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radvanovsky-devereux
Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

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Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

Duchessduke
Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:

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It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).

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One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

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Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

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Garanca

We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

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Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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SetDetail
A moment from the production — the distancing and then the

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close up: Kristine Opolais

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I saw a re-transmission of the Met HD movie broadcast of the now ten year old production by Anthony Minghella (he directed, influenced the design, costumes) of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly movingly acted and sung by its principals, Kristine Opolais (who I’ve now watched and heard as an equally extraordinarily acted utterly different Manon Lescaut and Mimi in La Boheme) as Cio-cio San, and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Cio-cio San’s one loving friend, servant, companion. They were mesmerizing in their earnestness, long-waiting irony, bitterness, and finally absolute pursuit of death:

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We are nowadays used to these pared-down minimalist productions where the inward life of the protagonists is the central action focused upon, so it could not seem as astonishing it is must’ve done 10 years ago. Since I remember one other Madame Butterfly I saw in the 1970s at the City Opera (the usual intricate production design, fussy sets, distracting stage business, objects), I can say this is not a split-second dated. Indeed Minghella’s production is moving to a London theater this summer and I expect will produce several DVDs before the production sees its last performance.

The pared down production and what is left on the stage makes the opera into his utterly inward exploration of a single woman who is deluded into thinking this man loves her:

ActI
Women who were themselves geishas deliver her

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Between Act 1 and 2 three years have gone by. We discover he abandoned her and see what these three years have done to her and her friend-companion. During this act she is pressured to marry a rigid male from her culture. Quietly — and alas not emphasized in this production — we see at core she has rejected the roles her society gave her: to be an obedient geisha and then one woman in a harem of a polygamous man. Who would want that? For a short while she thought she found an alternative in Pinkerton. He turns out to be just such a shit towards women as the men in Japan. When he returns early in Act 3, he discovers what has happened and what is his reaction? to flee, leaving his wife to take her child or his son away from Cio-cio San. He refuses to see her or allow her to see him. There are a few slats on stage to suggest Asian walls and doors, a high stairway wide as the stage, and above a screen for light.

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Flowers are used — the place is littered with petals the way the air is filled with stars and a kind of fluff.

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”  Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
After this rare meditative moment towards the end of Act 3, Pinkerton flees the stage

Although Gary Halverson is again listed as film director (how he works with Carolyn Chaos, Minghella’s widow who listed as director we are not told).

I was just overwhelmed by emotions which the acting and the music projected. These while rooted in this particular story could be exaltation, love, grief, anger, despair over many other experiences. This suggestiveness is deliberate. For example at the end of Act 2 when the Cio-Cio-San thinks Pinkerton’s ship is coming into harbor, she, her friend-servant, Suzuki and the puppet for her boy, the three sit in kneeling way ever so quiet, just sit there and the darkness falls. This after the stark grief, anger at the attempt to get her to marry someone else, and other emotions have made the stage seem so noisy.

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The bunraku puppetry was part of the mesmerizing effect. It’s a form of traditional Japanese puppetry, strange, expressive, plangent. Probably what was used connects to an American version. Butterfly turns into a small fragile puppet buffeted about:

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I would have said well that won’t compare with a real child. I would have been wrong.

Anotherincarnation
Another incarnation where a photo caught the depth of the art

The child puppet is just so expressive and so yearning and so needy and so loving and eager; the people using sticks and dressed in black make his body and fact aching with emotion. His bald head on this wobbling neck made him all the more poignant. There is something so touching about the puppet’s fragile dignity:

Madam-Butterflpuppetry

The puppeteers also danced and manipulated lovely blue paper birds when Cio-cio San is hopeful at the opening of act 3.

Robert Alagno was Pinkerton and the actor showed himself embarrassed or dull when he denied Pinkerton is to be judged (!) and asserted how the character is innocent and needs to be forgiven. He did seem singularly bland in Act 1 but by the time you are into Act 3 and he turns up only to flee. Anything he does in context seems fatuous. He seems to be an ass, and especially an American ass. The music standing for him is American. When the puppet is last seen it has an American flag, waving at us, as on the other side of the stage Cio-Cio-San more than half crazed, stabs herself to death repeatedly. It is a symbolic indictment of the stupidity and cruelty of US colonialist policy far more effective in its starkness than Miss Saigon (thought the explicit connection of the recent production is important and I do not deny its power and detailed stronger relevance).

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The penultimate savage death scene

Since the production is older, there are few reviews of this 2016 staging, which differs significantly only in having Kristine Opolais for the first time, and to her credit, this decade long exposure is said to be revivified because of her presence. The New York Times also reviewed her performance more than anything else. I have the highest respect for Minghella since I read and studied with a class his screenplay out of Michael Ondjaate’s English Patient, which screenplay and film were among several fine works he wrote, directed, created his vision of life through (Truly, Madly, Deeply is another). This older review from 2006 is the best I’ve come across.

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Ellen

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Mooregoingonquest
Michael Moore sets out on his quest

Prologue:

BushGunTweet
Jeb Bush tweeted: [this is] America [and he’s proud to belong to a country epitomized by this image]

Donald Trump: he will cut billions in taxes from the wealthy, eliminate the Affordable Care Act; he is for privatizing everything possible, but he will not let anyone die in the streets; he seems not to understand the nuclear deterrent system of the US; he will re-institute systematic torture; he will gut the 4th and 8th amendment; he will limit free speech, control the internet; he will invade Iraq and take “the oil;” he would shoot Muslims with bullets covered with pig’s blood and require all Muslims to wear a sign identifying themselves as Muslim (if he cannot forbid them entry); he derides a disabled reporter, wants to punch in the face someone in the auditorium who has dissented from his views; he has the police throw out protesters; he sues anyone who exposes him …. here are the values and norms he will inculcate and follow if he becomes the United States president ….

Friends,

It’s uncanny how often Michael Moore’s films are spot on timely because he must plan them ahead. Maybe the public political scene in media does not move as fast as we assume it does. Or perhaps given a limited budget he pitches, writes, directs, and shoots his films in quick time.

