Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

TheCharlestonFarmhouseSussexTheStudio
The Studio, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex

Dear friends and readers,

I know I told of how on one of my listservs, we are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a group with each of us reading different other related works or watching films; on the other, WWta (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) we’ve started a similar project (far few people alas) around Virginia Woolf. Our central focus is a slow read through another massive volume: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and have talked at length about the art of biography, Woolf’s own life writings and writing about biography (her Memoirs of a Novelist, her “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being). One of us read To the Lighthouse; we’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard’s perhaps now-dated Poetics of Space; I’ve watched the remarkably complex )(novel-like? biography-like) Carrington and am now determined to make Dora Carrington my next woman artist in that blog series.

First impression:

CarringtonEmmaThompsonJonathanPryce
From Christopher Hampton’s Carrington: this is based on an actual photo of the house (Emma Thompson who is made to look like Carrington as Jonathan Pryce looks like Strachey in the photos of him)

Strachey asked Woolf to marry him at one point; they were close. Strachey was much older than Carrington and I was thinking about the extraordinary convoluted tortured sexual and marital relationships in this wider group. Leonard and Virginia look conventional from the outside, but look in and you see her several deep lesbian relationships.

Jonathan Pryce who was such a wonderful Wolsey, is perfect for Strachey, and Emma Thompson takes on her stout boyish persona to play Carrington. I’ve only got half-way through: it’s a very long movie. What I wanted to say is that in a way it’s lacking:  Hampton wrote and directed it, and he is following Holroyd’s book and therein is the problem. Carrington is such a painful spectacle. The whole menagerie at her and Lytton’s home are wholly outside the mainstream. She loved Strachey because his homosexuality took the form of no sexual intercourse with a woman, so he was not aggressive at all. For someone who wants safety I am now puzzled (not rereading Holroyd) why she ever went to Mark Gertler (played by the then spectacularly handsome Rufus Sewell) who demanded rough sex as central to the relationship (not painful but agressive) and Sewell plays him as a man driven wild by her. The audience is allowed to see this clearly and Gertler’s attack on Lytton when it becomes obvious Carrington loves Lytton. But to keep Lytton she had to allow this reactionary hulk, Reginald Patridge (renamed Rafe by Strachey) to live with them and to keep him she had to have sex with him; in turn he’d have sex with Strachey.  This is not shown clearly in the film. Gerald Brennan (the young excellent actor Samuel West) who left for Spain and wrote two wonderful travel-memoirs of his life in Spain is brought in; but as I’ve not read Holroyd in a while I forget the bargain, but think Carrington was also required to have sex with Brennan to please someone.

Thompson says over and over this is an abject love. Hampton together with these remarkable actors conveyed something different than I’ve read before. Hitherto it was see how abject this woman was, what a mystery but it was Lytton’s kindness, gentleness and their shared love of art that made her invest her very life in his life.

This film shows him a cool egoist who uses her; he may not admit it to himself but he does. All the sex scenes after Mark are her degenerating, allowing her body to be used by man after man to get them for Strachey. That is what the film shows. She goes so far even to marry Partridge who in the film she sees as a macho male reactionary horror though fun as a man to dance with, handsome to draw. She endures his ugly jealousy and infidelities. She leads Gerald Brennan to lie in ways that violate his character — all for this Lytton. It gets to the point she wants to validate her body and gets involved with a man (Jeremy Northam turns up to do it) who just takes her cruelly for sex, getting pregnant by him she gets an abortion. Thee’s a dialogue where Lytton says why not have the baby.I think the film suggests had she, she might have had something else to live for. But she only wants his baby and he never fucks her it seems.

Pryce plays Strachey as realizing how he is using her, but being unable to resist it and enjoying her company, now and again guilty — as when he will advise her to leave off a man, or have a baby, or makes his will to leave her a pension. A very young Alex Kingston as Patridge’s partner after he tires of Carrington plus Strachey. A younger Penelope Wilton does Ottoline so well. The men in the film do seem attached to Carrington and enduring Strachey for the sake of Carrington except the stud last played by Northam. Thompson and Pryce impeccably involving. I grieved over Carrington’s death yet understood. It ends with a series of images of those of her paintings she did not destroy.

It’s a deeply searing portrait of a on the surface beautiful love but just below deeply destructive of her. We are told nothing of her family or childhood. She turns up sui generis and all film long she is without any group but this Bloomsbury one attached to Strachey and her art school. She goes off to London where she finds characters like Patridge and brings him back as a trophy or fodder for Lytton. Was she promiscuous in London somewhere. Patridge’s questioning of her in fact is understandable.

