Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Sophie Marceau as Anna, typical odd angle, very close up shot (1997 written, directed, produced by Bernard Rose)

Jacqueline Bisset as as a passive Anna submitting to Christopher Reeve as a conventional cad Vronsky (1985, script James Goldman, directed by Simon Langton)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been participating in another group read and discussion of Anna Karenina! This time on the GoodReads site. And I’ve gone on to watch two more notable film adaptations, the 1985 Anna Karenina (made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) and the 1997 Anna Karenina (an independent film, made in Russia, an even more extraordinary cast, with Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina as Levin, Sean Bean as Vronsky, James Fox as Karenin, Phyllida Law as Vronsky’s mother, and Fiona Shaw as Lydia).

Matthew Macfayden as Stiva meeting Keira Knightley as Anna at the train. well-known opening of book and film, resembles book illustrations (from 2012 Wright/Stoppard)

It may be this is hard to believe, having watched watched three other Anna Karenina films and read essays and chapters in books, yet I feel I learned yet more, and was made to see more insights into the human condition when under pressure from this particular story and character elements.

The 1997 film, dismissed as “shallow, bloodless, having lost track of characters, by re-arranging the order and then stripping from the story almost all the larger social scenes, to focus on key linchpin memorable one-on-one intense encounters lays bare the trembling core of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

The 1985, less interesting philosophically is moving because it updates, make feelingfully contemporary the same trajectory as the book the 1935 Gretta Garbo AK (she is what is remembered) and 1977-78 BBC faithful and liberal-minded Donald Wilson of-Forsyte-Saga-fame AK (remembered for Porter, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and only after that Nicola Paget).

Scofield and Marceau in their different films enable us to reach a new understanding. Both films ought to be better known; they are absorbing.

I refer my reader back to my blog on Tolstoy’s novel for the story, and AK at the movies I for the 1935 and 1948 (remembered for Vivian Leigh’s performance near suicide and Ralph Richardson as the steele-knife Karenin), and Stoppard and Joe Wright’s 2012 brilliant theatrical rendition


Bernard Rose’s 1995 Anna Karenina, an independent film:

Alfred Molina as Levin (1997, opens and closed film, given narrative overvoice)

I was astonished when Rose’s film was over. It startled me by opening on the ice-skating scene between Kitty (Mia Kirshner) and Levin; his point of view, seemingly reasonable, trying to find some rationale for what is happening, some comforting lesson or sense runs across the movie, linking the scenes. While Kitty is there and in quick moments, has the familiar turning points of dance, snubbing, sickness, rescue by Levin, baby, there at Levin’s brother’s death with brother’s prostitute-mistress by her side, hers is a minor role. The major woman after Anna is Madame Vronsky and Phyllida Law captures the banal hypocritical ways of this woman with her hard insinuating glances perfectly, so her presence at the first train encounter, and at the close of the movie as who Vronsky flees to makes her point of view that one that destroys Vronsky and Anna.

Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

Also made into a major presence is Fiona Shaw as Lydia. Rather than a mere religious fanatic clinging to, squatting all over Karenin, she is a forceful political actor (goes to political rallies).

Shaw as Lydia, while Karenin’s own austere idealism and role as a cuckold has ruined his career

Karenina is kept as an outer ring character; stern and sensitive he is the first of the Karenin enactments to move to rape when he brings Anna home after the race, and the carriage scene, which are (as in all social scenes of the movie) kept to a minimum. The point is to have the confrontation where Karenin’s sense of himself is rocked: his anger is not over social appearances and if she did agree to a veneer, we are to feel he wouldn’t keep to it.

Rose took all the famous strong passionate scenes and rewrote them so they become intense interactions where private emotions takeover; he rearranges them some, strings them together. All the rest of the story, the social world, hum drum life left out. Danny Huston’s draining of his wife, Dolly, bankrupting them, bland complacency is choral; we hardly see Dolly as she is a figure who brings in the troubles and compromises of the social and economic worlds of the novel; Huston’s role is to listen to Levin,go hunting with him, attempt to persuade Karenin to give Anna a divorce. He seems so weak against Fiona Shaw whose scene with the child where she tells Seriozha his mother is dead is chilling, scary. Somehow Levin working hard in the fields becomes another private moment of self-discovery which just happens to occur in a (lovely) public field. Childbirth is a screaming painful bloody affair that occurs twice (Anna and then Kitty). Another departure is Rose presents Sean Bean Vronsky more positively than any of the films:

This promotional still of Bean in uniform as Vronsky must be the only time in the film he seems involved in his regiment: the look of puzzle is more common.

Bean is driven to anger and distraction between Anna, his mother, Karenin refusing to cooperate. Anna’s baby by him dies or is stillborn in this production (we see her nursing an old broken plastic doll). When he screams at her, there is no sense from the film that she has deprived him of a career he wanted, or even a place. Just that it’s the done thing to be married so he can be an accepted landlord. The film’s tragic scene focuseson his scream and frantic mad behavior pulling himself away from the officers as we hear Anne go under the train.

Bean is that movement under blue cloth

It’s a stripping of Tolstoy to bare bones and then putting back in psychologically distraught moments. Sophie Morceau carries the film, moving from cheerful and strong by stages into utter self-abjection, loss of identity, a kind of stupor as she only half-heartedly tries to follow Vronsky. A each scene is flung at us background music passionate romantic opera or equivalent link — there’s a heavy use of music and at times pantomime. The last 8 minutes of Anna last walk towards death is all music. The houses and rooms are opulent. Trains continually brought in and function. Dialogue is extraordinary, things brought out frankly in physical interactions. No words of continuity, just juxtaposition. Are these the core power of Tolstoy, Rose seems to be asking.

Rose makes the book into a kind of wild romance. Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard made the book theatrical too but they kept the outer social world as a shaping force and the story line and dialogue had strong intellectual ironies. This film made me see Anna Karenina more as about how the personal and sincere have no chance to thrive. Vronsky’s mother’s objection, that of Betsy (Justine Wadell), and the astonishment of everyone else seems to be Anna and Vronsky’s attempt to live by some shared mutual soul within them. And this inner self can’t take this kind of leaning. Babies die. People don’t cooperate. Things don’t make sense.