The quest of Moore’s fictional adventures this time is: The Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon call Moore in to ask him to invade aany other country around the globe he wants in order to take from the people whatever they have of value to the US. We see him set forth in a boat with an American flag determined to visit countries we as US citizens have some knowledge of, share a linguistic base (we can pronounce the names) and enough common customs (like school lunches in elementary schools, family vacations), and less so but enough cultural assumptions to grasp analogies with our way of life and theirs. This is a ploy or allegory by which Moore delivers such a stinging critique of US norms and what our gov’t doesn’t do and does in the last fifty years that if he stood and made a sermon out of it, most people would walk out. He does point out or has his subjects point out how the idea they are now following, or the good lawyer they are using comes from the US. But it’s clear the idea has no purchase in the US today widely (or at all) and the lawyer rarely exercises his knowhow in the direction he is using say for Iceland in the US.

The story-line: Moore goes and talks to ordinary or significant people in European countries, mostly western and northern, a couple in Africa (Tunisia) who tell him how wonderful this or that set of customs, norms, laws the people enjoy as a matter of course — from decent vacation time, to wages high enough so no one need work more than one job, to health care, to humane prison sentences, programs for rehabilitation in prisons; we see disciplined policing contrasted to videos showing (many of these, so many) US policemen beating Americans as they assembly, as they protest, savagely destroying the bodies of black people, humiliating them, killing them. So many of these scenes — montages of them.

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A few quiet ones, like of the continual evictions of US people all over the US (engineered by banks, nothing whatever done to help these people: “Kicked out in America,” Jason DeParle’s review of Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, NYRB, March 10, 2016 issue). We see beautiful lunches served children in schools in France. Women in charge in Iceland. CEOs of banks sent to jail. One particular reality comes across repeatedly: high violence, especially of police towards blacks, but also towards any protester, and gun violence of US citizens. We see abysmal slums across the US, prisons into which refugees are placed.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’

The problem is the conversations Moore has with the people he has set up meetings with is not believable: they just go on in this exemplary way praising their own country as if it were just this pastoral paradise. Is it true that this rich French factory owner is glad that his workers are getting good incomes? We do hear from some union representatives who say if the unions were not strong and did not strike, they would not have this decent way of life but that’s not connected back to what we just heard. These are such simple minded dialogues, the watcher wonders if the people are just saying that for the sake of the cameras. It’s clear this is not the whole truth about their country. And it’s done in this jocular manner. A kind of goofus or faux naive stance. He would say “wow!” how can this be? How can your country afford this? Do people like this? I found it grating, and felt at first the whole movie was misconceived. He was leaving himself open for mockery and understandable dismissal. As with other of his movies, these scenes are all set up; they are not someone filming life as it goes on (Frederick Wiseman does this).

But as time (the film is two hours) went on 1) I began to see the audience was amused. Whether laughing at the conversations or Moore or I don’t know what. Myself I dislike people laughing at what is not funny in a movie audience, but if this important message he has to put before us, brings them in, all power to him. 2) the tone turned more somber and towards the end he had clearly mounted up a list of all sorts of needed things US people could do and need and do not (like have decent trains). He repeated and showed by tapes we used to honor these ideas and that some of what these foreign countries do we used to do.

A friend of mine, Diane Reynolds, summed the content up succinctly:

I also appreciated “Where to Invade Next,” a male-directed film but one that leaned heavily on women’s contributions in building more humane societies, especially in Tunisia and Iceland. As most probably know, Moore’s conceit is to “invade” countries that are doing social welfare well and take away their best ideas. His cornball antics can irritate, such as planting an American flag in countries he was “invading,” as can his distortions, but I very much resonated with his focus on the humane legislation and working conditions in other countries: ample vacation time in Italy, a law in Germany that forbids employers from e-mailing or calling employees when they are off, plus the civilized 36.5 hour work week which leaves people time to meet for coffee and enjoy leisure, the excellent education system in Finland, the chef cooked school lunches in France served on china, the extraordinarily humane prison system in Norway. We saw all these countries at their best–but their best is what s hould be celebrated and highlighted. I felt more dismayed than ever over what has happened here, especially the shots of prison and police brutality juxtaposed with talk from Portuguese police and Norwegian prison guards about no death penalty, humane treatment of prisoners, etc. I feel more impelled to get involved in prison reform, as it really is unutterably shameful here. Moore ended with noting what many of the people interviewed said: that their “best” ideas originally came from America. I hope this country get somehow gets back to normal … what I saw were countries that don’t loathe their own people and that are willing to spend a little extra money and time to make life better for people.

The question is, what happened? How did we get here? If we originally followed humane ideals or norms to some extent, where did they go? Moore doesn’t much say. He makes a couple of connections: at the time of the civil rights bill to extend voting rights to African Americans and all minorities, to stop systematic discrimination, the war on drugs began and with that the first mass incarceration of black men. No coincidence he says. In the 1990s the punitive system by the courts was set up. A sizable percentage of black men now can’t vote since in most states once declared a felon you lose your right to vote forever. He offers a map whereby if black men down south could vote more places would go liberal democrat.

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The film ends symbolically by the wall in Berlin today (interspersed with footage of it in the past and when it was crossed, the celebrations too). Moore is walking alongside the wall with a friend who was with Moore in Berlin in 1989 when the wall between East and West Berlin was broached, and the people around it stopped killing those who tried to cross. It is now a site for grafitti; a site de memoire, in places a crumbling hulk. The allegorical inference: at one time people said this wall would never come down. Well in a few days its power vanished. So maybe things can change back or again too. This is feeble as a solution. The ending feels so melancholy. Moore looks grim, unshaven, not in good health as he and his now aging friend walk together.

Where to Invade Next has a cumulative effect. Moore says to his audience, Look at these places where ordinary people live good lives, have good things of all sorts, where criminals are treated humanly and helped to rehabilitate when they can. He asks, What’s wrong with us? He says explicitly there is no reason we could not behave like these other countries. The wealth is here (if now kept in a few hands). The knowhow (if now mis-used). He has pictures of unsafe bridges and people protesting for good drinking water. Alas, there are very few longer reviews: Harry Barnes of The Guardian understands and praises it.

