and was fully absorbed by six different households and their experience of Christmas in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. I’m with those reviewers who found that Mary Poppins Rebooted half-a-century later fails to enchant, and think anibundel comes closest to explaining why. The three stories I read, two by Anton Chekhov, and a third by Margaret Oliphant, suggest what was expected from a mainstream Christmas story in the 19th differs considerably from the 20th.

In this blog we’ll stay with movies, and in my next turn to stories.

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Sylvia’s children, Paul, grandfather and Sylvia doing a play of the children’s own device during the week (A Christmas Tale)

I can’t speak too highly of Desplechin’s film. It must may be the best or most mature Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. Before this I would say John Huston’s The Dead (from Joyce’s story) and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (an appropriation of Mansfield Park) were the finest, with the 1951 Christmas Carol archetypally old-fashioned, still delivering a depth of inward anguish, anger and redemption hard to match anywhere, partly because of the performance of Alistair Sim and partly the use of some film noir and fantafy techniques — and Dickens’s famous bitter and joyous lines. But they feel so limited in scope and what’s presented in comparison. Love Actually is vulgar in comparison (and finds sexual predation a bit too humorous with Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody dating just a bit); It’s a Wonderful Life — so meaningfully anti-capitalist for us today, with its angel Clarence seeking promotion and no one doing hysteria the way Jimmy Stewart can (I weep each time) — has problems — the depiction of the wife had she not married as this dried up spinster librarian afraid of her shadow is grating. There are none of these kinds of mistakes in Desplechin’s film.

I’d say if you are alone (like I fundamentally am now) and want to experience Christmas with other intelligent well-meaning real enough people sit for the full 2 and 1/2 slow-moving hours and then watch the 2 hours of features too. It’s the story of a large bourgeois family who all get together for the first time in several years because the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a cancer which requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to have any chance of living even for two years. Two of the family members have compatible blood types, one Paul (Emile Berling) the 15 year old troubled son of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a gifted playwright, who loathes the other, her brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) to the point five years she demanded her father, Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) and her mother cut off all relationship with him in return for her paying the enormous debts Henri had racked up; if someone did not pay it, her parents would lose the family home.

A major character across the film is this large comfortable ramshackle home and its landscape, both of which frame and is a brooding and comforting presence throughout all the scenes which don’t take place specifically in Roubaix. Roubaix is the film’s subtitle, a small French city in which Desplechin grew up and which he photographs lovingly, realistically in small interludes of shots. The key characters are Abel (the father), Junon (the mother), Henri and Elizabeth (two of their grown children), with Amalric as Henri delivering a character of extraordinary complexity and interest, vulnerable, resentful, despairing, kind, insightful by turns.


Mathieu Amalric as Henri talking earnestly to his younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaid) as they decorate the family tree.

Back history (like a novel): Abel and Junon had four children, and the film opens with the death of the eldest, Joseph at age six as a flashback of memory in Abel’s mind — as he and his wife await the arrival of the family as it is today for Christmas.   Elizabeth and their youngest son, Ivan, have married. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) leaves at one point, so incensed does he get against the tactless Henri, when he is having to deal with his son Paul having had a breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. Claude is preparing his mind for a coming interview with authorities to try to get the boy out of the asylum while Elizabeth wants to put him back there. By film’s end the boy will not return to the asylum but stay with his grandparents, Claude has returned, and Elizabeth been helped by talk with her father.

Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroiana, Deneuve’s actual daughter) while reacting with real affection to her two small boys whenever they are around, is essentially bored by them and her life, and during the course of the film discovers that Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a cousin who lives with Abel and Junon, and works in their dye factory (the source of the family income) is deeply in love with her, and gave her up to Ivan after he lost a bet. She apparently had preferred Simon to Ivan; he is one of several family members who absents himself from the group now and again — he drinks too heavily, maybe is bisexual, is doing nothing with his life. So Sylvia finds him alone in a bar on Christmas eve, and they spent a night in bed together, something accepted by Ivan, who himself lives unconventionally as a musician commanding large audiences in rock concerts, one of which we attend.

Henri’s first wife, died in a car accident a month after they married:


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

Henri has had several partners since, and the present woman, Jewish, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) finds herself feeling alien, Henri’s response is he wants to leave too; at one point she goes shopping with Junon, and without telling her, Junon leaves the shop, driving herself back, so Faunia has to get back herself. She does leave early.


Simon, Sylvia, Ivan, Junon in a corridor (left to right)

A complicated family you might say – but no more than many families. I assure you, you will not be bored; it’s funny, wry, quiet and peaceful (as they watch appalling movies), suddenly all is fraught emotion and then they calm down again and exchange presents.

The stories close with Elizabeth intoning the epilogue from Midsummer’s Night Dream, as she overlooks Roubaix.  This last literary quotation (of several) signals the underlying mood that holds it together: acceptance (except during eruptions) of one another, their fates, with barbed raillery mixed with profound thoughts, sometimes read aloud —


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

What helps hold everyone together: the house where they dwell together. All they do in and for it. The town they know. Even the cemetery close by where their baby brother was buried.  The father is the final authority all the while going off to clean up the table, the yard after fireworks were set up all over it; the mother is respected by all even if she had the disconcerting habit of telling this or that child she never cared for them. So a combination of tradition and concrete truth.  Things.  Prickly, messy and companionable (Henri goes walking in the snow with Paul and helps him), filled with shots of beautiful winter, ghastly streets, and the house and rooms every which way, this movie finally helps us to endure on. Chapter headings, days of the week also named by mood, characters who turn around and address us, hospital and bar scenes, it’s all there, Christmas time. The hope in the film that they do get together, help one another, share their memories, which is to say their deepest identities, has some fruition.