I want to read the screenplay, watch again and have now bought a book (natch) recent, Gerzina’s Carrington (who wrote on FrancesHodgson Burnett if I’m not mistaken).

As a result of the debate on the art of biography and novels (peel them off and you have an autobiography), we debated (a bit) Tim Parks’s iconoclastic theses about novel writing and reading in yet another thinking book from him, The Novel: A Survival Skill on both listservs.

bondarchuckKutusovPart4
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Kutusov after defying everyone and ordering a retreat so as to save as many men and as much of Moscow as he can (1966)

Let me say upfront there is no woman author in Parks’s universe in this book who counts, who he discusses at length. He might mention a woman now and again. He focuses on five males and when he has any examples they are all males. He has a history of Italian literature organized by great authors. Apparently in Italy since the Renaissance there has been but one woman writer of note. Something like 25 authors, one is a woman.

I wonder what women do with themselves when I read Parks. It’s important to the man’s outlook, tells us what he reads, how he reads. So by no means is he a guru when he leaves out half the human race; women do write differently, they make art differently — from social life and from innate elements.

Parks’s idea that novels threaten us has some powerful explanatory force; this is why people talk (and perhaps) think consciously about novels so moralistically. They inveigh against characters who do not obey social norms because they don’t want to articulate why those who don’t don’t, nor admit to identification. He follows this up with the iconoclastic idea we love books which are substitutes for the presence and sense of real person they contain, stand for. This a complete refutation of the “biographical fallacy.” Kraggsby says she becomes so emotional when she has to write or feel about Woolf after a bout with a book. This helps explain that. I so agree with it.

With Parks I really feel a mind thinking, not just putting together the platitudes and nouns referring to theoretical positions which the author then aligns him or herself with. He offers this possible description of what’s meant by creativity: “the ability to produce …. The emotional tone and the play of forces in whch the narrator lives, the particular mental world in which he moves …. “ Parks doesn’t need to have Coetzee in front of him, in fact the Coetzee we meet (as Proust would say) is the partial social man, not the man who counts. The greatness of such works, the triumph “we find their work drenched with their personalities, supreme expressionof theirmanner and character and behavior, each absolutely recognizable, triumphantly unmistakable … He does cite Woolf a little way down; her understanding is just so to the point, and what she does. Paradoxically l’ecriture-femme (women’s texts) exemplify much more centrally than men’s what he begins with.

When you say that a novel threatens the reader, and that therefore we need to learn actually how to survive them (really taken into consciousness what they can show) and that the author’s identity (I’ll call it) is everywhere there in different ways, you are set on a very different road than most books on the novel. I just love how he does not repeat cant and situate himself next to it or with it — not that a great books don’t do this: Jerome de Troot’s two books on historical fiction do it, but he examines these theories often to show their fallacies, not always.

Tim Parks is consistent with his view that the great writer conveys an authentic specific self across his or her work, asks about the writer’s tension when he or she thinks of who is reading this text. Parks says the novel is “officially addressed to everyone,but in reality they are not thinking of today’s Ph D student in say Korea addressing scholarly conversations in 2016; the actual circumstances the writer writes in frames his or her perception of what is being written; relatives do often complain and are hurt, as well as friends; t often he or she is thinking of some subgroup of readers alive at the time, “the implicit reader”. He proposes we think of ourselves as overhearing the author’s address to his or her audience at the time. Park then goes over specific details in a Becket text and they come so much more alive when you nail who specific savage ironies are aimed at. Lee quotes Woolf’s life-writing a lot and Woolf assumes her readership knows what the life of the upper class at the time was; her tales of childhood assume familiarity.

Parks says it is not a retreat from the text to be interested in the author’s patterns of behavior, relationships at the time of a text writtten, but rather it can increase our engagement. He then goes on to Gregory Bateson who argues that personality differentation ,how we establish our identities to ourselves are in relation to others aroud us which often are binaries and are reactions against. he is not talking about one-on-one equivalencies but a general presence surrounded by particulars then transposed but often more transparently than we like to allow.

helen mirren the last station
Helen Mirren as Sonya in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (which is part of our Tolstoy matter)

Now to apply Parks’s thesis to The Last Station, for example, you have to know about Hoffman and his life and relationship to the film (which he does bring in in the feature to the film, also Parini, not to forget Tolstoy, Cherthov, the various actors who inhabit the roles.