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Epilogue:

Trump
This recent photo of Donald Trump running for President is strongly reminiscent of Adolph Hitler rallying his fan-mobs — it fronts a periodical containing an article from the Southern Poverty Law Center “The Year in Hate and Extemism”

We are at a serious junction in US politics today: a fascistic, hate-mongering intolerate ignorant man who advocates violence, overthrowing the constitution in effect, may win the Republican nomination for president. (Read Roger Cohen’s Trump’s Il Duce Routine, the New York Times, Feb 29, 2016) Four score and seven years ago Lincoln said some 150 years ago can a nation so conceived — come together in this rational planned way, not something grown slowly over centuries — long endure? It seems to me we are again at a breaking point. The Republicans will not disqualify a man who openly says he will not obey law, will not obey his constitutional controls — while they are disobeying the constitution themselves: they will not allow Obama to exercise his constitutional power to appoint another member of the supreme court (they have abrogated and thwarted him for 7 years now). They want to destroy the gov’t; they don’t want it to work except for the 1% and themselves. They have come to power based on exploitation of bigotry (racism heavily) using hidden billionaires, and are beginning in various states to dismantle democracy altogether (see my Flint Redux, Snyder’s war on the public, Scalia’s enabling role and the Koch Dark Money). Read Juan Cole in Bill Moyers’ Journal.

Michael Moore does not make the argument that engineered poverty or imposed violence is leading to majorities of the Republican electorate voting for Trump. He insists we look at the values behind what we do. His insistence that American values lie behind some of the good things he sees in other countries seems to me a front which helps enable him make a superficially cheerful (and therefore possibly widely-seen) film. He is suggesting to us the actuating core of what’s happening in in the US come out of US values and norms. The countries he visits have alternative values and norms and he asks us, do we not want these? The grim heart of the film, never acknowledged, is maybe not. Moore does not say maybe we don’t want decent prisons which try to rehabilitate people. he avoids saying maybe this is a deeply religiously punitive, violent (see film on “aggravated assault and rape” in the US today) and racist society by not giving us history, by not making the connections of how we got here in 2016 (see Richard Steigman-Gall’s “It’s Not Just Trump”).

To turn to the timeliness of the film: Moore never mentions the current election: we could infer that majorities in the primary electorate of the Republican party vote for Trump because they share his values, norms, and aims and approve of violent punitive harsh religiously exclusionary, want racist institutionally-backed behavior.

Ellen

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Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd guarding her side as she allows herself to be taken to hospital

Friends and readers,

There is a great distance between the reviews of this film, the stills you see on the Internet, and the film itself. The film is a wrenching story on several levels set in a weak film; the reviews mostly overpraise saying very little but giving an impression of arch light comedy which we are told is nonetheless weighty but not why.

The story or source are scattered entries in Bennett’s life-writing diary covering 15 years in which Alan Bennett gradually allowed himself to become Margaret or Mary Shepherd’s care-giver, first seeking to get her as street nuisance into his empty driveway and into safety, not protesting when she used his house for whatever she needed (including for a chair to rest), then helping her daily, for example shopping

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to the point where finally the social workers come to him and one complains that she “senses hostility” in him (I laughed wildly at this utterance both times she spoke in this ever-so-patient manner) by way of complaining about his “attitude” or Miss Shepherd’s non-cooperation which include delusions about the Virgin Mary that must be accommodated. This is one-half of the overt central plot-design of an hour and 45 minute film.

The other half, or set of events interwoven are about Bennett’s own mother who we are first shown as in good health, but old and feeling justifiably neglected as he hardly ever comes to visit; she then gradually declines to the point he puts her in a retirement community, then assisted living, and finally into a bed where she seems comatose. He is represented as two Alex Jennings, him as a man living his daily life, and him as a writer observing and writing about himself.

To understand these juxtapositions and doublings you must know about Alan Bennett the real man. Sometime during his boyfriend his mother was put in an asylum because he and his father could not cope with her breakdowns and eventual insanity; his father was deeply depressed over this, and (as I recall) is presented as wanting to kill himself; they were lower middle class and had not much money to improve his mother’s care. Father and son felt destroyed by their decision and yet they could not keep her. In the film Miss Shepherd lives in fear someone will put her in an asylum. What Bennett has done is displace his real mother into softened fictionalized version of her as older mother next to Miss Shepherd to suggest to the viewer (and the writer says this) that he took care of Miss Shepherd to compensate for his lack of care when he was much younger for his real mother.

The backstory of who Miss Shepherd was when young and how she got this way, which is important in the film too, is kept to the margins because the story is about Bennett and this fifteen year experience even though he says near the close forming a first sort of climax that he put together her life over the 15 years and learned that her private life was in some ways more dramatic, theatrical, unusual than his.

The film opens with a concert done as an old film where we see a young woman playing a piano as part of an elegant orchestra. Little incidents, visits, information about a sister and brother-in-law combine to unfold a life of aspiration, gifts for music recognized, early achievement, which was mysteriously brought to an end when she entered a convent as a poor religious Catholic girl. The nuns disciplined her cruelly, would slam the piano cover on her hand when they caught her playing, dressed her poorly. We are never sure how she escaped them but it was too late for a career or marriage.

A woman alone with no career or husband or money does not do well. So we are left to imagine a Cathy Come Home story where there was no home, but a crook of some sort she now has to pay to stay away. I became uncontrollably distressed when a single flashback showed us that the opening of the film was her driving from a crime scene where she had run into a young man on a bike and killed him. Thus her hiding out and fear of police. We see her from time to time praying intensely in improbable places. At the shock of the crash and the spattering of blood, broken glass, I cried out and twisted in my seat such that the friend I was with worried for a moment.