The movie ends with Vronsky on a train going to Siberia. He has lost all meaning. Levin is narrator and then he returns us to his life with Kitty, and his book, asserting one can find meaning in life by turning to religion. It’s not very convincing.

Near closing shot of film, after this we see the writing of his diary (lines from Tolstoy)


The 1985 Anna Karenina, written by David Goldman, directed and produced by Simon Langton (filmed in Hungary)

Paul Scofield brilliant as Karenin (1985 TV film) — this film returns us to Karenin as the powerful central male

This is another remarkable production. The cast includes some remarkable actors, and in the minor parts too: including Anna Massey as Betsy, Joanna David as Dolly. It opens using a sort of browned framed set of stills, to set up an antique feeling — although the attitudes of mind are recognizably those of the mid- to later 20th century imagined TV audience

Joanna David as Dolly: she is the suburban wife who is persuaded to forgive the erring husband

Simon Langton, who directed and produced the 1995 Andrew Daves P&P directs and produces; Goldman has written other fine screenplays (e.g., The Lion in Winter). It seems to have been produced by some combination of companies, filmed in Hungary and then put on TV, though its length (2 hours and 15 minutes) and feel makes it seem as if it were meant for movie-houses. It’s the only one I watched straight through and it’s exhausting. Its one weakness as a film is Christopher Reeve’s inability to act, his woodenness is a real flaw. He was considered super-beautiful (yet he was given the usual mustache). That he too is made into a positive figure enables him to carry the complex role more easily. It does have something peculiar at first: it seems as if the voices were dubbed in after for the first hour so the actors seem oddly distanced.

In conception it’s a redo and updating of the previous three I’d seen (1935, 1948, 1977) in the sense that Langton (director) and Goldman (writer) adapted the same arrangement, story line, emphases. Yes Levin and Kitty are just about eliminated but that was the tendency before. But otherwise the characters are simply modernized. Tellingly there is a softening of attitudes towards adultery and at the same time towards both Oblonsky and Vronsky. Oblonsky is merely weak, poor guy means well, and there is a repeated Americanization of both going on. Vronsky never meant to mislead Kitty; and it is presented as perfectly understandable he wants to get on with his career. There is no Lydia, so no disquieting aspects to religion (American audiences might not like that). Betsy is not a bad woman either: she understands that Anna is not the kind of woman who can live a disguised life.

Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

Unexpectedly (but this seems to me very much in line with today’s attitudes) Karenin is himself a man who lived solely for his work and Anna, and she was enough for him; why is he not enough for her. Anna only grovels at the very end of the film. Strikingly it opens with Karenin and Anna and the son, and they seem a contented enough family. He has just had a big success, and they talk about whether they should say goodnight to their child and go into the bedroom. It’s a very 1960s family scene. It’s from this position of an adjusted family that the film departs and presents Anna’s seduction by Vronksky as a sort of sickness. Anna herself is without friends except for Betsy even before she loses her reputation.

Scofield’s characteristic quiet apparent reasonableness is to the fore; when he does become fiercely enraged at Anna’s behavior at the races and her telling him in the carriage she is Vronsky’s mistress, loves Vronsky, is pregnant, it’s no loss of social appearance that drives him wild. His image of himself as a man, his choice in life to make her the center and have no other friend (he says this) morphs immediately to near rape: this is her duty. It’s that she personally betrayed him, with marriage as a one-on-one relationship. There is real sympathy for Kareinin. He decides to get back towards the end by refusing to divorce her even after she agrees to give up her son. Anna is passive sexually (so a good woman), waits to be taken. She is firm and angry with Karenin after the childbirth collapse; she wants out of this bed and only one man at a time. I admit this film made cry more at the close because I bonded in small ways with this Anna as I had not with any of the previous: this heroine is no longer a 19th century character. I felt yet more for Karenina. If I may make the comparison, the couple reminded me of the characterization of Winston Graham’s Ross and Demelza Poldark in the recent film adaptation by Debbie Horsfield.

Anna with her maid did not want to take a ball dress with her; she was not particularly ambitious; their friendliness reminded me of Lady Mary and Anna in Downton Abbey

Some viewers might like this one best. Modern readers are often bored with Kitty and Levin, and they are hardly there. The directors and actors are allowed to present the sexual scenes between Vronsky and Anna far more candidly. While not as many as the 1997 film, it does eliminate a lot of the exterior events — especially the closing scenes between Dolly and Stiva and the Levins in the country estate. Especially interesting is this re-conception of Karenin: here he is not driven by religion or even his political position, he says he has no friends, and Anna has been everything to him, he has been satisfied with her as his friend and companion. He seems to go on for politics as a principled business as an aristocrat but find no personal meaning in it. He is not ambitious as Ralph Richardson, Eric Porter and then Jude Law all are.

One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

Four hinge point scenes are revealed as what one must have: the race scene, Karenina taking Anna away in the carriage after Vronsky falls, has to kill his horse (done intimately) and her abjection in the carriage. In their talk afterward Karenin is the most sensible of all the husbands: he is warning her of what will happen: she will be lost, Vronksky will tire of her; it’s almost done kindly. Scofield’s behavior and words reminded me of how he played Thomas More. She does get pregnant, have the baby, in this one wants to die — there is a death wish throughout. There is the forgiveness scene but then (as in the other movies but one and the book) she cannot stand Karenin again and flees. When she comes for the divorce, they are like a 1960s couple agreeing on how they will treat the child; she promises to give him up, and in return he will divorce her.

Scofield in pain but controlling himself

Anna giving up her son

Reeve was mechanical in feel early on, he did much better when it was a matter of sexual interaction and in the last part when he rejects her: as in the 1936 film he grows irritated, tired of her, threatens to leave. At first they seem to be adjusted: a visit from Dolly and Stiva make the four look like American in-laws during an afternoon.

