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For a US person I infer an analogy to these South African trials is the present trial in Minneapolis of the murderer of George Floyd (who thinks he will get off).  I’ve learned (I watched only the briefest clips but have read what is said) that police protocols in Minnesota and in much of the United States are intended to intimidate and murder Blacks — to hold them in terror so as to bully them at will. Not as searingly cruel as So. African militaries, but very much the same behavior in principle. And it’s upheld: in the court no one questions the police protocol; the only question is did Chauvan “overdo” it.

An article in Guardian by Oliver Laughland describes how the trial of Chauvin is being conducted as a way of assuaging a traumatized community

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the last three or four nights I embarked on a journey through four films telling the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After Apartheid finally ended, and Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, in 1996 a commission of concerned and able citizens was set up to hold public trials where people could come and tell of the horrific wrongs they and their friends and relatives suffered during the long decades apartheid was imposed on South Africa.

It was mostly Black people who testified about such experiences. I notice in each case a second person sits next to the victim witness there to soothe — and control — them. The people telling what had happened grieve, and occasionally become hysterical. The people who had perpetrated the wrongs the specific Black people were describing were invited to come to the same trial and if they admitted the whole truth of what had happened (which before this had been egregiously lied about, not told at all, distorted and falsifying details presented) and could demonstrate convincingly they were actuated by a political motive, a jury might grant them amnesty. This is not the same as forgiveness: it means a court has pardoned someone for an offense, which he or she can then not in law be blamed for again.


Four young South African men who were brutally murdered (Long Night’s Journey into Day, produced, directed by Deborah Hoffman, Frances Reid)

It was expected that the perpetrator should show remorse and apologize, and most did; a few became genuinely grieved and talked of how they had not since the time they did these deeds been able to sleep or live with themselves easily, but at least four men justified what they were doing by saying that is what they understood to be effective and necessary deeds at the time to achieve “stable gov’t” — and two of these were clearly in their hearts fiercely angry at being forced (if they wanted pardon) to own up. One white woman who came to complain about the death of her white son at the hands of a Black man was livid with hatred, indignation, and not for a moment accepted his explanation that he was driven by the deprived life and ferocious punishments that had been visited upon him. Yet of the three men all received amnesty. The people who did not receive amnesty were the ones where the torture they inflicted on the people they were murdering was hideously in excess in pain and suffering of what was needed to say “extract information” subdue or kill them.

When I first read about these commissions and what they were doing (in the 1990s), and have come across articles since, I was dismissive of what they could achieve. I thought that in reality by telling these terrible acts to those who have been mortally wounded basically for the rest of their lives, those listening would and could never forgive but would generally be made more angry. I now realize I was wrong; I had not read deeply enough, not read any descriptions of these trials at length and especially not seen any enactment. After watching the fictionalized retelling, Boorman and his team’s In My Country (1994); the shaped documentary Hoffman and Reid’s Long Night’s Journey into Day; and a two part report-like documentary made in 1997 by the South African Truth Commission, I’ve changed my mind.


Langston Whitfield (Samuel Jackson), Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) in John Boorman’s In My Country (1994, scripted Ann Peacock, Antji Krog)

On my own behalf, as an excuse I suppose for my obtuseness, one problem was the aim of the commission and the results were not being told clearly: the point isn’t forgiveness. Most of the anguished people I’ve now watched over some six hours of film could not forgive the people who did what they did; there was hardly a human relationship between them. The aim was something far more practical and less personal. In In My Country, it was called ubuntu (if I’ve the word correctly), a word which refers to a recognition that all must live together in one community and are bound together as one people, and must live in peace side-by-side. The aim was to achieve understanding of what had happened by uncovering all the details no matter how painful. Catharsis.  I now see tha good was done.  The person who had been so hurt at least had his (or her) day in court even if by proxy.  Also a hand was held out by the Black people who had so suffered for decades to the whites to be reconciled.

Of the three movies I’ve watched thus far, only the SA Commission Documentary admitted that few whites were in the audiences of these trials, that many whites refused to believe that the trials were telling the truth. Alas, for the most part the only whites who showed were the police and other militarized men seeking amnesty, telling of their deeds, and the relative of a rare white murdered either by gov’t death squads (let’s call them all) or a sudden uprising of mob rage by Black people (uncommon because of the terrible reprisal policies).


From Long Night’s Journey into Day: a rare young white woman, Canadian, who came to South Africa to help work against apartheid was mistakenly murdered
in a hysterical mob action simply on the grounds she was white — we see her anguished parents come to the commission, describe what happened, listen to the Black men who did that deed admit it and say they were grossly wrong and apologize profusely.

There is a fourth film I mean to see, but find The Power of Forgiveness by Martin Doblmeier, yet another documentary, is available as a DVD to be bought. I must wait for it to arrive by regular mail from the post office or Amazon.  The film is said to explore the nature and examples of forgiveness, including personal stories about Northern Ireland, the Amish, 9/11 and the Garden of Forgiveness, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Weisel; to use scientific studies, and of course humanistic discourse. I’m glad I watched the others first, for the implied demand here (you must forgive) skews the nature of what these trials meant to achieve: the aim is not forgiveness of the people who committed such horrific acts by the people wronged; rather it is an attempt by a people to live to live with their past and with those who have inflicted hideous damage on them by asking them to tell the truth and ask for legal pardon.

What I concluded is that the tiny number of white people in South Africa determined to set up a white supremacist state with whites wholly in charge, with all the wealth at their disposal, took horrendous and just cruel weapons of all kinds and hired and kept active armies who treated all Black South Africans as if they lived in a concentration camp where gov’t thugs were free to arrest, beat up mercilessly, torture, desecrate Black people’s bodies at will – and did. They did this because they were such a tiny minority — they used Blacks too as part of their police and surveillance: these were collaborators.

Similarly in Minneapolis, the prosecutors are allowing all the Black people who were forced to stand around and watch a fellow Black person murdered before their very eyes are testifying to the world what they experienced. If this protocol of intimidation and terror forced on Black people and communities all over the is not being openly admitted to, we are seeing it. That this is the way it is being understood can be seen in a British reporter for a far away newspaper picking the reality up and explaining it. The people being reconciled are themselves also potential victims and victims’ families — not all of them are up to it — they are of course hoping that at long last some justice may be done, and if this protocol not be done away with, the man who used it excessively, exultingly, will be judged rightly guilty of gross murder. Many weep as they tell what happened and then have to listen to the excuses and insulting of them and the victim the perpetrator’s lawyer. Apparently the ranks are breaking and some police officers are coming forward to say Chauvan used excessive force.

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I’d like to offer a few details of the three films I’ve seen thus, and when I’ve seen the fourth, add my commentary on it to this blog in the comments.


Anna and Langston at a trial as a South African TV reporter and American reporter for the Washington Post

In My Country is a fictional film, or a historical film fictionalized by the story of an Afrikaner white poet-reporter, Anna (Juliette Binoche) who has come with Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), a Black African man to cover the trials for a TV station and Langstan Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) an Black American reporter who strikes up a relationship them. What conventional suspense we experience is worry for their safety and watching their relationships develop. Anna belongs to an Afrikaner family most of whom disapprove of the trials and her empathy with Black people; her husband supports her and she leaves him with their children to follow the trials as they occur around Africa.


Anna and Dumi

Gradually she becomes friends with the young Black South African man assigned to her as technician, and lovers with the Black American reporter: it is a witty and tender relationship, beginning in antagonism and ending in understanding. She does return to her family and there is tension and loss. Dumi in the one false note in the film at its end is made to confront his past in a brutal scene with other Black Africans.

Juliette Binoche is another actress who appears in films and plays with a social conscience which are beautifully well done; she was a moving Antigone at the Kennedy Center years ago. Samuel Jackson is a well-known multi-faceted star.

But we are also — I was — riveted by the stories told in the hearings and seeing the white men as portrayed by white and black actors.  What happened is I realized that the commissions did succeed in what they set out to do for many. In fact the point was to allow hundreds of Black people to confront their hideous oppressors and tell them to their faces in front of a crowd what they had done — the point was a kind of tranquil shaming. If a particular officer or person showed he was politically motivated (had to do it) and did not go about the job with disproportionate cruelty (which many did), he could achieve amnesty — and the Black person learned what had happened to their beloved relative, friend or heard it said aloud and believed. Brendan Gleeson played the white Afrikan officer whose crimes were so disproportionate and whose remorse so ambivalent he is not granted amnesty but must stand trial for 63 murders.

I have found the whole of In My Country and been able to link it in here, and hope the people who put it on YouTube do not remove it.

Long Night’s Journey into Day was much tougher because the four cases (out of 22,000) detailed were real and there was no sweetening romance.  You learn more seriously the horrors of what Black people were subjected to for decades in South Africa. What I came away remembering best was that there are still many white who are not only unremorseful but angry that either one of their relatives/friends were killed and see themselves as having no responsibility to other people. One white man who did horrific things clearly was as cruel and brutal as ever and he was granted amnesty – for telling the truth. I also saw so many Black people and especially the mothers of those murdered years later still living maimed lives. I saw their continuing poverty. And I saw one white Canadian mother, father and brother, attempting to live up to what their white daughter in her idealism had tried to achieve. I thought this emphasis on women was perhaps a result of having two female director/producers.