It was not until then that I realized I found Smith’s performance as a homeless friendless ancient tenacious woman who makes a home for herself and the accumulated relics, remnants, junk and trash of her existence in a van pitch perfect enough to distress me deeply somewhere in myself. I went home needing a glass of wine immediately. She was by turns frightened (of a police car when we first see her) so driving at a frantic rate; ridiculous and dignified; stalwartly actually taking herself on a vacation to the beach at Broadstairs and drinking lights drinks as she looks out at the water and sky; and pitifully stinking, weak, in need of a toilet, utterly vulnerable (to an ex-crony played by Jim Broadbent who harasses her periodically, shaking her van, demanding money); and most memorably, indomitable because she held on tight to her pride:

Maggie Smith finds every laugh and every tear in The Lady in the Van. </e

As I tell this it becomes stronger than it feels in the film. The most melodramatic moment occurs when a nun slams down the piano and another scolds her, and we see her fleeing through empty rooms in a convent. The rest is snippets of talk, a fleeting image her, a comment there. Admirably there is nothing over-melodramatic, no juiced-up climaxes, but inevitably (as in life) in the main story repetition as the two participants never budge from their initial positions, she not owing him anything and he not taking responsibility for her. Real and something many of us may experience from some angle in some form, material presented in this displaced way does not make for a riveting naturalistic film experience.

A friend suggested to me Bennett was too close to his material this time. We are not allowed to see or experience what is going on inside Bennett — the way we do his protagonists in Talking Heads. I know his most successful works are ironic comedy with surrogates for himself that are not recognizable. There is an allusion to these six monologue plays because in the film he is during one year of the fifteen seen playing the one closest to himself in a nearby theater. We glimpse male friends and associates now and again (Dominic Cooper plays one), and passing remarks that he hides his life from others, but we must know he is homosexual to understand this too. The present time story is punctuated by incidents where we see his neighbors reacting to Miss Shepherd, or him, or both of them. The neighbors are played by highly respected actors and actresses who seem to be friends and associated with Bennett from other plays or films, for example, Frances de la Tour as Vaugh Williams’s widow

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On the Internet where I found these oddly discordant reviews, Smith is most often pictured in stills with Alex Jennings as Bennett, looking comic, arch, as if she’s having a just this great fun time pushed by Bennett in a wheelchair

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but more true to the continuous quiet temperature of the film are the few of her encounters with neighbors, made up of ever so kind and tolerant but essentially indifferent people who provide no help:

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Deborah Findley and Roger Allam as a married couple off to the opera.

The best reviews here and there remark on undercurrents of the film: it is a strange poignant duet of prickly unhappiness and wry humor. Most seem to overpraise except if you read carefully. The Telegraph seems to feel it stands for the best Englishness (and is just hilarious) Ebert’s column says it’s for anyone who adores Maggie Smith. A number of the more popular type (on Rotten Tomatoes) attempt critiques, it’s a Disney-like homelessness, or dull, one person talks earnestly, meaning well, taking psychological language seriously (“a misunderstood woman suffering from PTSD”), others like NPR typically take it lightly.

But it isn’t light. Look at her! Notice the fierce look in her eyes. She’s holding on to life with great difficulty. Look at how she has to dress to keep herself minimally comfortable and self-respecting. I’ve seen lots of “crazy ladies” in NYC like her. Some men too.

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At the end before Miss Shepherd is taken away to hospital because she has become so very sick, the social workers feel they must take her in to do “blood work.” She looks much better when washed, dressed in a clean starched dress, her hair brushed and put into a ponytail. She eats quietly at a table. She does not die there but returns to the van. Bennett permits himself several untrue sentimental moments (one of the Alexes tells us this) and the night before she dies, she holds out her hand to him, he takes it and they squeeze. The next morning she is found dead. There is a funeral, a burial, a historical plaque like those of famous authors to show the Lady in the Van lived here 1974-1989.

But that doesn’t end it. We get one of these extraordinary post-life scenes where Miss Shepherd suddenly appears and tells Bennett she has met the young man she killed and we see them walking off together. And then we see her in an absurd translation taken into heaven with a God in sky — like the Virgin Mary she has mentioned many times in the film. It didn’t work for me as satire. But much of Bennett’s work is about religious belief and how religion is perverted, misused (I hope my reader has seen Bed Among Lentils) — and in Miss Shepherd’s life it was that.

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In the film Miss Shepherd gets a new van more than once and paints it yellow-orange; Bennett as writer using a voice-over tells us Miss Shepherd was happiest when absorbed painting her latest van

Ellen

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The best moments are the quiet ones: characters walking and talking, so here are Mr and Mrs Bates off to work (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggart)

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Mr Moseley in the village square self-reflexively selling tickets to come see ….

Mr Carson: “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?”
Answer: No, but most are not part of moribund mini-series.

Friends and remarkably patient readers,

Despite outbreaks physiological and psychological of intense distress, surely you’ve noticed we are on our way to as happily ever after as human beings ever know:

I take out my crystal ball developed out of not-so attentive watching (I would open a book and take bets only that I don’t understand betting):

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Our princess Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is going to marry the self-indulgent drone Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and run Downton Abbey efficiently as a cross between a tourist attraction and generous farm rental site; Barrow will become head butler and spend his declining years indulging all Lady Mary’s children; our secondary heroine Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) will marry Bertie Pelham (Henry Haddon-Patton, a double-moniker there) despite Lady Mary’s final spiteful attempt to use her knowledge that Marigold is an illegimate child. Pelham is not a prince in disguise, but he is not the total shit Lady Mary had hoped. Mr and Mrs Bates (the one truly aggressive man in the series and his very long-suffering wife) will have that baby, which will be healthy and retire to their property to become prosperous landlords. Lord Grantham will not die young because Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) is just too soothing and complacent a presence to allow an early death once Violet Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) despite her Methuselah-like great age settles down to supporting Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston)’s matching spite and Spratt’s stamp-collecting habits (Jeremy Swift).

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A single housekeeper, skeletal staff, and “day help” will replace “downstairs”

Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) will show yet more extraordinary patience as she endures married life with that self-indulged prig of the patriarchy, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) who is not capable of going to bed without looking to see if the sheet corners are expertly done nor eat if his dinner is not eternally hot and as exquisitely cooked as if he were a Shah of Saudi Arabia. Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) will marry Mr Mason (Paul Copley), bringing to his tenant farm her dowry of her property. Now married, a highly educated Daisy (Sophie McShea) and Andy (reading and writing too as the best of them, certainly no one knows pig theory better) will come to live with them.

Have I left anyone out? Tom Bransom (Allen Leech)’s fate is as yet obscure. Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) have been granted an intermediary in the person of an astonishingly kind prospective daughter-in-law (what I can’t figure out is how she can marry that vicious son of his?).