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Look at the look in Blunt’s eye — cold as ice

The Mary Poppins movie is not the most tedious Christmas film I’ve ever seen — I give that prize to the Muppet Scrooge story. But it can come close. It’s a child’s movie because the main action, the rescuing is precipitated by the children. I bring it up because Disney has such a prominent presence in our culture, as a girl I loved the books by P.L Travers (wildly disparate from the 1964 movie), which have yet to be done justice to by any of the movies (including Saving Mr Banks), two of which have been used as Christmas icons. Emily Blunt herself played the wife who dies, a central role in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which was another Christmas day extravaganza, and this gives us our clue to what goes wrong.


Emily Blunt as the despairing hysterically lost baker’s wife (2014)

Sondheim’s song was simply about how in life sometimes we end up walking alone: “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.” Paradoxically the film also tried to bring something of the original thwarted feelings of the book: each time an adventure is over, Mary Poppins denies it took place; she is all vanity, egoism, discusses nothing, orders everyone about (Blunt tried for a soupcon of this). Anibundel suggests the problem is the film took on “deep emotional themes” the Disneyfiction can’t include. Manohla Dargis agrees that it follows the trajectory of the old songs; and finds it uncanny that it never captures the original “delicacy of feeling” or bliss.


Lin-Manuel Miranda imitating one of Van Dyke’s routines

I’m inclined to think the actors didn’t believe in it the way they did 50 years ago; Emily Mortimer was thrown away; Julie Walters was a stray from 19th century music hall; the occasional nervous plangency allowed Wishaw went nowhere, and Lin-Manuel seemed to be biking to no purpose, round and round. What seems to me important is capitalism won out; no subversion allowed. All the talk of the movie was money, certificates, and while Dick Van Dyke stepped in for a moment to dance a delicate shoe number and remind us trust in one another was the key to the first bank’s success, that was lost in the hard noise of triumph. The principals worked so hard because it was all counter-productive; the less true Christmas message they had, the more vigorous they became. When they went high up in balloons, they were not escaping from their world. The material as brought down not from Travers, not from her book:


Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers very irritated by what Disney did to her book (Saving Mr Banks, 2013)

But the previous naive travesty won’t work any more because we are cut off from social feeling.


Is the Mary Poppins in the center having any emotion with respect to anyone around her?

They wanted more than a Sondheim production, where rousing music and slow depth simple words convey significance. The movie lacked haunting music because it was not permitted the real melancholy of life’s existence (as caught in Abel’s words in the book he reads; another review by Jen Cheney this time of the DVD set). Streep’s song could have fitted the movie’s story: the Banks children and Michael Banks need to be righted. But one visit from MP will not do it. This was a ludicrously over-produced fantasy, a commercial for Disneyland, pictures of which opened and closed the movie itself.

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What should a Christmas story be? Trollope said “the savor of Christmas” was a story that instilled (in his language) “charity,” which translates literally into acts of giving. We’ll explore this next time. At the end of A Christmas Tale, Henri has given life’s blood, risked his life, on the chance he could save his mother’s. There has been no talk of money here; what tore the family apart was money.


The church scene repeats the arrangement of characters in the court scene only then it’s Abel next to Henri

I mentioned my DVD included two disks. As Cheney says, “Arnaud’s tale” is disappointing: we are told how central the house is to the film, and the city, and these connect back to Desplechin’s life and Almaric talks of how he understood and played Henri. But it’s the one hour documentary movie that illuminates why he chose to make a Christmas movie:

“L’Aimée,” on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin’s relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like “A Christmas Tale,” a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort,” “L’Aimée” introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family’s history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.

Into the Woods was not about charity but it was about heartbreak, memory and camaraderie as solace. A roll of the dice, chance moments, human obtuseness and self have caused much damage but by the end (as Philip Lopate says in the essay that accompanies the DVD — such a lot of stuff in this DVD case) even the depressed Elizabeth “gets her bearings.” And moments of grace no matter how odd (like when the nurse does not stop Henri from drinking and smoking the morning he is to do his part of the procedure) enable the people together to invent livable lives. No one altogether crushed, and everyone at some point smiles with some shared or individual enjoyment.


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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Emma Stone as Abigail Hill Masham — unfortunately the released promotional shots don’t begin to offer an accurate sense of the nature of the typical scene in this costume drama

Friends and readers,

For a third time this year I break a sort of rule with me which is not to write about a work of art that is awful on every level — the other two were the egregiously stupid and misogynistic opera, Marnie, commissioned by the Met, and a crude frantically violent caricature of the violence, cruelty and stupidity that may seem to characterize much of American public life, especially as reflected in westerns, Damsel. That’s a lot for half a year, but three times now a movie, opera, and many more books I don’t begin to read, and TV serial dramas (on channels like FX, Starz) have seemed genuinely to me to function perniciously in our culture, and especially at the present time. I have many friends who want nothing more than a great 18th century historical film or would be interested in a new take in “victim queens” especially the long 18th century variety. Folks, this is not it. This is derision.