One of the mothers of the four murdered young men featured in the posters (see above)

It’s a vimeo:


A young Deborah Hoffman — I can find no image of Frances Reid

Last, the straight two hour documentary made by the SA Commission. It is here we most often meet and listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu — he speaks of the white people who refuse to participate as missing an important chance to admit knowing what happened, to become better by doing so, to function more effectively in the true worlds of South Africa. It is a powerful film; I’d see it over two nights.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_QZO_onxlo (50 MIN)

I regret I have read so few books by South Africans about South Africa. I keep trying to persuade my WomenWriters@groups.io to read Nadime Gorimer with me. As of tonight I’ve only read a couple of marvelous short stories by Gorimer. I have read much Doris Lessing, but most of it not set in South Africa. One exception is The Grass is Singing

Ellen

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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

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Alan Plater (1935-2010), screenplay writer extraordinaire, playwright, musician-composer

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight in my efforts to watch a Region 2 version of the 1987 Fortunes of War, a brilliant 7 episode serial adaptation of Olivia Manning’s brilliant trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, I was driven to use my multiregional player attached to my flat TV. My vlc viewer just was not strong enough to get through the occasional damage on the disks (in this set there are 3), and I clicked by mistake on something called “Timeshift.” I just could not get out of this program, and was irritated until within a minute or so I realized it was BBC documentary, lovingly and intelligently done, appreciative, of the life’s work of Alan Plater: Hearing the Music (unfortunately not available from the site it’s now announced on).

In the 1960s (many one and two hour plays) and early 1970s he wrote over 50 screenplays for the BBC; he wrote fewer in the later 1970s and into the 1990s running up to 2000 (his last) but these include the memorable whole of the Barchester Chronicles, this Fortunes of War, and one of the best of the episodes of the important Danger UXB; his work includes Misterioso, The Good Companions (J. B. Priestley novel turned into a musical), A Very British Coupso many it’s hard to look them all up. With many stunning performances, from Judy Dench to my favorite, Barbara Flynn, playing Jill Swinburne, whom Plater said was a version of himself.

Although this Guardian obituary does justice to Plater by beginning by naming him as one of the screenplay writers for British TV who made an important difference in the quality of its drama, and changed what you could represent and how ever after, in the tone of respect and felt appreciation for his work, the writer does not emphasize sufficiently Plater’s love of music, jazz and modern rock, his use of it in his work — and his political point of view (socialist). According to Timeshift (and other pieces I’ve read), Plater was a highly original writer for TV in the 1960s strongly because of his Hull and musical background (he studied to be an architect and that probably helped his sense of structure). At the time most shows displayed upper class accents and working class people were given cockney accents, with the dialogue often stiff or naive, or utterly conventionalized so as not to be realistic. With his roots in Northern England, especially Hull, he was one of those who changed all that, writing dialogue for the real spoken voices, kinds of accents different idiolects across Britain. He slowed down the action, and often wrote scenes between two or three characters conceived of as the core of the drama. Most of all he integrated music into his plays, conveying meaning through music. Music told the identity, the culture, the past, the feel of his characters; in talking of how he wrote his plays he called his process like that of Jazz; he has 12 bars, and within that he provides variations.

Here is one 10 minute segment on him, together with a three part series made for Yorkshire TV, the much respected and popular Beiderbecke Trilogy:

You hear and see Barbara Flynn talking too.

He conveyed how people really talk by writing less dialogue too and leaving spaces for pause, for really felt enacting by the actors together. He loved to develop what the author of a novel might have left out — what was the sermon the Reverend Slope spoke from Barchester Chronicles — it’s not in Trollope but improvised as the script developed by Plater.

Plater is not alone unsung. I cannot express how often I have had the experience of identifying a wonderful TV drama show by its writer, and been greeted by a blank look. If I’ve tried to tell the person who was the writer, what his or her career, what other programs he or she wrote, they politely wait for me to finish. They don’t seem to realize their love of Dickens is a love of Alexander Baron (prolific screenplay writer of the 1980s with some of them peculiarly fine, and a good novelist too) or Andrew Davies or Arthur Hopcraft or Simon Raven (of the Pallisers). Nowadays many women write these screenplays, Sandy Welch (Our Mutual Friend 1999) is an older practitioner, so too Fay Weldon (1979 Pride and Prejudice) more recently, Fiona Seres (2018 Woman in White). In the BBC until recently the screenwriter was the linchpin or (as the position is now called) one of the showrunners of the series. In cinema they are now named early in credits and paid much better; so too in some more prestigious (or pushed) serial adaptations (Poldark, Deborah Horsfield; Downton Abbey, Jerome Fellowes), but not as much (how many people know the names of the remarkable team writing Outlander under the general direction of Ronald Moore). Misterioso is perhaps one of his finest later dramas (1991, based on his own novel.

Hours, days, months, years of fine entertainment are due to such people — of course the cinematographer, the directors, producers, costumers, but in the case of the writer you can find biographies and you can trace a personality and point of view that is interesting across the work. I wish more people would pay attention to these unsung heroes and heroines. I hear in my head for hours afterwards the music that plays across The Fortunes of War

As a coda treat, it is said of Plater he combined Coronation Street with the feel and outlook of Chekhov story or play, so here is one of those Play of the Month productions, which demonstrates this: Francesca Annis and Ian Holm, 1974 in The Wood Demon (I believe it’s the whole thing)

Ellen

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Hana (Andrea Riseborough) examining a temple (Luxor, 2020, directed scripted Zeina Durra, 2020)


Oliver Sacks His Own Life (biopic, 2019, Ric Burns directed, using Sacks’ book of the same title)


Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in sunlit landscape contemplating excavation (Dig, 2021, directed Simon Stone, scripted Moira Buffini from John Preston’s book)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been very fortunate in the last week or two because (without doing this deliberately) I’ve seen three excellent recent movies (actually four, see Even the Rain, 2011, in comments), all of which are thoughtful, quietly passionate, with genuinely interesting content, landscapes, story — all providing a true uplift. I write this blog to tell those of my readers seeking some respite from anxiety (COVID morphing into more deadly or infectious variants, not enough vaccines, the economic future. people hurting economically, and trying to self-isolate) you need only go to your computer and it’s a couple of clicks and a nominal sum away.

I don’t want to overdo this as I think of what most popular movies are, but I begin to wonder if there has been an effort recently — given the continued misery (see above) — to produce films where characters persist in hoping amid nearby or coming carnage (middle eastern wars, WW1) or the neglect of the agonizingly mentally disabled) or their own inner demons and distress. It really is a coincidence that just now on PBS, an excellent re-make of the movingly comic All Creatures Great and Small, has been airing, coming over your cable from PBS for the last five weeks. But maybe not that the era the film-makers are drawn to is just before or after WW1


James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) treating Strawberry, the cow (ITV, 2020, now on PBS)

I watched Luxor and Oliver Sacks His Owe Life as assignments in a weekly movie-class, where we watch movies online at Cinema Art Theater (supporting our local art movie-house). We are in our second week of four, all current movies. Luxor and Sacks are $12 each for 3-4 days of potential watching.

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What a relief is Luxor.


Hana with the newly re-found Sultan (Karim Saleh) at the hotel bar

It’s such a quiet movie, people hardly speak. The sexual acts that occur — several times, Hana, once with a stranger she met at a bar, Hana more than once with Sultan) are off-screen! There is no overt violence in front of us. Hana has returned to Luxor where she spent a joyous time with Sultan (throes of first love) 20 years ago. She is suffering from PTSD after years of surgery, practicing medicine the worst war and refugee places you can imagine — the Syrian border is mentioned. Unexpectedly she finds Sultan is now living there; he too returned, to do archaeology for the Eygptian gov’t (to please nationalists, for tourism). The story is we watch her slowly seem to get better, to come out of herself. Towards the end after she dances at a bar and comes back to her room in the hotel with Sultan, she bursts into hysterical shattered crying. To find tranquillity you have to allow the passions some release.

Like Celine Siamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s oddly devoid of dialogue — some people in life do talk a lot … but not this pair of lovers. As you go through her experience with you, you (or I) find therapy yourself.  At one point Hana visits a fortune-teller with the hotel owner.  It is also at core a romance, with two people who once knew each other, coming together again (like Linklater’s Sunrise, Sunset trilogy) with beautiful photography of this city left off the beaten track of commercialism, power, and today not even getting heavy tourism. It’s an Indie , the director is a woman who has made other movies of a similar type it seems. Roxana Hadadi writes a fine favorable detailed review on Ebert. It gains its denser power by the significance of the temples, the history of lives lived in squalor and hardship, the profound irrationality of people caught in their statues

The small diurnal transient lives considered against this backdrop, which lives are nonetheless precious and everything to those living them — this perception embodied is replicated in The Dig of Sutton Hoo below.