While I just know in the longer run Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) will marry Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who will become a teacher in a school (he takes a test next to Daisy in Episode 6), there is another bit of a twist and turn down the road as it seems after all she had some feelings for the crook who arranged his theft in such a way as she went to prison. Both such good souls, they will work it out.

How easy some of them have it now? Lady Edith’s interviews of prospective women employees are without tension? No rivalry whatsoever. How is it that this newspaper is so easy to run?

Interviewee (2)

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What a gentle time of it they all have

As to Talbot, are there no aggressive males left on the planet? When with Lady Mary, he behaves as if he were in school assembly.

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In Downton Abbey only servants are harshly treated …

So why are we carrying on? in this excruciating slow motion? (For recaps see Anibundel: 5, Who would have thought the old man had so much blood?, 6: Downton Abbey as Antiques Roadshow lacks information). Because the ratings were so high and potential audience and money from advertisers were too tempting.

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On Episode 5: I admit to being a viewer whose emotions have at times been deeply engaged with these characters, so when the hospital debate came a crisis with Violet’s coercing Neville Chamberlain himself to come to luncheon in the hope he will not permit the local hospital to be amalgamated to a county-wide organization and yet another of these tension-filled meals became too much for Lord Grantham — and his ulcers burst. What a comment upon 6 years of these dinners and luncheons, not to omit the occasional strained breakfast. I found myself distractedly distressed, tears running out of my eyes, to see this man coughing up huge goblets of blood.

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Lord Grantham’s ulcer bursts — he has clearly had enough (Hugh Bonneville enters fully into the role assigned every time, DA 6, Episode 5)

So the first time I watched, I was started into upset, and my emotions rose strongly; but if a movie has real depth in it and has earned belief, adherence, the second time through should be stronger as you notice more. Alas (almost), the second time through I felt indifference; the contrived nature of the scene once the shock wore off and especially since Fellowes had relied on this melodrama. I read somewhere that the genuine shock on Elizabeth McGovern’s face came from her gown, face and hands being spattered with the false blood from across the room. That was not supposed to happen and you can do only so many takes with such a scene. In the event, they did two takes only. I could see how it neatly ties up with the hospital debate in such a way as the Dowager must lose, but I felt that a sensitive fine actor (Bonneville) who let himself go into the part was exploited by this use of him.

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Mr Moseley helps Miss Baxter put on her coat after she has learned her ex-lover has pled guilty thus sparing her a confession of her complicity on the stand

As to Miss Baxter’s continuing agon, with the ever compassionate sensible Mr Moseley (who can put things into perspective with the joke — do you want me to go back and see if he will plead “not guilty”). What saves this series is not the humor (which is often not funny) but that continually as an undercurrent and some times rising to the surface (in coughed up blood?) are tensions, strains, disappointment, conflicted desires beneath the tranquil surface of life for these privileged lucky characters.

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Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs HARRY HADDEN-PATON as Bertie Pelham
The people on line are beginning to think somehow one group waiting has been favored over another, and the staff is doing what they can to push out such thinking from their minds.

On Episode 6: One of my favorite PBS shows has long been the Antiques Road Show on PBS as done in Britain; there is an American version, but for me not as much fun as these visits to large country houses and estates. And I have come to expect as a matter of course, that detailed knowledge of the most obscure objects will be forthcoming.

Taken as a gentle satire on the usual display of conjectured (they are careful to say it’s conjectured) information with prices that make the sellers unexpectedly happy, Episode 6 was worth a watch. There was a mild pleasure to be had in seeing how people really don’t know the facts wanted (or bogusly invented). Lady Edith couldn’t say who was in the picture; Cora, Lady Grantham did not know why one set of imitation shields over a fireplace had not been carved with any letters but over there was a bona fide Reynolds.

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She never thought to ask why the shields are not carved — the false importance such tours give to brick-a-bracks, making them numinous because “gazed at” in this ritual way is felt

Robert: “What on Earth can we show them to make it worth their money? Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?”

The dialogue where a tourist boy stumbles into Lord Grantham’s room to ask why he doesn’t get somewhere much more comfortable to live a bit heavy-handed but not all that improbable — if you think children are not alive to class and how rich people live differently. Mine and I knew by kindergarten.

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Lord Grantham will soon tell the boy he lives this way because that’s what he is used to

What was registered was Fellowes’s looking askance at those people who come to gawk; and his quiet sneer that to keep such places going you have to let people in who envy a style of life they have misapprehended as exciting but who are really endlessly thinking of whether their egos have been assuaged.

Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs MAGGIE SMITH as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Miss Dencker comes near to be fired for too much loyalty. When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) defected, she accosted him. He writes a letter of complaint to the dowager. So we see whose feelings count. Whose life matters. The Dowager’s response is not gratitude. What? did Dencker think she had a right to be loyal. to have any feelings at all? On the spot, the Dowager will fire her. The way Dencker holds on is to threaten to tell the Dowaer that Spratt hid his crook-nephew, so Spratt must go upstairs and ask for her reinstatement. When Spratt succeeds (so quickly it’s probable the Dowager did not want to sack Dencker), far from promising never to threaten again, Dencker says she will use short blackmail whenever she has to.

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Thomas Barrow contemplates suicide as his utterly selfless teaching of Andrew Parker is sleazily misread (Rob James-Collier and Michael Fox, DA 6, Episode 6

Thomas is beginning to have had it. After all these years of faithful service and self-control on his part, he is still not trusted enough so that if he strikes up a friendship with a footman the first thought all have is he’s buggering him. And he is continually nagged to find a job where he might have something useful to do. Had this been imitative of life either he or Andy would have said he was teaching Andy to read.

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Lady Edith and her suitor stroll through St James Park — or is it Kensington Gardens we are to suppose we are entering into (Episode 5)

So what have we gained from Episodes 5 & 6: And they all headed to live happily ever after despite the occasional strong strains

I did remember this poem while watching some of the quietly strained moments amid the engineered systematic indifference of most to most between characters who pass through much splendor and have who at times have something to me:

Musee de Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
— W. H. Auden

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Mrs Crawley facing Lord Merton’s persistence registers on her prudent face fear of what her marrying Lord Merton might cause them to experience

Ellen

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Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years

Geoff: You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?
Kate: No. I think I was enough for you, I’m just not sure you do

Friends and readers,

See it twice. You cannot understand the first half until you’ve seen the scene at the middle when Kate (Charlotte Rampling) finally climbs the folding ladder up to the attic of her and Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) house to look at the album and slides he has apparently been looking at regularly for 45 years, and discovers with an intensely painful sound that Katja, the young woman her husband loved before he married Kate, had been pregnant. Katja died in an accident 50 years ago, so this occurred 5 years before Geoff met and married Kate. Geoff and Kate have had no children, only a series of beloved dogs.

