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Friends,

Shortly after my husband, Jim, died, I began a process of finishing the books he was in the middle of reading when his brain gave out and he could no longer concentrate. One was Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. At the time I couldn’t face the one he had by his bedside, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie A Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Four years have now gone by, political situations facilitating torture have increased, so I thought I would finally tackle this one. Reading this material is upsetting but I have gathered far more than one blog ought to hold as it cries out to be shared. The underlying premise is humanities studies explain torture to us. It is thus a book in defense of the humanities, showing the importance and usefulness of the perspective too.

Part One consists of the Introductory essay by Carlson and Weber, “For the Humanities,” Lisa Hajjar’s “An Assault on Truth: A Chronology of Torture, Deception and Denial,” and Alfred W. McCoy, “In the Minotaur’s Labyrinth: Pyschological Torture, Public forgetting and contested history.” Read together, the argument across these essays is one Orwell made concisely: the purpose of torture is not to gain information; it’s to destroy someone’s personality, them as a self, and by extension as others learn of this to cow whole populations. What happens to people is they lose their belief in themselves as human beings: stripped, shaven, forced to defecate and urinate in public with nothing to clean them, tortured beyond endurance (the introduction says the Bush techniques were as bad as the Nazis), they live beyond death. They are like people who have died. A key element: from the time we are young we look to others for help. We expect help. This is from our relationship with our mother. The tortured person sees no one will help him or her. That abandonment is central to the new view of others and life that cannot be gotten over. This is why such a person will commit suicide, sometimes decades later. The term for this is “hauntology.”

This is seen in Elizabethan times — especially in the area of religion and atheism. In Elizabeth I’s prisons she tortured atheists — Christopher Marlowe was tortured and confessed to his atheism; Thomas Kyd’s death was attributed to torture. We forget that it was dangerous to be a playwright and if Shakespeare’s plays often punt too or are subtextual that’s why. I read on and have discovered something that is demoralizing in a new way: these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities. The origin of modern torture is sophisticated modern psychology/psychiatry applied. This enabled practice with impunity. Of course thousands (one citation in either South or Latin America was 80,000 dead from torture) were simply brutalized; the difference is in say 16th through 18th century racks and torture instruments of steel and iron were used; now electric currents are run through someone’s nerve system based on these “principles.” There are manuals of how to. Neither the Clinton or Obama administration had the courage or stomach to prosecute — and just as bad, not to expose this origin.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) in Outlander

One recent troubling development is this kind of experience is increasingly dramatized in films. In the final sequence of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the mini-series justice it was also deeply anti-torture.

Hajjar demonstrates from what happens in different situations and centuries too in these torture outbreaks that the purpose (as the thing achieved is) to de-humanize people, rob them of all security and stability; that is what the torturers are doing. The torturers go well beyond trying to get information. So the excuse of getting information is false, and that’s when you and prove it’s false (no good information, all lies), it does not stop. You say we cannot use this in court and cannot prosecute this person. Well, that wasn’t the point. You want to define them as outside all law and human community (unlawful combatants for example). You want to put them were they are abandoned and no hope from any other human being around them. Then you do want people to know in the countries and among the groups you are seeking to destroy, exploit, subdue. Assad’s slaughterhouses do more than murder; the hanging is a perfunctory last step. To me Hajjar tells an extraordinary story: after 9/11 the Bush administration snatched huge numbers of people and tortured them; not long after they began, they realizes these people knew nothing, were innocent of 9/11, but they carried on torturing them. It will be said but surely they believed them guilty and knowledgeable: the evidence they had nothing to do with 9/11 was so clear. I read a story recently about our court system in which judges say they have to kill someone convicted even if it’s proved he was innocent after he was convicted to “vindicate the system” (it was either in the LRB or NYRB). Were these people vindicating their system by doing these truly dreadful things to people — the people who did them had to be dreadful; the sole control was the people doing them feared they’d be punished

The second essay by McCoy puts paid to the notion in a way that Trump is beyond all we’ve seen: in a number of ways we see Bush did what Trump now threatens to do, and Obama refused to prosecute and condemn and left in place laws and apparatus in the US system that now could be used again. I discovered these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities in the 1950s at the beginning of the cold war and that is when they first spread. Among the shameful shameless behavior in public which has led to the majority of Americans who are asked (small but shocking) approving of torture as necessary for information: 481 prominent professors from universities which include the top 110 declared in a Harvard document that we should seriously consider torture as an effective coercive policy …. Everyone knows the history of Yoo, the spread of torture, the public disclosure — and suddenly for a while the public is horrified, the saying it’s just a few bad apples&c Those who fought included a group of soldier lawyers, JAGS they were called; they persisted. I have seen General James C Walker arguing cases on TV YouTubes. Colin Powell one of the few to break rank. Careless language again and again show this is not at all about information. Terrify and punish. Cheney has said we should decorate those who did this. Meanwhile their names are kept from us. Some international organizations continue to push back hard.

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Goya, Disasters of War

Part Two places torture in the contexts of specific societies. Reinhold Gorling’s important “Torture and Society,” begins the part with an attempt to get at the psychology of how torture destroys a personality. we are never self-contained, no matter what we may think we are continually closely involved with others from drinking water, to breathing, our thoughts and emotions reach out to other human beings and we feel others’ presences. He does not deny there is a self apart, but that the self acts within relationships — even if for some at a distance. Torture attacks the vulnerability of people in this area directly, it makes us aware of how dependent we are by depriving people of protection and provision. This explains why solitary confinement (which I’ve read is also subject to sadistic punishments by depriving food and light) is torture. It not only de-cultures people.

This is an evil that occurs periodically and when encouraged hard to check. There is this impulse to control, for power. What you do is block the person and bring their exchanges to a standstill. (A book called Psychopathologie des violences collectives is about states that use torture systematically — as the US does in prisons). The more a person is conscious of his or her vulnerability, dependence, more sensitive, the easier to torture and dominate. An important weapon is recognition, the withholding of it. When others recognize us and we them, the openness this depends keeps the torturer at bay (tweets function in a vacuum where the slanderer or tormentor does not have to recognize responses). It is a kind of theatrical or performative act and thus deprivation and recognition can be manipulated in schools to make children very miserable. These structures emerge when virulent conflicts in the society are ratcheted up. A repetition and spread of behaviors are then aimed at people deemed “unacceptable.” These then frighten others who are similarly “unacceptable” because they are vulnerable.

(Remember the Victorian novels about children whose pain goes unacknowledged (Jane Eyre, David Copperfield). Very mild seeming but Ausen’s appalled Mr Knightley tells Emma she has done wrong because she now encourages others to openly despise and mock Miss Bates. This also fits in with Winnicott’s theory of how children grow up in families with object relationships needing love and empathy. When parents refuse empathy, it’s beyond neglect and functions as abuse which the child won’t forget.)

Gorling then argues how those not literally there, those fed rumors of the torture are witnesses and so drawn into the relationship. These witnesses are subdivided into those who shrug, are complicit, seem to turn away and ignore it. Turn a blind eye. The point here is they are pretending; they know it’s going on; the perception has taken place before the person manages to exclude it. The witness from afar can also fight against what’s happening in a variety of (often) feeble ways. There is another set of people involved: those in a relationship with the victim; they are indirectly but powerfully hurt too; their sense of security shaken. Nowadays with the Internet we have many more silent witnesses.

Isolation and disconnection seems to be part of the point of letting people know from afar that this is happening. Phiip Gorevitch who researched genocide in Rawanda said “genocide … is an exercise in community building.” Horrible I know but when in Trollope he acquiesces (openly in his travel book) in “elimination” of the native peoples you do see how he is doing this as community building, enlisting the settler colonialists. (Think of “the removal”of Palestinians from the west bank in Israel.) That violence and trauma leave their mark. By radically splitting it off (say into black sites) it is easily kept out of overt culture but it is there, and at the end he describes those pictures from Abu Ghrabi which most of us have seen and do remember. But the point seems to be is at the same time it can be denied (a few bad apples, not happening any more &c&c). You don’t account for what happened. You can deny the urge to do it. The process is Lacanian projection — where people really (it’s said and they do in part) try to conform themselves to what they think others see of them and how others see them. (My feeling about Lacan is usually that those who really allow this mirroring to be a prison forget how unimportant we are to most people, how they couldn’t care less about us as individuals and whatever they say or do is mostly transient gossip.)


Primo Levi, If this be Man and The Truce

The volume’s fourth essay suggests why we are today hearing explicit analogies with Hitler and Nazi and fascist regimes: Susan Derwin’s “What Nazi Crimes Against Humanity Can Tell Us about Torture Today.” She begins with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a direct consequence of Nazi crimes against humanity, from a commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. She then moves into Primo Levi’s If This Be Man (correctly Englished). I agree with her the title published as Survival in Auschwitz is worse than misleading: the book is not about survival in Auschwitz, we know now that of the 650 people taken with Levi to Auschwitz, 15 men and 9 women survived. The book is about Levi’s experience of living in the universe where most of the people were deprived of every right, and driven down to the level of animals (including no bathroom facilities, stripping, shaving, no utensils to eat with with). She says he wanted to make us see what happens to a social order predicated upon “the principle of enmity.” She then reports that the interrogation techniques of the Nazis included precisely those used by the Bush people. (They didn’t need the psychology/psychiatry profs of the 1950s to tell them what to do or why.) The idea was violate the integrity of the physical body, make you body your enemy since it is so full of pain, to make person be as dead.

I’ve read If this be man in Italian and I thought the title was referring to what the Nazis were doing to others, and how how the people were treating one another in this hell: they became utterly estranged, but Derwin feels Levi is describing the deterioration of each person within and without. How they lost the ability to observe, to remember, to express themselves, what it is to be “de-humanized”,’ the deep wound to human dignity, how depriving people of the smallest objects around which their memories clustered was to deprive them of memory and their worlds. (This reminds me of how a prisoner is forced to dress differently and everything taken from him or her when they enter a prison; only later is some returned as if it were a favor for good behavior.) Memory is integral to self-hood.

Derwin tells us Levi’s history, how he came to be captured, how he survived because he was put into a I.G. Farben laboratory (so was Lustig whom I mentioned put in a factory/lab and so escaped immediate death, and then managed to escape). He was left to die of scarlet fever when the Germans fled, but survived and resumed life in Milan as a manager of a chemical factory until 1977 when he retired to write full time. She goes over his works, and he fell from a stairwell in 1987. She will not say he killed himself — we cannot be sure says she.

Derwin then moves on to the work of Jean Amery who renamed himself from Franz Stangl, a former commandan of Treblinka – he killed himself afterwards too. He gave an interview and wrote that beyond the violence the pushing people into becoming quite naked and alone was torture. It is again what Carlson and Weber say at the beginning: this abandonment, sense of being alone with no help is central to the horror psychologically. Now Derwin suggests Amery tells us (in effect) the reason people kill themselves later is they can never forget that abandonment, they can never forget no one anywhere would help them. This intense loneliness (italicized) and lack of security and safety ever after triggers primordial anxieties, not to be overcome. You cannot face your dependency and broken attachments. The anguish of survival is the world is afterward forever foreign a place you are tormented in.

Then she brings back Levi where he describes sleeping with strangers who will sleep on top of you. I do remember this passage. It was so desolating how the people behaved to one another. They are out of contact with one another as people, all alone in effect. “Polluted sleep” is the translation, an atavistic anguish. Without possibility of communication there can be no relief.