But it’s not enough. In this one Betsy does not betray Anna as the norms behind it are not really high society Russia. Anna just becomes more clinging and nervous, and he does irritation and restlessness very well. The scene of her return to the house when they return to Moscow is powerful, at first centered on the husband. Her love of her boy and her boy’s for her is touching. In this the film harks back to the 1935 Anna Karenina where the strongest scenes in the whole film are Garbo and the son.

There’s real pathos as Anne bends her head; Reeve’s stiffness as Vronsky works well here

The last part of her chasing after Vronsky gone to his mother and her choice for his wife remembers the 1948 with Vivien Leigh. Bisset is going mad with nothing to do, no one to be with. She wears a dress that looks like a prisoner’s outfit, all stripes. She too is haunted by bad dreams and sees a figure of a man. But she berates herself in practical 20th century American terms: she has destroyed two men, one boy, and she does not love her daughter. In this film we feel why she does not love the daughter: the daughter stands for this new life Anna claimed she loved (I don’t need society) but found herself cracking up under. In this film she does not go to the opera; she obeys Vronsky and still she and he quarrel. He wants to escape her altogether. The last moment shows her by the train and then we switch to where Vronsky has become aware she has come after him from Annuska and turns horrified at what he sees. End of film.

I suggest that the 1985 film has the most modern feel because of the depiction of Karenin is not based on religion or status and of Anna as the most inward, inner directed people might say. I wondered if the elimination of many of the social scenes gave Rose the idea for his re-conception.


One of the older Penguins

Returning to Tolstoy’s book too, I am just reading a book by Joan Hardwick about Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife, whose father was not her mother’s husband. Hardwick paints a picture of the aristocracy in Europe at this time as often adulterous, with differently sired children in one family. Karenin is then as unusual as Anna, but they live in a world of egregious hypocrisy. Oblonsky represents the norm. That makes the outlook many middle class 20th and 21st century readers and viewers have had on Anna anachronistic; it was not her adultery that was so unacceptable; it’s the way she went about it with passionate integrity. In that she resembles Levin. And the movie adaptations that come closest to this are the 1948 and 1977.

We might say now in our 21st century political and corporate culture what the filthy rich do today esembles the parasitical aristocrats of Tolstoy’s day, so it may be the 1% as a culture (which are where Tolstoy’s characters fit in) are not so far from these corrupt aristocrats as we like to imagine. Levin and Anna are our figures of integrity — Kitty is simply another utterly conventional young woman, believable yes. These hollow pretenses have provided the way Karenina, along with rank, and wealth and status, has risen so high. A real jack-ass con-man whom of course Oblonsky gets along perfectly with wins an election in Vronsky’s area; Levin can’t figure out how he did it. Like Levin, Anna doesn’t fit in; she will not play the social games with all their hollow pretenses.

From a two act production in the Abbey Theater by Irish playwright Marina Carr, directed by Wayne Jordan

The book was written by a man and all these movies made by men. What matters in male-centered, male-written, male-made movies is adultery, the man has been betrayed. What matters to women is the custody of their children. Anna Karenina shows these outlines too.

Next up for Anna Karenina will be an account of a few other of the Anna Karenina films as found in Tolstoy on Screen, edd Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael Denner. The list of movies is NOT endless. You don’t have to watch them chronologically. I am slowly discovering more about Tolstoy’s book by watching these


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Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)

Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)


Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.

A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center

Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)

Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)


Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).


A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.

This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.

As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait


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Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina (from the first half of 1948 film, at home — an unfamiliar shot)

Gretta Garbo as Anna Karenina (reminiscing in front of Kitty, a fine moment from 1935 film)

Friends and readers,

Each time one watches a great movie, like each time one reads a great book, one learns more about the film, art, and to some extent the life it reflects. In these two Anne Karenina films, the visuals tell a different story from the script: in visuals, the 1935 AK is far more romantic and highly erotic, but in the dialogue it’s the conventional point of view; the 1948 AK is from its words disquieting, disturbing, but its visuals present prosaic conventional or picturesque images.

Out of eighteen film adaptations, I watched five, attempted a sixth, and read good essays on yet three more. None of my choices were Russian. The finest, in my view is the longest, not written about anywhere, the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina, scripted by Donald Wilson (who wrote the 1967 BBC Forsyte Saga), featuring Nicola Paget, Eric Porter, Stuart Wilson. It should be treated like the BBC 1972 War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pullman, featuring Anthony Hopkins. I’ve written about the 2012 Joe Wright-Tom Stoppard Anna, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew Macfayden.

For tonight I’ll cover the first (for English speakers) two famous Anna Karenina films (1935, 1948); on another night I’ll tell about two more (1985, made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky, 1997, directed by Bernard Rose, notably greatly acted by Sophie Marceau, Phyllida Law, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, James Fox, Fiona Shaw and in some ways the most interesting of all the AK movies I’ve seen). A third night, I’ll describe the three I wasn’t able to reach by watching but read about; and at last, a fourth and fifth blog, the culmination, we’ll do the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina masterpiece.

I assume my reader knows the story; if not, go back to my blog on the novel by Tolstoy for links (as read aloud by Davina Porter).


The 1948 film opens on the train, cold, snowy and a terrible accident quickly ensues (Anna thinks it an omen, the pragmatic Stepan says no)

I’ll go backwards because I watched the 1948 British Anna first. I was so curious to see Leigh and Richardson. This AK was scripted by no less than Jean Anouilh and Julien Duvivier (who also directed), with a little help from Guy Morgan (whoever he is), with Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson as Karenin, and a very weak (unconvincing as someone who’d I’d find irresistible) Kieron Moore.

With British actors, a French company, I was naively surprised to find it resembled the 1956 US War and Peace, scripted King Vidor, featuring Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, John Mills. The same kind of sentimentality and superficiality of acting or keeping emotions decorous. I noted that the women’s voices were all this same soft oozy breathless sound Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy and Billie Holiday and so many others affected. Including the Kitty. Only the older women allowed to have real voices. I was so absorbed and bonded with Leigh in Streetcar and a couple of her other films (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone also by Tennessee Williams) that when she was at first presented as this coy sweet thing was grating. Vronsky and his friends were all these Don Ameche matinee idol stuffed male dolls.