Only then can you grasp, feel the build-up of emotional pain in both halves of the film, their repressed ideas as they spend Monday through Thursday together, leading to that climb, and then after the viewing Geoff’s return from a reunion forced on him (“Fucking endless” he calls it), at long last some talk between them about how this previous relationship has sown distrust and a comparative perspective between them, and the final anniversary party where at the height of the supposed joy Kate throws off Geoff’s arm and looks out at us with a look of such betrayal as to leave me breathless, wordless, all the while I know she may be wrong. It may be that Geoff found her enough even if she thinks she has been enough for him and that her idea he does not feel this is a form of self-flagellation. This is a story about the complex experience of long-term marriage.

One review, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, has come near to doing justice to the depth and complexity of emotions dramatized in this story; but most say almost nothing, Ebert’s column carried on by others, or like A. O. Scott in the New York Times, too melodramatic, seeking some kind of climax. For the source in a David Constandine story see Stephen Dalton’s “Berlin Review.”

A central theme and set of insights is into the perpetual effect of memories in a relationship, as powerful even if never openly admitted to. The first time I went I found the experience salutary: Rampling and Courtenay teach us how self-control prevent us from the utterly counterproductive act of suicide when facing all that old age brings, how empathy is an achieved state of mind, made with steely effort out of kindness to the other and to ourselves.

Another of its undercurrents which rise to the surface, there all the time, not memory, is a deep discomfort, un-home-yness that has been part of this married couple’s life from its start. She smells a perfume in the air she thinks is one Katja used and she has never spoken of this until now. For 45 years she held her peace. He shakes his head.

The second time was cathartic. The two had discussed memories in ways that suggested he at least had striven to leave a somewhat false impression about the importance of this previous relationship, and she had lived with this cover-up. It was only in the second time as the film opened I realized the framing sound of snaps and a black screen were registering Jeff’s visits to the attic to look at the old slides of his possible pre-honeymoon in Switzerland Alps with Katja 50 years ago; I now could understand the coming of a letter from the Switzerland authorities that Katja’s corpse had been found led to Kate’s easy “finding” of a guidebook for Geoff that Geoff had put in the garage because Katja’s death had never been far from her (or his) memories and consciousness. I felt breathless with recognition. You don’t have to have the same particulars of memories.

Filmszene "45 Years"

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The story line is simple. We begin on the arrival of a letter on a Monday morning of a week whose Saturday night is to culminate in an anniversary party for our hero and heroine. The POV is Kate’s (Rampling): Kate is in every scene and we see Geoff (Courtenay) through Kate’s eyes. However Haigh’s script (with its suggestions of other times and points of view) and Courtenay’s acting transcend Kate’s perspective so we experience his too.

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The movie moves slowly proportionately imitating how we feel over each day’s routines. As each day is over the screen goes black and an intertitle of a typed day of the week appears. Tuesday Kate goes into town to look at possible presents for Geoff. Kate cannot get herself to buy Geoff an expensive watch. While in town she meets one of her true long-time friends (life supplies few of these), Nina (Geraldine James) and it’s in Kate and Nina’s conversations it’s confirmed what we had suspected from Kate’s dialogue with a vendor that Geoff is reluctant to go to his and her anniversary party this coming Saturday night. Kate is not keen herself on parties.

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In the cafe

It’s through Nina we discover how Geoff is intensely put off by hypocrisies of social life, and Nina’s conversation enables us to grasp Geoff’s half-articulated disillusionment with what happened to the idealists he knew as a young man. Coming back from his reunion he reports “Red Len” now has a banker grandson, spends his days playing golf in an Arab emirate. He and Katja had been part of a generation who saw as courageous refusing to cooperate, who resisted being co-opted into middle class life and occupations after university. We learn that Kate looks upon such “bravery” as delusional and cowardly. That Nina still resents how in public Geoff had called her a fascist when she said “Thatcher had not made such a bad job of it.” Nina takes Kate to buy a dress; tells Kate that Kate must not give up the party, that Nina’s husband, George, had protested against their anniversary party and yet wanted it. It’s Nina who supplies a board of photos of Geoff and Kate over the years made up of snaps taken by friends on various occasions. Nina is the good woman friend lucky women hold onto over the years. She’s ordinary and good-natured: we see her encourage her husband in his latest fad of ukulele playing: if it add a note of jolliness, what’s the harm — it irritates Geoff how everyone goes on about this playing as if it were good.

Haigh imitates realities of older people’s lives. Nina and Kate spend time helping people twenty years older than themselves on a pleasure excursion boat. Nina is encouraging a daughter who lives with her to try a new profession as a photographer while the daughter (and apparently a grandchild) lives with Nina and George after the break-up of a marriage. I liked little touches: how the dog protests when Kate brings down the rickety ladder and climbs it up to the attic. My cats dislike when I bring down my ladder and climb up to my attic and can be heard walking about from the ceiling below.

Dancing

Geoff and Kate are shown to have much satisfaction in life: they live in a beautiful suburban countryside in southern England; they are retired, read together. He cannot drive any more but she can and ferries him to where he wants to go. On the Wednesday night they remember happy moments and dance and try to make love late at night. He does not quite succeed and feels bad: we have learned he had a “bypass,” open heart surgery five years ago and is frail and should not smoke. He begins again after the letter arrives. Over the course of the week Kate finally allows herself to realize, to face that Geoff goes up to the attic to look at photos of Katja and the album regularly. He would go to Switzerland to retrieve the body if he could: Kate discovers this by going into town after he goes alone by bus and comes home late. But he has faced that he can hardly walk in town, much less climb a Swiss mountain to where her body lies. Courtenay speaks five moving soliloquys, two in bed, one with Kate by his side — they reminded me of Laurence Oliver’s final eloquent meditation in Brideshead Revisited just before his character’s death.