This resonates with me – just a small example I think as I read if I try to tell people some of what I feel and they just can’t understand and if trying one terrifies or upset them — there can be no liberation from this once you have known it. I get it. A psychiatrist named Knell talks of how silence protects people, if you tell and get nowhere you feel rage or unprotected and it makes it all worse. People like Knell therefore are astonished at Levi and his lucidity. The policy of containment keeps you from that area of darkness. Cynthia Oznick writing of Levi’s writing said how he is writing out of retaliatory passion. Not at all, but I have read writers who I find are retaliating at the reader by terrifying them: to me Flanner O’Connor and Wm Faulkner are such writers, and some of the writes of spy thrillers (Susan Hill for example). So the gothic can be faulted centrally as a tool to hurt people? I have thought so …

The issue of who survives concludes Derwin’s essay. Ethical people who cannot compromise. Another group is caught up in the Italian erased by the English translation of another book by Levi: The Drowned and the Saved: I sommersi and il salvati: the submerged, the sunk, the overwhelmed. Those who fell into utter silence were those among whom it was far less possible that a sliver would survive. A shocking 80,000 died in southeast asia and the middle from torture – done by Americans too. What Levi says is the people who are so shocked they can’t talk are those who die quickest. Those who won’t communicate their suffering are the most vulnerable. Being able to talk, to reach out, to tell shows strength and also a sense of a self violated, the self is still there and it’s complaining and loud and long. It takes strength to be angry, it’s exhausting. Indignation means you have to think well of yourself on some level.

Derwin’s essay ends on the horrifying criminal behavior – whole scale – this man was a monster – of Hitler upon being asked if an infant be granted a mercy death – a severely disabled baby. Of course yes, but then he sent a doctor to look and before you know it a secret decree was issued between 1939 and 45 to slaughter and approximately 5000 babies died. “this would not have been possible without the cooperation of physicians, nurses, bureaucrats and parents. It was mandatory to notify the hospital if your child was born with a defect. Those with disabilities were labeled ‘eligible’ in the Orwellian language used.”

The fifth essay, Elisabeth Weber’s “‘Torture was the essence of National Socialism:’ reading Jean Amery today,” begins with the new acceptability of torture in US media: it’s not a good thing that 24 (a TV show) shows horrifying torture. It does not evoke horror but inures and the stories are about how X got this great information. The people at Guantanamo and elsewhere are defined out of existence. They are given a category which makes them not part of any category: unlawful combatants. They have no legal existence. Unnameable, unclassifiable. She repeats Levi’s point that the submerged are those who rarely survive. He called them Muselmanner, “walking dead,” “non-men, “Ghost like beings.” Ghost detainee was almost an official term. Ghosting. She then turns to the effect of immediate brutalization and her examples are not from torture but arrests. It’s common practice to brutalize people upon arresting them. This delivers a shock like torture: they have no recourse, they are not accused of anything, they never forget the experience.

On Jean Amery’s writing: Weber discusses the problem of the softened and misleading translations of Amery who wrote in German. Even the most famous phrases from this man have been toned down. One really reads: The ignominy (infamy) of annihilation cannot be erased (not Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased.) She goes into the German language and how viscerally Amery uses it: torture is the fleshification of someone; they become their body. When the police killed Eric Garner they would not his body breathe and we see on that video his hysteria and astonishment they were killing him.

Amery in his work shows us first how astonished people feel when they find themselves treated as nothing, as subhuman, as without a life that matters. Most tortured people even the submerged never cease to feel astonished at some level of their being. There is no path back from having experience this other side of death, of annihilation. (Derwin out of Levi said sadists want to nullify other people.) He or she occupies an inbetween place from then on where torture and the memories never end. They are more tormented at the time at ways of dying; they want death but not this humiliating animal one they are getting filled with intense pain — intense pain said Scarry is world-destroying. Then they take on the view of them of their torturers: they betrayed a secret; they are cowards.

I’m impressed by Amery and Weber’s use of Heidegger. What is violated is the pre-ontological understanding of being-in-the-world acquired by most children (not abused ones). Irreparable assault on “the House of being.” The third Reich was the apotheosis of torture. Their methods centered on this experience or threat of it. A system based on sadism. It makes me remember the powerful novel by Michel Faber, Under my skin: when someone suddenly pleads “mercy” it seems to harrowing as to break down the soul of a reader. (All should read Faber’s masterpiece). Amery disagreed with Foucault, Lacan and other French philosophical systems. There is a deep innate self in touch with itself that people can live on.

Weber ends with the idea where ever torture is used it’s impossible to control its ever widening reach. The horror is people who torture others enjoy it – how far can they go; what can they do to this person? Floodgates of transgression are opened, break down psychic boundaries systematically, as principle.


The Night Bagdad Fell (a farcical tragic political movie)

The sixth essay in the book, “What did the corpse want” by Sinan Antoon is about poetry. He says – and this is true, unlike most poets in the West, Arab poets are politically engaged and write political poetry, poetry which directly addresses political situations. The breaking into the news of the Abu Ghraib pictures and then the spread of knowledge that the US tortures systematically caused an eruption of hundreds of poems. The incident was seen as “ a ritual of collective domination and assault: — its effects were felt as “extended to the audience of the visual event and were traumatic for those who identified with the naked and assaulted bodies of the victims. Toonan then reprints a long powerful poem and analyses it. Tortured and wretched are synonyms; those speaking are the voices of the dead. The emphasis of the poem is to show how stripped the people have been, how stripped the corpse of all identity. They have only their own blood to be buried in. The use of dogs (and dogs were used in North Dakota as filmed by Amy Goodman – -she is the only one to have exposed the dogs with their jaws covered in blood) – the dogs there in the pictures used against the victims compounds the abandonment by other human beings. Given the Arab religion it also makes the corpses impure, unclean, caries the torture and wretchedness to the grave.

Antoon’s second chosen poem is by Youssef who is said to be one of Iraq’s most famous poets, he is a communist intellectual. A recent collection of poems by him is Englished as The Last Communist Enters Heaven. The voice of the person is someone who rejects compromise with the invader (the US) with its capitalism. The point of this poem is there are no saviors; no individual can save the country or any group from anything. It is also to show that one of the purposes of torture is to prevent the victim from being an agent of anything. Then he tries to show the released who live trying to re-appropriate agency by becoming part of a group.

Sargon Bulus’s poem, “The Corpse,” seems to be about the torturing of a corpse, but then it turns out the corpse is alive and mutters, wants something. It reaches the harrowing effects of torture. Scarry says physical pain actively destroys our ability to speak, we revert to a state anterior to language, to sheer sounds and cries. This happens in in Michael Faber’s Under the Skin. Most of Bulus’s poems are about the carnage in Iraq. Antoon congratulates him upon being in a unique space “vis-à-vis the various ideological narratives competing for Iraq’s history and future” (!). Bulus avoids falsifying as good or triumphant what Iraq was before British colonialism, with no false promises for the future. An elegiac tone and no closure. Simple and eloquent in language an attempt not to have a specific personality. Worn, tired, exhausted people. These poems are conveying what is so hard to convey. I find Antoon absurd when he worries lest we think Bulus’s poems are defeatist. Why not be defeatist?

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Hans Hacke, US Isolation Box, Grenada, 1983

The third part of the book moves to artful representation of torture. “John Nava: Painting against Torture” begins with something more cheering: people seem to come together and feel for one another right after 9/11 (at least inside the US and NYC), but when Bush and Cheney started their hellish war, all this feeling was thrown away. Then real protests began and were savagely attacked. After an exhibition of paintings and tapestries at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, Cal, 2006, the art gallery had to endure weeks of editorial attack, police involvement from its pictures based on Abu Ghraib. Sure art should and can also console, provide escape, spiritual renewal, but it should tell hard truths too. One problem though was such pictures also had the effect of inuring people and getting them used to torture, even to accept it as “old hat.” Bush said “damn right” that they tortured (years later I remember Obama’s statement: “folks were tortured.”) Nava says in the end the torture and reaction in public eroded justice, devastated our national standing, licensed illegitimate war and corrupted a free society.

The eighth essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Torture and Representation” is about how these images of torture have been assimilated into our culture. She says the truth is earlier depictions were done in a way that justified the torture. A rare instance of pity can be seen in the famous Laokoon which can be seen as a God’s revenge through torture. From the 16th through 17th century pictures of torture were not supposed to make us reflect on the pain or create pathos or tragedy. It just confirmed this is the order of the world you must obey. A change came in the 18th century, the Enlightenment, the first real attempts to create compassion, identification, blame the establishment, the state as unjust merciless. The disquieting thing is how easily people become voyeurs and art even explicitly said, directed to critique the “bad guys” is being enjoyed by the watchers. After saying that the first true anti-torture, anti-war anti-establishment pictures we have are Goya’s, and that his Disasters of War were published only in 1863, 40 years after Goya produced them, Solomon-Godeau goes over 4 artists, 4 exhibitions which are troubling. She says first pain is mostly what can’t be communicated, the world shattering experience exceeds representation.

So what are the possibilities and limitations. Fernando Botero’s paintings after Abu Ghraib are so stylized, and he justifies a distanced formal approach by saying he wants to give the prisoners dignity. Solomon-Godeau questions this desire to “restore dignity.” Isn’t the point they had none. Botero fears the Sadistic Trump type follower will just despise the tortured – the way Trump openly despises McCann. Solomon-Godeau most successful object in one exhibition is an imitation of an actual box prisoners were put in by Hans Haacke: “US Isolation Box,” 1983. Four dimensional and the same size. Information about what the prisoners experience is immediately “visceral, palpable, immediate” Little ventilation, only slits for windows too high for eyes to look out, no bed, no toilet, old wood – like the person was an object of junk. Brutal pesent: “this is how the US military treats detainees and prisoners” all the boxes said. It was moved from a conspicuous to an inconspicuous space under political pressure. (Donald Trump falls squarely into the type of person that enjoys watching torture and despises the tortured person for being tortured.)

Clinton Fein’s Rank and File could be called Defiled. It seems to be a print of a sculpture of abject bodies all kneeling and bowed on the floor, you see only the backside of the man, or his feet coming out from under, and other bodies clinging over these. Solomon-Godeau sees a voyeuristic element in the silvery color and spectacle. Jenny Holzer’s Protect Protect is another which eschews imitations of people. On a wall the prints of actual hands, military memos, policy statements, autopsy reports: it’s these that permit and guide the torture and the deeply inhumane boiler plate language makes a point.

Last these black silhouettes I’ve seen and one hit me hard: it’s of a man in a kind of witches garb (or Klu Klux Klan outfit), over his head a bag; he’s being made to stand on a stand with his arms outstretched. Somehow it communicate a terrible psychological suffering to be so humiliated. So driven to do this. The silhouettes are done by a group of artists called Forkscrew; they are put on posters which are easily distributed. Perhaps that’s why I’ve seen these. They are called iRaq after the jargon names of our gadgets: ipad, iphone. She says the hooding makes for a shock of recognition. There are writhing women and men holding on to what looks like cell phones or old walky talkys in their hands, a wire to their head or ear – -they are being tortured with electricity. Again there is no possibility of enjoyment, even if each image is a spectacle, it’s a weak one. This group has produced other art mocking Apple ipod ads.

Douglas Crimp is quoted: there is no reason collective art in public is any less powerful and great than the work of art in a private gallery attributed to some artist, famous or not.