It didn’t seem to me a matter for mild bemusement when Anthony Lane of the New Yorker can produce an anondyne (this is screwball comedy you see) amused praise of The Favourite, giving the impression this is still your regular costume drama (quintessential lately in Netflix’s The Crown) by virtue of his complacent tone. He does say it’s “very odd,” but then defends the film by the assertion its “lubricious scenes” are true. They are not; we are presented with wild exaggerations intended to disgust, excite, shock, and rivet us by a kind of fleshly horror. One scene has a very fat man naked with bruises all over him, with a huge fantastical wig being assaulted by projectiles and hosed by over-dressed aristocrats just hilarious with joy; another Abigail stamping to the point of crippling a rabbit for fun; I couldn’t count the number of scenes where Olivia Coleman as Anne is a grotesque embarrassment, a pile of ugly sores, screaming at the top of her lungs she wants or does not want this or that, with Rachel Weisz as a kind of gothic handmaiden dildo-ing the bored queen upon command, bullying her physically (as well as morally), looking like a caricature of a midnight nightmare of maleness in soldier-like courtier outfit.

A. O Scott (Critic’s pick!) of the New York Times is franker but writes in a dense prose which defeats visualization and often remains on an abstract level. How he comes up with how a mountain of self-indulgent flesh (as Coleman is presented) is a figure of “sincerity,” dependent on wheel chair, grim body brace head to toe to go riding, vacillating between okaying Lady Sarah’s desire for more war and higher taxes (from others) to pay for this, and just yelling “no” (knowing nothing about anything) is a “free spirit” is beyond me. His justification too is that all this is faithful to what humanity in the court of Queen Anne in England was:

The best — and also the most troubling — thing about “The Favourite” is its rigorously bleak assessment of human motivations and behavior. The palace is a petri dish aswarm with familiar pathogens of egoism, cruelty and greed. A sentimental soul might wish for a glimpse of something else, but at the same time it’s hard to say that anything is missing from this tableau, which is also a devastating, flattering and strangely faithful mirror.


The first close-up shot of Olivia Coleman as Anne, witheringly told by Lady Sarah she looks “like a badger”

It is true that in this film there is not one character who acts morally, who appears to have any sense that anyone ever acts morally, who shows any kindness, true courtesy or respect for anyone else. At every opportunity, spite, corruption, sensual gratification as a major motive in life with a complete lack of moderating reason is put before us. I am aware I will be told don’t I understand irony or satire. I reply:  I can recognize when a pretense of satire is used to as a cover for rottenness.

I have read a biography of Anne Stuart, Queen of England between 1702 and 1714; a volume of her letters to and from Sarah Churchill (they did address one another as Mrs Marley and Mrs Freeman) together with Abigail Masham’s letters. Also essays suggesting lesbian attachments, rivalry, and lately (as scholars love to elevate the view of the figures they study — it’s an identity thing, theirs) that Anne was by no means an ignoramus, and while Sarah, Lady Churchill bullied her badly to make political choices favoring the wealth of her husband, his career, their Blenheim palace, favoring war, the merchants in the UK, and the Whig establishment (represented by James Smith as Godolphin in the film), she, Anne, wanted these, was complicit, and when she changed course, and put the Tories (represented by Nicholas Hoult as Harley), it was not just that she was breaking free of Sarah at long last and plummeting herself into the arms of Abigail. When I left to see the film I felt good to think a new female icon would enter the “familiar queen” matter, one not attractive to men, one perhaps lesbian, with a sad frustrated life (tragic over the loss of so many pregnancies and the ruination of her body); when I left, I told myself if this is the way Anne Stuart is going to be dramatized, I hope this is the last movie about “her” I ever see.


Lady Sarah in a “fun” mud bath with Queen Anne, they both make themselves much moustaches — characters in this film are repeatedly thrown into the mud, into ditches, made filthy and humiliated by this

The movie is an argument no woman should ever be given power because they are hysterical, ignorant, easily debauched: by the end of the movie, Abigail Masham is not the virtuous downtrodden scullery maid, birched at will, any longer, but she has learnt very little and is herself involved with debauched grotesque sex scenes. She has achieved title, income and we see her jerk her husband’s penis off as a form of sex in payment. Sarah Churchill is a violent, cruel egoistic ruthless woman (a monstrous sort of Thatcher), who appears to hate Anne. And Anne is a helpless blimp. When Sarah is thrown out, and Abigail (this is the kind of detail the film uses to justify itself) doesn’t read the political documents, Anne bumbles through them, falling asleep as she cannot understand what they are about. The historical Anne may have had a stroke towards the end of her life. This is the most anti-feminist film I’ve seen in a long time and that’s going some.

Some of the images reminded me of the vilest ones I ever saw picturing Hilary Clinton, which a  group of articles on the defamation of Marie Antoinette by her contemporaries during her imprisonment and trial argued were in alignment as to what was to be inferred. Profoundly unnatural sexed-up hag.  There was no real tenderness in evidence in Anne or Abigail over the pathetic 17 rabbits the queen keeps in her bedchamber:  they were self-centered children at play with toys.