The first meeting is at the train (as in the book and several of the AK films)

That said, Duvivier-Anouilh’s work has merit. Richardson as Karenin is its core: hard as steel and mean (not softened as in the BBC 1977-78 Eric Porter conception). This man wanted a divorce fiercely, right away. Richardson’s conception of the character and acting reminded me of him playing Dr Slope in the 1949 chilling version of Henry James’s Washington Square by William Wyler where Olivia de Haviland is Catherine. So the rigid male controlling his women. Duvivier-Anouilh begin with Hugh Dempster as Stiva and they tried for comedy — which is what Joe Wright does and what is in Tolstoy about the marriage of Stiva and Mary Kerridge as Dolly. Telling about US culture, at the same time as Stiva is socially okay he is adulterous and it’s suggested he and Anna inherited this unfortunate disposition. They included (as the 1997 AK does not, but Wright 2012 does) the race course where Anna first reveals herself. The most effective other male is Michael Gough playing Levin’s brother. The gossipy types spoiling things with their tittle tattle is effective.

A playful Karenin when he comes to pick Anne up at the train station, home from Moscow

In 1948 the film-makers were much more anti-adultery than the 1977-78 BBC, but when in the carriage after the race track where Anna’s intense love for Vronsky was on the table, the whole movie shifts into a mode capable of accommodating bitterly realistic marriage, with a shift in the last quarter of psychologically shattering tragic death. Karenina insists on taking Anna home from the races for having disgraced herself. Leigh is abject (anticipating Nicola Paget in the 1978 BBC version) when she says she won’t ask for a divorce. Leigh also says she deserves to be punished (which no other Anna I’ve seen says). The film-makers try to make the lack of a divorce understandable in Anna’s love for her boy, concern for his welfare with a harpy-housekeeper. Leigh is seen caring for the boy but it doesn’t come off in the same emphatic way when Anna turned suicidal and will approach anywhere the BBC managed.

Richardson and Leigh in the crucial quarreling scene

The flight of the young couple to the suburbs was not successful. They didn’t plan enough (as Jim and I when we were young did not). There is no real critique of society; Levin Niall McGinnis) and Kitty (Sally Anne Howes) are downplayed as ordinary people not thinking much about these things Richardson is seen as an admirable strong man doing politics. Somber, thoughtful, and prosaic too. Originally sensible.

Vronsky’s mother is cold and cruel to Anna, openly snubbing Anna in Anna’s own home but that is put down to her character (not the influence of those around her). In this film Anna self-destructs because she lacks strength from within to live on herself. She’s blamed in effect in several scenes where Vronskry is trying to compromise and increasingly irritated, grated upon, towards the end calling Anna a monster. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. The social types who fit in surround Anna on her mistaken trip to the opera where Vronsky himself is going (Stuart Wilson was not going in 1978) and sits in his mother’s box. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. She visits Dolly who welcomes her and finds she is not thrown out of the family but feels her position and flees.

Anouilh’s script is fine and Dudivier’s directing good; it is also a French film with European expressionist techniques in the use of lighting and performances. Despite it’s being just one movie length, it seems to have much more time for inner psychology than 2012 (comparable in time) Wright/Stoppard. Richardson is this hollow man who wants to obey conventions, not a bad man, he just didn’t understand he wasn’t satisfying his wife.

Oblivious Stiva early in the film

Kitty the innocent maiden at the ball

The depiction of the marriage is very much a depiction of a 1948 or mid-20th century marriage. The dialogue is showing us how a couple can become incompatible — it’s not a costume drama (even though it’s produced by Alexander Korda, who may have been responsible for the unbelievable sets), or film of a classic novel but a kind of semi-women’s film only with extravagant clothes. Leigh is given new kinds of lines about her needs, dissatisfactions, and her attachment to her son made more daily and prosaic. I recognized the actresses playing Dolly and Kitty from other films at the time; Kitty is more like a novel character in her illness over Vronsky but Dolly is a woman whose husband is unfaithful living with it. Levin is marginalized and made comic in the same spirit as Stiva.

Dolly’s unhappiness early in the film

Frederick March look-alike when they first flee, he is in love but brisk, sharp, assertive

The music and picturesque settings are now a problem. The music is soppy, the sudden soft focuses, the feel is of a weepy woman’s film at times to us today. She is filmed in a corridor or at these people’s stairways with this pathetic treatment. Outside picturesque house left over from Gone with the Wind or maybe some film taking place in New Orleans. Maybe this pleased and made the 1948 audience weep.

Anna losing her grip

But then everything then falls away as Anna is left alone and we get a 10 minute sequence of her mind going to pieces haunted in the house (hears footsteps). Leigh takes over and is stunning. This sequence takes a long time. It’s a specialty of Leigh’s. She is trying to follow after Vronsky on the train, and happens on and watches an incompatible couple, gradually losing it on the ground until she steps out, in front of the train. This is done slowly as the train comes at her. the camera on her face. It’s tough and while I didn’t take the down there are very Anouilh desperate lines about life before the train smashes her. A blemish is an inter-title just before this from Tolstoy reasserting how good life is or something like this — surely stuck in by the studio.


1935 — Anna Karenina – Greta Garbo (Anna), Frederick March (Vronsky), Basil Rathbone (Karenin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Kitty). An all-star cast. A studio product so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer matters; the director chosen was Clarence Brown with three different writers (the script writer was not respected in earlier films).

Garbo and March

First upfront: where I’m unfair: I don’t care for little triangle mustaches all the men seem to have. Th March look-alike for Vronsky in the 1948 film had this too. To me they look absurd. The males clothes in this one make them look trussed up. I realized the film-makers were once again trying for comedy at the opening with absurd feast, but why the men should all go under the table is beyond me. I preferred the train opening in 1948 but admit the 2012 AK also begins with comedy and Stiva (as does Tolstoy). Kitty is made too innocent: she does yearn for Vronsky but she is hardly allowed near him; she is kept with Levin all the time, and Levin is marginalized, the actor a nobody, Gyles Ischam. Vronsky is thus to be seen as someone who might “pollute” a nice girl’s chastity. Like later Indian films (which eliminate Lucy Steele from Austen’s S&S as too raw material) this shows just how women were kept dolls.