Waterboarding, Antwerp 1556 — it looks like the force-feeding of the suffragettes — which was a form of torture

Stephen F. Eisenman is on “Waterboarding: Political and Sacred Torture,” the 9th essay takes up the topic of waterboarding. The question he asks and finally answers is why of all techniques is waterboarding the most acceptable; the answer is it corresponds to primal religious rituals. First, statistics: after the photos from Abu Ghrabi wre published 2003. 54% of the US public were “bothered a great deal:’ a year later only 40%; December 2005 61% said torture was justified. Bush invoking “ticking bomb” succeed in getting congress to agree “CI should be allowed to use ‘alternative interrogation procedures’ and be given immunity from prosecution. A few senators fought that immunity (Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Joe Biden) but immunity granted. In investigations under his attorney general (Mukasay, that’s 2008) the criminality of the procedure of waterboarding wasn’t the subject of the session, only the destruction of evidence for it. Support for torture in the US today is not hidden or kept in professional websites; it’s open, available for all to see; Giuliani had police practice torture and was unabashed. Pictures of torture just don’t undermine the procedure no matter how brutal; these have been “normative practices” in the US as in the history of politics.

Eisenman then describes waterboarding: painful, terrifying, you come near death and many die. Many die. Many die. That this is kept up on someone shows it’s not information that is sought, what’s wanted is a confession you are in error, an apostate, deeply in error, it’s all your fault what is happening. He cites and describes instances from Roman through medieval to our own times. Many paragraphs.

Some artists have contested these: Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, Sartre, Benamin, Pontecovo — challenged the regime of these images and this talk. He goes over a picture by Sue Coe, “We do not torture” which successfully challenges (without voyeurism). Leon Golumb’s series from the later 1970s, Mercenary, Interrogation and White Squad, whos source is many photographs, journalistic reporting, raw accounts of people from South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador — including things like Walling a person: the person is kept seated, bounded, hooded, raw and extremist theater. All are described neutrally but we get it (it’s like some game).

This is where the essay becomes very worrying: there is a “longstanding pathos formula whereby torture victims are shown accepting and participating in torture, where it’s eroticized, the subjugation made part of a contract the victim agrees to.” (Oh yes that’s Outlander I realize in the depiction of Jamy and Black Jack.) Studies have shown that people write about this as how the interrogator becomes the parent, authority figure and the tortured acquiesces. Eisenman is concerned to refute these beliefs utterly. Not so. He says a hostage situation when not torture is not the same at all. Bodily pain utterly transforms this. He suggests it’s this idea the victim acquiesces, and become “child” is part of what makes people feel the victim deserves his fate because he is a victim. (Let me bring in that young man who deserted and was tortured and Trump wants to see murdered by the state as a coward.) The sexuality belongs to the image traditions of orientalism. Says Eisenman at the end: torture bears no resemblance truth, pleasure, cooperation; it is oppression, violence, frequently death and nothing more.

The tenth and last essay is by Hamid Dabashi, “Damnatio Memoriae.” Dabashi begins with a startling highly unusual letter that Medi Karrubi wrote to Akbar Hashamei Rafsanjani (I remember him from long ago, some American in Reagan’s cabinet, a woman, Fitzgerald?, said he was a moderate, and she was mocked, as a joke, there are no Iranian moderates – ho, ho, ho, what a ridiculous woman; she was an Ayn Rand fan as I recall). Karrubi spoke openly, with horror and remorse about how the Islamic republic “kidnaps, incarcerates, savagely beats up, rapes, tortures, murders, and then secretly buries in mass graves its young citizens, men and men; it’s like the prisons in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom (1975, the source of an Italian film). It was self-flagellating and yet he could not bring himself to give any concrete details. A cleric openly writing about the atrocities of the regime. Dabashi says the letter is Kafkaesque, Karrubi sees what is happening as a catastrophe for the Islamic country.
Dabashi says there is a little known Iranian film called K, which dramatizes 3 Kafka stories,”the married couple,” “In the penal colony,” “a Fratricide. “In the penal colony,” shows how people begin to have such a fascination with torture machines they no longer sympathize with, even think of the victims. In Karrubi’s letter he pleads with Rafsanjani to do something about this. He began to publish hard evidence; soon 3 official investigators came to take him in, ostensibly to find out about the torture, but soon he was the one interrogated, who is he charging? they seem to have forgotten what the charge was. They intimidate and accuse him of being bribed; he is taken to a presiding doctor, The Surgeon General and accused of lying. Need I say he disappeared.

It should be recalled that in 1954 an election produced a secular social democracy. The US CIA and its allies took that down, and replaced it with the capitalist- pro-US Shah. He did nothing for the poor but produced an early neoliberal state, and was overthrown. It seems there lingered public groups in the Iranian gov’t who were anxious about torture, angry to hear or admit to them, but the result was sidelining. New and images were now kept to a minimum; that Karrubi videotaped his testimony horrified them.

In comparison what the AbuGhrabi Americans reveled in is a kind of orgy without shame, and the Iranians regarded the pictures and all that came out of Abu Ghraib and thereafter as shameful to watch; US soldiers took pleasure in having themselves photographed the way lynching southern vigilants did over black people. People were tortured for the camera’s sake; for US people exhibitionism crucial. There was an exhibit of these photos in NYC curated by Brian Wallis, text written by Seymour Hirsh. Some people did see the sanctimoniousness hid the reality of exhibitionism and complacency. Dante argued that this exhibit was a form of entertainment which did not bring viewer close to agonies of victims (think of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.)

One might say an excess of evidence was turned by academics into tropes for analysis (and papers for conferences and tenure). The US people would take prisoners out, force them to be animal like take pictures and then rape and beat
Gluttonies of violence are seen in Quentin Tarantino films. We are luxuriating in animperial visual regime; spectacle sustains this museumification. Over-estheticizing produces tomes of unreadable prose about unrealities – the images themselves. Victims become invisible – an empire of camps, all under surveillance. Palestinians cannot talk about what was done to them – indirection is how torture speaks. A cycle of naked life has been set up where we come back to Nazi concentration camps. Dabashi is suggesting that trguments that civil rights movementd in Iran are rich people’s resentment against poor people’s president reveals a depth of moral depravity –- this is to ignore millions risking lives, tortured, taped, murdered by “popular” president’s forces. He feels science fiction tech films erase reality — this is important as so many US people go to see these and then go on allegorizing about them. What then can make these regimes fall? Real screams and hidden horrors are all that came make them fall, if the accumulation begins to be too many people over too long a time ….

The interested reader may want to go on to read essays on “hegemonic masculinity” in film as connected to torture (Viola Shafik) and music (two on this, Christian Gruny, Peter Szendy).

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


From a recent production of Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (her grotto-prison)

The last section of the book is about people who have written treatises and handed down legal decisions justifying torture and poetry, plays and novels in the 19th and 20th century about torture. I’ll be briefer here. Speaking about Torture is reviewed in an academic arts journal (ironic) the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 28:1 (2013:102-4 where Aaron C. Thomas singles out these last essays in the book: on Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (the essay another by Julie A. Carlson) he writes in a way that exemplifies Dabashi’s argument; Carlson’s context includes William Godwin and the Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, the man who “has long been credited with galvanizing public opinion against torture and leading to its abolition” in Europe during the Enlightenment” (only it didn’t). Thomas covers Darieck Scott on a pornographic novel by Samuel Delancy, Hogg, which detailed the torture and murder of many women and children (apparently censored).

Speaking of Torture is an important book. Many essays all considering torture from a wide variety of angles. It is troubling that I do not remember any reviews in the mainstream review journals (LRB, NYRB, the New Yorker, or the TLS).

Ellen

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)

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Elizabeth (Heida Reed), Geoffrey Charles (unnamed) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing)

She’d say life holds only two or three things worth the having, and if you possess them the rest don’t matter, and if you do not possess them the rest are useless (Graham, Warleggan, Bk 4:Ch 5, p 439; repeated in screenplay but attributed to Ross rather than Demelza, screenplay, 70 INT, pp 578-79)

Dear friends and readers,

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the art as well as content of the books and this older and the new 2015-16 mini-series. I don’t re-cap, expect the viewer to have seen the film, understood the story, and remember it generally.]

So we come to the end of the second season of the Debbie Horsfield’s new Poldark and Winston Graham’s powerful fourth novel, Warleggan. I was powerfully moved by the new finale, which remained close in most respects to the book, but have to admit I was equally deeply engaged by its counterpart in 1975, Jack Russell’s Episode 16, whose events moved so far from the book so as to present a different story, but whose sense and spirit were a theatrically Jacobin version in spirit of the book (rather like Jack Pulman’s Episodes 3 and 4 related to the conclusion of Graham’s first novel, Ross Poldark). I burst into tears at the 1975 version, not just because Demelza’s beloved dog, Garrick, is shot by Warleggan’s thugs, but at some wrenching of me within as Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees), continue fiercely to tear at one another.

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I didn’t cry during this second iteration because I have a hard time accepting one of the changes Horsfield made: in Graham’s book and in Russell’s rendition, well before Ross’s last visit to Trenwith to talk with Warleggan and (in the book) Elizabeth, Demelza makes the difficult effort to forgive, accept, and let her love for Ross come out and respond to him again so that they could have gone to bed again (Bk 4, Ch 3, pp 413-414 — he feels he will wait until she will feel no reserve once again). In Warleggan they do quarrel angrily in the last scene (over very different and woman’s way of seeing his conduct and his refusal to acknowledge her understanding of what happened is just too), such that they nearly break up as they nearly do in Horsfield’s version (Bk 4, Ch 7, pp 460-66). In my view Graham stopped writing the series for 20 years because he had reached such an impasse, with Ross still at least longing for Elizabeth to acknowledge an ex-love (she won’t, now that he never turned up after the rape, left her pregnant, and she has had to marry a man she doesn’t love and who she knows doesn’t love her, she hates Ross), and Ross and Demelza reconciling themselves to the reality of conflicting emotions they must live with. But Horsfield and Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza reached a point of bitterness, sarcasm (she jeers at Ross — “What it is to be married to such a great man!”)), spite in her eyes, hate in a visit to Elizabeth (not in the book)

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Demelza confronting Elizabeth

Elizabeth: ‘Why have you come?’
Demelza: ‘I thought ’twas to tell you that I hate you. That you’ve marred my faith and broke my marriage. That I envy you. for the passion you roused which Ross could not withstand. That I pity you … But now I wonder what do any of it matter? what you did — what Ross did — cannot be undone. And you both must live with that. But I need not.

and reluctant grudging silence even in her last scene with Ross, her eyes so narrow, her face so pinched, that I felt alienated from the character I had bonded with. I found it just so painful that she did not seem to value Ross, invest her whole being there (the way I had with my husband and have imagined Demelza does in the book). A part of my deep joy in the novels is the character of Demelza as imagined by Graham and she is never hateful with fierce looks of spite; never stalks anyone. I can respond better to open hurt than rigid withholding of the self and resentment. Horsfield’s conception and Tomlinson’s acting makes deep pyschological sense, but I could find little to comfort myself with here. I felt for Aidan Turner as Ross, remorseful, trying to be honest (she says he is not honest when he is), and clinging to her (Horsfield gives Graham’s Demelza’s words to him (see above). In the long feature to the DVD of this second season, Jack Farthing remarks that the series “is not a museum piece,” but treats of issues, presents characters of direct contemporary relevance today. In book and this episode she does sow doubt in Ross’s mind that she just might have gone to bed with MacNeil (Henry Garrett) and the scene of Ross’s anger at this in this episode’s penultimate scene is word-for-word from the book and very good (and not in the 1970s version where Demelza never moves away from Ross at all), and she does threaten to leave with Jeremy, but in the last pages of the book and here on the cliff again does not.

