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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


The young man and his professor

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Tolkien late in life (photo)

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

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


Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien deeply engaged with his books

Ellen

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


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

Instead of the famous “Art of Losing:”

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

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

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

through these endless etceteras painful.

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

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

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

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

Friends,

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

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


Recent photo

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

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


Nelson Mandela

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

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

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

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

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

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This photograph pf Elizabeth Bishop is not by Annie Leibovitz:


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

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

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete
Concordance”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Don McCullin, from Landscapes: Somerset Levels Near Glastonbury 2010

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

Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

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

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

She was mistress of the sonnet form.

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

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apologies for not being able to replicate the stanzas.

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

One last:

“Crusoe in England”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then one day they came and took us off.

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

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

(Geography III, 1976)


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

Ellen

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


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

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


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

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

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


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Could there be more impact?

Ellen

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Puck in Motte’s filmic MND — presiding over wood, beach, mountain, his fingers seen typing away on his computer throughout ….

Friends,

I saw the Zellner Brothers’ pernicious film, Damsel, about two weeks ago now in my film club, and had debated ever since if I should write about it. I hoped it would go away, not be shown anywhere or hardly at all, not make any profit so the brothers would go out of business. No such thing. Today while watching Won’t You be My Neighbor?, I saw Damsel advertised as coming to a chain of theaters in my area. It is a film filled with acts of senseless violence, most of the characters exhibit a mindless obduracy, despise any openly vulnerable, tender, sensitive, and want to kill wantonly the one character who seeks friendship and love; one might offer the idea the Zellner brothers meant to parody the norms of the Trump regime and his non-super wealthy voting base, but the incongruities are inconsistent. If a Native American sounds like a Mel Brooks character upending the nonsense (he asks, “What is wrong with you people?”), he also steals everything he can from those he encounters and sneaks off in the night. The heroine is last seen rowing away into a misty lake with a miniature pony, determined to live on herself, in scornful need of no one. Most of the bulk of humanity are presented as moronic peasants who are first seen hanging a useless chubby man in a barrel (classical allusion to preferring begging to being a corrupt lord)


Mark Pattison at the ready (does not need anyone but himself, his gun, and the helpless animal)

One of the central male characters, Samuel (Mark Pattison) is someone out of the scenarios of our mass massacres by white men. Samuel is a white actor and he insists Parson Henry (David Zellner, one of the two people who made this film) a preacher come with him to marry him to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) a girl whom he says has been kidnapped. He is ferocious with his gun. When they finally find her, and Anton (Gabe Casdorph) a young man is seen leaving the hut they live in, this young man shoots him dead. Then we see a gun come out of the door of the house and begin to shoot. It is Penelope. She comes out and immediately it is evident she loathes Samuel, a stalker — for that is what he is. She was in love Anton, whom he has murdered. She tries to and succeeds in murdering Samuel while he is pissing in an outhouse. She then under point of gun, puts material for a bomb around Parson Henry’s neck and at gun point forces him to walk ahead of her. She blows up buildings. She is insane, the young man stalking her was insane — as the young white man who murdered those nine black people in a church was insane. The preacher is laughed at by the film since he does not want to murder anyone and is constantly being threatened with death. Everyone carries a loaded gun in this film.

Other characters: the other Rufus who seems related to Anton (David Zellner) shows off that he is ignorant, ill-dressed, and violent. The movie opens with another nameless preacher and another anonymous young white man waiting for a coach that never comes. Public transportation is non-existent in this desert. Finally the preacher walks off leaving the passive young man waiting.

But it’s not a parody of today’s America because it is immersed in and endorses the violent characters intensely. Not a moment of kindness except by Preacher Nathan and he is sneered at because he needs people: “that’s your problem, ” says Penelope. In the end Nathan returns to the village idiots and stays with them. They drink whiskey and spend their time drunk — they have none or don’t drink water they tell Samuel.