I noticed something no longer with us — film-makers were willing to hire older “ugly” actresses and give them semi-comical parts. Such an actress plays Vronsky’s mother (May Robson, a character actress at the time), so we don’t take her seriously. Who would taken an ugly old woman as a serious presence? On one level, this means jobs for aging semi-fat women; on another, there can be little sympathy such as we find for example in Virginia Woolf (and films made from her books). A third: there is a kind of toleration in showing this reality, except it’s treated derisively. Such a woman type is even in Gaslight (as comic relief — now there’s a powerful film).

Gretta Garbo as Anne Karenina (from just before she meets Karernin in her way home from Moscow, after she has met Vronsky, on train)

All the acting seemed to be artificial including Garbo’s – somehow stiff, detached from their bodies, not coming from some gut area. I felt somehow the tones were off — the falling in love in this film did not convince me. Also there is no felt violence from the men. Some of this is 1935 dramaturgy but it’s hard to make the transition in this film and I have made it in others — when I was reviewing a book about pre-Hays and post-Hays code films I saw a number of 1930s films which were rooted in real emotion and a real sense of body. Was it the awareness they were doing a classic book and so naturally it cannot be quite real? or contemporary? no one believed in it — who had read it of the cast or crew, after all? On the other hand, some of the pictorial moments, the shots were striking (as in the famous one just above)

Rathbone as Karenin also reproaches Anna for her extravagant outfits …

That said, this is a still living effective film.

The crucial or climactic moment was similar to the one in the 1948: there is a fierce quarrel between Karenin and Anna on the way home from the race (where Vronsky is again thrown). Some of the language written by Behrman reappeared in the 1948 script: she is abject, she blames herself, he won’t give her a divorce, but it also takes a different direction: she blames him for caring for appearances. Rathbone is far more menacing: he looms over and accosts Anna in the bedroom: she is too open about her flirtation with Vronsky and Anna tells him she does love Vronsky. This pair argues over appearances: he cares about social appearance (he refuses to admit to jealousy) for the sake of his career; she says she cares nothing for this. It’s interesting to me that this opposition is one that is made explicit in Anouilh/Dudividier’s 1948 AK. It’s not couched that way in the 1978 BBC because in this later liberal era, they were the critiquing society full-stop.

One of Garbo’s many scenes with her boy

I was surprised by Garbo’s presentation. This shows how little I’ve seen I guess. She was not at all a vamp nor over glamorous, but framed in a downright sentimental way: she is clearly filmed as being stunningly beautiful. I had not realized how tall she is. I didn’t recognize March. I did recognize a number of the actors from other films in this company. The most convincing moments were Anna with the son (Freddie Bartholomew). I read afterwards in brief more recent commentary that the mother-wife role was the subtext given Garbo (or the role she longed for) in her films. I would not have guessed that: I thought she was a “vamp.”

It improves around this same spot: the second movie (1948) is then probably modeled as to structure on the first. Vronsky and Anna go to Venice, they are lonely and miss Russia so return, then they are ostracized, the trip to the opera is insisted on by Anna, the humiliation, with a visit to Levin and Kitty at whose house Dolly and Stiva happen to be, preceding the suicide.

But there is much difference and maybe people today could like the 1935 better. Garbo is not a distraught woman, she does not go into a tizzy of self-berating, she does not fall ill — as Anna does in the book from the childbirth. The childbirth is omitted altogether — maybe the 1935 film makers omitted it because they did not want this weakening scene. Basil Rathbone never for a moment compromises in the way Richardson and Porter do.

Garbo remains strong, her speeches show her justifying at least her outlook for sincerity and real emotional life, but then the book has to be followed so after the couple goes off to gether, we have her suddenly angrily berating Frederick March (who looks astonished) and demanding he act out love for her, declaiming doesn’t love her, and she is desperate.

Garbo as Anna in emotional pain from genuine rejection about 2/3 the way through the film

Vronsky wants out

Another change: of all the Vronskys I’ve watched thus far, March alone explode angrily very early on, says he cannot take this any longer and leaves Anna forthwith. The 1935 film has him get an invitation to rejoin his regiment for war so he has somewhere to leave to. There is no near suicide in any of them but the 1977 Stuart Wilson, but one could believe they would self-destruct, not March in this one. He is your Boghart tough man — he goes off to war purposefully after the suicide (totally unlike the book where Vronsky’s going off to fight is throwing himself away for what is senseless). US militarism glimpsed here.

So when Anna visits Dolly and Stiva this occurs after Vronsky has left her. In this 1935 movie Dolly at the visit is clearly bleak since Stiva after partly scolding Anna (yes) for her affair, is clearly going out to a mistress. (This kind of outright disdainful contempt is not seen in the 1948 or 1978 or 1985 movie.) OTOH, unlike the book and all the other movies, Dolly tells Anna she has made the right choice: we see Dolly’s children are selfish and clamoring. Not companions for Dolly. Anna was right to leave Karenin whatever Vronsky’s behavior now.

But as Dolly tells Anna that Anna is better off, we see how lost and rigid Anna has become

Then the scene at the train is very brief and we do not see her body or anything smashed. All very discreet. As I said, Garbo is not presented as transgressive or shattered. Instead this 1935 movie reverts to Frederick March Vronsky who we began with at the feast (with Stiva there too). He has this fancy painting of Anna and talks remorsefully about having left her and says he will always feel guilty.

Levin and Kitty at the ball

The weakest scenes in 1935 are the weakest in the 1948: the opening of Kitty where in 1935 she is not even allowed to dance with Vronsky is repeated; the Levin-Kitty wedding and superficial scenes of wedded content. Again, the strongest scenes are between Anna and her son. They are much longer than the 1948; the son stands up for her, mocks his father. Very good. And we have the servant (Harry Beresford) who says how good she has treated him so he will let her in (that’s in the 1978 film too).