Kate has been asked to list music to be played at the anniversary party, and some of these 60s hits are heard across the film. The music functioned the way it had for Last Orders: as ironic commentary, reinforcement. All these years when Kate has heard one of Jeff’s tapes, “I only want to be with you” sung by Dusty Springfield, she has felt he was remembering Katja. The Turtles “Happy together” has been an exercise in self-doubt. Geoff is on best behavior all Saturday to show he does love Kate and wants to go to the party: he brings her tea in the early morning, scrambles eggs for them for breakfast, walks with her and their dog for the first time all movie long, leaves a present of a necklace for her. So she sits down to play music for the first time it seems in years at her piano. It might have been Sibellius but I am not sure. She grieves as she plays. One the way there she apologizes to Geoff for not buying the watch. He says that he does not like to know the time anyway. Throughout the film when given an opportunity he makes kind remarks to her. He tries to tell the truth: when she asks him if he would have married Katja had she not died, he says yes and repeats it; but then when she asks if he’s lying and they had married, he says no, it was a pretense so they could travel together. He is honest. This hurts, but it is better that way.

At the high point of the party Geoff is expected to get up and give a speech. This reminded me of other films where the male gets up and speechifies but never the female (Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma had Mark Strong talking but not Kate Beckinsale as Emma) and I remember how when Jim retired at a party given for us two, he spoke and I didn’t. I didn’t want to but maybe I’ve been trained not to. When I got an award this November I had to read a short few lines I wrote for myself and then was intensely relieved to leave the limelight. He is relieved to sit down and as he has told her earlier he depends on her strength to get him through and kisses her hand:

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Geoff and Kate had danced at their wedding The Platters: Smoke gets in your eyes.

I experienced a deep wrenching when she discovered from the photos in the attic that Katja was pregnant and again at the close. As I watched them under strobe lights though my Jim is dead, and he and I had been married 44 years and he died 3 days after we were together 45, and he and I will now never know such moments however ambivalent (anyway we never had the friends to invite to such a party) — I could take it. Tt was when Kate pushed Geoff’s triumphant hand away and looked at the camera with such ghastly alienation and the music blares out the Moody BluesGo Now, I lost it, and had to leave the auditorium lest I cry out hysterically. It was indeed time for me to go now. I could escape. (The particulars of my story, the pain of these half-remembered memories, the half-lies has a different source.) Kate cannot escape her past and the “important choices” (as Geoff puts it in his speech) she made long ago, and she is holding on firm and enduring life as it has presented itself to her since, as is Geoff as her loving or at least peaceable companion. Their orderly existence is based on solvency, insight and shared acceptance. But it is also based on living with deep disillusionment, loneliness. Remember him sitting on that bench in the town smoking away when he knows to smoke is to kill himself.

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The mise-en-scene is so quietly pleasurable. The photographs of southern English countryside are understated so alluring. The pace makes one feel one is experiencing this world. She does her own dishes. He takes books out of the library on climate change and geography. There is one oddity: no one has a cell phone; no one sits and looks at a computer. I know that people in their sixties, 40+ years married are often as constant interacting with others on their devices as younger people. This lack may have its source in the story adapted.

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The foolish Oscar ceremony is coming up soon, and I’ve listed in another blog the four superb films in movie-houses I’ve seen in 2015: Mr Turner, I’ll Dream of You, Mr Holmes, and Kilo Two Bravo (on TV Wolf Hall). These are my candidates for awards. As I drove home, I tried to list the most recent profound films I’ve seen these actors in: Rampling in Night Porter and Sous la Sable; Courtenay in Little Dorrit, Last Orders, The Dresser, Geraldine James in Jewel in the Crown and She’s Been Away.

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This is one of those for 2016 I will remember for a long time to come and recommend going to see — who says a film can’t be as complex and ethical as a novel?

Ellen

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Bryan Cranston as Trumbo — who did write in a tub, while drinking alcohol and smoking …

Dear friends and readers,

I recommend not missing this film. Whatever the flaws, this is a strong film I wish everyone in the US would see. Alas, it’s a film for our Trump time.

To begin with, qua film it’s better than Truth (a story of the destruction of Mary Mapes’s career upon her attempting to expose Bush Jr’s lies about his military career), which never ceases to be presented in a hyped melodramatic fashion that prevents the viewer from having any sense of the real character of Mapes, though it does project the (today important) political message that news organizations have been hijacked and corrupted by political organizations and the profit motive. See “Why TV News must die:”: Bad tv news outlets cheer on horrendous candidates in sickly parodies of journalism, and those monstrous campaigns make money for the tv outlets.” It’s also dangerous for they promote bad people to office.

This is due largely to Cranston’s persuasive enactment of the man through a script that does trace his private as well as outward political and screenplay-writing life over a thirty-year period. Jordan Mintzer of Hollywood Reporter:

Cranston, who sheds the mimicry and pontificating of earlier scenes to turn Trumbo into a wry, self-deprecating and somewhat cheeky older man, even if he continued to stand up for what was right

Ty Burr of The Boston Globe:

Cranston’s performance is the motor that runs Trumbo, and that motor never idles, never flags in momentum or magnetism or idealistic scorn.

The pace of the film is also much slower than Truth, Trumbo boasts scenes longer than the usual of popular-style movies nowadays. Jay Roach was the director, probably appropriately the person to give credit to here is the writer, John McNamara. I say appropriately for an important phase of Trumbo’s career was his work was his writing for The Screen Writer where for years he was (rightly) scathing about the film industry’s bathetic scripts, crude commercialism, and significantly reactionary politics. The first subject is dear to my heart as anyone who reads my blog will know: I wrote a paper last spring on “The Importance of Screenplays” as a central instrument to making and understanding a fine film.

Trumbo also does not succumb to the mystery-suspense thriller plot-design increasingly ubiquitous to the extent it forms the spine of the recent Suffragette, a third political film for this season. (A fourth is Bridge of Spies, which apparently boasts a remarkable performance by Mark Rylance as the British spy working for Russians.)