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Self- or group-reflexive still – during the course of the movie we met the living people now making the film and friends to the dying Sacks, as well as those no longer living (through older photos and Sacks narrating

His Own Life is the title of Sacks’s last book.  At last, out as a gay man, he owns his life.  And now he tells it. I’m a reader and teacher of Sacks’s books and essays as was Jim (our library of Sacks’s books) and I’ve taught several them (Hearing Voices, A Leg to Stand on, Migraines) and xeroxes of chapters and essays from others and periodicals (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, the New York Review of Books), and I thought I knew a lot. This film taught me I knew very little about the man’s full life (Jewish boyhood with physicians for parents, 3 other brothers), his character, how he grew up in England, how his mother rejected his homosexuality with abhorrence and then silence about it.


Oliver Sacks as a child.

What a sexy young man he was — when he left England, after having gone to the best private schools and then Oxford, for San Francisco & then Greenwich Village, NYC


Oliver Sacks, 1961.

His colleagues at first sidelined his work or fired him (when he accused their punitive methods of cruelty), his going on drugs, a slow and agonizing flowering when he got a job in a Bronx clinic where he was able through insight, drugs, compassion to bring catatonic people back to life. His literary success and then social through giving talks in prestigious places, his success as a doctor finally brought the psychiatric world round enough to appear to accept him.

I did not know he was homosexual and had to hide this most of the time. I was startled to see how heavy he was at one time. To watch him risking his life in crazed motorcycle riding. He is presented as living a more or less chaste life until his last years when he fell in love and his last partner, Bill Hayes, is in the film. The film narrator attempts to explain his methods, and his clinical work is done justice to as well. Among the witnesses is Jonathan Miller who describes Sacks at Oxford. Owen Gleiberman has written an intelligent review of the film, conveying the deeply humane nature of the man that also shines out in the film.

The film omits a few things about his career itself:  he was a wonderful storyteller  — a writer.  And central to is professional success without the support of academia was to have had the abilities of a novelist (in effect). His chapter stories are little novels where he has himself through his writing understood his patient or alter ego better by talking/writing to the reader.  To be sure, all these are based on years of clinical work (which work is not respected by the highest academics who prefer the theories that arise from abstract thought and research).

Very important: his real thrust was low tech (see especially Migraines). He contextualized and understood phenomena in history, e.g., the deaf in Hearing Voices where they were idiots for centuries and suddenly were people like you and me after the 3 Enlightenment philosophers invented sign languages.   The last thing he resorted to was a operation (see Migraines especially), and drugs were only applied after long talks and getting to know and understand a patient.  This is not appreciated by the medical establishment, supported as they are by the pharmaceutical industry & astronomical prices for surgeries.

As Oliver Sacks’s homosexuality made him for a long time an outsider in society, so his deeply humane methods, and his choice of approaches which are not prestigious (or as well paid) .  Sacks’s storytelling,  abilities as a brilliant writer as much as a clinician, neurologist and psychologist made him the hero and explorer and man we should be grateful to.

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Dig is a pastoral movie with much sun over the peaceful green fields of southern England

The Dig. I loved almost every minute of it, and although I realize the novel from which it is adapted, departs from historical accuracy, invents personalities and characters, I’ve a hunch it’s the sort novel I will find comfort and strength from (I have bought a copy from bookfinder.com). I gather the movie is getting a big audience; the subject is one long known, one which does attract a popular audience when set up in a museum to be a spectacle of gold: the Sutton Hoo burial grounds, the ship, its treasures, the Anglo-Saxon history.


Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) in the sun — many of the characters in Dig and Luxor are photographed in the sun


With Peggy Piggot (Lily James) by a left-over wall — your conventional romance trope

As with Luxor, and (on TV) All Things Great and Small, the photography is beautiful. One does not wonder why so many Anglophilic novels are set in the southeast. The acting very good: Ralph Fiennes, as Basil Brown, the “amateur” archaeologist, superb excavator, hams it up a bit with his accent, but when he is gone from the screen is when the film begins to fade and lose strength of emotional will and understanding.  He, together with the owner of the property, Carey Mulligan, as Edith Pretty, who catches the note and behavior of the upper class woman with her sense of privilege, have found the buried ship and its treasure together. She defends him only slowly from the ambitious academics, but it’s she who saves his life when the excavation collapses over him; she tries to invite him to dinner but he evades what might have been a very painful experience for both; nonetheless, they form a strong bond in the film. At one point he leaves the site because he is treated so rudely, condescendingly by those with degrees, but he is persuaded back by his wife, May (Monica Dolan) on the grounds that has he been doing this all these years for these people’s praise? At its end, she says she will be sure he will be recognized. Intertitles in the final credits tell us the Sutton Hoo material first arrived in the British Museum 7 years after Edith’s death; and then it took a long time for Basil Brown to be properly credited, but he and Edith are both central names on the exhibit today.

Our two central actors are ably supported by Johnny Flynn, as Rory Lomax, who I first saw as Viola in the all male Twelfth Night, and does have this charisma-charm; & Lily James, as Mrs Margaret (Peggy) Piggott, who falls in love with him (James has been superb as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Cinderella, & Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice & Zombies). Rory Lomax is Edith Pretty’s brother who is going off to WW1 as a RAF and we and he and everyone knows the danger and death rate high.  Peggy Piggot is the wife of the one of educated by degree team who is also homosexual and has married her in a cover up ,and continually rejects her body and companionship. Like Brown, she is not professional, has no degree, but knows a great deal, and she comes upon a jewel first (fiction can do this).

One of the film’s pleasures is its staunch egalitarianism. Again, the seeming ordinary man is our hero, and he is almost pushed off his site; but his wife persuades him to accept the snobbery and sidelining by the official professionals who at first treat him like a servant whose services they must endure but control. But after all he is not ordinary; the caste system erases people not born with money and rank, irrespective of their deeper talents.

Fiennes was believable as the older man whose partly orphaned son is attracted to him — they look at the stars through Brown’s telescope together. When Mulligan presented the reality of a personality of a upper class woman of the era, now widowed, she shows a hard edge, and assumes of course that her servants should serve her hand and foot. The love story of Rory and Peggy is conventional, but I did not find it detracted — it done from the DH Lawrence point of view, which roots the attraction of the two people to their deep time alone at night in the natural world all around them (a tent, behind a garden wall).


It rains; the women with the famous archaeologist from the British Museum (Ken Stott)

It themes includes death — Mrs Pretty visits her husband in his grave; she is discovered to have rheumatic heart disease and physically deteriorates during the film. Her young son is desolated when he sees this, and cannot save her — as he tells Mr Brown. Then we get this wonderfully delivered speech by Fiennes-Brown about failure: how we fail all the time, have to accept it, and just try to fail better. He got near Robert Louis Stevenson’s axiom. The boy clings with admiration to Mr Brown.

Et in Arcadio Ego; death is in The Dig shaped by the film’s consciousness of long time, and that each individual is part of some long range cycle seen in the buried ship. We are in an ancient cemetery. Planes going over (RAF) soon to be replaced by the brutal Germans with their bombs. All this is in Luxor too: war and carnage, the irrational temples. Sacks is dying and has been deprived of deeper companionship of a lover most of his life. The dialogue is realistic, well done. For detailed full reviews see Sheila O’Malley on Ebert. Also The Guardian, Mark Kermode, better than usual because he’s reviewing a better film.


Fiennes’ presence helps make The Dig


Riseborough pitch perfect in silent grief


Playing piano, being filmed in His Own Life; his papers just below — there are no online photos of his patients (Jim used to feel that there was a voyeuristic element in his books)

Ellen

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Probably the happiest moment realized in the history of Charles Windsor’s relationship with Diana Spenser as envisaged The Crown, fourth season — a rural area of Australia where apart from all others Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana (Emma Corrin) live for a time with their baby son, William


Charles and Diana, the actors and the real pair of people, keeping up the pretense

Friends and readers,

Season 4 differs from the three previous seasons because of the close at times step-by-step attention it pays to a single central story: the meeting, courtship (such as it was), wedding, then almost immediately deteriorating and finally (with a few events now and again bringing the couple together) utterly failed marriage of Charles, heir to the throne of the UK and whatever commonwealth countries still recognize and respect the office & man, to Diana Spenser, the younger daughter of an aristocratic family, the Spensers, whose Anglo lineage goes back to the early modern period (16th century).

Seasons 1 & 2 certainly told the story of Elizabeth, heir and then Queen of Great Britain (Claire Foy) as she both takes on her role of queen and tries to live the life of a loving wife, mother, and individual, vis-a-vis her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), a Greek prince, who has his problems adjusting to what’s demanded of him, what he must sacrifice (career, last name, private home, Clarence House, and also a private life of larger dimensions);

— but also with her sister, Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) and Margaret’s need for a strong protective kindly father figure of a husband she can love, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) whom she is forbidden to have, and the rake cad-substitute, Tony Armstrong (Matthew Goode), whom Margaret ends up with. Already I have had to bring in a two couple five-way story, yet have omitted the centrality of Churchill (John Lithgow), and his wife, secretary, and political life for its own sake, and later in the second season, Elizabeth’s yearning for another more genial companion, Porchey (Joseph Kloska) and real empathy with her young son, Charles, who takes as a father substitute, Mountbatten (the gentle Greg Wise) because Philip will only domineer over his boy, demand a narrow version of manliness while he spends his life from sports to apparent sexual philandering.