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Agatha has nearly the last words of the episode as she tells Elizabeth she has made a pact with a devil and warns the baby may come in February (9 months after May 9th, the night of the rape)

For the record the changes in Demelza are not the only way Horsfield departs from the Warleggan (perhaps, some would say, modernizes). Some of the material comes from Black Moon (Book 5); so too George’s attempt to part Geoffrey Charles from Elizabeth in Black Moon, Elizabeth’s fuller realization her coming baby might be Ross’s – she suspects, worries but the realization comes later. Here it comes at the close from Aunt Agatha’s (Caroline Blakiston) insight; entirely new (not in book, not in earlier series) is the way Horsfield has developed the relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth. Agatha functions in the way the fool did in Elizabethan drama: she tells Elizabeth truths Elizabeth doesn’t not want to hear but knows in her heart. In Warleggan she realizes George has married her as a trophy, is not manageable or comfortable to be with as Francis, but it takes the time passing in Black Moon for her to see she has married a mean bully in George.

The mob scene is the invention of Jack Russell. There is none in Warleggan (as Pulman invented the idea that Charles Poldark took a needed £300 from Ross after he borrowed it from Pascoe, and Horsfield changed that to Charles trying to bribe Ross to leave). Horsfield has not allowed this natural result of enclosure and destroying the tenants’ houses to move into open riot, murder (the crazed lonely Paul Daniel is shot through the chest by Warleggan in 1975), nor allowed Trenwith to burn down, but the episode does give us a theatrically effective rendition of the rage the tenants and all around Truro George’s behavior is causing. Having Trenwith burn down in the older series made havock with Black Moon and Ross and Agatha’s deep resentment and George’s exultation to be in Trenwith. I object to the new way it’s done where Horsfield far more blames the workers (as a foolish group, not a starving deeply wounded people with nothing to lose) but the new episode gives Ross a chance to redeem himself by stopping the riot and appealing directly to Demelza to come home with him. He has come for her.

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Demelza climbing up in front of Ross once more

Jack Russell has Ross called to war to join his regiment (this is anachronistic), so that at the close he leaves Demelza with Jeremy; there is nothing like this in the book — for the very good reasons Pascoe (Richard Hope in this version) and Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) in the new episode tell him not to: he needs to be there to develop his thriving tin business, to keep up his family. But Horsfield picks this up too as theatrical; he joins Dwight in London after the disillusioned Dwight (he has been told wrongly that Caroline has engaged herself to a Lord Coniston) has signed up, but cannot get himself to leave. Horsfield conveys the ominousness of war through having Jeremy play with toy soldiers against the larger background of taverns, and men readying themselves. There is much less romance to it than there was 40 years ago.

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The two friends reunited

Much was done very well –- and the parts that were closer to the book finer in conception, subtler, making more true sense than what Russell concocted (see my account in the comments). In general throughout both seasons 1 and 2 of this Poldark and the whole of the previous, where the writer is closer to Graham, the series is better. As so common, it opens with Ross and (now) Henshawe, Paul Daniel all working at the mine. Only now Demelza is not there; she is not helping but acting out the “elegant” lady, walking in the meadow. We move to Trenwith where George is having Francis’s picture removed, placating Elizabeth with a dual portrait of them in its place(by the “celebrated John Opie — “oh George,” says the fool, “you spoil me”), all the while thinking of how he may part her “reasonably” from Geoffrey Charles (a good school you see) and plotting with Tankard to shoot people on sight who take the hitherto public right of way, and by the next scene seeking to wrench from Ross the shares he paid Elizabeth for from Wheal Grace while they were worthless. In this second scene, Elizabeth lurks by the door and does realize for the first time that Ross had tried to help her, but after a ferocious physical battle where Ross tries to burn George, and he has his men eject him after smashing his face, she seems to side with George. Jill Townsend’s Elizabeth was cooler, assessed George better (as does Graham’s), knew she was caged upon marriage.

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Townsend’s face hardens as she realizes George will not keep any of his promises (to take her to London, to provide her with a great lady social life ….)

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Reed is ever soft: the scene ends now with her telling her boy, George will be his papa now — the child is not impressed

The Dwight and Caroline (Gabriella Wilde) scenes and especially when John Nettles as Ray Penvenen is there are very well and carefully realized. Nettles is a fine actor, and a deeply appealing uncle, who conveys complex feelings: we have the scene where Dwight tells him he has “the sugar sickness” and will not get better by altering his diet (no wine) but may prolong his life.

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I cannot warm to Horsfield’s conception of Caroline as a shallow egoistic heiress slowly growing up; by contrast Judy Geeson is shown as genuinely caring for the beaten down impoverished Rosina Hoblyn:

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Jack Russell’s Caroline hires Rosina as her maid (very anachronistic). Neither is quite Graham’s conception: Graham’s Caroline is a hold-over from the gay witty lady of Restoration comedy, and becomes humanized through her flirtatious relationship with Ross, friendship with Demelza and her ambiguous marriage to Dwight (she does emasculate him somewhat, and in the later books he holds himself apart). But there is something touching about Wilde’s behavior, how she holds her body, when Ross comes to thank her, and brings her back to Dwight (she stands there looking more penitent than ever seen before). It’s pure romance:

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I was moved when after the lovers’ night together, she returns to her lonely uncle to care for him.

I also warmed to the added scene of Verity’s (Ruby Bentall) childbirth: her step-daughter has now sofened towards her; the whole scene is not literally in the book but a fair extrapolation. And it gives Horsfield a chance to have the sympathetic Verity try to talk Demelza into accepting and forgiving, into remembering, believing Ross does love her — and not to let go of that.

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Verity is dropped from the books, marginalized as a character from the time of Black Moon on. In Graham and the 2nd season of the 1970s Poldark (1977-78), instead Demelza’s great friend becomes Caroline Penvenen Enys. I hope Horsfield changes that, and keeps the sister-friendship up as she has developed the aunt-niece relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth.

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Turner in one of several scenes between him and Demelza where he is reasoning with her, trying to apologize, to explain himself.

I thought Turner superb in the episode: it was a hard part. He had to be didactic and explicitly say moral things left to interior thoughts in the book and he did it very well. I found him very appealing throughout. He has become this complicated character thoroughly, driven, with many conflicting loyalties, rightly fiercely protective of everything good which Warleggan would blight. Given the present horrible things going on in the US where a man has taken power and is inflicting pain and deprivation on the majority of Americans, treating non-whites as semi-criminals (they are not safe in the streets anymore), having immigrants snatched up and deported to anywhere, prosecuting parents, increasing private prisons (shown to be cruel to prisoners), Ross Poldark is now an important hero for our time in a way he has not been since the 1940s when he was conceived as an antidote to the barbarism and nightmare war of mid-century Europe. His finally striking out at George, meaning to kill him almost unless stopped is another moment of understandable rage for the character who is emerging as flawed but meaning and doing well often (exemplary in most ways). Farthing is acting George as he is in the book (and as Ralph Bates acted him in the 1970s), we see the banality of evil, cold selfishness, no care for anyone but himself and those he deems extensions of him. I regret they dropped his father Nicholas as a semi-moral villain, slightly comic, amusingly acid (Allen Tilvern); we are in an era where there is no room for comedy and so we have the icy relentless Cary Warleggan (Pip Torrens).

A telling repeat image in this episode is that of people writing letters to one another; we see George writing, and and switch to Ross writing and back again:

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There are scenes of signing, Dwight leans down to sign his return to the navy (as a doctor aboard a ship), Ross nearly signs, he takes documents from Pascoe to London. George is continually among his documents, looking at them (as was Ralph Bates in 1975). No longer boxing and fencing with someone, but attacking the world through ownership and lawyers.

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Not a museum piece as Farthing said.

I aim to reread the coming novels, Black Moon and The Four Swans this summer and am now eager for the third season and for all twelve novels to be adapted into this film adaptation. I also hope they will keep the same actors when after The Angry Tide, the series must move ahead ten years to The Stranger from the Sea. As with The Pallisers (where they age considerably) or I, Claudius, I would enjoy seeing the actual presences grow older and change and endure on.

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The working mine the set-designers keep to

In Maureen Turim’s book, Flashbacks in Film, on history: she makes the point how Hollywood films seem always to tell a political or historical story through the story of individuals; one must. Her philosophical criticism is that this must distort realities, especially as often the film-makers choose exemplary characters and of course they get to chose what example they want to present, and often provide a happy ending. One way the history film can get past this is the use of flashback, montage, retrospective, wide far shots, the characters remembering: well at the close of Poldark on the cliff and in the returns to the symbolic buildings, Trenwith, Nampara, the village, that’s precisely what the film-makers are suggesting.

Next up: Outlander, the second season, when I’ve finished War and Peace. Just now I am watching in a row all the Anna Karenina movies, and especially loving the 1978 13 part BBC mini-series written by Donald Wilson, the same man who wrote much of the 1967 Forsyte Saga. Keep hope alive, my friends, keep hope alive. And I will be writing on books too.

Ellen

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Bald Hills, one of many landscape scenes, where the Bolkonskii family lives

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Marya (Antonina Shuranova) submits to her father, Prince Bolskonsky’s (Anatoli Ktorov)’s instructions in geometry

Dear friends,

During the few months a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies were reading Tolstoy’s novel, and those before when I was listening to the novel read aloud (Books-on-Tape now on CDs), I watched four War and Peace films: three “mini”-series (I put mini in quotations since Bondarchuk’s Russian epic is 507 minutes; Jack Pulman’s exquisite BBC mini-series in 1972, 900 minutes, with the “short” version by Andrew Davies in 2016 clocking in at 6 hours and 19 minutes) and one cinema feature (Vidor’s 1955 Hollywoodized W&P a mere 3 hours and 20 minutes). These are not the only War and Peace films to have been made, but they represent what is available today (plus a 2007 mini-series that turns the film into a romance about Natasha Rostov), what is seriously watchable.

I begin with the one most written about: Sergei Bondarchuk’s truly epic War and Peace, filmed as a profound reaction against the Hollywoodized and Italianate War and Peace, directed by King Vidor, script by Mario Soldati, as a trivializing debasement of a book Russians are deeply proud of, a part of their national heritage. The interaction between these two has been taken as an episode in the cold war. I found the American-Italian film tedious but those interested might like to know you can read the script on-line, and read a brief conversation I had with people who were just reaching adulthood in the 1950s and were entranced by Audrey Hepburn (Natasha) and Vittorio Gasmann (as transgressive rake-male seduces elusive archetype). I’m glad the first film was made, as it led to the Russian gov’t and many individual groups, to say nothing of some spectacular artists in Russia at the time give their all to bring Tolstoy’s novel to cinematic life.

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is still the most written about of all these and I am aware I shall probably fail to convey the experience, but perhaps a concrete description of its four parts can function to encourage others to attempt this film and (standing warned, knowing what you need to do or be prepared for as you start) overcome obstacles to enjoyment. More than the other two mini-series, you must read the book first. The 1972 BBC Pulman War and Peace almost succeeds in doing without a pre-read (but if you have read the book then you appreciate how extraordinarily the film gets in so many kinds of discourse from the novel). A synopsis will not do. But if you read and then watch and then re-read, the film will enrichen and add much to the book (especially the voice-over which picks up on Tolstoy’s darkest utterances).