That the egregiously vulgar language (I don’t know how many times the word “fuck” is hurled around rooms), anachronistic high-jinks, and utterly distasteful interactions between the characters are not meant as satire but as substitutes for the high-action of a male movie with all its bloody corpses and seething action-intrigue that recent fantasy costume dramas have come to lead a thirties-to-forties audience to expect can be seen in the level of noise in this film. Each time a bird is killed we get a close up of the animal’s agony along with a deafening gun noise.

The women are repeatedly shown to be as violent and aggressive as men. They slap one another very hard; they thrown one another down — even Anne gets this treatment from Lady Sarah; all three major women and some of the men are seen vomiting into vases. We get exaggerated stylized versions of males dressed up in wild Restoration type garb; the worst wigs of the contemporary portraits on the men. All bowing and preening in high heels. Masquerade type make-up. The point of this is to entertain by startling you — as if the audience was a bunch of hens sitting in a yard and someone shoots off a gun. I used the word repulsion because I remembered back to Polanski’s unspeakably exploitative movie about depression in a repressed young woman, Repulsion, but really it was just nerve-wracking, continually deeply unpleasant and on the whole revolting. On Wikipedia we are told Repulsion is considered by some to be Polanski’s greatest film; surely something has gone deeply awry with any set of aesthetic or moral understanding that can come up with this judgement or say The Favourite is the treat of this season (women’s film it’s implied) to see.

There seems to be desire to transform the conventional “victim queen” movie — strength of character is in Mary Queen of Scots translated into woman as male warrior, possible lesbian, by no means “a loser” but trapped because she thought she had to stay married.


Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots is also addicted to in-your-face gunning other creatures down (she also affects a strong Scots accent).

The Favourite does use lines from Anne and other letters by Sarah but the screenplay has no sense at all of history, of what makes communicable good art, repetitious events.  This is specious travesty. Save your money and don’t throw away time for something from which you may emerge from with a headache from the noise, and anything but refreshment from the mean obscenity of many of the scenes.

Ellen

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Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltland as Marnie and Mark Rutland on their honeymoon

Friends and readers,

I regret to have to tell you that this beautifully-sung, acted, and orchestrated Marnie is as repulsive a misogynistic story as I’ve come across in a while — and with Trump as president that’s going some. Ann Midgette of the Washington Post opined the work has a “hollow center” and offers no substantial understanding for why Marnie behaves the way she does (continually changing her very identity as she moves from outrageous theft to outrageous theft), why Mark Rutland responds to seeing she is a ruthless thief and liar by marrying her and then proceeding to win her over by almost raping her.

Not so: at the center of the opera, its “terrifying” back story is a slattern prostitute of a mother who (without an excuse offered) has rows of military men into her flat while her husband is nobly risking his life in battle, and when she becomes pregnant and has the baby, maneuvers her young daughter, into believing she killed the “bonny boy” when it was she. Each time we meet this woman she is snarling, spiteful, and a downright hater of her daughter. It’s known that a recurrent figure in many of Hitchcock’s films is the “terrible mother.” In Graham there is pity and economic explanation for Marnie’s mother’s behavior (abysmally poor, frightened at the same of ostracizing of her from others), and even Hitchcock condescends to have his Mark (Sean Connery) explain the apparently sweet Marnie (Tippi Hendrin) as someone seeking refuge. At least Marnie’s mother’s outward acts are in Graham’s text, Mark’s mother in Graham is not the scheming capitalist she is here. Mrs Rutland nags her son about his business failing all the while she is ruining it in order to buy it out from under him. In Graham, Mark’s mother is dead and it is his father and sister he must persuade to accept Marnie.


Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother (not otherwise identified in this production) — smoking away & sinister in her wheelchair

Perhaps the most dismaying element of all was how blatant this is. The relentlessly cheerful announcer brought up the “evil mothers” as if it were a joke, and then the two actresses opined that this didn’t matter. No one said it’s just entertainment for the great hype of these interviews is how serious and important the operas are. It is the equivalent of how in Hitchcock’s movie Marnie is repeatedly called a liar and all ads about the character in this movie call her a liar as if this lying were a moral sin of gargantuan magnitude. Worst of all really the lack of any explanation for the actions of the three central characters (Marnie, Make, and Marnie’s mother): we are left with a simplistic crude Freudianism “feel.” That the critics have latched onto this time — they all seem to feel Hitchcock somehow “explained” this — he is at least suggestive, nuanced and detailed in his presentation.