Where we are invited to imagine she will fling herself

End of film. Taking A Streetcar Named Desire (which also lies behind the 1948 film), we might say Garbo as Anna has turned into Blanche who kills herself to escape all these men.

At the end of the 1935 film there is a list of countries where it’s said this film will not be shown, is forbidden. So the adultery was more shocking in 1935. Maybe this curious punishment of Anna (Vronsky actually leaving her, telling her he’s had it well before she kills herself) is there to satisfy the moral lesson that women who are adulterous must not have any joy.

Brief recapitulation, despite some real strengths in the 1935 film and its surprisingly contemporary revelations and resonances, its strong heroine, over all the 1948 movie seems to work better, have a stronger thrust and shape because the 1948 film-makers felt the material was more acceptable to the audience. They could thus be truer to the book in some crucial scenes where the 1935 didn’t dare. To be noted are how many of the archetypal scenes we think we remember from the book reappear in both these films (as in the 1977-78, 1985, 1997 and 2012)

Above all the train and the cold — this is from near the end of the 1935 film

Anna contemplating the above train, listening to the sounds of the working men’s tools

As it happened yesterday I read a superb essay by Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf: Essays on Biography: “Virginia Woolf’s nose”. Woolf saw a 1920s version of Anna Karenina and commented on it; she wrote aghast at what the film medium did: instead of interior life, the emphasis is on “teeth, pearls, velvet.” Woolf mentions scenes of sensual kissing with Vronsky, absurdly well-appointed gardens (a gardener is seen mowing one) and super-luxurious rooms.

The 1935 film had pearls, velvet, and a garden — so maybe the 1935 film was influenced by, imitated the 1920s AK that Woolf saw. Anticipating my last blog on AK at the movies, I preferred the way the 1978 BBC people did it to all the other because it’s setting and clothes were the most austere. Maybe they had a lower budget so the lack of emphasis on costumes or houses was necessity; in any event it was done somberly and I liked it better for it.

In the book says Woolf “we know Anna almost entirely from her mind.” but in the film (writes Woolf) we “lurch and lumber” through this furniture. Hermione Lee suggests (rightly) the same vulgarization went on in the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway as The Hours which presents Woolf’s suicide as at once romantic and self-indulgent (both the worst uncomprehending choices one could make). Woolf is probably unfair; she is not used to the idiom of the visual film, and writes before they developed tools for inwardness.

A later 19th century illustration towards the close of Anna Karenina


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From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories — Thomas Chatterton Williams, a NYTimes Magazine semi-fluff piece on Spike Lee

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.

Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.

Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.

Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned, one of my favorite films of all times; as the wordpress search engine does not go back before 2012 I see I shall have to rewrite that blog)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.

It was a sort of shocking experience. To be amidst a group of people where the existence, outlook, experiences of some 2/3s of them were ignored, distorted, marginalized. It was like being in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not that I have not had this experience. I taught for 23 years at George Mason University: in no catalogue was my name ever cited, when I left there was nothing recorded about it. But that was long range, done ever so cleverly, indirectly. However it’s such experiences that make African-American films and their political outlook undersandable to me; often there I can guess how they will vote. The highest ratings I ever had as a teacher occurred when my classes were predominantly African-American. One summer, the summer Barack Obama was running to be nominated for president for the Democratic party for the first time I had a class of 11 students for Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences. I had two European-American (white) students in it. I got a 5.10 out of 6, and my only letter of commendation in all the years I was there signed by Rick Davis, then dean of humanities (or some such title).

Tracy Camilla Jones in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

So a little, however inadequate, and here too women were secondary, basically chorus or scolds, on Do the Right Thing. First the full context I’d give it is bell hooks’s take on She’s Gotta Have It: “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment, Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” See Chatterton’s paragraphs describing this film which is about a promiscuous female who finds herself by finding the right male partner. His great film, said the teacher, is Malcolm X, who in Haley’s rerwrite in acceptable English (readable) of Malcolm’s autobiographical diary notes frequently uses bitch as a synonym for women, though it is reserved especially for white women. It was the English freshman community text for adjuncts to use one term I was teaching at American University (as an adjunct); need I say, I didn’t assign it? You could find a substitute: mine was James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket; now I’d use Ta Nehesi-Coates Between Me and the World.

Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Of the group the most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job (that’s her one function beyond being the mother of his son), but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year, one by a woman: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.

Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …


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John Prebble, Culloden


I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.

St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation

Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography

Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick

Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber

Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.

The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me


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Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)

Ensemble scene from Exterminating Angel (Thomas Ades, Tom Cairns, 2016, from Bunuel’s 1962 film)

Friends and readers,

Along with blogging less, I’ve been going to the opera less this year. Thus far I’ve gone twice for wildly different experiences. In the first case, Bellini’s Norma in October, I loved some of the music, but thought the drama potentially so meaningful, thrown away, and just so dull in the second half. In the second case, Ades’s Exterminating Angel this past Saturday, I couldn’t stand the music, to me it was so much noise, sounds that made no sense (though I could hear the singers had themselves resonant voices capable of making beautiful melodies), felt the first half excruciatingly boring, contentless; while in the second half I found myself watching an rare opera commenting directly and cogently, bitterly on the political powerlessness of much of the world today.

I want to write about these to mourn for Norma how the Met simply out of cowardice (I suppose) worry the audience will be offended, refuses to modernize operas when the themes break taboos for real — this one having women’s subjectivity and love for one another as the driving force of a story. And for Exterminating Angel, express astonished exasperation that no one on the stage in the intervals where they are supposed to have explanatory talk (but of course they rarely do, just have silly hype or ridiculous questions about how the singer enacts the characters as if operas were novels), no one offered the least explanation. From the introducer, to Thomas Ades, to Gelb, they all professed themselves unable to comprehend the mystery.

I’ll begin by offering an explanation, one easily derived from reading Bunuel’s and various critics’ comments about his film.