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The real royal couple and the actors

The third and fourth season present Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) and Philip (Tobias Menzies) as a married pair who have accepted one another’s personalities and resigned themselves to the roles they must play in life as Queen and Queen’s supportive husband. He is still having troubles resigning himself (see Episode 7, “Moonstruck”). She learns to unbend a bit more, to be open to labor points of view, and another PM, Wilson, but the most interesting female of the season is Margaret (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”), who now likes her choice of sister to the queen, but not all its consquences.

What is concentrated on is the world around them, and in this fourth that means Elizabeth’s relationship with her Prime Minister, here Mrs Thatcher (brilliantly portrayed by Gillian Anderson to the point I forget I was watching an actress and thought there was Mrs Thatcher in front of me):


Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Elizabeth I in one of their periodic meetings


A close up of Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher

We learn what Thatcher inflicts on the British world in the poignant Episode 5 (“Fagan”), about Michael Fagan, an unemployed lone man who entered the palace to talk to the Queen,


Tom Brooke as Michael Fagan and Fagan himself

Elizabeth and Philip’s (Tobias Menzies)’s relationship with their now grown children is context. Philip’s favorite is Anne, whom he pushes and encourages, Elizabeth’s is the egregiously spoilt Andrew (Tom Byrne), who arrives for lunch by heliocopter as if this were nothing unusual or expensive). Charles is no one’s favorite, or he was of Mountbatten, bringing down on Charles (as we learn) his father Philip’s resentment. These relationships are told as parallels, and kept controlled, intermittent. Margaret’s story (Helena Bonham Carter) is reduced to one episode (7, “The Hereditary Principle”) and brief outbursts of memorable truth-telling (rather like the fool in King Lear). She is the only character given truly separate space beyond Philip and Elizabeth, Charles and Diana. Thatcher is always seen as surrounded by people, either her family, or the male politicians she leads and bosses around (including making food for them which they do not look like they are keen to eat). The cast is shrunk, the minor characters very minor most of the time, used as further parallels (Thatcher’s grown children and favoring of her spoilt son over her loyal daughter), or as context to understand Elizabeth and Philip’s lack of sympathy or even real interest in Charles and Diana’s relationship. The courtiers now have little power over Elizabeth; and in 48:1 (Episode 8) she sacrifices a loyal secretary, Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell pitch perfect as ever) when she needs a cover-up.


Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell) — the real Shea was not forced out at all but he did become a popular writer of “insider” mystery thriller

Their view of Charles’ and Diana’s marriage the same as Anne’s (Erin Doherty): just get on with it, as we did and do. Ben Daniels as the faithless hard Snowdon is now there as an obsession and obstacle to Margaret’s peace of mind, getting no more screen time than Dazzle Jennings (Tom Burke) who existed, perhaps as a caring if limited friend to Margaret


Dazzle (Derek) Jennings (Tom Burke) and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter)

Even the snow “Avalanche” that could have killed Charles (Episode 9), that did kill his close friend (and I still remember a photo of the real Charles weeping helplessly, copiously on a snow mountain that day), even this is just part of an episode, whose riveting content is again another phase of Charles and Diana’s marriage. The world of the fourth season, including Thatcher and the shown-to-be absurd war, a war for show (like the royals’ lives) over the Falkland islands, might be considered background for the season’s focus on Charles and Diana. One can compare the real time-line of the real couple to this fictional reduced one.

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Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) presented as naturally and deeply congenial

This emphasis, and intertwining of truth and fictionalizing makes how you see the season’s depiction and perspective on the couple the determining factor in how you judge the season. The story and characters fit the overall theme of all four seasons, the price of this crown, but the interest here is not generic. It’s said that “the palace” and defenders of the Royal Family are angry at this depiction, feel it is unfair to Charles and them. They are understandably right. While the film is highly fictionalized, the producers and film-makers are conveniently forgetting how they are doing all they can to make us respond to it as a historical film.

So I can understand the palace’s discomfort since the first time I watched the series while at first I thought there was an attempt to be even-handed (Charles was emotionally blackmailed, coerced into a marriage with a girl much younger than he whose character was inimical to his own), but by the tenth episode (“War”) I was convinced we were meant to see Diana as a victim of a group of people who offered her no aid to cope, no advice, basically ignored her, so she never had a real chance to thrive: all they taught were gestures of submission.


Charles shouting at Diana after she has sung for him and needs praise and validation; his coldness to her


Diana did dance before Charles in a sexual dress to “Uptown Girl” — and meant to please plus yes show herself off, because she enjoyed doing that

In the case of Charles, after an initial attempt to teach Diana to be like him, he turns to cling to Camilla Parker-Bowles, buys a house near hers, phones her every day, is with her and their friends most evenings. He is intensely jealous of how crowds respond to Diana, and care little for him. This is part of why he responds with castigation to Diana’s genuinuely well-meant overtures. She can have no idea he finds spectacle shameful — which he does and I would probably; but he hardly cares for his and her two children whom she appears to love and care for and about, and in the last two episodes will not answer any of her phone calls. Diana only shouts at Charles once he has castigated her.

Elizabeth is cold to her need for affection, berates both of them separately. Her grandmother is obtuse, humiliating her on her first entry to the family by teaching her who and how she must bow to each. Diana is driven (I thought) into promiscuity, the arms of a cad. But the way Margaret talks about her is the degrading unsympathetic misogynist type talk of the 1950s, i.e., she’s a tramp. I felt a great deal of the blame falls on Elizabeth as a frigid individual (misogyny there again – the cold mother). Olivia Coleman is directed to evince a complete inability to respond to Diana’s real need for emotional support. Elizabeth now clearly favors at least two of her children over Charles (Anne and Andrew). Edward (Angus Imrie) is presented as so nasty because sent to a nasty public school it is understandably hard for Elizabeth to warm to him. Elizabeth is shown to have no sympathy with Charles’s love for literature, gardening, anything intangible having to do with imagination and the arts; she berates Diana for playing to the crowd — something she like Charles finds personally distasteful and is jealous of too.

The contrast is Margaret Thatcher’s shameless preference for her spoilt son, Mark (Freddie Fox), who goes missing carelessly and Thatcher’s lack of appreciation for her loving her loyal daughter, Carol (Rebecca Humphries). Thatcher tells Elizabeth she’d never have a woman in her cabinet, they are such emotional creatures.

To me Diana seemed in outer role to resemble the way women are used in powerful families when they are a servant, seduced, impregnated — they are made to disappear and leave their children behind them. That was Diana Spenser’s fate.


Diana lies when she first meets Charles, pretends to try to be escaping him, when she is deliberately encountering, intriguing, seducing him, playing innocent


The second time she is dressed in fetching overalls

But by watching three times now — so I’m into careful watching — I’ve discovered what is implied is that Diana did throw herself in front of Charles at least twice. She dressed herself very attractively and non-threateningly in the first episode (“Gold Stick”), like a pixie and drew Charles’s attention. On another public occasion, she presents herself before him once more, dressed fetchingly and absolutely worshipping him in her face and gestures. She is after him, after a position. Once he sees her, is attracted, takes her out, and then (poor calf) mentions her to his family (without foreseeing they immediately will approve of her for the wife they wanted for him and for children in the family), he is in effect trapped. When Thatcher leaves Balmoral (Episode 2), Diana passes “the Balmoral test” effortlessly — as Mrs Thatcher fails utterly (also effortlessly). Thatcher is no aristocrat. She cannot spend whole evenings playing silly games. By contrast, Diana falls right into charades, brings the right shoes for muck, wears nondescript colors. Philip finds her perfect because she falls into hunting the stag so well. Just before and after Charles goes off on trips (as if escaping what his family wants); Diana does manage to tell him she knows he need not go, but of course she will wait. She does speak up: she tells him after she went out to lunch with Camilla, she understood Camilla was his mistress and knows he has given Camilla an intimate gift just before her and Charles’s wedding — yet she does marry him. She did know what she was intervening on.


The aging Mountbatten (Charles Dance) off to seize and kill lobsters in Ireland while Charles fishes in Iceland, and the rest of the family hunt in Scotland — oh to have such estates ….

Charles is also pushed into this by the death of Mountbatten (Charles Dance), who also loves blood sports, has no sense that an animal has any quality of life; and whose last letter to Charles pushes Charles to marry to carry on a high status line — it was his duty as he Mountbatten had spent his life dutifully. Mountbatten has died as a result of a bomb thrown at him by the IRA. Charles had just rebelled, flung himself away from Mountbatten, accusing his uncle of being part of the group who pushed Camilla into marrying Parker-Bowles. Parker-Bowles carries on having affairs. Mountbatten dismisses this charge as in Mountbatten’s eyes it’s not a charge. When he encouraged Charles to be with Camilla, he thought it would be understood by Charles you are not to fall in love where it’s not appropriate. Charles had not. He does try to bring in his interests (literature architecture &c), but unfortunately not dramatized (I suspect the film-makers thought the average audience member would not sympathize with these aesthetic and poetic impulses. We are told there was no response from her and (with her pregnancies and their social routines), no time for him to figure out why. What I’m trying to say is he never accepted the marriage as she did, to start with — for reasons that have nothing to do with love or understanding — it was a quiet career choice for her. What she didn’t foresee is how alone she’d feel when (what he didn’t foresee) he couldn’t bear to be around her.