It is a complex film and now I’ve got to find time to read the book. A good performance can make a character come alive: In the screenplay Hoffman worked to condense, make a coherent POV (Valentine, the most invented of the characters) and in general sort of gave more meaning to what’s in the book and made me wonder if a movie because of its form often does simplify. It’s hard to fight it as successful as Bergman did. He didn’t care if his films made money when he started out. I thought I’d mention that the train was to be much much more important: it was to open with Valentine on the train; the deleted scenes are of Tolstoy fleeing on the train, Sofya following. It now only ends with the train. Hoffman says he wanted it to be a symbol but as he proceeded he decided the characters and their relationships were what he should spend time on. More practically I have watched enough honest features to have heard directors say you have to cut and you have to choose, and many he saw this skein or thread one he could eliminate neatly — to make the movie marketable. This was to be an allusion to Anna Karenina, with Sofya as our Anna who survives. I suspect so.

Also from our Tolstoy group: I am finding A. N. Wilson’s biography on Tolstoy without bothering to argue this in effect bases his biography and assessment of Tolstoy’s novels on a perspective like Parks; Lee is more reticent but then we’ve hardly gotten Virginia born. Wilson thinks Tolstoy is addressing other Russian writers, how he conceives of the cultural and political situation in Russia, but deeply by the time of Anna Karenina moved inward and dealing with his own many layered psyche through her.

Lastly (since I’m going away for a week — to Cornwall, where Woolf spent summer holidays for years on end — and have little time) I thought I’d just briefly call attention to an excellent review essay in TLS by Francesca Wade on the rebuilding of all sorts of house space the various Bloomsbury people had in different sites and museusm: “Interior Designs, Interior Desires: examing the inside of Bloomsbury homes as a guide to their owners’ artistry and personality.”

Wade begins with Bachelard and then goes on to show how the Bloomsbury group utterly defied conventions not just in painting happy pictures of what they were doing on their walls, and but in scattering all the things they used over a day freely around the house, making rooms serve real and different functions peculiar to the people living there all at once. In the movie Carrington we see the house Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and Carrington (Emma Thompson) live in have her paintings on the wall, and a couple of the rooms are clearly shown to be reflective of how they live. Outsiders thought the decorations were lascivious or salacious because of the unconventional sexual relationships people who came and lived there had, but not at all. Nudes were not sexy nudes — as in the film. They were gay (old use of word), defying the colors, atmosphere of the homes these people had been brought up in.

Most houses today and apartments too are set up in conventional ways with several rooms sometimes given over “to making a show.” More time and energy making the room a symbol of the expected social life and status than the comfort of people living in it. The purpose of the US family room is to have a place where people can do their own thing but even there I’ve seen status and money the criteria for decorations — how many Xs you did of this or that.

Jim and my house was and today mine alone with his presence as memory and filling the objects is not like that. There is no room for show, the rooms have — or had (he’s gone now) several functions. I have been told if I wanted to sell it and/or sell it for a high priceI would have to empty it out and make it a soulless display. So that’s what the average person wants: plus and a soulless display. No thank you I said. Either it’s sold the way it looks or not sold. So Bloomsbury space is still iconoclastic.

Ellen off for a week on holiday in Cornwall

CharlesCamoin189to1965ChatDevantLaFenetreOuverte
Charles Camoin, Cat before the Open Window — from Sixtine, one of the lights of my existence

Read Full Post »

florence-foster-jenkinsHughGrant
Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield when we first see him, cavalierly, knowingly, giving an inadequate rendition of one of Hamlet’s speeches before his wife comes on stage

florence-foster-jenkins-meryl-streep
Meryl Streep as Florence singing ecstatically (2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Nicolas Martin)

Dear friends and readers,

Just as I began to give up hoping for a truly good absorbing film for cinemas this summer, along came three: in July Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words urging us to give over unreal ethnicities; in early August Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in rural impoverished worlds, and now the extraordinary Stephen Frears and Nicolas Turner’s Florence Foster Jenkins, with a little help from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep.