Mia Wasikowska as Penelope (at Cinema art theater)

I had thought going to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would simply be a trip into Laura, Izzy and my shared experiences together in front of a TV, nostalgic, possibly sentimental, making tear up, but it was a serious deconstruction of the profoundly humane and socially good ideas actuating Fred Rogers to make 4 decades of children’s programs that reached out to them candidly.  Mr Roger’s Neighborhood experienced through children’s art (like puppets) children’s apprehension of the world and built their self-esteem, consoled, uplifted, solaced and taught them about the realities they find themselves in.  By tracing Rogers’ career from his leaving the religious ministry to replace the slapstick, obtuse ridiculing, and ceaseless violence in one form or other with his programming really taking kids into account, the viewer travels through how we moved from a seemingly optimistic era and pro-social behavior (enacted, put into law, supported), to the present time, represented in Rogers’ fairy tale land by the arrogance, indifference, and willfull disregard to human needs. The King puppet wants to be a dictator. I remember Daniel as a surrogate for Rogers; the grief of Henrietta Pussycat making Laura grieve too. Rogers’ neighborly world connects the mirrors in the fairyland and good words well understood. Nothing to hide, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Would you believe groups of Trump bigots rant about Rogers as a socialist, and hold up placards saying they hate him. Rogers had on his show a long-time black TV actor, Susan and her husband, our black exemplary parents, Maria the touching young Puerto Rican girl who grew old with the part. A group of these people who loathe him came to his funeral with signs saying how he was a “faggot,” and how they hate him. Trump types have long accused him of wanting children to feel they are entitled to things without working for them. They say all children should be taught they must earn respect. Love does not seem to come into this. He is called gay because to them he is unmanly. Rogers does say how he dislikes TV, especially popular children’s TV, which is frenetic, filled with clowns, and pours thick messes over children, shows cartoon characters in intensely violent acts. I remember the first time Laura saw the Road Runner; she was terrified the character had died when he fell off a roof. We didn’t have TV for the first five years of Laura’s life as out TV had died and we didn’t buy a new one for a few years. American cartoons are the first place Americans are inured to cruel violence. Rogers went into TV to replace such pernicious fodder.


Charity Wakefield a wonderful Peter Quince to Fran Kranz as Bottom (see just below also)

The two films seemed to be so worlds apart, yet covering all possibilities of landscapes, houses people, until I saw Casey Wilder Mott’s fantastical film world, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s text of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Damsel left out imagination, beauty, and Mr Rogers was so concerned to reach children that his imaginative world of puppets is not dreamy but an analogue of our real world. Shakespeare takes us to a world elsewhere. Mott rearranged scenes, cut and rearranged film sequences and the actors were taught (as the BBC ones were for Hollow Crown) to speak Shakespeare trippingly off the tongue, to transform their anguish and comedy for more accurate, elegant language that nonetheless is spoken as naturalistic in TV films of Shakespeare like the recent Lear or The Hollow Crown. The worlds of the play were replicated in a couple of high-powered movie executives (Theseus, a recognizable serious actor, and Hippolyta, long willowy black model), 25 year old white children of super-rich parents (the lovers), hard-working clueless actors, the last two falling into a magical holiday time. Oberon is an older black actor, Titania an Asian actress. Among new patterns: this turns out to be written by Puck wonderfully acted by Avon Jogia as sprite.

Go see Damsel if you enjoy cruelty, jeering at vulnerability, but if not, don’t support this travesty of toxic masculinity. Trump’s world, his impulses heroized or mocked (depending on how you see this). Alas not a museum piece but a “western.” Don’t give them any more money: the Koch Brothers and their ilk is supplying enough; the new Supreme Court is determined to give intolerance power because that’s free speech. Your right to liberty gives you the right to exclude, reject in the public sphere now.


Fred Rogers answering a little girl’s answer (the same as above)

Open up to what people truly are with Fred Rogers. Watch Rogers’ face go to stone and his eyes show pained rage when he consider the mockery of his show on Saturday Night Live where they invented a plot where an actor looking like him is put into a wrestling match with one of his characters to reveal how he is in fact a hypocrite and turns to nasty spiteful violence when he is losing. He is remembering how he was bullied as a boy. You’ll learn about the history of the show (they did make the mistake of trying to film the challenger and caught it exploding), Rogers’ attempt at a show for adults (it didn’t work, too hard-hearted by our thirties we might say).