Probably the accusation of hollowness comes from how in this production, like Sean O’Connor and Hitchcock before him (a psychological play focusing on sex, class, money of play, Marnie, London, 1982; and a 1964 Hitchcock psychoanalytic film respectively) Muhly never gets inside Marnie’s mind (certainly not the harridan mother). There is no credible explanation for this crazed re-dressing of herself every few months, this dangerous stealing of the whole of a company’s capital. So Marnie in all three iterations emerges as a clothes-changing frigid manipulative domineering bitch. Since Mark has been directed to be far sweeter to Marnie than Sean Connery, indeed to be loving, kind, well-meaning, once we get past the unexplained impulse on his part to marry her (when all despise her as an employee so beneath him), we feel for Mark at least. Again Muhly goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhly does not allow Mark to rape Marnie. This is to rob the book of hard trauma. In several of his books Graham adheres to the idea that marital traumatic rape is good for the women — yes afterwards it seems they were longing for the man to overcome them. Graham has his men rape women for their own good (!) in some of the suspense novels (The Forgotten Story is one); a few of these men are forgiven for killing the woman when the woman commits adultery (presented as an understandable reaction). They are allowed to love two women (that’s Ross Poldark’s case in Warleggan). In Hitchcock’s case we have documentary evidence to show Hitchcock delighted in voyeurism and insisted the camera stay on Hedron’s face as Connery bears down on her. Hedron as Marnie flees (as in the book and film) but instead of leaping into a pool , in this opera she tries to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Red light suggests blood, and we move on.


Here they were reminiscent of the TV serial drama, Madmen.

I was further dismayed by the ignoring (as did Hitchcock before him) of Graham’s attack on capitalist soul-less offices — the production chose a very fat man to play Strut and he played the part as a gross narrow bully but beyond that nothing explicit. The 1950s was simply characterized as filled with men in suits sitting at desks or crowding in on women; the women were trussed up in offices sitting behind desks; at parties, they looked uncomfortable and absurd in their overdone gowns and big hair or French twists. In this production Terry Rutland (Lestyn Davies) does not develop a slow true understanding of like people with Marnie (which in the novel is at least interesting). In Hitchcock Terry Rutland works to ruin Marnie’s reputation, and she is innocent of his enterprises; here she works with him in deceit and corruption. Lastly, there is no landscape to speak of and Marnie’s one good relationship, with her horse Forio is not presented as the healthy experience it is, nor is she close or intimate with her horses’ feelings. In the book Graham may be remembering the incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where a horse’s life is sacrificed to a race and much sexual innuendo floats about. In the opera and in Hitchcock the horse-riding, racing and shooting of the horse is simply an acting out of a crude suggested (never detailed) Freudian-style analysis about sex: Marnie enjoys riding roughshod over Mark so she rides roughshod over her horse.

The book can go at length into an analysis; when Mark is hurt trying to stop the death of the horse, we can see a relationship develop between him and Marnie. We do feel for Marnie as an inexplicably sick person: she is a Humbert Humbert, except she is the victim, hoist with her own petard. Blackmailed into marriage, raped, then trapped, and finally found out by one of her previous bosses who comes to one of Mrs Rutland’s fancy garden parties and put into jail. In the book she seems almost relieved, and with a sort of reconciliation happening, it seems when she emerges, she may try for a sane relationship with Mark. In Hitchcock’s movie at the end she is pathetically grateful to Mark (as masterful Connery): the seething liar becomes a remorseful dependent. By contrast, in the opera she suddenly sings “I’m free” — of what? her mother who she has learnt in the previous scene died, so pat along comes the mid-wife-housekeeper, paid companion, Lucy, to tell Marnie her mother became a prostitute in the war and when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock smothered her “bonny boy.” Because Marnie has confessed he own crimes and understands her mother’s, she is not free of what happened or her past. She has just suggested to Mark she could like him when she gets out.


As in the book Marnie agrees to go to a psychiatrist (as part of a bargain with Mark): here as elsewhere she is surrounded by “other selves” — to the side we see her mother in a slip in red light

I did ask people near me what they thought of it. Most audience members are very reticent but as with (to be fair) other modern or non-traditional productions, I saw faces made. One woman said the piece was “repulsive.” Lynn Gardner of The Guardian thought that Graham’s novel seduced Sean O’Connor because he saw it as “gritty parable of repressiveness in which sex, class, money and manners are central motivators.” Many years after the initial movie Richard Brody is now cured of his Hitchcock mania. Midgette thinks Muhly too eager a collaborator elsewhere, to glad to have a commission; the music, says James Jordan of The Observer is forgettable. As if he needed to explain his opera more, during one of the interviews Muhly told the “host” how each of his characters corresponds to a particular motif by a particular instrument. The music was meant to be emotionally expressive.What I noticed is Terry Rutland is a counter-tenor, and (unless I’m mistaken), Muhly and Michael Mayer are gay men and wonder if as homosexual men they were drawn to this hideous parable of narrow wretched heterosexuality in a desperate environment. I did like some of the costumes, especially Marnie’s later wardrobe — and I find that 1950s costumes are associated with a gay sensibility.


This was perhaps her last outfit and it and the cream one just before are appealing; she is on the stage after a London performance with Tippi Hendren (who played Marnie in Hitchcock’s film and was sexually harassed by him)

I fear it did nothing to increase anyone’s understanding of the tragic way women experience sex and motherhood in our society. It did not endorse male violence and macho maleness the way Hitchcock did. In his study, The making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral quotes Winston Graham’s son to the effect that his father was not a feminist despite his father’s assertions he naturally was. In a letter to Hitchcock in that volume it does seem as if in general across his books Winston Graham meant to create sympathy for women who have a “raw” deal in our society, are forced to submit, endure much and enjoy little. He said he based this story of the mother on a maid he and his wife had had years before and a story he read in a newspaper about another working class women. Maybe he intended to break through the repressive sexual miseries of the eras (1950s); instead (what he never mentions) because he was improving his technical prowess in using the new amoral ironies found at the time in the suspense novel, he happened upon an imitation in reverse of Nabokov’s hypocritical Lolita, and his adapters have not known what to do with the result.