At first the film seems to be about an over-dressed, naively happy, fatuously absurd Florence, a wealthy woman kept apart from most other people by her somewhat younger, carefully preserved coolly impossibly husband: since she is a philanthropist most institutions are prepared to indulge her in whatever she wants in the way of concerts, no matter how corny, creaking or badly done. St Clair has hired a voice coach and we watch him hire Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) a piano-player musician to play and give her voice lessons. When Florence is not around, St Clair’s face goes hard and asks brief cynical questions about what we’ve seen him smile pleasantly and coo over. We begin to suspect a pervasive underlying studied hypocrisy when at night St Clair wishes Florence a good night’s rest, and himself goes to a Greenwich village or lower Manhattan slum block where he finds his mistress a young beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Fergusson) waiting for him. He lives another different life with this mistress: wild modern dancing, late night parties, strong drinking promiscuous sex going on around him. He is then just so sweetly affectionate to her, so controlled, hiding from her life’s unpleasant truths that it feels like a performance. Then we discover Florence cannot sing, her voice is reedy, awful, she can’t hold a tune.

Simon-en-Florence-Foster-Jenkins

As the movie progresses we begin to see that this steely-performance of St Clair where he protects this wife of his from every adverse criticism made of her is not hollow. It cannot be as he gives over his whole being to it: he has to work very hard to prevent anyone who would laugh at or heckle her from coming to any of her performances. He does not have to do any of this to remain rich; she need not perform to be worshipped. Her singing lessons do keep the two of them busy, and her pre-occupied, seeing herself as endlessly working at something beautiful. To silence or get people to cooperate, he hand white envelopes stuffed with cash to people. Those who will not cooperate are excluded from performances and their drawing-room.

Their back story emerges as he, and then she, confide in McMoon: as a 19 year old she married a cad who had syphilus, the cad de-camped, died, and one day in an audience she spotted St Clair who she says had the kindest most generous smile she’d ever seen on a face. They abstained from sex lest he become diseased or she have a diseased child. There’s an intense pathos to the story as she tells it to Cosme whom she has visited on one of St Clair’s golf weekends (we know he has gone to the Hamptons with Kathleen). Cosme is continually on the edge of quitting lest he lose all respect as a serious musician, and when Florence comes up with the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall to thousands, balks; in response St Clair tells Cosme he must not obey the tyranny of ambition to be great, or respected as wonderful, or his art even understood — all egoistic delusions in probability: he found himself a failed stage actor when he met St Clair, and when she married him, he liberated himself from ambition to live this comfortable life.

But is it? is it comfortable? is he in a prison of performances to get his hands on her will (which she carries about her in a briefcase). The movie asks, how far is all life a performance? what are worthy goals?

If the mark of a summer movie is non-seriousness underlying the performance, Frears has never in all the films I’ve seen by him resorted to such obvious broad caricatures: the sexy blonde vulgar noisy young wife is just one. OTOH: when St Claire reads aloud to Florence Shakespeare’s cliched 116th sonnet (“Let me to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), the joke is Shakespeare was ironic (most readers seem not to know this), making fun. Anyhow Florence falls asleep before he’s finished the first eight lines. Late in the movie he reads aloud Keat’s “Bright Star” sonnet: same response from Florence, pathetically grateful but in actuality bored so falls asleep.

Streep and Grant deliver as exquisitely perfect performances as I remember Grant doing as a young man in Remains of the Day (where Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins were the pitch perfect people who missed out). Grant is underrated as an actor since he made his place in Hollywood films as a fine comic actor in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and in beloved costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility or Maurice. I first saw him and Bob Hoskins in a filmed version of Thomas Middleton’s brilliant Jacobean play, The Changeling. Grant was corrupt weakling duke who nonetheless becomes a relentless murder out of sexual jealousy; Hoskins the hired thug killer who himself lives out seething resentments. I felt Grant saw some of his own choices in his role. He left the serious stage for Hollywood and has not looked back.

Streep’s role was harder to play” as Grant melts into tenderness, opens his face up to recognize “Bunny’s” dependency on him to her, she has to seem mostly obtuse and yet capable of the finest feeling, at once ridiculous and courageous. She is our American version of the British grand-dame actresses (e.g., Lindsay Duncan, Emma Thompson).

Lovelystillofthem

Reviews have been generous, noting the sentimentality at the close: far too forgiving and benign, sliding over after pointing to the cruelty of crowds, the stupidity of audience mob-like reactions, how no one really cares what this music is. The New York Times reminds us these were a real couple in the 1940s and that Helberg stole the show with his shock, distress, and at the end sparkling identification with his two bosses. We are left in two minds about the principals: how far was she fooled? she has a wise desperate look on her worn face as she lies dying in her closing moments. Did or how far did St Clair Bayfield love her and his life as her tender protector? he seems never to hurt her which is way beyond probable if it was just the money. The credits afterward included photos of the real original people. Cosme never became a great musician; his reached his heights in venues at Carnegie hall with Florence. St Claire late in life looks utterly non-pretentious; after that last performance and her illness killed her, he never remarried.