The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed (Roger Ebert).

My task is made easy because Anthony Tommassini (The New York Times) also understood it

The opera has discomforting timeliness at a time when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking. The willpower of the ruling classes, or lack thereof, has become an especially pressing topic in Washington, as elected officials debate how forcefully to stand up to President Trump on policy and governing.

In a way, this production dares to confront audience members in the moment. Are we somehow complicit when we encounter art in a safe, gilded house? Or, in fact, can grappling with the arts, including this powerful opera, be a way to take action and exert will?

The principles are of course us. They and we are the sheep. We are being and have been for the last 50 years, with some breaks, Obama the most obvious but kept weak by virtue partly of his race, being slowly devoured, destroyed and we do nothing. It need not be Trump particularly, but the intuitive con-artist, ruthless moral moron, managed it and is kept in power. Ades is British and they have had Thatcher, then Cameron and now Teresa May. Brexit (well-meant by those who wanted to overthrow the pro-bank neo-liberal austerity stance of the EU) is counterproductive because the upper class and those in charge of Parliament will not break with neo-liberal oligarchic reactionary policies Bunuel and Ades blame us.

That’s unfair in part because the average person is trying to make a living while the powerful hire lawyers, teams of people to elect patsies, invent legislation for them to enact, do all they can to defund all social programs and stop any new ones from being enacted or effected. No wholly as the democratic party refuses to go left, liberal humane, return to the New Deal of FDR and Keynesian economics. And now we have invisible walls, doors, and if you say demonstrate, protest, with unions destroyed and the leaders of those left also centrists, long prison sentences.

I have wondered before this what Bunuel’s Petit Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Now I know: it’s the superficial surface the rearranging of the chair on the Titanic; The Exterminating Angel is the Titanic itself sinking.

You can see the sister (the singer with the blonde hair) with her brother just behind her

Only one of the individual stories were moving. The brother, Francesco, who has ulcers, his dependency on and love for his sister, Silvia, his mother-and-lover figure, her love for her child. I could make out a decent doctor with a deep base voice, the well-meaning host and his wife but could figure out nothing about them. I was even unsure who was the host. For the most part, the characters were not particularized, so the piece remained impersonal. This lack of characterization is responsible for the harshly critical reviews of the opera as “dead on arrival.” There is nowhere for us to know anything about these people and it’s only the peculiarity of the brother and sister (he with ulcers), she caring for him like a lover that made them stand out. All of the characters we get to see a bit of but the butler were the “upstairs” set, the 1%, the staff having fled. I had no Anna (as in Downton Abbey) to feel for.

The opera can be seen as a black comedy trying to be gothic. Wilbur Hampton took it as about trauma. My caveat on those reviews which understood the piece is they objected to its pessimism; they wanted uplift. There is none. The directors seem to want to make it scary, a gothic, a ghost story, but I suggest only film can project the uncanny hallucinatory feel necessary. On the screen and dressed up in a costume, one man enacted a huge fierce bear looming over all. Perhaps they were thinking of Goya.

A huge backdrop scene was used to project film images; there real sheep on stage at first

You might say of course the audience understood. As I walking out of the theater I heard three different groups of people puzzling about it, genuinely puzzled. When I offered my explanation, one couple, possibly Trumpites looked offended but then saw one could generalize out, and then “get it.” A review by Walls and Kenny astonishingly regards the whole thing as so much fun. The fell back on talking of technique and marveling over the transfer from film to stage.


Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, a temple virgin, loving friend of Norma

As to Norma, at the core of the opera is deep good true human feeling and in a contemporary opera would be permitted to come out directly.

Again if you listened to the talk during the interviews, you see the opera was framed as if it’s pro-macho male, with the two women betraying one another for this hunk of a male:

They went on as if this was a romance opera. Seriously. Jokes about how thrilling — Joseph Calleja as Pollione is heavy, unattractive. They talked of Norma’s threat to kill her children by Pollione — there is a Medea subplot which doesn’t come off. Mild misogyny here. A production might have emphasized how perverse this is; tried to understand Medea. As Alex Ross says, they could have changed the era and costumes, and made the anti-colonialist faultline clear. They didn’t. I was waiting for talk of druids but they didn’t go that far. I can imagine someone today making costumes emphasizing the women as a pair in a country taken over by a militaristic tyrannical state — the opera could have been in dialogue with The Exterminating Angel. None of this.

In our time it’s so important for women’s depths and needs and outlooks to come out and this opera was doing that; it is equally good to see an attempt to make motherhood, children and decent emotions surrounding children — not made saintly not twisted by repressive institutions or macho maleness. The Oedipus-Jocasta story is often seen solely from the male point of view when it is a woman driven to madness, a woman who in earlier cultures had to give up culture to kill them for sects. I grant the scenery and atmosphere of beautiful peace fit that first famous aria, Casta Diva, but what the opera also projects is a deep wish for oblivion (a death wish Freud called it). This essay on the opera’s complexity is worth reading. It’s “between two women.” The Met also provided program notes about Bellini and the opera.

With no understanding, again one finds complaints of boredom and flatness. The Observer critic thought the lead two women just had no support. The production was “lazy and senseless.” That’s not fair; they just stayed with the Druids originally chosen to obscure any political meaning. And the set was a lovely dark fairy tale natural withered landscape:

On the other hand, with a new production of Puccini’s Tosca to come, the Met might have seemed almost too much on point. All three choices are linked, and brought together seem to be a response to today’s dark violent world. Police are outside the open door in the Exterminating Angel, and a violent presence in Tosca too.


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Nora (Marie Leuenberger)

Dear friends and readers,

I saw this delightful serious film about two weeks ago in my local film club at the Cinema Art (Fairfax, a sort of art movie-house), and have been waiting for it to appear either in this theater (which if they are played for the general public usually begin by this time) or in local theaters as it has been nominated for a couple of prestigious awards. I’ve just about given up hope — after the trivializing condescending (“cartoonish” and “clever navigation”) or ho hum reviews (“not exactly breaking new ground,” “a lark”) that I’ve read, and the resolute erasing of its content on wikipedia. Photos of Nora deliberately make sure we see the actress as not conventionally smiling, all pretty; she has a narrow face and is earnest. How off-putting.