I felt the wounded moaning stag killed was a stand in for Charles (Episode 2, “The Balmoral Test”). It was his father who actually liked & accepted her after “examining” her manners, taking her off to watch the killing of a stag. I do loathe these scenes where these characters just slaughter birds, animals, deer. In his childhood it was his father who rejected him, and Mountbatten who was kind, something we learn in this season that enraged Philip: he lost his father figure, Mountbatten and his power over his son. Tobias Menzies communicates this in a power sudden speech to Charles. His mother sees Diana as a convenience whom she wishes would take up none of her time. Like Anne, she is indifferent to this fairy tale beauty. But Charles never had a chance either; once Diana spoke and said she wanted the marriage to work (with no reasons given) in a meeting Elizabeth and Philip arrange presumably to be hear about the marriage from both of them, Charles is told there is nothing more to be said. All he has planned to say in defense of his desire for a life for himself he could have some pleasure in, for a separation and divorce dismissed. The only thing that will free him is if she becomes scandalously sexually unfaithful. So he hires detectives to watch her. And after a while she calls her captain-lover back.

What no one is interested in is her bulimia.  My real objection to the way the story is presented is the inadequacy of the way bulimia is treated. As someone who was anorexic for five years, and knows that anorexia is like alcoholism, not only do you never truly recover, it is interwoven with your whole life and comes from complex and varied causes, I find ludicrous and empty the treatment of Diana’s eating disorder. To be bulimic allows the anorexic woman (trying to be fashionably frail, thin, ethereal) to eat and thus be with other people. So when they are alone, develop a series of techniques to make themselves vomit out the food before it becomes digested. This way they can keep themselves thin, one of the manifestations of this disturbed state of mind. The apologies at the opening of the episodes where we see Diana hovering over a toilet and throwing up have ridiculously over-wrought warnings. You hardly see anything. The behavior is seen as something apart from everything else. No one tries to stop her. We are told nothing about her family life. Had the film-makers truly wanted to understand and create sympathy for this girl and then women they should have read some books and woven their findings into the story. Girls who are anorexic (as Hilary Mantel once wrote) want out: family pressure to have a career, to be admired, to marry; and the predatory demands of heterosexual sex and self-sacrificing pregnancy are too much. One area Diana apparently did shine in was motherhood. Everyone in the family treats what she does over the toilet as unspeakable. No one talks to her. Such attitudes help no one and I just know they did not help Diana.

So yes the story is treated as another instance of the price of this numinous rank, endless wealth, endless deference we see the other characters paying. But it is self-consciously intensely developed because the film-makers know that the audience is paying intense attention. Martyrdom is part of Diana’s cult (the people’s princess), she did die horribly, Charles did remarry Camilla after a decent interval.

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I’d say all the episodes of this season have power, beauty, nuance and intensity of relationships, and it’s in the enjoyment of the many small humane quietly brilliant moments that our deepest pleasure lies, so to keep all these blogs from from being overlong (as I’ve promised) I will treat at length only, not perversely, the one dedicated to Margaret, Episode 7 (“The Hereditary Principle”).


The real Margaret Windsor grown older juxtaposed to Helena Bonham Carter in this season

It was typical of all four seasons in that nothing major or physical happened. It opens with someone named Dazzle (nickname), a companion-lover coming to tell her he is joining the priesthood (see still above of Tom Burke in the role). We are shown how her husband lives apart from her and takes mistresses as he pleases. So again she is left alone, and again she asks Elizabeth for something to do; instead Margaret is removed from the circle of those called upon to substitute for Elizabeth. Elizabeth is apologetic, but this is a slap in the face. I remember in an earlier season Elizabeth being resentful of how Margaret stole the show (like Charles is being presented in this season about Diana). Sometime the series is at its best when all is implicit and one episode refers back to many long ago. Charles visits her and they commiserate.

Then Margaret is at these apparently frequent lunches with her female relatives (Anne, Queen Mother, Queen) and coughs up blood. Switch to her having a dangerous operation after which she is told to stop incessant smoking, drinking and to lose weight. She goes to a psychiatrist (Gemma Jones) although her background teaches her to do this shows weakness and it’s useless. The character can do very little to help the recalcitrant Margaret. But somehow in their talk — Margaret confesses to periods of frantic anger, madness, depression — she learns of four cousins kept in mental asylums – we have been seeing these pathetic inmates of an asylum juxtaposed with the regular story for the hour and didn’t know who they were.


Apparently (but these are actresses) the queen mother’s nieces and queen’s cousins, Katherine and Nerissa

Turns out these are cousins of the Windsors who were not been given any chance to try to have a normal life. Dazzle accompanies her on her visit to these people; she is appalled and he accepting as in “It is what it is” — that awful axiom. The world is what it is.

Margaret is horrified because she identifies. Both Elizabeth and the Queen Mother say oh their diagnosis is imbecility, idiocy — and they would have threatened the throne to let them stay about. As ever Elizabeth avoids the talk, and it is the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) who takes it on. She is (as we have seen for four seasons) someone who is utterly conventional — even if she loved her husband, her hatred of Edward VIII came from her detestation of his bohemianism as did the grandmother’s (Eileen Atkins).

A second place and set of people are juxtaposed to Margaret: those we saw at the end of Season 3 (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”, scroll down to summary and commentary), Anne, Lady Glenconnor, her amoral lady-in-waiting, her husband, and all the hangers-on at Mystique Island. After the demoralizing visit with Dazzle, and a final conversation with him, where he now suggests she do like him — retreat from this world, give it up, we see her there once again dressed flamboyantly, half-drunk, singing rowdy songs, drinking and yes smoking. She looks like and is having a wonderful time. It’s empty of the depth of love she once wanted, and instead of which Tony could only give the parties and then eruptions of antagonism and sex. wn up with a husband. The last scene of the episode shows her sitting quietly by the pool in the morning. This is her sad life now — but one she half-chose.


Margaret’s public self — dressed up to go downstairs


Her private self walking about her island at night

I thought the hour moving. You need just to minus the fact these royal characters are all the types who never worry about whether they have a check coming to them for work they did this month.

We then see real photos of two of these people in the asylum grown older. They died only recently. Poor women — sacrificed for this family. The same was done to Leslie Stephen’s oldest daughter by Thackerays’ daughter — put in an asylum for life because she wouldn’t cooperate. Was difficult, stupid it was said. Didn’t respond to discipline.


Carter as Elinor who is freed and gets to live a life on her own for a while …

Helena Bonham Carter has made part of her charity and career work trying to help people who are disabled. In a wonderful film, 55 Steps, based on a real life story, Carter played someone with lower IQ who managed to get a lawyer to free her from an asylum. I wondered if she was somewhat responsible for this choice of topic. Carter said in a feature she works to help mentally disabled people because of something in her background — she is herself related to the Windsors.

If only there were more episodes like this one in the four seasons (e.g., Episode 5 “Fagan” in season 3).

Ellen

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The dream Claire (Caitriona Balfe) escapes into given precise focus; the reality of an aggravated assault by a gang of men blurred so Claire distanced from us into a ghost-like nightmare presence

You ask me if there’ll come a time
When I grow tired of you
Never my love
Never my love
You wonder if this heart of mine
Will lose its desire for you
Never my love
Never my love
What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends
On you (on you)
Never my love
Never my love
You say you fear I’ll change my mind
And I won’t require you
Never my love
Never my love
How can you think love will end
When I’ve asked you to spend your whole life
With me (with me, with me)
— Don and Dick Addrisi

Dear friends and readers,

This is the toughest episode in all five seasons but one, the rape and aggravated assault of Jamie (Sam Heughan) by Black Jack Randall, evil doppelganger for Frank Randall (both played by Tobias Menzies). The earlier profoundly distressing episode (S1;E15 and 16) differs from this last of Claire (S5:E12): Jamie is raped by one man who seeks to shatter his personality and make Jamie subject to him, be willing to be made love to and the writer and director shot the scene in graphic (revolting) detail; Claire raped but also beaten, brutalized, cut by a gang of men led by Lionel Browne (Ned Dennehy) who loathes and wants to take revenge on Claire for her ways of helping women socially (by advice) as well as medically (contraceptive means), and the detail of what is done to her is kept just out of sight; we see the effects on her body and face only. But I was, if possible, more grieved for Claire because she overtly suffers much so much more physically and emotionally while it is happening & seems to remain more consciously aware of things around her (she tries to persuade individuals to enable her to escape) — and she grieves afterwards for a time so much more despairingly.


Far shot of Brianna helping Claire to bathe turns to close-ups of Claire dealing with her sore wounded body in the denouement of the episode

In any case, in neither configuration is the rape treated lightly; in both the incident is found in the book. A regular criticism of any frequency of rape in a series (and this is true for Outlander as well as as well as Games of Thrones) is that it’s not taken seriously, there for titillation, suggests that women don’t suffer that much or want this; is not integrated into the film story; e.g., Jennifer Phillips, “Confrontational Content, Gendered Gazes and the Ethics of Adaptation,” from Adoring Outlander, ed. Valerie Frankel. None of these things are true of Outlander: in both cases and the other cases, e.g, Black Jack Randall’s attempt on Jenny Fraser Murray (Laura Donnelly); the hired assassin/thug of Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day), Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) of Brianna Randall Mackenzie (Sophie Skelton), the incidents have a profound effect on the victim or her friends, or the story. The assault on Jamie was part of the assault on Scotland by England, turning it into a savagely put-down exploited colony. The rape of Claire is part of the raging fury igniting the coming revolutionary war, which we see the first effects of in this season in the burnt house Jamie, Claire, Brianna and Roger (Richard Rankin) come across (Episode 11). What happens to Jamie in the first season and Claire in this fifth goes beyond such parallels to provide an ethical outlook that speaks to our own time. We are in political hostage territory, traumatized woman treated as hated thing; with a modern resonance of violation of the soul never quite brought back to what he or she was.