To return to my first paragraph: there is something delightful in all three, Kind Words, Wilderpeople, Florence, and we are badly in need of delight this August.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

marruotdemelsaanddog
Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (the first season)

marriotmeditative
Aidan Turner as Ross

As all those who have been waiting for the second season of Poldark to air know, there has been an unexpected delay in the airing of the second season of Poldark. Usually when a series is a real hit, the producers, channel, film-maker strike while the iron is still hot. The second season of Outlander came before the end of another year, and a third and possibly fourth season have already been announced.

I am among those eager to see the new second season. So late last spring I noticed a column by Debbie Horsfield containing a carefully worded statement (around the time a second season might have ended) that they had decided to present the sexual events of the coming season discreetly. They were going to be suggestive, not graphic. All who have read the books knew a rape was coming and I took this to mean that as in the 1975 Poldark, we would only see the prologue to rape, and then the screen would go dark. She was saying that modern film-making customs would not be followed, and explicit sex scenes would not be developed.

Not that Ross’s rape of Elizabeth would be obliterated altogether.

RapesceneRoss
Robin Ellis as Ross in the scenes prologue to the rape

RapesceneEliezabeth
Jill Townsend as Elizabeth in the same scenes (1975-76 Poldark)

That is what has been done. A suddenly timid BBC has perhaps pressured the film-makers of the new Poldark series to destroy a central event that makes for a meaningful plot design with a first climax at the end of the 7th book (The Angry Tide) and the final denouement of the whole cycle, at the close of the 12th book (Bella):

The BBC and film-makers say they feel that the modern audience could not accept a rape from a hero. It’s too shocking, rape. Have they not been watching other TV series of late? read any recent contemporary novels?

I wonder how much or if they fought over this. Robin Ellis tells us that in Making Poldark the script-writers and director were in conflict with some of the actors over the way in the 1970s mini-series Ross’s marriage to Demelza was presented as a shot-gun wedding, the result of a pregnancy which she first tried to abort, none of which is in Graham’s books.

whatmakesyouthink
Anghared Rees as Demelza protesting the morning after sex, declaring she wants to leave

whollyinvented
With Ellis as Ross, she struggles to free herself so as to go for her abortion (again 1975 Poldark, wholly invented and unlike the book)

In Graham’s books Ross rebels against hierarchy, rank, status norms to marry a servant in his house because he and she have started to go to bed together, and he feels he is destroying her future unless he stops this before she gets pregnant or marries her. He finds himself comfortable with her, does not want to give her up as a servant, companion, and bed-mate, and is deeply angry against the social order. So defies it. Was this an important change? thereafter the script-makers and director kept faithfully to the books until near the end of Warleggan (Episodoes 14 to 15 in the first season, 1975-76) when they again departed radically, causing problems for the second season two years later (1977-78).

How important is the rape? I’d argue it’s far more important than the initial precipitating cause for Ross and Demelza’s marriage, as nothing else hinged on it. Not so the rape. To put it abstractly, in what ways can a film adaptation depart from a novel in order to erase or betray it? well, it can expunge a crucial plot-event that gives rise to a succession of climactic and centrally thematic fraught consequences in this or later novels, in other words further crucial plot-events. A series of consequences that make for the very ending of novels that are turning points in the novel series. You might say, this would not be easy to do. If A (so we’ll call the final moment in a novel) is the result of B, C, D, and E, and they came as a direct result of F, and F is missing (the rape), what happens to B, C, D, and E? Especially if they are particularly moving and tragic and give the characters acting these events depth and intense interest?

True. events A, B, C, and D will not come until the 3rd season. The results of Ross’s rape of Elizabeth about 2/3s the way through Warleggan (Poldark Novel 4) do not emerge until the birth of Valentine, Ross and Elizabeth’s son in The Black Moon (Poldark Novel 5), i.e, Season 3. The intense jealousy of Warleggan, and his abuse of Elizabeth, and her misery and wretchedness begin only when Warleggan has reason to suspect Valentine is Ross’s much later in The Four Swans (Poldark Novel 6). Indeed the script writer, Debbie Horsfield will not have to trouble herself over the final tragedy in say Episode 8 or 10 since it is only at the close of The Angry Tide (Poldark Novel 7) that desperate to make Warleggan think her present pregnancy is by him and accept Valentine’s his, Elizabeth decides she will make Warleggan believe she tends to give birth early and goes to a doctor for a dangerous concoction of herbs to precipitate early parturition and her own death. Never can tell, there might not be a Season 3.