Achieve forgetfulness of the world of Trump and 30% we are told of Americans supporting him in Wilder’s choice of eloquent passages from Shakespeare turned into text messages, the voice of Puck, the quarrels of the lovers. The wood, the beach. The play within the play finds the actress and actors dressed like the stars from Star Trek (Thisbe looks like Princess Leia, while Pyramus looks like Hans Solo).


Shakespeare’s lovers on the beach

Summer movies are implicitly jeux d’esprit. Not this year. A fat man with a remarkably stupid smile or stupid stubborn pig expression, incapable of making sense for a spoken or speech paragraph (he can only tweet) is becoming a disguised dictator, opening detention camps and prisons around the US, putting children in their squalid conditions (and is not impeached for anything he does which undermines the constitution), and who will he come for next, and do what to the detainees? Mr Rogers didn’t succeed it seems — a cartoon show of him is all that is left on PBS. Are the Zellners right about humanity in their depiction of everyman’s village in their western?


Scofield in the trumped-up trial (A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt)

“Our natural business lies in escaping said Bolt’s Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1960; shall we all escape to the wood? One problem with that is the characters achieve comfort by making fugitive visits to the obscenely rich palladium mansion of Theseus.

Ellen

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Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect series)

I, too, dislike it — Marianne Moore

Friends,

I’ve embarked on a reading journey through an area mostly unfamiliar to me, and Polonius-like, can come up with only the clumsiest of labels: the mystery, detective, suspense, gothic, spy thriller, crime, murder novel. Most of the time even with the most generally admired, about half-way through I grow tired of the formulas, and either give the story up altogether, or skim-read to the end. That’s what happened yesterday when I read for the first time Dashell Hammett’s much-bepraised The Maltese Falcon. Or I get to the end, and think what a good book this has been, until three minutes thought assails me, and I see it for the claptrap anti-feminist thing it is and become seriously annoyed. That’s what happened the other day when I finished Winston Graham’s Merciless Ladies.

I admit I can be hooked by a film serial; especially late-at-night, with a female hero, be drawn intensely in by its mix of ingredients blended into my more favored fare: that’s what happened with the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. I can like the “Golden Age-1930s mold” even with a wholesome male at the center and a sermon at close: my favorite time for watching James Norton in Grantchester was 1 in the morning.


Typical cheap paperback cover illustration for the era …, now published by the New York Review of Books as a worthy book, became a remarkable 1950s movie by Nicholas Ray

But I’m no more fooled than Raymond Chandler in his debunking “The Simple Art of Murder,” or Julian Symons in his truly brilliant and entertaining Bloody Murder: “it is an inferior thing, but a thing with its own particular and unique merits. Nobody condemns Restoration comedy outright because it lacks the profoundity of Jacobean drama” (20), as with most film noir and ghost fiction.

I’ve embarked on this because I’ve embarked on a book on Winston Graham, his Poldark novels and Cornwall (working title). I don’t intend to read every work he ever wrote, or study every film made from said work (some in each kind are dreadful). To understand the man and his genuinely creative books, one cannot ignore 30 odd volumes of suspense set in our contemporary era, a few of which have been much admired, with one famous title (even had an opera made of it last year, i.e., Marnie, and some time ago a very good play by Sean O’Connor). One chapter I’ve told myself.

I’ve been reading these desultorily, out of order for a few years now, depending on what I thought I could stand: The Forgotten Story, written the same year as Ross Poldark, historical Cornish, deeply reflective of the trauma of WW2, Angharad Rees starred in the now wiped out serial; The Walking Stick, with its fine movie with David Hemmings; The Little Walls, won prestigious prize; Angell, Pearl and Little God, despite its godawful title, said to have been considered for a movie with Brando in a leading role. Graham has a number of novels with (to me) unappetizing titles, many first published with embarrassing covers.