One caveat: is the opera based on Graham’s book as claimed or Hitchcock’s movie (with a little help from Sean O’Connor’s play)? Asked about how they came to choose the book, the script writer and director said they saw in the movie such astonishing fodder for an opera. Is the opera then based on the movie, asked the interviewer. The answer was if they had tried to get their permission to use the material from the film company or individuals involved, they would never have gotten past the squabbles that would ensue. So the answer is they cannot say they got their opera from the movie, only that their permission stems from the book. As they were talking and a few others interviewed talked, it seemed some of the people had read the book. I believe Muhly did. But the opera is equally influenced by Hitchcock and for all one can tell it’s Hitchcock’s misogynistic and voyeuristic outlook that was a deciding factor. Hard to say.

One last angle: still and whatever the relationship between original source and this opera, surely, all three adaptations should shed more light on Graham as the writer of the Poldark novels, or on other of his suspense books than they do. I find little connection between the early Cornwall successes (The Giant’s Chair, The Dangerous Pawn) and the World War Two tales (No Exit),  and Graham’s book, but there is continuity with The Forgotten Story, The Merciless Ladies, and with some of the hard bleak later film noir books (especially Angell, Pearl and Little God), and with some of Graham’s more memorable vicious ruthless and emotionally twisted characters across his oeuvre (Mark Adderly, Valentine Poldark). Some of my friends have declared Graham’s books misogynistic because of the books’ sympathy with male rapists and murderers; I find a qualified feminism because there is much sympathy with women victimized by the society as a whole and with particular vulnerable males. It is an anomaly to see that Winston Graham could not extend understanding to Marnie’s mother — or that this brutal material found at the core of many a society (what to do with unwanted babies and with women who won’t submit or retreat before the hegemonic patriarchal order) proved too much for Graham here.

Ellen

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Susan Engel as the aged and unappealing Cunegonde (a sort of old lady 2) at the close of a Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Candide (2013), favorably reviewed by Paul Taylor (“astringent, nihilistic, dry”)


Christa Ludwig as the old lady (Barbican, 1989, conducted by Bernstein) —

Friends and readers,

As you probably know (since I’ve announced this more than once), I’m teaching a course I called The Enlightenment: At Risk at the OLLI at AU. The first 18th century author and book we read has been Voltaire’s Candide; ou, l’optimisme. And I assigned selections of his treatises, we saw clips from La Nuit de Varennes (which they appeared to enjoy), and this coming Monday I shall show two clips from a 1989 concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide at the Barbican (Bernstein conducting), and one from a 2004 concert performance at Lincoln Center (Marin Alsop conducting, directed by Lonny Price). What is most striking to me is how many of the people, maybe most in the room came up with interpretations and reactions to Voltaire’s Candide that resemble Bernstein’s comic take on Candide, far more hopeful, morally didactic, essentially preferring a positive point of view on life to Voltaire’s mordancy and presentation of the chaos of experience, senselessness of pain.


1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

To begin with Voltaire’s Candide, a number of people in the class suggested the famous ending of the tale (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”) is its finally restorative moral. Some saw redemption, hope here and there, some religious apprehension. I took the view of J.J. Weightman (a critic in the Norton edition) that tale is absurd and mordant, and that Voltaire produced Candide when his awareness of evil was at its most violent and his vitality at its strongest. I also felt with Wolper that the famous gnomic statement at the end is ironic.

In “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, Wolper argues that Candide is a blind gull to the end. How could Candide forget he was once thrown out, and afterwards an army came and destroyed, beat and killed just about everyone in his home estate. In “Il fault cultiver son jardin,” Candide has only learned to shrink into himself. Yes, work can be a form of salvation: Voltaire himself only when near death tried to stop trying to help people. Diderot is continually trying to help people — individually, though in Diderot’s case they are not crazed events so he ends up with small people bothering him. Camille shuts out the rest of the world — as if one could. He can’t stand the sight of Cunegonde because she’s no longer young and pretty. Martin’s words at the end of the previous paragraph are as close as we get to Voltaire but Voltaire is far far more mordant. All his experiences should have taught Candide that he is not safe anywhere, and he is utterly selfish and narrow in the meaninglessness of what patterns we can discern: “Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin; c’est le seul moyen de rendre le vie supportable.”


Recent illustration — that’s the Cunegonde hanging up the laundry, the old lady with the sails

One man strongly objected to all Wolper said! There are other readings by critics in the Norton (Richard Holmes, Adam Gopnik) and I assigned one of them (Weightman), and did go over the text and tried to show its continual apprehension of stupidity and evil everywhere. I read aloud incidents, the history of herself the “old woman” told, and they so many were powerful individually considered: women living lives of sex slaves, raped continually, worked to exhaustion, thrown out in old age; the barbaric punishments, frantic slaughters, the making individuals into examples ludicrously killing “pour encourager les autres”.