But if there is (and I hope there will be), how will all this be handled? In Graham’s books Elizabeth was left to deal with it on her own. In the older Poldark mini-series ditto.

shesisashamed
Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, this time pregnant by Warleggan, ashamed as she visits a doctor

doctor
The unsympathetic suspicious doctor who supplies the needed abortifacient

If there is a third season, and say, we actually reach a last season, and the 12th and final book of the series, Bella, what will they do with the plangent meaningful tragic close (our hypothetical E)? What guilt could Ross have over how Valentine became twisted and isolated if he did not for all these books and all these years evade his responsibility, refuse to admit to anyone that the boy was his, he was the father who left the boy fatherless? The gut-wrenching nightmares, Valentine’s turn to a pet orangutan (don’t laugh, the last books do justice to characters with disability, and develop an animal rights point of view implicit in the early books), Valentine’s own choice of death or self-destruction?

WalkingStickSeashore2
A very young David Hemmings and Samantha Egg in the 1970 Walking Stick

Graham has been credited with being an instinctive feminist, and with presenting women in transgressive and iconoclastic roles. Not just in his historical novels, but also his spy thrillers and modern mysteries and a few remarkable novels centering on mental disorder and disability (i.e., Marni (1964, Hitchcock film), The Walking Stick, both of which were filmed, the second brilliantly). I knew much of this was erased in the new first season, including any undermining of male gender stereotypes, but the protest level of feminism had been at least embodied to some extent in Verity’s story as well as Demelza’s. The first season saw the character of Elizabeth, in the original books and series, an insecure and ambitious woman, who found more joy in motherhood than she did understanding or support in her husband Francis; who didn’t care for sex particularly, turned into a pious moral exemplar, whose every thought was to make her husband a good entrepreneur and imitator of his father, Charles and every waking act to nurture her baby.

HeidiReed
Heida Reed as Elizabeth near tears because Francis is not coming up to masculine norms (2015 Poldark)

KyleSoller
Kyle Soller as a moving Francis Poldark in considerable distress because he’s come down in the world as he can’t manage the work ethic (wholly unlike the aristocratic Francis of the books and 1970s series)

Henry James said what a character does is central to how we know a character’s psychology and ethical character. I am wondering now how they will change this character so that she falls into adultery with Ross? If they have an affair, that means sex with some frequency, no? If we are to see a succession of days and nights of sex between Ross and Elizabeth, what does that do to his character? his relationship with Demelza? In the original books and mini-series, the Scots Captain McNeill almost succeeds in seducing Demelza; she backs away at the last moment. Will she “have an affair in turn.” I hope not because she does have a real love romance in The Four Swans that is meaningful: as a young girl she never had a romantic courtship nor a man near her age, respect and courtesy and poetry she yearned for comes her way. No one is expecting Graham’s hero to be as believable as Tolstoy’s Pierre (from War and Peace) I suppose, but the books do contain a real man as protagonist, a complex enough character to interest us. Real men who are not utter villains rape women — this even happens the statistics tell us often. This is an issue that should not be swept under a rug.

In the first season Horsfield boasted that she was closer to the original books than the 1970s mini-series. She’s given that up — or was forced to. Could it be that the BBC read fan sites where people have argued fiercely that Ross could not have raped Elizabeth; or, that Elizabeth is to blame for the night of sex; or anything rather than Graham’s disquieting novel for mature adults. No longer do fans have nowhere to voice their displeasure. They were worried lest sticking to the original books mar their ratings. Recent film studies have shown that further seasons of a series will alter intentions and characters to please on-line fan groups or at least exert considerable pressure (Andrea Schmidt, “The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction” in Julie Taddeo and James Leggott’s collection, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume TV Drama: The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey). So perhaps the BBC was willing to mar their matter and pressured Horsfield to change her stance towards faithfulness. Whether the result will deprive the central heros and heroines of a complexly develping consistent personalities over a long series of books or (if it should come to pass) series of films remains to be seen.