Each time I would start a new disk, I admit, I felt un-eager because in the new digitalized version (2003, which is the one you must buy or rent) the faults of the original are on display too (which you need to know about): keep clicking “English” on the first paratexts and you will experience three languages: first, a voice-over narrator (very well done, dubbed in English, keeping you alert to or understanding what part of Tolstoy’s story we are in, and explaining what is the situation you are watching). Then there are the characters “inside” the frame who speak in French (no subtitles but it’s simple short French) or Russian (with English subtitles, not dubbed). The actors at the time respect decorums and are not wildly virtuoso in performances, they are not close-up to one another and the percentage of close-ups is small. Film affects us most deeply through faces — so that is often lacking. But then I would find myself engulfed all over again. The visual and aural create meanings the book can’t get near; it functions as a shooting script.

But then within a few minutes I’d be engulfed again.

The problem all the essays on Bondarchuk I’ve read have is no single or sequence of stills/shots or clips or montages can come near to conveying what it feels like to experience this vast assemblage of seemingly superabundant ever-changed, controlled and appropriate camera work from moment to moment. Scenes of vast and minute maneuvers in battle and horrific carnage (with literary hundreds of people involved for each sequence, thousands over-all) predominate, and for which it is probably most famous:

But Bondarchuk and Vasili Solovev’s script dramatizes just as surely the intimate and varied story-scenes of Tolstoy’s book, in society and at war, indoors and outdoors, between two or a few people, at a table and in crowds and ritual ballrooms and battle line-ups. I love the many atmospheric moments where dissolving clouds over a forest or some landscape or time of day or season are captured — all Woolf-like luminous envelope as life. Here’s a snow-filled shot of the sky and wood in Russian winter:

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And by contrast, where a character stands frozen, prompted to remember his past as a bomb near-by spins and spins about to go off and we get revolving montages of flashbacks of memory; or we are at a savage hunt and experience the terror of the wolf (the POV) before he is (I hope not for real) hacked to death; or characters weep as one lies dying:

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Andrei (Viacheslav Tikhonov) dying and Natasha (Liudmila Saveleva) crying over him

or walk and talk about their philosophical differences, or chase after one another enclosed and amid beautiful plants. There are scenes of social life in vast drawing- and ball-rooms, war councils, the world of the Russian country house and its grounds and smaller houses around it are shown us; wild madness on a battlefield or besieged city:


Sergei Bondarchuk plays Pierre: here towards the end of the film he’s registering the irrationality and inhumanity of the world’s doings

On top of this, highly varied music from symphonies and classical compositions, original mid-20th century music, to folk music, to effective modern sound track accompanies many scenes. So I won’t try but instead tell how the film re-organizes the book into four coherent parts and makes the book’s themes and plot-designs more accessible (or simpler) than Tolstoy. Bondarchuk clarifies Tolstoy, like some neo-classical rewrite of Shakespeare. Bondarchuk has reconceived Tolstoy’s vast book sufficiently so the film carries a condensation and restructuring into four parts and yet seems to leave little out that counts.

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Part 1: Andrei Bolkonskii (140 minutes)

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Anatole Kuragin (Vasilii Lanovoi) and Andrei Bolkonskii (Viascheslave Tikhonov) —

In his study of the drafts of W&P R.F. Christian says Tolstoy began with a low-life vicious aristocratic male, i.e., Anatole, for his hero, and gradually substitutes the intelligent ethical Pierre; in the book as we have it, Anatole seduces Natasha and ruins the secondary hero, Andreii’s life and dies next to him in a war hospital, so it’s fitting the first shot of both should be together as they enter the hollow party of Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Angelina Stepanova)

The story line takes us from when we meet Andrei who is weary of his wife, finds no meaning in the landowning and socializing roles he is given, leaves his wife with his family, and goes off to war only to discover its meaningless cruelties and hierarchical corruption. Within that story we meet Pierre Bezukhov at Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, and take him past his father’s death, inheritance of vast property, and succumbing to Prince Vassily’s manipulations to the point he marries Vassily’s daughter, Helene, a woman whose amorality and promiscuous sexuality he cannot stand. This is punctuated (so to speak) by the Rostov world: the innocent Natasha, the repressed hurt Sonya, her dependent cousin, the two naive young men, Nikolai (not so naive he doesn’t go after Sonya) and Petya, the corrupt Boris and his sycophant mother, wild dancing on the part of the count, coarse worldliness in the countess. POV is Andrei’s much more often than Pierre’s; and is impersonal in the Rostov and Bolskonskii worlds.

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Andreii’s father, old Prince Bolkonskii (Anatoli Ktorov) first seen walking through golden autumn woods, and to his side an unexplained string quartet plays music

It seemed to me after a while a deeply poetic part. The emphasis towards the end are these horrific visionary battles but before that, the countryside, the mansions, the sky, water, landscapes of stunning beauty — be it in the snow or in spring, or just aspects of color on the screen. They are there to express a vision of Bondarchuk’s own about Russian which he thinks undergirds Tolstoy’s own more socially-driven matter (and is reinforced by the conversations of Andreii and Pierre). There is some realistic psychology, though the playing is expressive rather than subtle. It’s intensely serious: it seems to trace Andrei’s disillusion and does end on a close-up of his face on the battlefield of Austerlitz where he is left for dead.

Part 2: Natasha (93 minutes)

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Natasha Rostov (Liudmila Saveleva, not a star, but new presence) —

Most people pick the stills of her at her first ball, or enthralled either with Andrei or Anatole; here she is walking in a wood, the bright face of hope for which Andreii falls in love with her

The second part is like an inset novella, a domestic fiction, it is quiet. As Part One focused on Andrei’s story so Part Two centers on Natasha, taking her story from her child-like sexuality with the live-in Boris Smirnov in the garden,and her ecstacy for Sonia (Irina Gubanova) in love with Nikolai, Natasha’s brother (Oleg Tabakov, his role much shrunk). We see her with the Countess her mother (Kira Golovko) in the bed, preparing for her ball, how she fears no one will ask her to dance. We also have the story of Pierre carried on as substory once again: his despair with his wife, her adultery, Dolokhov’s mockery of him, the duel, his returning to his land and finally going to Andreii on his. How Andrei (returned to life, now a widower), is so taken with her that he loves her at first sight and asks her to marry him. Her mother has already brushed off Boris not from reasons of character, but his lack of rank and money.

Unlike the book and unlike the two BBC films or Vidor’s, Bondarchuk’s Andreii quickly realizes he was under a delusion, she is a symbol to him, and not a mature woman (as his wife was not mature and bored him), so his decision to wait in this film for a year is a holding tactic. This helps justify her turning to Anatole in this film. Bondarchuk is stepping back from this male patriarchal vision of the nubile, readily erotically enthralled, yet holding to it. We have her joining in intensely at the hunt, dancing wildly to folk music at Christmas (the uncle playing the violin), and then as the year passes, restless, feeling deserted, wasted, and riveted by a spell the libertine, Anatole, can perform on young women (so Bondarchuk seems to assume). Natasha comes near eloping; stopped with the help of Sonia and Pierre, this second part ends on her humiliation, remorse, begging pardon from everyone, including Pierre (showing up as the ever present kind brother) to ask him to ask Andrei to forgive her and he cannot — he is too rigid a man. Her face dissolves into the sky, and then a vast landscape with “1812” in large letters, and the voice-over narrator comes on to tell us of the irrational stupid waste of what is to come, and the huge armies cross into Russia (if you didn’t watch it, go back to the first YouTube).

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Natasha having bad dreams

The second part contrasts to the other three: it is mostly very quiet, the acting is stylized. A young girl’s life and (temporary) downfall. The narrator functions more centrally here than the other three parts: he repeats his phrases, explicates, provides a depth of feeling; the English dubbed voice is very good; the subtitles too. This is accompanied by beautiful shots; it’s like being in a painting of Moscow, the countryside, especially the long Christmas sequence is appealing. A celebration of Russia, which for me is undermined by the misogyny of making women into sex objects, easily roused unthinking subject creatures.

Part 3: 1812 (78 minutes)

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Pierre and Tushin (Nikolai Trofimov) brave soldier in the book

Our focuses slowly become Andrei and Pierre, one as conventional but disillusioned bitter military officer, the other increasingly shocked civilian. Andreii delivers sonorous meditative despair soliloquies; there are some quiet scenes of him now and again, first framing the phases and then inside them. Pierre is on the battle field like some deer in a headlights,continually more traumatized. The part begins quietly at the Bokonskii home — the scene of the old man refusing to believe Maria and the governess that the French are about to entry their territory, then forced to, and finally dying.

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He does ask Maria to forgive him as he does not in the other two films. These are interwoven with a vast scene of a ball at which the emperor Alexander I appears, and the coming battle is announced. We are at the Rostov home too where the young boy, Petya insists on going out to fight and the countess, his mother is devastated. During the battle we move back and forth from the famous General Kutusov (Boris Zakhava) on one hill and Napoleon (Vladisla Strzhelchik) on another.

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Napoleon is presented as a grim fate (how he sees himself) without conscience or feeling. (Pulman’s 1972 is much more nuanced while blaming him; Davies’s 2016 has him as originally a revolutionary and refuses to forget that; Bondarchuk is closest to Tolstoy). Kutusov cannot at first accept that the Russians have been defeated; he did not want to do this battle and he is crushed to realize they have lost. but then draws victory out of this defeat by realizing in front of us that winning a war is not the same as winning a battle. His business is to save lives and his heroism is to refuse another battle.

At the close of this third part as in the close of the first, Andrei has been badly wounded — worse we eventually realize, and this time he will die, slowly. Nearby a man is moaning fearfully in his death agon as his leg is amputated; this turns out to be Anatole. And across the way Andrei sees Dolohov who seduced Natasha near death. Perhaps this second pairing is too neat parallel — Bondarchuk offers us patterned visuals like this throughout his film (like Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays).

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This is a more stunning depiction of war than I’ve never seen before quite. I have seen effective anti-war films, and late last October Kilo Two Bravo — but it was implicit, focused on incidents, much more narrow. What is terrific about this is the size and scope of the scenes, and the relentless ruthless condemnation of war as horrific, senseless, cruel, utterly irrational at the same time as vast, wildly heroic, chosen. All these people (as Tolstoy says) are not forced. They choose to do this. The final focus scene is the battle of Borodino not far from Smolensk, which led to the scorched earth policy, the fleeing of all middle and upper class people from Moscow, and Napoleon’s defeat because there is no one for him to negotiate with as his army falls apart into marauding. I knew exactly where everything was, what was happening. This is due to the over-voice impersonal narration — invaluable. We meet the great famous Kutusov in his councils, falling asleep at the same time as ever vigilant; he contrasts to Napoleon on the other, at first all square-faced steely-firmness, stoutly glad, but when in Moscow shown up for the petty egoist (this is Tolstoy’s interpretation) he is.

Vast scenes of carnage of all types, sometimes close up, sometimes aerial, sometimes from the side, sometimes full face. Close up of men suffering in so many ways while at the same time they fight on determined like some crazed machines started who can’t stop (the narrator says something like this). The suffering horses, the animals. Canons, bombs, grapeshot, lines of men shooting, the guerillas, bombs blow up everywhere: this is not fakery, they are doing controlled versions; real live generals were consulted, all the Russian hierarchies involved it seems.

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The part has to be watched. It outdoes the battle scenes in Part 1 — so vast and thorough and believable they manage to make it. It is a deep contrast to Part 2 an inset domestic novel.