Jamie has wrapped Claire in the same tartan he did in the first season’s first episode

Paradoxically artistically the use of a dream setting and images conjured up by Claire’s mind as she lays on the ground being violated makes the episode into an anguished, agonized lyric. We know that Roger first and then Brianna have longed to return to the safety and modern occupations of the 20th century, and tried to return, but found their home is now with Claire and Jamie in 18th century North Carolina, Fraser’s Ridge; Claire’s dream reveals she too longs to return, but with Jamie, who appears in the scenes except unlike the other 18th century characters who appear in 20th century dress (e.g., Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) as a modern upper class lady; Ian (John Bell) as a marine, Marsali (Lauren Lyle), Jamie is dressed in an 18th century dress. It recurs as frequently as the supposed real scenes of the 18th century, is thoroughly intertwined, alternated so the rape/assault action becomes almost ritualized). This has the effect of distancing us from the horror (for Jamie takes an unforgiving revenge and orders everyone lined up and shot), except again in the dream we see Lionel at the table and then as a police officer come to tell Claire and Jamie that Roger, Brianna, and Jemmy won’t make this Thanksgiving dinner (Jamie speaks of a turkey) because they’ve been killed in an auto accident.

The denouement did not have the escape dream in it but traces Claire’s difficult beginning inner journey not to remain shattered by this, but as she has done in other dire situations before, put herself together again, calm, control, stoic endurance slowly the way – with Jamie hovering in the background, Brianna offering to listen.


The closing shots as Jamie and Claire accept the future will hold further harsh experience, which may bring the death they have read in the obituary for them Roger located in the 20th century Scottish library

The background music was not background but foreground in feel and played over and over, “Never my love,” one of the most popular songs of the 20th century, is a key epitaph for the entire series of films and books: Jamie and Claire have built their life together across centuries, and drawn to them, all the couples and people of Fraser’s Ridge, because of this unbreakable unending love. I feel it speaks for the way I feel about Jim and prefer to believe he felt about me. It’s haunting rhythms and instruments riveted me.


A woman’s hands in mid-20th century garb putting on a long-playing record is among the first stills of the episode

The episode could not have been more perfect nor had more appropriate closing vignettes: Jocasta’s song remembering Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix). Ian’s traditional heroic behavior; Marsali killing Lionel Brown through injection when instead of showing gratitude for having been kept alive, he treats her with utter contempt reminded me of Mary Hawkins killing her rapist (second season). The playfulness of the characters who turn up in Claire’s twentieth century home. Brianna and Roger settling down to live the life of an 18th century couple on this family estate.

As they came to the Ridge from the scene of high violence, Jamie speaks the beautiful over-voice meant to encapsulate his code of life, and as he is giving his life to these people so they are all willing to accede to, form themselves around his identity too:

I have lived through war and lost much.
I know what’s worth a fight and what’s not
Honor and courage are matters of the bone
And what a man will kill for
he’ll sometimes die for too.
A man’s life springs from his woman’s bones
And in her blood is his honor christened.
For the sake of love alone
will I walk through fire again.

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in her surgery (Episode 2)


Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) listening to Jamie say they must part for a while and Murtagh join the regulators … (Episode 1)

Dear readers and friends,

This is the first of (I hope) four blogs intended to explain why and demonstrate how Season 5 of Outlander is a quiet miracle. I would like to suggest it is the best of all five seasons, except it’s so dependent on the previous four (parts of them so brilliant), and functions as a kind of coda or transition to a coming sixth — presumably, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and the American revolution. For this first, I write a structural comparison of book to other books and this 5th film series. The next two will be Episodes 1-5, then 6-11 of the5th  series, and a last on the extraordinary twelfth.


From “Never My Love” — Jamie (Sam Heughan) hugging Claire in her escape dream in the 20th century, with the cloak he originally put round her in the 1st episode of the 1st season (the song echoes throughout the dream part of the episode)

The Fiery Cross is a long tedious book, with little story: Gabaldon’s first two books, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, are propelled by two forces, the story momentum of the Scottish catastrophe at Culloden, and the falling into intense love of the principals, Claire and Jamie, with their attempt to stop it. It defeats them and a pregnant Claire must flee to the 20th century. For the third, Voyager, Gabaldon stretched out the aftermath of Culloden (20 years worth): the long time of Claire in Boston, with Jamie slowly rehabilitated into a printer-smuggler, the sleuthing for Claire to discover Jamie alive, her getting back, the uneasy new adjustment, and re-settling her.

Now what? it seems to me, sometime during the composition of Voyager, then announced in the prologue, and got going about about a quarter in, our narrator-author moves into the voyage across the Atlantic (hence the title and powerful theme of voyaging).  She brings from Ardsmuir, our secondary homosexual hero, Lord John Grey, to bring them all together, to North Carolina where a group or groups of Scots highlanders did settle, at the opening of a fourth book, Drums of Autumn. (The idea may have been gotten in part from Gabaldon’s extensive reading — see her bibliographies in her Outlandish Companions).  Now what? She invents a new villain, the gay psychopath Bonnet, has Brianna coming to warn the couple of a coming death (with the ghost of Frank cheering her on), Roger following her, a traumatic adjustment for them, throws in some Native Americans, Ian’s coerced but willing assimilation to the Mohawks, and yet a third time traveler (a young man also turned into Native American); the second was Geillis Duncan, the fanatic 20th century Jacobite). But we have come to stasis.


Roger and Brianna falling into one another’s arms — he is seen riding up on his horse form afar, she runs out to him ….

The story (such as it is) of Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross does not begin until well after Brianna and Roger’s wedding, which does not occur until near mid-point of the book. For the first half of the book one is put off, with delay after delay (over religion), anecdotal incident after anecdotal incident, conversation after conversation (between Claire and Brianna over breast-feeding! preventing another pregnancy). In the film series, the first hour (“The Fiery Cross”) is given over to a celebratory wedding between Brianna (Sophia Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin) and clan ritual where nothing goes wrong (very daring I think); then these anecdotes, so frustrating in the book becomes well-chosen brilliantly and slowly quietly developed episodes (some originally long, some short) to form the central matter and pivots of each hour, each self-contained. For example, Claire and Jamie come upon a Bluebeard situation where a very old man has abused and destroyed four wives and the fifth is now destroying him (Episode 3, “Free Will”). Or a young girl and boy have fallen in love, and secretly made love, become engaged, she is pregnant, and her father enraged (Episode 4, “The Company We Keep”).

What is astonishing and perfect is how quietly and slowly each sub-story is intelligently developed and woven in to the mood of the hole season, which is the quietude of Jamie and Claire’s certain fundamental love holding all together. It is tremendously daring to spend a full opening hour on an utterly predictable wedding, with our main entertainment being the bliss of three sets of lovers making love towards the end (beyond Claire/Jamie, Brianna/Richard, we have Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Murtagh, the camera switching from one to another lovingly. But this pace is the pace of the whole series, this kind of modulating psychologically slow subtle tone, the way the tones of the episodes work. Yes interwoven are other events, Claire re-invents pencillin, is teaching Marsali to become a doctor, a tonsillectomy; there is Jocasta’s wedding, Ulysses’s (Colin McFarlane) protection of her and flight, but basically one or at most two actions to an episode, each drawn out and developed lovingly


The next morning: Jocasta and Murtagh discussing what’s to come …

For a clothesline (as it were), a rope to hang everything on, the film-makers took Murtagh, Jamie’s beloved god-father, brother-friend, dead since Culloden (in Dragonfly in Amber in the books), kept alive or brought back (Drums of Autumn) and made him the linchpin or chief actuator of a plot design where takes us from his leaving after the wedding to the second episode through the fifth into sixth as now and again we glimpse Murtagh leading farm and working people, Americanized regulators in their struggle against the outrageous taxes and other injustices inflicted on them (they feel) from the the upper class British type establishment, whom Jamie is at the same time coerced into heading or at least aiding. This seems to come to an end at Episode 5 (“Perpetual Adoration”) when Jamie, suddenly and surprisingly strangles the officer, Knox, with whom he is playing chess (a cold-blooded calculated act complete with disguising the body, not like Jamie usually but repeated at the end of the series when he tells Fergus and Roger to execute the gang of men who beat, raped, humiliated Claire) in an effort to end the search for Murtagh since the Governor seems to have said except for Murtagh the war with the regulators is over.