I had been planning to write about the second season without referring to the 1970s mini-series. Now I will compare the two series with the books as I did last year (see my blog and an essay, Poldark Rebooted, 40 Years On). I may even teach the second trilogy of Graham’s books (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide, 1973-77) as last and two years ago I taught the first quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945-53)

5BlackMoonPicture
From the cover illustration of the first paperback edition of Graham’s Black Moon

Ellen

Read Full Post »

7X2A4831.cr2
Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) going over the manuscripts together

twowomen
Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and Georgette (Julianne Moore) plotting to trick John (Ethan Hawke) to go to a conference with Georgette (where Zizek is speaking! — John’s favorite) – two women plotting over worthless man

Dear readers and friends,

Reviews of Michael Grandage’s Genius (script Joshua Logan) haven’t been exactly ecstatic (come to think of it an embarrassing title); like the reviews of Rebecca Miller and Maggie’s Plan, we are told to rejoice that this is not another senseless alpha male action-adventure, or Marvel cartoon.

In her Maggie’s Plan, Rebecca Miller has given us 2nd rate Woodie Allen (3rd rate is closer to the mark but would be unkind) from a story by Karen Rinaldi. It’s good-natured — mostly from the warmth and awareness Gert Getwig endowed her generous (all-giving) heroine with, but tepid in its unwillingness to make it clear what a self-indulgent narcissistic male is Ethan Hawke’s thankless John, whom the two women were supporting, giving themselves bodily to and fighting over. What did occur that revealed this (and other aspects of their lives) was then made nonsense of by a tacked-on sudden switch to your happy ending, nostalgic music to the fore, no not a wedding, but everyone happily ice-skating in Central Park. Maggie’s core is that of a woman’s film, the dream of a single woman to have a child without having to marry a man since she is not inclined to stay “in love” with anyone she meets, and the great joke that after all the prowess of John did not impregnate Maggie, some artificially inseminated sperm from a pickle dealer (Travis Fimmel) did. Critics have been unduly kind, though Roger Ebert’s continuing blog recognized tired romance.

HawkeGertwig
Your falling in love scene

I concede it did not aggress at me, and there was occasionally some wry wisdom on display (Julie Delpy’s feminization of Allen, Two Days in Paris, was actually witty). At his best and in his prime Allen’s films made serious statements about American mores and culture (and recently he did one about British culture: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). This movie represents an off-day, a retreat from her career thus far That Miller is daughter to Arthur Miller and his long-time photographer wife, Inge Morath, and her previous work might account for the critical “delight” in Maggie’s Plan. Maybe we are not meant to find the film pleasant but probably we are.

Genius (a seeming team effort) reminded me of Trumbo: a fine idea turned into a mainstream film where the character preach to one another in ways no one would in life, so that the audience can understand some subtle unusual ideas, ending in an inspirational moment: here after Wolfe’s death, a letter by Wolfe reaches Perkins where Wolfe thanks him. Suffragettes suffered from having been turned into a ratcheted up chase thriller. Two ostensibly art movies I’ve seen this summer (which will go unnamed) were insufferably pompous, over-produced, literally hard-to-follow, and sexed up in an misguided attempt to make them widely appealing commodities. The result: no one is pleased. Love and Friendship (click for my review), the third endurable film still playing at my local “better” movie theater, is a disappointing timid period drama. Women are going and men accompanying them because it’s billed as a Jane Austen film and looks and feels like what’s expected. It’s what PBS is not doing any more.

In Genius, there are no women authors even to be heard of. The mid-20th century is an era replete with great women writers. Perhaps Perkins didn’t edit any of them, but I can’t believe Scribner’s didn’t publish any. Not to mention even one in passing gives the falsity of the picture of publishing away. It’s a curiously empty story, as if the production people had insisted on few characters in order to have few actors to pay. The second woman in the film would not pass the Bechtel movie test either: no woman talks to another, and Nicole Kidman is another brittle possessive woman who has given all her to her man, including leaving her husband, and children and supporting him (as the women in Maggie’s Plan support their shared man). Prestige pandering (like the two supposed art films I saw earlier this season) is what Rolling Stone magazine accused this film of? But I see an insistent erasure of women which is unreal today.