Part 4: Pierre Bezukov (92 minutes)

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Kutusov quietly grieving after he has had the courage to tell the council they will not try to stop the French from entering Moscow (nor will he try to cut them off as they leave) …

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Pierre during the trek starving frozen from Moscow

So now finally Bondarchuk (he gave himself the hero’s part though he’s not handsome) comes forth as primary story; as in Pulman’s 1972 BBC W&P there is a parallel between him and Kutusov at times. It’s about the horrors of war (yet more), another phase. We see panicked people, fleeing, and go through the scenes of the Rostov’s reluctant and utterly disorganized withdrawal from Moscow, with Pierre’s mad choice to stay in order to find and kill Napoleon. The place catches on fire, he becomes distraught, saves a baby, is captured as a dangerous incendiary, and imprisoned, then almost killed by a firing squad with our viewing the others murdered in pairs so senselessly.

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Moscow on fire — we should remember how this would resonate in 1966 for a Russian audience

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From the execution scenes

The over-voice is frequent: the words come from the beginning chapers where Tolstoy’s words in effect damn these apparently helpless people. Why are they doing this? Why are they slaughtering one another? slaughtering horses? senselessly killing killing killing. Why do they obey the Napoleons of the world? Napoleon admits he must return, is humiliated, and we experience that long trek with Pierre and his new found guru, Platon (the idealistic peasan, Mikhail Khrabov) gradually distancing from one another as Platon begins to die, and ends up shot because he can’t keep up, the pathetic dog howling. The words of the overvoice are grateful that Platon is out of this (Bondarchuk does not use Platon as a mouthpiece for optimism or God’s presence as Tolstoy does). Kutusov seen carrying a weight of immense concern and pity.

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Platon falling behind, the soldiers go to shoot him

The episode concludes towards the end by juxtaposing the long drawn out death of Andreii who the Rostovs unknowingly took with them from Moscow in a wagon, but not naturalistic (as in Davies’ 2016 where we see this), the experience is visionary, intendedly religious. The camera moves up to Andrey’s face and he dreams: he remember his scenes with his father, the land, terrible killing, and we see Natasha there telling him he’s not dying. But he tells her he loves her, he forgives her (the sense of there is nothing to forgive). Visionary sequences of land and sky signalling some powerful God-like presence. It does end quickly after that. After the rescue of Pierre, quickly done, Petya even quickly gotten out of the way in his senseless death (the point here is the mother’s grief and father’s loss, which is too quick, like a caricature). We see Pierre riding through a Moscow being rebuilt and arrives at a house where we find sitting Natasha and Marya (both in black) with little Nikolai (Andreii’s son by his first now long dead wife) by their side. Marya shows Pierre the new boy, and Natasha is there at last grown up in black and we hear the lines how if he were free and a better man, he’d marry her. (Nikolai and Sonia have long been lost from view.) Then Bondarchuk concentrates on visions of the sky and universe as places of oblivion and peace at the close.

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What jarred me at the close is the over-voice suddenly insists life is good, the world is beautiful.

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

Still an extraordinary film. Like many others who have seen it, I think it is a filmic realization by one genius accompanied by thousands of willing people of a great book.

A solid ethical perspective, beautifully filmic art, an important masterpiece of film.

This new DVD has a fifth part, features with interviews of some of the original film-makers and actors. You can see the extraordinary seriousness with which the film-makers, production designers, actors, everyone set about their task together.

“One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being able to express it, is better than all the fluency and flippancy in the world.” –William Hazlitt

Ellen

NB. Blogs on War and Peace to come: the 1972 BBC War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pulman, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a masterpiece, follows and is inspired by Bondarchuk; then Andrew Davies’ 2016 W&P follows and is inspired by Pulman and Bondarchuk. Pulman chose some of the same central scenes, Davies some of the same visionary moments.

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Kyle Soller as Francis with his son, shaking hands with Ross (Episodes 3 & 5, second season)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been over three months since I last wrote about the second season of the new Poldark: on the two episodes which dramatize Francis Poldark’s (Kyle Soller) having finally found and accepted himself, becoming the man, husband, father, cousin (brother really) he’d always wanted to be, and then his tragic (accidental, ironic, useless) death by drowning: 2 Poldark 4-5: exemplary and tragic heroism. I’d been having enormous technical difficulties watching the second season on my BBC iplayer, and when I saw that Amazon.uk was making available the complete scripts for the second season when they would begin to sell the DVDs for the second season, I decided to wait for both before writing any more blogs. I did finish watching the second season using the BBC iplayer but knew I had missed so much.

For example, I had no idea that the episodes were opened with Eleanor Tomlinson singing the folk song she first performs the first Christmas after she and Ross wed and go to Trenwith (see Series 1, Episode 4, p 245), no idea the soft acqua-colored waters were the palette for the second year’s opening. It matters what song a series opens and closes with, what pictures (this time more of Demelza) we see; these set the mood, the realm we enter into and then provide closure.

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From the paratexts and opening and closing music of the 2nd season

It’s feminocentric to use a word now fallen out.

Well the DVDs and second season scripts arrived early in December, and it has taken me all this time to first re-see the first season or year (all 8 episodes), read the complete scripts for the first season (and read/skin, look at Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza once again), and watch the second season or year (all 10 episodes) and read the scripts up to Episode 5 once again (reading Jeremy Poldark and beginning Warleggan). (I do other things.) Before I resume with Episode 6 (the equivalent of one third into Warleggan), I’d like to look at the first new season as a whole for a second time. The first time when I had come to the conclusion Horsfield and her film-making team and actors were consciously creating a new mythic matter, I hadn’t been able to read the scripts. I first found the scripts for the first year this August while I was in Cornwall in a Cornish bookshop. Before that, who knew?

Scripts are of enormous importance in understanding and enjoying a film. It is after all not the novel the actors are realizing, but the scripts. And the words go by so quickly, much is missed and in my experience we get a distorted memory view of what we saw and heard.

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Aidan Turner as Ross (Episode 1, first season)

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (Episode 8, first season)

I see some of the same flaws (or problems) in the new series (e.g., too much and quick juxtapositions) and some of the same differences from the 1970s older Poldark (e.g., the older series was more comic, more subversive in outlook), and also some of the improvements (the new series is actually literally closer to the novels at key points), but want to do justice to mainly to the dialogue which is much much better than I gave credit for. Also in the scripts you have Horsfield’s descriptions of the settings, her comments on how the actors should be behaving, looking, their actions. There is close continuity and give-and-take between the characters as they speak and act; the psychology comes from all these things. While reading I sometimes found that the realized scene was less subtle than it felt while reading, sometimes too hurried, too declamatory, too melodramatic for what the words were implying. By reading the short juxtaposed scenes on the page you can see the continuity more, feel it.

In addition, there is much lyricism in the language, as well as the acting and movement or rhythms of the music and action. It’s this latter I most want to call attention to: how there is an overall pattern-like effect across season 1 in the best episodes. Horsfield wanted less complicated language, because she was fitting everything together as a kind of projected world view of another time and different kind of people (almost). Think about the repetition of Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) and her tarot cards; how these recur and are pointed with the dialogues between her and Elizabeth (Heida Reed), the scene of wreath-making with Demelza, Prudie (Beatti Edney), and Jinny (Gracee O’Brien) picking up refrains of the song, Jud a low-voiced (Phil Davis) grunting

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Aunt Agatha laying an ominous card down

The relationship of Demelza and Ross is a slow developing romance and the many short dialogues where they seem not to be saying any new or much are part of a patterning. Francis’s in effect deterioration and self-punishment and destruction of others works this way: short patterned scenes with George (Jack Farthing). Then there are the rituals, which include the auctions I now feel. Elizabeth and her baby, Geoffrey Charles, with a butterfly.

And there is much more inward than I had realized. Much is brief pointed still and swift dialogue but the two together and repetition does it: these two are characteristic of the first season:

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She desolate

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He at work

A couple of examples and I’ll have done. I’ve picked two sequences for their typicality. The first is a piece of the long scene where Ross first sees Demelza beaten by young men when she tried to rescue her dog from serving as torture for entertainment and everyone else looks on and laughs. Notice the class commentary, the nuances of immediate motives intertwining

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Early still: the boy grabs and ties the dog’s tail

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Demelza held back for a bit as she desperately tries to rescue her dog

65. EXT. TRURO, MARKETPLACE …. ROSS’S POV: George, Cary and other gentry, all braying with laughter.
Something hardens in his expression. Calmly he moves forward, pushing through the crowd. Then he sees something which makes him hesitate:
ROSS’S POV: Elizabeth pushing forward to see what’s going on, followed by Francis. As they get nearer, Elizabeth turns away in distress.
This kind of baiting disgusts her.
ON ROSS: Knowing that if he steps forward he must eventually encounter Elizabeth. But how can he not step forward? Calmly he takes his riding crop from his boot and walks towards the young gentlemen. They are young, all them fully convinced of their absolute right to do as they please.
POV THE CROWD: Some cheering, some curious, most expecting the newcomer (Ross) to join in with the tormenting.
ON THE YOUNG GENTLEMEN: Some of them notice Ross approaching. They see his expression and start to run.
ROSS: Enough!
One — a young man with an arrogant face — stands his ground and sneers defiantly.
ROSS: If you’ll take my advice, you’ll run.
YOUNG MAN: Or else, sir?
Impassive, Ross hits him across the face with his whip. The man shrieks and flees, clutching his face.

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Henry Garrett as Captain MacNeil

Now a sequence of quick scenes: we have just seen Captain MacNeil questioning Ross and Demelza (with Ross telling Demelza not to “underestimate Captain MacNeil”), Ross getting Elizabeth’s letter about Verity’s elopement whose tone to him worries him, the brief focus on Blamey and Verity’s “first meal together,” Demelza’s fearful POV with Garrick near,

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Ruby Bentall as Verity, Richard Harrington as Captain Blamey

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Demelza after Ross and MacNeil gone, before it darkens

Ross on the beach hiding the oars, then first dialogue of Dwight coming to Demelza’s house, move to darkened Trenwith:

59. INT TRENWITH HOUSE. Elizabeth is doing her household accounts when Ross is shown in .
ROSS: I came as soon I could. How’s Francis?
ELIZABETH: He’s half a mind to go after her .
ROSS: Persuade him against. He’s no match for Blamey.
ELIZABETH: Or Verity. For I think she’s now the bolder of the two.
ROSS Certainly the most reckless.
ELIZABETH She has the courage of her convictions. Which I applaud even if I seem to disapprove.
A brief moment between them. The merest hint that Elizabeth wishes she too had the courage of her convictions. Then Francis barges in.
FRANCIS Well, Ross, are you pleased with your handiwork? Clearly it was you who helped her.
Ross is looking at Francis in utter bewilderment.
ROSS: I? Arrange Verity’s elopement? Have you taken leave of your senses?
CUT TO:
60: INT. NAMPARA HOUSE, KITCHEN – NIGHT 58
Demelza’s anxiety mounts (as she realizes what Ross is planning tonight – Mark s escape – and how it might be compromised by Dwight’s arrival).
DEMELZA: I – I don’t think Ross would want you here —
DWIGHT: Have I forfeited his good opinion? Or his trust?
DEMELZA: Oh no, not that, but — he has business tonight — and mebbe visitors-
There is the sound of someone tapping on the window. Demelza almost leaps out of her skin.