Instead it harks back to the very 1940s style films Trumbo himself wrote: an “inspirational struggle of our Horatio Alger hero against the forces of darkness” (I quote from Bruce Biskind’s review in Cineaste). Incessant hard work, earnest caring about his fellow human beings, controlled courage when humiliated (in a powerful prison scene Trumbo is stripped naked and forced to display his private body parts to a heavily-armed guard on the other side of bars), over-worked in prison (and jeered at, insulted by an ironic black man who “hates” communists because they don’t “love this country” which has done so much for him), a strong talent which he manages to sell to D-film-makers carries our hero through to breaking the blacklist (we are told). And at the close of the film we get the final rousing speech, in this film moving delivered in a film clip of Trumbo himself in an interview he gave after it was revealed he had written Spartacus. The film harked back to 1930s and 40s films I’ve seen where Ronald Colman (Talk of the Town) and Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) take this role and it can still be seen in the still watched Jimmy Stewart telling us It’s a Wonderful Life!.

Beyond Cranston’s performance (and the actors playing with him, especially Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird), the film interweaves the present film with documentary film from the 1950s through 70s. These are startlingly revealing and make the analogous points the film-makers surely meant: HUAC insists in these documents cuts on its right to invade the privacy of US citizens “to protect the nation” from “enemies;” the first amendment is laughed at. We see a young ever so plausible Ronald Reagan. We see John Wayne haranguing people. I went with a friend who said substitute the word “Muslim” for communist and we could be in 2015. We glimpse the murder of the Rosenbergs. Some of the actors are dressed successfully to look close to, and act like the original people. Towards the end of the film when Cranston is an aging Trumbo he looks like him. These give needed ballast to the central threads.

I say needed because there is a great deal here that is gratingly untrue or evaded. The impression is given Trumbo just about single-handedly undermined and destroyed the blacklist by writing so many money-making screeplays and at least two academy award winners. He did support himself by writing scripts that sold movies under a pseudonym and at least three of these were nominated or given prestigious awards, but the blacklist had begun to deteriorate slowly with the advent of TV. He did nothing single-handedly which I’ve a hunch he’d have been the first to say.

One thing Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid shows is that the production code as much as political censorship was responsible for the inanities of popular films until the middle 1950s, and films like those made by Kazan (On the Waterfront no matter how rightist and Streetcar Named Desire), as importantly, The Pawnbroker (1964) ended vigilant vigilance, preparing the way for a more adult presentation of political ideas. The full truth would have to take into account the effect of British and other European films of the 1980s (My Beautiful Laundrette); only recently have films like Trumbo become common once again. it is untrue that Edward G. Robinson named names; he testified three times and called himself “a dupe of the communists” but he never named anyone.

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Helen Mirren as the vicious Hedda Hopper (she was)

Evaded also is Trumbo’s long career as a eloquent polemicist: he was himself targeted, a scapegoat on the basis of his own fierce hostility to the preponderance of terrible films in The Hollywood Spectator. He made enemies. Roach’s films shows Trumbo standing up for the rights of production crews to strike for higher wages. But Trumbo attacked the inflated incomes of the movie owners: he was a pre-2015 attacker of egregious inequality (see Tim Palmer, “Side of the Angels: Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Trade Press and the Blacklist,” Cinema Journal 14:4 (2005):57-74). I would be surprised the movie didn’t bring this out to make more analogies, but have read it’s based on Bruce Cook’s biography where fundamental research into other aspects of Trumbo’s career does not appear to have been done, or if so, used. There is no serious examination of the 1950: Trumbo’s great work is the tract, The Time of the Toad, comparable to Lilian Hellman’s Soundrel Time. The experiential emphasis of the film is on the trajectory of Trumbo’s admirable endurance of prison, years of incessant demeaning effort, ostracism, and (made into a comedy) final break-through when his apparently mindless bosses throw the persecutors out using a large heavy stick.

louisck
Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird

Still as a political statement and viscerally moving story, Trumbo is as good as Suffragette, and like Suffragette better than most films I’ve seen all year — especially if you consider its theme. It shows the destruction of many lives; it reminds me of Kenneth Johnson’s Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1970s in conveying how little it takes to rob someone of a decent place to live, to ruin someone’s private relationships, make sure they never fulfill their talents or are useful to society.

This is where the story of Arlen Hird comes in: the movie shows everyone continually smoking, and this man develops cancer. The disease goes into remission but he finds himself unable to produce shlock under a false name rapidly and the stress and misery of his existence (his wife leaves him) leads to an early death. You see how easily hatred and fear is whipped up among people. The film ends on the real Trumbo talking in an interview with a powerful statement that now he has gotten back his name.

If only it were as easy to get rid of those who can put people into prison for political beliefs and activities as John Goodman as Frank King manages:

It’s a condescending easy quip making fun to call it “a B-movie about an A-list screenwriter”. Like Suffragette because of the way it’s made it will reach a large audience and appeal to their sympathies, to what they admire, what they would like to believe is true, that an individual can “win against the system.” We need more of this kind of didacticism if that’s what it takes to teach or reach people. Peter DeBruge of Variety:

Trumbo may be clumsy and overly simplistic at times, but it’s still an important reminder of how democracy can fail (that is, when a fervent majority turns on those with different and potentially threatening values), and the strength of character it takes to fight the system

Earlier this year I strongly recommended Diane Johnson’s biography of Dashiell Hammett: A life and I reiterate that. Johnson demonstrates that in the immediate post WW2 period: very quickly persecutions began, quickly committees formed to “root” out communism (really FDRism), a number of laws passed which parallel Hitler’s early years (outlawing the communist party — freedom of speech means no outlawing parties).  Making the world safe for the fascism to bloom we’ve seen since; the McCarthy era was this brought to a high pitch of terror. He was eventually helplessly ill, destroyed by thugs, a poignant story.

Having watched the film I found myself taking down from my shelves Trumbo’s The Time of the Toad, subtitled (by the way) A Study of Inquisition in America and putting it on my TRB pile as necessary to recall and blog about in this world where Donald Trump is said to be a front-runner in Republican polls for the President of the US and has advocated shutting down or severe controls on who can use the Internet.

Toad
Toad as in toadies

Ellen

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