I like this 1960s Bodley Head cover illustration of Demelza used on all four of the Bodley Head publications of the first four Poldark books

But now it will be my project, give me some kind of goal for a biographical book of my own, one I think I can do for real, and which is called out for — there is no book on this man whose work is so well known, liked, has made a great deal of money for so many. And I’ve corresponded with his son who for now has no objection. All the reading and love I’ve put into my study of biography and continual reading of literary ones (now there is a genre or book type that when done right I don’t tire of but read on however slowly to the end) — could just emerge in one of my own.

So I’ve begun steadily working through Graham’s early ones in the order they were written, and when revised, cut down, rewritten (several were) even comparing the two texts. And I’ve found myself engaged, e.g., The Giant’s Chair, 1938, became Woman in the Mirror, 1975. Alas (for Graham’s mature judgement of his own work), the earlier version is much better. I’ve heard this said of the first 12% longer version of Ross Poldark. The Giant’s Chair set in 1920s Cornwall, with attention paid to geology, geography, local feel, has an idiosyncratic charm, a traumatized secondary hero, disabled son, unjust death (not by murder), with believable heroine who has Radcliffian adventures, lesbian sexuality, becomes a weak hard-boiled thin bloody murder read, albeit with some stronger lines and passages — and more coherent clarity.

Tomorrow if I can get through the byzantine “security” procedures of the Library of Congress (whose real effect is to curb research, lest the cowardly congress be at risk as they place their iron heels on 90% of us), I shall read the relatively rare 1937 The Dangerous Pawn. It fetches $2000+ on the open market.


Jeremy Brett — the 1980s Sherlock Holmes

For tonight I thought I’d introduce one aspect of this fantastically successful genre, which the reader may not know or not mind being reminded about. (Beyond how necessary it is to find delight and solace in its central detective figure0. How flexible it is all the while keeping its recognizable furniture. It can accommodate so many kinds of stories & materials because one can tell anything to Sherlock. Two weeks ago I watched a remarkable modern-type BBC film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s real novel of quality, The Woman in White (1860), arguably one of the pattern forms. I remember reading it in two days when I lay sick with flu — 1973 that was, we lived at the top of Manhattan with our dog, Llyr. The Italian Fosco was the origin invention that gave rise to the book of Marion Halcombe, the spinster who I defy anyone not to like. About the subjugation of women. The lady gone mad is not in the attic but wanders from her asylum across moors.

I had thought a genre I am familiar with, have long loved in the dyptich, historical romance, historical fiction, was very far from suspense novels. I was wrong. As in Graham’s oeuvre, characteristics, motifs, character types slide across one another co-terminously. It is not that uncommon to alternate between them. Police procedures can combine with women’s subjective novels, which historical romances are a version of in disguise. The great Breaking Bad belongs to this genre.

And today LeCarre is one of those who have made of them philosophical politically engaged books. I suppose the road was opened for this first by Hammett (1931, The Glass Key is not far off his rewrite-collaboration with Lilian Hellman from stage to film, Watch on the Rhine, 1941). I remember first reading LeCarre’s early, A Small Town in Germany (1968) which I thought was a fable about integrity very like Trollope’s The Warden (a similar retiring male at the center).

Trollope by the way knows the drill. In his parodic dark The Eustace Diamonds he has the de rigueur fuss about key, locked room, weapon (depends for working on some mechanical device), not to omit the importance of the exit/entrance and mappable space. By reverse logic, it stands to reason Trollope had no feel or urge to write historical fiction. He didn’t care what happened at “exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning” fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.


A Nancy Drew introspective cover, as Umberto Eco says at the opening of Il nome della rosa,

Naturalmente, un manoscritto

I have almost written myself into admiring this stuff. As I write myself into wakefulness and a feeling of cheer. Now if only I could find real pleasure in reading it. It can be fun to read about it on the train and watch it obsessively at 1 in the morning.

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

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


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

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

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


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

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


Bean is that movement under blue cloth

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

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

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


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

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


One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

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


Scofield in pain but controlling himself


Anna giving up her son

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

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


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

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

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

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One of the older Penguins

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

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


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

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

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

Ellen

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