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Matthew Wilson as Mark Daniel’s fierce face to Dwight (Luke Norris)

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This is Ross and Francis talking, wrestling, POV Elizabeth

Followed by Paul and Mark Daniel rushing into Demelza’s house, “soldiers everywhere,” and then paired scenes of different kinds of anger: the long-time smoldering and nuanced digs and anger of Francis and Ross, Elizabeth failing to moderate, with the blazing hatred of Mark and guilt of Dwight, Demelza panicking. The language refers us back and forward to next sequence, with action and nuanced descriptions of what is happening. One sequence seems to have closure with Ross succeeding in seeing Mark off, and outrunning the soldiers, back into the house, the other Elizabeth’s indignation. Demelza’s walk to Francis, confession; there is a separate sequence of the Carnemore Copper Company members now bankrupt because Francis has told George the names; and finally much longer (appropriately) Demelza telling Ross what she has done, said to Francis, and (as in the book) Ross’s adament anger at her betrayal and refusal to soothe her. A telling aspect of this is in the book the narrator (Graham) makes the point the woman is to be sacrificed to her family and leaves us feeling how both Demelza and Verity were to make their lives dispensable, and emphasizes Demelza’s fault is that she lied to Ross and has lost his trust; while Horsfield comes down hard on the demand everyone consider the group first:

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98. INT. NAMPARA HOUSE. DEMELZA: Can you forgive me?
ROSS: I will try.
DEMELZA: But Francis will not.
ROSS: No.
DEMELZA: And you will not forgive him. And I’ve caused a
rift between the two sides of our family.
ROSS: Yes.
DEMELZA: I will never be happy until it’s healed.
ROSS: Then I’m afraid you’ll be unhappy for a very long time.

The 1970s (as it does several times) elided over this discomfort, Ross scarcely scolds Demelza (Francis’s cursing it was felt perhaps was enough) but the conflict and meaning is lost while here if another side is taken, you do see what’s at stake. Essentially it is a fight between the men over women and if you look at the stills matched, you see men angry at one another over women, women trying to stop this, or mourning — a rare moment of more light is on Verity and Blamey at a late supper.

The epitomizing stills are things like flour kneeded into bread, location is one of the characters, and the use of light and darkness and angles at which characters are shot:

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Ross and George on the beach (Episode 7 of first season)

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Demelza by the cliffs (episode 8)

People remember the visuals best, but the words, sounds, dialogue are what gives the experience the meaning in our minds too. I did wish there were more of camera angles and shots in the scripts; they are rather written to resemble novels. But there is enough.

Next Poldark blog will be brief recap of Episode 5 and move into Episode 6 of the second season.

Ellen

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Anthony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester

The worst returns us to laughter — Edgar, a moment where the production’s clear speaking made a line shine through which is relevant to what is happening center stage in US newspapers on Trump’s “team” today

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I was privileged to watch an HD screening of a production of King Lear from Stratford-upon-Avon at the Folger Shakespeare library. It’s the fifth HD-screening of a Shakespeare play for me, and I take the occasion to praise the Folger for this program and hope aloud to others the library continues to to participate in these screenings. Each one of the five has provided me and those in the audience with a renewed contemporary dramatic realization of Shakespeare: particularly alive and deeply instructive have been the Love Labor’s Lost and Merchant of Venice. I did learn that Lily James is a great actress from Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet (“a few good experiences” — scroll down, just a bit). I still lament I had to miss Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale with Judy Dench as Paulina. The Folger itself on average is staging at most two plays by Shakespeare a year (the others are often modern adaptations of Shakespeare or some other supposedly related contemporary play). So by screening say three productions from the UK Shakespeare himself is kept before us.

It’s an occasion because Gregory Doran’s Lear (he was the director) is getting more attention than many RSC productions. These occur regularly and why this one is singled out I don’t know. One review from TLS will do, partly because Abell does not say much about the production except that it has to cope with the bombast of the play. There was magnificence in the way the play’s hieratic and crazed excruciating lunatic scenes were done, the scenes as a whole as living emblems before us, a dignity was maintained even in the most intimate moments

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Sher with Graham Turner as the fool

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Natalie Simpson as Cordelia and Anthony Byrne as Kent leading Lear away after she and he have made up

But the experience was not as deeply moving for me in the way it has been before. I usually weep, occasionally almost uncontrollably, and and didn’t at all this time. They were too controlled, too aware of themselves as enacting the super-respected Tragedy. The actors all seemed so delighted to have been given their part.

A case in point was the opening scene: it is hieratic, and let us tell truths (dismiss adulation even for Shakespeare), and admit the scene resembles the static and wooden hieratic scenes in other of Shakespeare’s dramas, e.g., Merchant of Venice (the casket), the one in Pericles (where the suitor is in danger of his life).

Two reviews of an Old Vic production with an 80 year old Glenda Jackson making another astonishingly effective performance (recalling her first appearances as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade so many years ago) as Lear suggest the route taken there was quite different: a Samuel Beckett stripped down modernity (Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB; Matt Wolf in the NYTimes; Susannah Clapp in The Guardian).

The problem (as I see it) might be a lack of courage (or originality of interpretation), a fear of the audience, a reverence for the place they were playing in, too much self- and audience regard.

Shakespeare means to show us the mean pathologies of family life taken to a frightening ferocity, with each “child” a step along that road. Simpson is even worse: she hardly breaks her serenity across the play. Simpson played Cordelia so blandly: if she is not given some anger or resentment in the opening scene (as she was not), there is no psychological sense to what has happened. I’ve seen this reluctance before. The conventional Cordelia never not loves the old man. Then why did she refuse him at the opening?

I felt Turner was going through the motions of the fool’s speeches, not meaning them, careful lest we not get all the words. The wicked sisters were wholly unoriginal. Most of all there was nothing abandoned about Oliver Johnstone as the broken, abandoned, utterly distrusted betrayed child in Edgar; he was too studied.

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The director and costumer reinforced the play’s artificiality as a kind of compensation, a guarded wall of costume.

Some intriguing moments: It was interesting to see Edmund so underplayed, understated by Paapa Essieddu, almost semi-comic, but it didn’t fit in at all. Nia Gwynne as Goneril needed to be in another melodramatically emotional production: she was effective, but, except for a moment where Lear seems to hug her so tightly he is trying to destroy her uterus or chest, she had no match anywhere. It’s a testament to the vivid thereness of a long career that Sher managed to give Lear a feel of a real individual looking out of his eyes. The best moments were where he was permitted to react naturally in an intimate or direct way to another presence on stage (with Gloucester, with Goneril).

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Very effective Shakespeare’s drive down to utter degradation, misery, writhing madness in the scenes on the heath and in the hovel — not so much the individual (which is all I have promotional photos of) but the scene as a whole, the larger stage conceptions. I felt also that the age of the two men, aging itself, its vulnerability, its needs were central to what was moving in the experience of this production. But then I am old myself and identified as an aging parent. I would have loved to be able to see Glenda Jackson as Lear (photo from NYRB):

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Shakespeare often carries himself in less alive or good productions, and that happened here too. Who can deny the horror of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. You just need to do it feelingly. The long passage spoken by Edgar recreating a frightening height when well-spoken is evocative poetry. About a quarter of the Folger audience missed these scenes because they occurred after the intermission. It is a curious phenomenon how audiences seek to or just automatically respond to something immediately contemporary. So the least reference to corrupt politicians or anything that smacked of moronic or mindless hypocrisy got a laugh. The play’s real themes about say the importance of one’s status and respect of others, as in the famous bellowing of Lear over the putting of Kent into the stocks seemed to fall on blankness.

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As a lover of Shakespeare I enjoyed the production almost as a dramatic reading. Only once in all the 45 years or so I have been going to Shakespeare plays (I began at age 17 when I went to the Papp productions for free in Central Park, NYC) have I left a production. So, I encourage all who read this to go and have written this to bring out into the discussably open the danger that these “screening around the world” productions do not succumb to self-censorship or the self-puffery of praise they will get automatically from some reviewers.

A feature for the intermission of the HD-screening was about the super-expensive gilded costume made for Goneril in the opening scene. Much money was doubtless spent. You can glimpse the dress in this enlarged photo:

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Other wonderful photos of on the RSC site.

I am worried by the (in effect) advertisement for the coming HD-screened production of The Tempest with the great actor Simone Russell Beale as Prospero when we were shown the technological marvel of the blue mask that will be part of his costume. For this reason I have written this critical blog.

Ellen

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Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Mildred and Richard Loving (2016, written and directed by Jeff Nichols) — he enjoys watching cars race

Friends,

As many know, this is the story of the interracial marriage which led to a judgement by the supreme court which included the assertion that the marriage is a fundamental human right. Before this decision, states could and did outlaw marriage between people of different races. Over the course of the two hour movie I found myself deeply respectful of Mildred and Richard Loving: we see how they love one another, how they marry in DC, are arrested in the dead of night in Virginia, thrown in jail, treated with bullying disrespect and anathema by a succession of disdainful white male authorities. The story moves slowly and symbolically, rather like an outline where after an initial attempt to return home while Mildred has her baby, and re-arrest, with a dire threat of many years in prison, they live in DC (or risk imprisonment) for several years. Mildred finds the city demoralizing and streets dangerous for their children so they brave going back to a hidden place in Virginia. Terrified, hounded, she writes to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, and he suggests to an ACLU lawyer and civil rights expert that they take on their case. We follow them over several years and risky behaviors until the case reaches the supreme court where they win.

What I liked best about the film was its quietness. I feared I would be subjected to another ratcheted up melodrama, complete with thriller moments, high crisis scene and speechifying denouement. We are spared this. I did recognize that this was still another of these so-called art-films, which, as if in order to appeal broadly, be commercial, is produced with a super-solemn stance or tone, pompous and somehow (even with the poverty presented) over-produced (glorious colors, very close closeups). So I agree with Richard Brody’s New Yorker review which finds a much earlier TV movie, Mr and Mrs Loving, much more realistically human, comic at moments, entertaining, bringing out the very messy issues and petty and important bad harassment this couple experienced for years much than Jeff Nichols’ still super-dignified treatment. Yet this film is apparently more accurate and based on an intermediary documentary, The Loving Story, by Nancy Buiriski for HBO (2012).

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The actual Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving

Maybe real people aren’t comic. We hear from both sides of their families (black and white) individuals who lash out against the couple for marrying as a betrayal, a selfish indulgence (!), even a crime. There is a lovely rhythm to the presentation of years, birth of children, everyday life going on. Richard spends his existence building buildings as well as caring for his wife and family. A photographer comes to give the couple more presence in the media and he takes a photo of the couple enjoying themselves in front of the TV. (The credits include a real photo of the real couple at just such a moment.) We worry Mildred and Richard’s children are at risk from authorities, and are told that at the supreme court the argument was made that “mixed race” children are unacceptable, but I felt we could have been given more information about the issues the case rested on. Nonetheless I was much moved, especially by Ruth Negga’s performance, and here and there actors playing individuals in the family: Richard’s black brother-in-law, Virgil (Will Dalton) who is a genuine considerate friend to the couple is one that comes to mind.

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Films do not occur in a vacuum. So in this wretched moment of US politics where a white supremacist racist has been appointed by an overtly racist president as his chief strategist, where a man noted for his cruelty and draconian tactics running a police force in NYC (Giuliani) is said to be under consideration for Attorney General, where what is promised includes registration of people based on ethnic origin, rounding up and deportation in huge numbers of others, and outright mockery of #blacklivesmatter (not to omit disabled people), and doubling down on harsh prison sentences, such a presentation is not out of place. The film shows it matters who is attorney general. It showed how dependent an average person is on the supreme court to enunciate as law genuinely principled enlightened assumptions. As triumph of good came into view, I felt heartsick. You can go in the same spirit as you go on a march, sign a petition, phone your congressman. Here is the case as outlined in wikipedia: look at who were the judges. Do you think the same favorable decision would be the result today?