But when I told the usual definition (a conte is a story shaped by a strong central point) and reiterated the tirelessly reiterated lesson it is not all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, a couple of people appeared to find this not very exciting, and the flatness of the characters was stale. When I went about to say why this obsession —

Leibnitz, deism, Pope in his Essay on Man (“whatever is, is right.”) — unless we look about us and accurately say what is, we cannot improve it. We must not rest easy in what is; we must not look to an afterlife; it’s here and now. Panglos, he glosses over everything —

they were (as living in a different age) indifferent to this cliché. People did say they had taken 18h century courses where Johnson’s Rasselas was read alongside Voltaire’s Candide as similar. Yes, yes, said I and so too Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. With Rasselas, it’s the hunger of the imagination after some fantastical happiness (“vanity of human wishes”), the importance of one’s “choice of life. But this led to intelligent explications of why a moderate hope is needed: to believe in useful activity and within limits doing good. That it is a mock on the picaresque romance came up: the opening recalls Tom Jones — so a couple of the people in the room suddenly said how hard it is to remember details, its seeming hundreds of stories (I got in “enough piled into every paragraph for a commonly written realistic long novel were the characters psychologically developed at all”).


This 18th century illustration makes the opening incident resemble Tom Jones or other contemporary sentimental erotic novels

On the whole though I felt people were a bit disappointed by Voltaire’s Candide — they asked me about my title of the course: The Enlightenment: at Risk? what was at risk in this world that was valuable? I had used Outram’s book to try to show the ideas of this movement went much much further than small coteries, spread everywhere in cities, country houses, and were themselves outgrowths of new economic and social circumstances and began in the early modern period. So I went back to that and then tried to explain how satire, hard satire was the mode of this progressive period and the kinds of fundamental attacks on humanity Candide can prompt were not possible before people questioned religious belief as such, monarchy and divine right as such; conversely on powerful men, before people began to feel they had a right themselves to liberty, a good life, secure ownership of their property.

But that hardly can make someone like a book. So I then admitted that this summer rereading or reading for the first time some of Voltaire’s work I was more impressed by Letters on England than Candide, and famous and popularly read or widely distributed as Candide is, think Letters on England more important, his Treatise on Toleration teach us more directly about the Enlightenment thought of the era. I had assigned excerpts from these and then they took notes:

Differing sects of religion keep people from becoming absolutist and makes for toleration. In his chapter on Locke he argue against the immortality of the soul. Locke saw we were born with our minds a tabula rasa; what Voltaire is impressed is Locke accepts that matter thinks. Animals are like us, not simple machines but perceiving and sensitive. In the chapter on Bacon he extols basing oneself on probable experience, and takes over from his chapter on the history of inoculation for small pox, a scientific method. In the chapter on Newton he substitutes the old cosmology of God, eternal heaven, sin and reward with a modern scientific Newtonian universe. No need for all sorts of silly inventions and concepts once you have come up with the concept of gravity and turn it into mathematics and see that these mathematics describe what’s happening accurately, and enable to predict. Things like vortices perihelia. He shows how we now measure. Why the universe sticks together – it’s the brute reality – we would call it a force. How weight works. Newton’s Optics fascinated 18th century people –- to through a prism that light divides into colors. I read some poetry by Pope and Thomson: if you look at Shakespeare and Jacobean poetry you find mostly simple color words – red, pink maybe orange, purple; in these 18th century verses the color words just explode into cascades of shades. Far from attacking Shakespeare he admires him and says it’s impossible to translate him (18) and 23 and 24 he admires and recommends how the English support their men of letters (humanities) and men of science by academies. And so on.

I don’t say they weren’t spot on. First, none of the English translations we had came near Voltaire’s concision, wit, and tones.  Then to be honest, I prefer a realistic psychological story and enjoy Voltaire’s letters to Madame Du Deffand, and much more Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love and Ian Davidson’s Voltaire In Exile where we see him fighting barbaric injustices, and occasionally winning (as against the oligarchy of Geneva he opened a manufacturing factory where people came to work and live more freely). I shall tell about these letters and books next week. . Maybe there is “more” to learn from Lettres Philosophiques (and also La Nuit de Varennes last week)

As a test case on whether the general class view of Candide makes it speak home to us, I found I was irritated by the Lincoln Center 2004 production, thought it mostly a travesty of Voltaire. It’s accurately reviewed by Peter G Davis, with whom I disagree only in that I found the usually appealing Patti Lupone as tasteless as everyone else. The witless sexual gags where the women were supposed to enjoy being raped were the worst. I am very troubled by how sexist this (and other) productions are. To me Voltaire’s females do not enjoy being sex slaves at all. I think Anthony Tommasini) has it right when he says this farrago doesn’t know what to do with Voltaire’s work — they were Hollywood bumpkins, clowns:


Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti Lupone as Candide, Cunegonde and the old lady ….

The best song was the penultimate sharp gaiety of the ensemble “What’s the use.” Still, Voltaire did not mean us to shrug and be gay over life’s meaninglessness. But people in the class said they had seen and they appeared to have been entertained by this production. I was lent my copy by one of the people in the class who wanted me to show it to the class and I will show one clip, “What’s the us?.”