A couple of reviews do it justice: Film Journal International; Criterion (but it’s promotional). RogerEbert.com ignores it.

What’s remarkable about the film is how it shows how difficult it is for women embedded in their daily culture to rebel. As the story opens, Nora is spending her life hanging up wet socks in her basement, waiting on her father-in-law hand-and-foot; a comic rendition of a stultifying life. She apparently loves her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek); he has just gotten a raise in his factory in a scene where we see another male made fun of for not fitting in, for being ineffectual (effeminate). But although they don’t need the money, she would like to have a more interesting life of genuine achievement. She has sufficient education to apply for a job in an office, but he does not want her to go. And he can forbid her; in Swiss law she has to have his permission (he tells her flat-out) to sign this contract. Meanwhile in her brother- and sister-in-law’s house, her niece (Ella Rumpf) is sent (not to reform school as one review has it), but to a punitive detention center (a prison) because she is refusing to obey her parents’ daily orders and going out with a young man.


She watches her sister-in-law, Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) rage at the girl after she runs away, only she won’t tell Nora where the bruises on the side of her face come from: her sullen angry husband whose masculinity is as threatened as Hans’s and takes his frustration out on her. The daughter has no recourse, but true to life, her rhetoric is anything but sensible. At each point Nora tries to do something for herself, it seems to be pointed out to her how this person is suffering (the father-in-law who keep porn magazines under his pillow), or that (her two sons whose luxurious breakfasts and daily routine are disrupted). Her desire causes them to lose out somewhere because she is serving them but her hurt and her needs don’t matter and they won’t compromise.

Meanwhile the woman’s suffrage movement is reaching a height once again in the towns where there is going to be a vote on whether women should vote (of course they are dependent on the men to decide) and Nora is caught up in the excitement, call for fairness and justice, and makes friends with an older woman, Vroni (Sybille Brunner) who has lived a frustrated life and now is supposed to reside meekly with her daughter-in-law (caring for grandchildren).


The fourth central women is an Italian restaurant owner, Graziella (Marta Zoffoli).

Daringly the three, eventually with the sister-in-law set up a house for meetings, and when ridiculed and thwarted by the men, go on strike. Shades of Lysistrata. They go live apart in this house until the day of the vote and gradually many women join them. The most powerful scenes are where Nora defies a majority of people who heckle her or don’t support her even if they (the women especially) want to agree but don’t dare to speak up. She tries to give a speech and is mocked by the men; one woman who is fiercely against the vote (and is the boss at the husband’s factory) gloats in triumph when Nora loses control of the microphone (reminding me of how clever Reagan was decades ago when Bush senior tried to prevent third party candidates from using the mike, and Reagan grabbed it and said he had paid for this and decreed all would talk). There are numerous failures. At one point a group of more thuggish men break into the house and drag their wives away. Discouraged, Nora takes the signs down — her husband is intensely mortified by her picture everywhere and begins to say he would have voted for her to have the vote but not now.

Towards the end and before the vote can take place, Vroni in a moment of intensity, has a heart attack and dies. At her funeral the priest gives an account of her life and personality that make her into a pious contented woman, and Nora again gets up and protests and tells a little of what Vroni was and what was her life. How many times in life I’ve had to sit and listen to half- and full lies. Group pressure this time does not win out as decorum makes everyone sit quietly as she speaks.

The film has nuanced quieter and sad moments. The Italian woman’s husband follows her to Switzerland and she takes him in. Nora finds her embracing him on the night she is driven to leave Hans and takes up residence in the attic as she goes about to write away and seek that job. Graziella says she does not want to be alone when she is old: he needs her. But at another point she says as she stands in a shadow one can be married and feel very alone. Realism: the story is set in one of the two most conservative areas of Switzerland. Hans and the sons give in and start to make their own food, care for themselves. Theresa works to have her daughter released; permitted to have her own life, the first thing the girl does is jump on the motorcycle of her insouciant lover. Theresa’s husband leaves her, and we see even if he at first falls apart (he drinks heavily), he may eventually be happier because he hated the life on the farm and was bad at it — the father-in-law would needle him. Vroni did not live to see the women get the vote nor the gains they had afterwards.

It has faults too. It is conceived broadly and offers few details. It offers no backstory to explain why in 1974 the men this time (they did not in 1959 but claimed women didn’t want it) gave the women the vote. We only see the women openly standing there as a group the men have to walk through. There is a 1970s style feminism “raising consciousness” scene where the women are urged to love their vaginas, encouraged to look at their clitoris. There is some serious talk and it emerges that Nora has never had an orgasm — nor have several of the women. But it is over-the-top, a caricature, complete with a copy of Betty Friedan in Swiss. I found the ending grating. Of course Hans and Nora get together again, but did we have to end on a scene of him sucking her between her legs (her nightgown over them) with her all in ecstasy. In the theater I was in, we had a discussion afterwards and (wouldn’t you know?) the first things said to be “good” about the film is how there is sympathy for the husband. This last scene was laying on the reassurance thickly. Not to worry guys, she’ll still be this great sex partner.

Supposed to be month later, with him walking behind as she votes too

Petra wants to reach people today, to make an upbeat film, to energize us too — for, as she knows, feminism has had some bad losses in these decades since 1974 — and has a long way to go. I loved the soundtrack that used “You don’t own me” and remembered the ad for voting for Obama: all that the ad says — the Republicans will do all they can to kill Roe v Wade, shut down Planned Parenthood, repeal the ACA is now coming to pass:

Aretha Franklin’s demand for Respect is also heard.

So if you should see this film advertised, don’t be put off by the enigmatic title, which makes it sound like a religious film re-affirming changelessness, patriarchal tyranny. I wondered who gave it that title. Go see it. And while you’re at it, refuse to go see films which beat women up, show them as sheerly prettified sex objects (no matter how much the gloss is see this empowered woman) or nurse-mothers.


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