Both films have spirited performances (as does Love and Friendship), Moore as the erudite professor:

MooreasGeorgette

Firth as usual scrupulously not over-acting a character presented as reserved without vicariously enacting, living out the passion he reads and crosses out (though his accent was not quite American)

withLauraLinney
with Laura Linney as his long-suffering, half-neglected but convincingly loving loyal wife (who writes plays which he seems not to publish)

Genius does have something more and so I recommend going (though don’t drive major distances) before it disappears (rapidly I fear) from theaters. What you will see are characters genuinely concerned to make good books. No small thing. The film-makers dare to make the process of revision of a gargantuan text to a recognizable “classic” central to the plot-design. Logan’s script make the inner psychology of authors however simplified the story –cameo appearances of a depressed Scott Fitzgerald, desperately woebegone Zelda, Hemingway as the apparently firm male icon whose self-control doesn’t require editing. the story.

The relationship of Wolfe with the famed editor, Maxwell Perkins is proverbial (I suppose that’s why the film was dared in the first place): Perkins was far more ambitious and driving than appears in the film (though we see how beautifully paid he is by the mansion he lives in, and well-educated comfortable lives he is providing for seven daughters), while Wolfe’s madly self-enthusiastic fits (as enacted by Jude Law) are said to have happened: he would burst from his apartment, wild with pleasure from something he had written, and run downstairs to the street to tell passers-by of his joy, maybe share the passage. The profit motive is there: Perkins is cutting and shaping Wolfe’s manuscripts so they will be coherent and sell, but he is not re-making them, not demanding they be other than they are, say another genre, in a different mood, with language smoothed out to be easy — which is what editors demand of authors before they will even accept a script for consideration that a film whose aesthetic core is a belief in the effectiveness and staying power of beautifully written, (we have to take this on credit) visionary poetic prose is not to be overlooked. And Firth and Linney were convincing as a couple who understood why they were living the way they did and valued high literary careers and considerate behavior to other people and one another. I felt uplift and cheered in a way Maggie’s Plan failed at (though Maggie’s Plan was trying ever so hard as Genius was not) and finally not disappointed.

I went home and read for the first time the chapter in Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds [on American prose writers of the 20th century, one chapter only on women] about Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, the first of whom I’ve never read and Faulkner I dislike very much (violent, like Flannery O’Connor something mean-spirited there). I took a course in American literary naturalism and the 1920s and as a result since then have read and liked Upton Sinclair, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Elinor Wylie, Ambrose Bierce. I felt Hemingway all about broken American males and not much more, though “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is a story which hits centrally at American myths; Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby also, but over-assigned to students and read because it’s so slender. Jim did not read much American literature: I remember him reading e.e. cummings, Truman Capote, American historians and contemporary essayists; mostly he turned to British and European writers. So I have in my house only a few books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and of Wolfe only an old copy of a old-fashioned 50 cent paperback (New American Library, Signet) of Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously by Harper, with another editor shaping and cutting).

I found this: Kazin says like other male American writers he admires so much: as did Henry Miller (this appallingly bad writer is discussed seriously by Kazin), Melville, Whitman, Saul Bellow (Kazin’s chapter on two American women writers shows he has little use for them as they are apolitical — he does not understand Ellen Glasgow or Willa Cather), “Just so did Wolfe burn himself out trying to bring all the rivers, sights, sounds, pleasures, torments, books in America within a single compass of the long long novel he wrote all his life. Just so did he express his final contempt in You Can’t Go Home Again, for ‘the world’s fool-bigotry, fool-ignorance, fool-cowardice, fool-faddism, fool mockery, fool-stylism, and fool hatred for anyone who was not corrupted, beaten and a fool'” (468). The world is the enemy. Genius left out Wolfe’s frantic critique and self-ironic disillusionment: all we were told (by one of the two women. perhaps Linney as Mrs Perkins) is Wolfe is searching for a father, and Perkins a son (pop psychology).

Thomas_Wolfe_1937
Thomas Wolfe in 1937

Several things are going badly wrong with better films in the movie-houses this summer. In the three mentioned disrespect for the audience (at least 50% women), failures of nerve, and a curious indifference to the very matter (Wolfe’s text, Maggie and her baby, Lady Susan’s inhumanity) chosen to be filmed.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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:

roberto_devereux_polenzani_radvanovsky_met_opera_ken_howard
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:

DevereuxNottingham

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).

devereux_met

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.)

Metset

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.

figureofskeleton

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.

roberto_devereux_elina_garanca
Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

KristineOpolais
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:

csm_Kristine_Opolais_and_Maria_Zifchak

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

butterflybridal

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.

madame-butterfly

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.

WithPuppet

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:

madambutterfly3a

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).

opera sets_madame butterfly
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.

minghportrait

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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.

Americanpublicscenetoday

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.

Berllnwall

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.

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 297 other followers