It’s also an absorbing quietly suspenseful (anxious) two hours. Anne Thompson in Indiefilms covering different aspects than I have calls it Oscar Worthy. The movie itself is also is a gentle depiction of a kind of marriage: the wife so careful of her working class and inarticulate husband’s feelings, his attempt to do all he can within his nature and character. Thompson says the film dramatizes how love is an inalienable right — for all the characters, children to grandparents.
Ellen

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nursinganabandonednewborn
Claire (Caitriona Balfe) nursing an abandoned neonate (called a changeling), 1 Outlander 10 (By the Pricking of My Thumb)

Jamie: Been looking all over for ye.
Claire: I met Geillis Duncan on the road.
Jamie. She told me where ye were. It’s dangerous to be out here alone, Sassenach.
Claire: Don’t tell me you believe in fairies and changelings and all that.
Jamie: It’s not about what I believe. These people, they’ve never been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born.
They hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in the kirk on a Sunday. And for the parents of that child, it might comfort them a bit to think it’s the changeling that died. And think of their own child, healthy and well, living forever with the fairies.
Claire: Take me home.

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Claire explaining her small pox vaccination scar before she goes on to tell she is “from the future,” 1 Outlander 11 (The Devil’s Mark)

Claire: I was born on October the 20th in the year 1918. That’s 200 years from now. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?
Jamie: I hear you.
Claire: You think I’m raving mad, don’t you?
Jamie: No. No, I believe ye, Sassenach. So I dinna understand it a bit, not yet. But I trust you. I trust your word, your heart. And I trust there is a truth between us. So whatever you tell me I will believe ye. Can you tell me more?
Claire: I was a combat nurse in the British army.
Claire over-voice: Before we left the church, she [Geillis] said to me, “1968.” I told him everything. The whole story came pouring out of me like a cataract of water over a broken dam.
Jamie: Tell me again about the, uh the stones.
Claire over-voice: I didn’t realize how badly I needed to tell someone, anyone, until that moment.
Claire back to Jamie: The Scots never had a chance.
Claire over-voice: He listened.
Claire to Jamie: Thousands were killed at Culloden.
Claire over-voice: He didn’t understand it all, but he listened.

Friends and readers,

Among the few pleasant and unresolved escape pleasures of this past two (politically potentially disastrous) weeks, I’ve carried on reading Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, Sarah Waters’s The Daphne DuMaurier Companion, an essay by (with me) a favorite woman poet, Anne Stevenson, on Gabaldon, and best of all both watching the series yet more and listening to an unabridged Gabaldon’s Outlander text read aloud by Davina Porter.. It may not seem to the reader or viewer of the mini-series and books the most urgent question is, What genre do this text and film belong to? and yet this question is the one that most intrigues me, for if I could answer it, I would know what to look for as central to what I am reading and watching.

The book seems to me to fall into the historical romance category. It is woman’s erotica; the density, accuracy, and centrality of historical events which are the groundwork of the historical novel are not here. There is no political vision. At the same time we are seduced into a seemingly densely realized historical period, regional setting, tribal identities through an identification worked up between us and Claire, the heroine, and (as we are allowed inside his mind, the POV is often his) or us and Jamie Fraser. The mini-series reaches out through the fantasy of the time-traveling motif, and continual time-shifts and parallel and contrasting characters now and then to offer (as these two episodes do) an ahistorical gothic exploring psychoanalytically innate experiences of female life presented as cultural regional curiosities and how societies have based their continuities on these while savagely punishing (hating) women for their power. Individuals caught up in an individual woman’s fate — be it husband, lover, child, sister, friend, patient — are driven to protect, control, and rely and bond — with the heroines. As part of interludes in the book we are invited to delight in historically particulars of the past presented as sensual, fascinating, delightful, or just strange on the one hand (picturesque) and terrifying on the other, especially the brutal violence accepted it seems by all. I know from reading Wallace’s Digging the Dirt how earlier fossils and skeletons from medieval times often show frightening harsh physical treatments wreaked on bodies (the corpse of Richard III is not unusual in this regard).

The two episodes have complicated plot-designs. In episode 10 Claire and Jamie are each, partly apart from one another, trying to manipulate Black Jack Randall’s Jacobite patron and protector, to write a letter which will exonerate Jamie from a charge of murdering a British officer; this involves Jamie in a dangerous duel with members of other Highland clans. At the same time, Claire finds herself thrown in with Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), another “healer” whose own husband Geillis poisons to death. Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish), brother to the Laird, and she are in love, she is pregnant with his child, and his wife has died. A seemingly unrelated sub-plot turn is Claire’s finding out about rituals used with pre-mature, non-thriving, disabled infants: they are abandoned to die using the asserted illusion that the faeries have taken away the beautiful normal baby to live forever in paradise and left this faery changeling to die in its place.

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The mother watching, one of Claire’s accusers

Now having read the book I am aware that when married to Frank who in Dragonfly in Amber we learn could not sire a child Claire not knowing this longed to have a biological child; barring that, to adopt. Claire’s attempt to nurse the baby back to life give Laoghaire the opportunity to include her in an accusation that Geillis is a witch, and since Jamie has been commanded to accompany Dougal to his ancestral estates (it does not feel as pat as this in the telling, reading or viewing of the mini-series), when appointed witch-hunters come to take Geillis to prison, there is no one to stop them also taking Claire.

Episode 11 is the more quickly told though it is core material, what the previous episode exists to bring us to, and the very gothic historical romance drives towards again and again. Geillis and Claire endure a trial for witchcraft, as each charge is made by another half-hysterical female witness, bribed underling, or woman-hating priest Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson), the gentle-hearted but intelligent lawyer defends them.

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Much shrouded in darkness

However, since the population and jury are throbbingly eager to whip and then “burn the bitch” (reminding me of the crowds salivating around Trump), Ned eventually loses the argument. Another in the nick of time rescue by Jamie, too late to prevent any flogging, and helped along by Geillis providing distraction with her small pox vaccination site:

geillisshowinghermark

and sudden confession (prompted by Ned in a conference before) that she seduced Claire and is herself pregnant with some devil’s child. She is hauled out with her belly heaving (she may not be burnt as we are told pregnancy precludes burning), but with at least a quarter of the over an hour episode is left for Claire to tell Jamie at long last where she has come from, how, who she is. The sequence where Claire attempts to account for her experience to Jamie is riveting, all the more so as most of what she says is off-stage implied (as it would be repetitious for us to be told what we have been experiencing for 11 episodes.) In terms of time in the episode, the telling needs little (as there is simply an indication through montage she has told what we have witnessed for 11 episodes); the emphasis is on Jamie’s reaction: at first shocked, he does believe her makes him an intensely sympathetic male.

afterthetellingisover

He all nobility and self-sacrifice (as males in certain kinds of women’s romance often are) curses himself for having beaten her when she was just trying to get back to her husband. All magnanimity he leads her to the head stone to travel back; she almost does it in front of us (as we hear the wind rise), but he pulls her back. He then says he “wasna ready.” He will go further off by himself and wait all night. If she does not return to him, he will know she returned to her time-home. We watch as she almost does go to the stone, but now she draws back suddenly. As dawn emerges and we see his fire, we are not sure the POV is her, but it turns out to be. It takes all night for her to decide (but decide she does) her home is no longer England anywhere 1945 but Lallybroch 1743. Her first words are those she used as a nurse after she had taken care of a WW2 man: “On your feet, soldier.”

paratext
Paratext for each episode

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul she sailed on a day, Over the sea to Skye. Billow and breeze, Islands and seas, Mountains of rain and sun. All that was good, All that was fair, All that was me is gone. Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul, she sailed on a day. Over the sea To Skye

What I stress for this evening are the “fantasias” projected during the thread Geillis appears in. Outlander, the book, opens with a Claire whose tone reminded me of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights: supercilious, half-ready to quietly mock her scholarly husband with his interest in antiquarian archeaology, Claire’s tone is transformed to one of emotional engagement with that very past she didn’t want to hear about. The poetics and dramaturgies of slow juxtaposition and doppelgangers come in to play in the film episodes. The film version drops all this, and makes each venture into the past, each juxtaposition earnest and serious and magical.

Bowden seems to feel the writer’s apprehension of the unknowability of the past is central to all these linked genres, and I’m trying to see if it’s the core here too. In her book Claire is ever sceptical and utterly uninterested in books unless they concern her immediately. She seems to have no ambition beyond the female immanent. So she would have no drive to make her adventure public; she would not want to shame Frank over bringing up Jamie’s daughter. Bowden says the finest historical fictions undermine their own bases: that may be true of the Booker Prize kinds of fictions. I know the unknowability of what is being reported is central to Graham’s The Forgotten Story (a Cornish tale set in 1898) and Graham Swift’s Waterlands (what should be reported as history of all that occurs or is said to?). It is at times in Gabaldon’s novel almost a ghost story where the narrative takes comfort in the stone and flesh and physical reality of the people around her.

Bowden says also the all three types make the historical period and/or setting a character in the book. The historical fiction drives to recreate, the historical romance to exploit, gothic to undermine. I love periods embedded in periods, utterly different takes on what has happened from different narrators. Again and again the historians of recent historical fiction, historical romance, gothic, science fiction confound their types. I want in the reviews and blogs I write and teaching I do to distinguish in order to vindicate historical romance, a woman’s genre (except when of the action-adventure chivalric hero type in Lorna Doone for example), with feminized heroes, and distinguish the types to understand the function they play in people’s lives. Why do I love the Poldark novels so and am so engaged by the realization in films?

Bowden’s idea seems to be we can unlock and understand the power of historical fictions and romance by seeing them as part of a literary and imaginative community continuum. I know there are neolithic stones all over the British Isles. Still standing today are 1,500 castles in Scotland (History Today, 66:11 [Nov 2016], 35. I feel the power of the writing that gets all this down and responds to it is what’s important and we can unlock the power, unpack the sources by acknowledging the drive in these fictions into verisimilitude, probability, enough complex inwardness in the characters and a mystical longing to get back into the past

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Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire among the stones

conclusion
Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) walking away along the Cornish beach at the conclusin of Poldark‘s first season (1976)

So, the question is, according to Bowden, not whether the Outlander series of books is historical romance, and the Poldark series, historical fictions, but “what kind of world is brought into being here, what thematic topoi,” what (I add) the situation of the speaker? More largely, what our historical situation today and how does it relate to what is presented? how we do feel about history today? Gabaldon’s book is frivolous, the narrator uses a supercilious faux cheerful tone, but she is drawn into erotic historical romance (unsurprisingly) with modern candour and (surprisingly) a post-colonial stance in the history part of her formula.

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From the film adaptation of The English Patient

I’m now set to teach three Booker Prize historical fiction at the OLLI at Mason this fall (J.L. Carr’s Month in the Country, Ondjaatje’s English Patient) and am thinking of “doing” “The World of Daphne Dumaurier” there in the summer (including King’s General). Tonight I was reading in the third Book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and should reread Rose Tremaine’s Restoration and re-watched the last two episode of Andrew Davies’s 2016 too-thin film adaptation of War and Peace. It’s all about death, the past in the present, and as I listen to Davina Porter reading Outlander aloud and hear Claire rejoicing to feel she is surrounded by hard stones, and the people around her thick flesh-and-blood, I find myself wondering if Outlander and its predecessors are ghost-stories, and Waverley and its progeny politicized history.

Ellen

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