It is when Jamie comes home after this murder, that he finds and brings home the kitten-looking Adso — a softening note

So now what? time out for another wedding, this time Jocasta’s at River Run to Duncan Innes, with the problem of locusts back at Frazer’s Ridge occupying our two young couples (Marsali [Lauren Lyle] and Fergus [Romann Berrux] are very much part of the season), and a reminder that Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) and his criminal smuggling friends are about (Episode 6, “Better to marry than to burn”). It emerges after all the war is not over, and we get a long arch with a difficult battle for all, where Roger (not meant for a warrior) comes near death unable to prevent himself from being mistakenly hanged (Episode 7, “The Ballad of Roger Mac”) to a spill-over of trauma and his slow recovery with young Ian’s return from the Mohawk (Episode 8, “Famous Last Words”).

Back to anecdote when Jamie’s leg comes near amputation from a snake bite (9, “Monsters and Heroes”). As we move through the series, each character is given due weight: from Lizzie, Brianna’s loyal maid, to the two young men Claire and Jamie manumit. Also the evil characters: the violent abusive male Browns. The story of Stephen Bonnet, his character, criminal side-kicks, kidnapping of Brianna (complete with Bonnet’s apparent merciless execution from drowning & Brianna shooting him in the head), the brief indication of a prostitute’s story, do not take the second half of the series (as it does the second part of the book) but rather just another in the series of self-contained anecdotes (Episode 10, “Mercy Shall Follow You”). Lastly two more: Roger and Brianna with their baby son, Jemmy, think to return to the 20th century as safer (11, “Journeycake”) and Claire is gang-raped, a horrifying sequence, prelude to a coming violent internecine set of wars (12, “Never My Love”).

Since Ulysses was driven to murder Forbes, the lawyer, attempting to smother Jocasta (for her money) he must hide out — we learn he was manumitted a long while ago, has been Jocasta’s lover (she has had several) and will go with Lord John Grey as his servant back to England; Jamie brings him Pamela to read

What’s the miracle? that this material set out this way does hold us. Why? the film-makers expect that we are and they themselves all become, write, act, rootedly invested in these characters. Unlike the second season of the series, where much effort was made to lure us to re-bond once again (the French sequence, Claire’s time at the hospital with Mother Hildegarde) the third and fourth less so, this fifth one just assumes we know who everyone is, though for the first time they use a long flashback (Boston, 1968, showing why Claire took Brianna to England to see where her father had grown up, and to Inverness, to show her Rev Wakefield’s house — unknown to her Roger’s step-father has died and they come upon a funeral). When we glimpse Marsali and Claire becoming mother and daughter, doctor and apprentice, friends, we are supposed on our own to remember Marsali hated Claire when they first met (as the woman who took her mother’s husband). They rely throughout on this investment of already built admiration and acceptance.

There is a risk here: sometimes the dialogues between the characters is too ideal; there is not enough conflict between the principals except perhaps Jamie and Roger, and there it’s that the two men are slowly learning to know, accept and like one another for what they are. That’s a central true plot-pattern for this series: it’s no happenstance that it opens with Jamie shaving Roger for the wedding because the shaving implements of the 18th century take some getting-used-to. The paratextual music has changed again to a slow haunting version of the Skye-boat tune in minor key.


The season was filmed in Scotland

Next up: Outlander Season 5, Episodes 1-5

Ellen (to be cont’d)

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Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett, 1980s BBC) — detection genius


George Smiley (Alec Guiness, Tinker, Tailor … 1970s BBC) — spymaster extraordinaire


Melissandra (Carice Van Houten), prophetess (Games of Thrones) — Cassandra-witch

Friends and readers,

This blog is a bit of departure from my usual modes. I usually zero in on a particular work or works; here I remain in general, and just cite examples briefly. What is left out (alas) are the moral inferences that Marr makes so precisely when he cites and goes over particular books and talks to particular authors.  (I no longer have the facility or strength of fingers or speed to get down accurately what he said.)  These inferences are mostly pessimistic, dark, unsettling utterances, often half-ironic.  So, again, in general, here is what he inferred: Detective stories today reveal an abysm of poverty; spy a fearful terrain of ruthless totalitarian and fascist states; sorcery the return of atavistic amorality as part of superstition. I add that we see in the latest of these kinds of works that women are made to behave in ways directly as violent and treacherous as men (this is not credible as at least studies of women who commit violence show); and men in the last 30 years ae shown to be as sexually vulnerable and ambiguous in their sexuality.

You may recall I wrote about Andrew Marr a few weeks, calling attention to his wonderfully insightful literary documentaries (for lack of a better term — they are highly entertaining, witty, amusing). One series was on popular “thrillers,” the action-adventure type, at one time usually male-centered (Miss Marple and Harriet Vane were the exceptions who proved the rule), which he divided into “detective, mysteries;” “spy, surveillance;” and “sorcerer, fantasies.” On first impression as I listened to him offer the “rules” (formulas) for each, play clips, talks to authors, the types seemed to blend, but when I conquered my recent laziness, and at least tried to force my hands to write stenography once again, and read over what he had said, I realized he had made distinct and explanatory distinctions. I was surprised to think about how his formula linked on the surface such different seeming detective stories, showed how different they are from spy and surveillance action, and finally picked up on the fantasy elements of historical romance, so this usually woman-centered genre shares terrain with say (and this makes sense) the stories of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin. I’m especially intrigued with the element of time-traveling in this last.

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Lord Wimsey (Edward Petherbridge) facing Harriet Vane (Harriet Walter) — the amateurs?


Sam Spade (Humphry Boghard, Hammett’s Maltese Falcon) – hired private detective


Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect): DCI

So here are the the characteristics of detective mysteries (they cross into police procedurals as you’ll see): 1: there must be a mystery, a pattern to find, a puzzle element, ingenious; 2) the writer must play fair, and not deliberately lead astray, no supernatural agencies; 3) the detective must not have committed the crime, corpses about, not an idyllic place at all; 4) there must be locked rooms, impossible terms, keys are clues, multi-layer to unravel; 5) the detective is a kind of super-hero, we must watch him so as not to be fooled by a sleight-of-hand, do hard work, find what actuates motivates people; 6) crime must be believable, painful, almost doing it in front of us, with a pervasive sense of evil all around it; 7) the detective must get his (or) her hands dirty and must set the world to rights, then retreat, escape back to his lair; 8) he must follow recognized procedures; incremental tedious work, under social pressure, moving into rotten hearts; 9) we have the comfort of knowing the truth at the end; we adapt, recent ones are complex; 10) the detective must be flawed, must be difficult to get along with, withdrawn, not likable (Inspector Morse).

I am struck by how the murder mystery in the second half of Phineas Redux corresponds to the above

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Alec Leamas (Richard Burton, The Spy who Came in from the Cold) — set-up betrayed spy


Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man — today’s fascist totalitarian states) — another set-up betrayed spy


The Americans, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) — without identities

Then we have the espionage story (and movie): 1) they reflect the particular social conditions of their time, people with insider knowledge, about betrayal; the question of who is the real enemy comes up early, foreign people, a creeping paranoia; 2) you must create a climate of fear, ominous atmosphere; 2) spies’ loyalties are always up for question (The 39 Steps, The Americans, Greene’s Human Factor), a popular version of an existential nightmare; 3: the spy contacts his nemesis; 3) they can end up cast out of humanity (as in The Spy who came in from the Cold); 4: they are ever trying to adapt to changing times. I add the vast perspective and explicit political propaganda, often anti-communist still.

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) amid the ancient neolithic stones, Craig Na Dun, Mrs Graham her sorceress (Outlander, 1:1) — healer & white witch


Gandolf (Ian McKellen (Fellowship of the Ring) — wizard

The fantasy, science fiction, allegorical: 1) you must build a whole world, consistent in itself as to details too; the depth of detail compels us; weave real with fantastical, keep it coherent with a map; 2) there is a portal to this other world; 3)these are anti-enlightenment stories, matter from the atavistic, where the “easy” laws of science do not necessarily apply; it’s a spectrum of extremes; 4) fantasy nowadays uses the method of distilled wonder (a metaphor); a parallel to the feeling we let ourselves be comforted by, making a parallel to faery; uses folklore that does not in itself seriously frighten — think of The Hobbit; 5) there is a hero’s story, sometimes told by the heroine, a dropped down trunk, papers telling the story; 6) someone to help us cross the threshold; you move into unknown, there are ordeals, supreme tests, sometimes an elixir helps you return through to “reality” or today’s world; 6) we come upon counter culture (not necessarily a good world); Le Guin shows us a fascist take-over, with a wizard; barbarism, bitchery; 7) there are rites of passage or rites tht bridge generations and new Gods created; 8) winter is always coming, deep poignant melancholy for what’s just over the horizon, a kind of existential threat; and 9) some explore the deepest world of author (so an inward form), and/or are philosophic.

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There you have it. Or do you or we? there are thrillers which don’t fit these paradigms, or slide over. So Daphne DuMaurier’s Scapegoat belongs to fantasy but remains in here and now — it’s not quite gothic either, as gothic’s sine qua non is supernatural and she would have us believed in her doubles, her twin men. Marr did not work in the gothic which has lent itself to formulas (some of which make fun of its furniture), nor ghost stories, the vampire and wanderer, nor specifically the female gothic. These would take several blogs … I have written of separate gothic stories and once in a while the gothic as such. I’ve a whole section in my website devoted to the kind: Gothics and ghosts, vampires, witches, and l’écriture-femme


M. R James, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral — core evil presence


Illustration by John A. Williams for Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Second Wife” (1912) — this is the type Jane Austen made fun of and parodied in her Northanger Abbey, it is a type Nancy Drew draws some of its power from (girl as snoop into wild and weird territories)


Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) arrives (NA, scripted Andrews Davies, 2007) — female reader of gothics.