The second DVD I have I bought myself, and I sat through far more patiently. It is the Barbican 1989 production.  Jerry Hadley as Candide sang the lyrical melancholy of Candide (in Bernstein’s “It must be so”) beautifully. Far more of Voltaire’s story survived in the enclosed whole script (!), and the absurdity of the enjoyment of torture and death at Lisbon (“auto-da-fe … What a day!”) seemed to approach a little Voltaire. Yet I remained uninvolved and felt the actors (Adolphe Green reading away so very hard)

and singers were flailing at perceptions that failed to touch them except as generic archetypes.


Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

It was nowhere wild enough, but the reviews of this “labored over” production were more charitable and patient for the sake of the music. I can see it’s respected because my DVD came with the full script and credits to Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Bernstein himself — all credited. I learnt that the original script was wholly by Hellman and that it was much closer in spirit to Voltaire, among other things, satirizing the House UnAmerican Activities committee. Indeed the script did reflect Voltaire in the narrative lines — read aloud as best the performers could, complete with explanations (“what is a picaresque tale? well …. “)

Each of the three productions I’ve mentioned here (the third at the opening of this blog, which I found on-line) have different dialogues so there has been a great deal of free improvisation allowed. It is true it is a mix-mash of different genre types as may be seen in the different earlier illustrations. But what went wrong in the 20th century and is still a problem is candor — reminding me in sound of the name, Candide. In the 18th century a “candid” interpretation was one which tried to present things in the “best” and most moral or sympathetic light. You wouldn’t think we’d want to look away if you turned on recent cable TV movies with their wild violence and amoral sex. Still the history of the adaptation says the first production (1957) was a flop (73 performances), and reveals since then the people daring to mount it have for the most part struggled, almost in vain to come near it. Apparently the 2013 began to come close, as has a recent 2016 operatic Candide at the New York City Opera.

I do find it telling that in our era of massacres, senseless laws and widespread injustice, where the president of the US can go around ridiculing a woman who comes forward to tell a story of assault, rape and humiliation as her civic duty (she knew she had lot to lose personally) rather than have a conscienceless raving elite thug on the supreme court for life, we have a hard time presenting the true core of Candide to an audience. The first edition (1759) was presented as a translation from the German by a physician named Ralph.

Ellen

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Tom Hollander as Dr Thorne (scripted by Jerome Fellowes, Hollander is right for the part)

Friends and readers,

About four days ago I joined in on a meme on face-book: you are asked to cite 10 books that influenced you strongly or made a real impact on you or your life, one a day for 10 days, with the book cover or illustration if there is one. I’ve cited three thus far: Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Suzanne Therault’s Un cenacle humanist de la Renaissance autour Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Ischia. Day 10/4: Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne. I was somewhere between 18 and 20 and read it in a college class. In this case I can share the original cover, but I have a bit of a qualification:

While I just didn’t forget this novel, wanted to write my term paper on Trollope (but the professor didn’t approve because he thought Trollope not quite first-rate, he was just a mirror of his age, his fiction “told” instead of “showing” so I wrote on Dickens), and remembered ever after the amused calm in the narrator’s voice as he patiently explained he was forced to take two long chapters at the opening because he had to tell us the previous history of the characters and place before his book could officially begin; while I didn’t forget it, I didn’t go on to read more Trollope for 11 years and then it was the Pallisers in black-and-white on an old TV that set me off, and I just loved Can You Forgive You? this rich extraordinary world teaming with all sorts of life, but I had to stop (I read all six Pallisers in a row in tandem with Jim, my husband) as I was teaching and doing a dissertation on Richardson’s Clarissa. So it was the third start that mattered finally: age 43, my father came to the hospital where I had ended up after a bad car accident and gave me a copy of The Vicar of Bullhampton (the Dover edition) and said Trollope would get me through (it was Metropolitan hospital in Upper Manhattan in NYC where the place was so underfunded there was but one person to do X-rays in the whole place): “how wise Trollope is,” said my father.

I still have a copy of that first (for me) CYFH? and in spring 2019 I shall start teaching all six Pallisers in a row at two OLLIs (American University and George Mason University). Next spring at both OLLIs I shall begin a six term journey with the people there on the Pallisers, one a term, beginning with CYFH?.

We just finished watching all 26 episodes of the Pallisers one each week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io. Raven makes Lady Glenn the quietly tragic heroine of the series:


Susan Hampshire as Lady Glencora McClusky in a symbolic bethrothal in the first episode of the 26 Pallisers

I’ve written some 30 blogs on the Pallisers, and published a paper on its intertextuality and that of Barchester Chronicles, with other Victorian film adaptations. I hope to write yet another blog, this one a single comprehensive concise one on the series as a whole before I go off on holiday this summer.

I still have the copy of The Vicar of Bullhampton that my father gave me too, with me today, this morning. Here’s its cover ….

Need I cite my book, Trollope on the Net, five published papers, two of them on the film adaptations (by Andrew Davies of The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right), two reviews, a huge part of this website, years of running reading groups on the Net, participation in the face-book Trollope society page, the New York Society itself, giving paper there, giving papers at two Trollope conferences, and now teaching several classes on Barsetshire novels, Beyond Barsetshire, the short stories.


Anthony Trollope as traveler by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, 1864

Could there be more impact?

Ellen

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