A 1970 version of a Nancy Drew — girl sleuth

Ellen

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Shots of different parts of the long cortege of a village near Arras, May 1940

A fine film very much worth watching just now. Christian Carion’s Come What May more or less uniformly condemned by reviewers is a beautiful intelligent anti-war film centering on an exodus across France, now forgotten, as villages fled the German invasion. The still below is one of the many black-and-white photographs that introduce, are scattered throughout the film, and conclude it. The film itself is in beautiful colors, accompanied by remarkable touching appropriate music by Ennio Morricone. Carion is telling a family story: he was born in this area; his mother had been part of this exodus; it is also crucial French history he feels. The film may be regarded as a coda to A French Village; there the people stayed put; here they went into flight. Our particular group turns round and heads back home. Interpersed is the story of three young men, Scottish (Matthew Rhys), German (August Diehl) and French (Laurent Gerra). A boy (Josioh Marion who stands for the thousands of children separated from parents), another Mayor, a cafe owner. Another bridge is blown up. And we have a goose who is really terrified of the sounds of the airplanes and passing tanks. A Review.

Friends and readers,

You owe this blog to my determination to tell whoever comes here that pace the reviewers of this film who disdained it, this is a very good film. They seem to have pushed it right out of the theaters with their obtuse disdain and distrust (I must call it) of any tender feeling, belief in some kind of responsibility in people, impatience at orchestra music. For all these characteristics, this is a fine film for our time. I urge my readers to watch it (streaming on Amazon prime, as a DVD from Netflix, as a good DVD with three feature to buy) and tell others. I find myself half-wondering if the reason it seems so hard to persuade people to act on their social instincts, to feel for others as themselves, is that a film like this is sneered at. As a result our entertainment is FX type fascist hard violence and Barbie doll strong genital sex; characters must be presented as mean, performative, competitive or we are supposed unable to believe in them.

I watched Come What May as a sort of short companion piece, a coda to A French Village (about which I have written three times, Scroll down and also click on the links).  In A French Village, mayor and people decided to stay put.  In Come What May, they tried to escape the power-hungry cruel Nazi and French collaborative regime. In type Carion liked the film to a western in genre: the landscape is a character with wanderers in its purview.

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For a third time, last night I was just immersed in Christian Carion’s Come What May (En Mai, Fais ce qu’il plait). The first night I watched I was touched by the story, involved with the actor-characters, just loved the music, the quiet lyricism of the whole treatment, and then was astonished to discover that the reviews hardly covered what happened (like wikipedia can barely be bothered), or outright condemned it! At RogerEbert.com Odie Henderson resented it as “feel good” schmaltz — how this can be when two of the major male characters are killed, with many other unnamed minor ones, when we see a village fleeing in terror of the German’s desire for revenge (for WW1) and then turn around to go back after they’ve been hit hard twice (airplane bombing, tanks) and realize they will only meet more of the same at the coast. Far from one dimensional, the characters are suggestive presences within a larger group.

Another more complained it was not violent enough; people not sufficiently ravaged, not really a war movie at all. This is probably true, as the extraordinary composer who wrote the original score (beautiful, evocative, and uneasy), Ennio Morriconne says (in one of three features on the DVD) he agreed to write the music because the film is not a “movie about war, it is a movie during the war,” not filled with violence, speed, terror, but about the people who are enduring war, their experience, about a journey, flight, hardship, people behaving under pressure.


The first encounter of two of our heroes, the Scottish captain, Percy (Matthew Rhys) and the German communist, Hans (August Diehl) — Percy on his way to Dunkirk


The teacher who adopts Hans’s son, Suzanne (Alice Isaaz) and the Mayor, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) emerge as leaders


Propaganda film-maker (Arriflex)

The second time was when I watched this feature about the music, the orchestra, then the feature The making of Come What May, where we learn how this is a family story for Carrion: he came from Arras, his mother experienced just this exodus when she was 8, and he was hurrying to make the film before she died. Carion said his parents wanted to reach Canada but they never left France at all. His father was a mayor of a village. One of the extras hired was an 80 year old woman who had been four in 1940 and been part of the exodus; he brought along a goose because his mother said his family had had a goose and the goose proved to be expressive, hiding with terror during the sequences of passing planes and tanks:


The goose’s eyes would just peep out

For him the film also realizes a moment of crucial French history, where the gov’t made the wrong choices (capitulation because the people were so exhausted still from the horrors of World War One). Far from “sentimental” (another review found it mawkish), what Carion is showing us incident by incident is bleak history of savage senseless destruction, with storekeepers on the way seeking to charge high prices for water and food, complete indifference in the Germans to whoever they come upon; with aimless throwing of high powered fire weapons, wreaking death. Yes our sensibilities are not allowed the close-up thrill, the super-shock of barbaric exultation. No over-excitement, incessant noise and distraction. One German dies quietly banging his head against his tank, asking the boy to help him die.

Carion’s conscious method is to epitomize history by anecdote (that’s true) so the opening tells through a single incident how at the opening of the war 300,000 Germans fled Germany (communists, Jews, homosexuals) and came to France as the land of liberty; they were rounded up, put in camps and after the “armistice” was signed, sent back to Germany, slaughtered on the way or at the camps when they got there. I then watched with the voice-over commentary where Carion talked of how difficult it was to film this in the northern countryside, to traipse about with a couple of hundred people, animals: horses (exhausted and frightened at the bombs and high startling noises now and again), pigs, cows, and young babies too.


Percy and Hans, with the third hero, the French peasant farmer, Albert (Laurent Gerra) who is simply carelessly shot to death by the film-makers in order to intimidate a group of African soldiers — it seems this kind of scene of camaraderie especially offended the reviewers

The third time, stubbornly (I felt) just the movie itself now that I had enough to appreciate what I was invited slowly to experience. Then I concentrated on the famous actors and was affected by the serendipity of what happened. The film and performances had much quiet humor, as life does. The story proper begins (like A French Village) in May 1940, where a village is more exercised by its wind-mill and water pump than the coming Nazis. We see the important townsman in the local central cafe; the teacher adopts the boy of the German man they have turned over to authorities (Hans).


Suzanne and Max (Joshio Marion)

After the imposition of rationing and terror tactics from the air, the town decides to leave and we see them packing up. In these transition momemts Morricone’s music is especially effective.

Morricone: “I will make the music for the people to decide to live and find another place to be safe. To fine liberty, to walk with self-possession.”

Prisons are opened up — and Hans escapes. Hans meets in the countryside Percy; they both stumble upon Albert. Carion says he wants to pay tribute to types of people in the way. The English held out. Core scenes are where the men learn to be friends, learn to lean on one another to succeed.


Deserted family home

Carion says he now saw himself as John Ford as he filmed the landscape as another character; the people are resisting sorrow, drinking and dancing companionably the second night, dancing to radios happening. The teacher encourages Max to leave notes on the blackboard in chalk for his father. Max cries, but he write them, cheerful notes to Papa. But as the walk goes on, the atmosphere darkens; we see bodies along the side of the road (some killed), colonies of people shot up. The mayor joins forces with the cafe owner as they become a lead couple. There are a series of scenes at a store, and in a deserted farmhouse. Soldiers frightened, shoot to kill. The pass a village, and the thee young men are now close behind.


The cafe owner, who also drives one of the trucks is Mado (Mathilde Seignier)

Now an attack by the airplanes (computer generated and tough to pull off as really there, making the right sounds too), and as the bombs fall, Max flees. The teacher is forced to leave him behind. Hans comes next and thinks his son among the young children buried. There are scenes of the group passing bridges, and in one case it is blown up behind them — bridges are ever being blown up in war films (wars too). They see from afar or pass by other groups of (it seems) pilgrims. On the road, Percy captured.

In a final set of scenes, the film-maker seems to persuade Percy to play his bagpipes freely for the film; in fact Percy had seen the film-maker murder Albert and when the camera is finished, Percy shoots the film-maker directly so irritated is he by this phonyness — a self-reflexive sequence. Alas Percy then shot to death in turn. In a fantasia sequence, Hans finds his son Max.

You can take it as a dream, but it is meant to be real, for eventually Suzanne catches up and joins Hans and Max. The village has decided to turn back, but she will forge ahead. They are on their way to the north shore, Calais, with an address given them by Percy.

The last image we see is that of the three people, a new family walking into the horizon.

At the opening, throughout and again with the credits there are photographs from the 1940s of this real history exodus or evacuation.


Burdened with children and the aged


Man smoking


Another monumental woman

Don’t miss this film. It enabled me to forget for a while the nightmare circus of an aspiring dictator (Trump) ruining an election, spouting fantastic lies and distortions, fomenting racial killings to justify sending into “democrat cities” brutal police — in an effort to turn all into criminality and lawlessness where he thinks he can thrive on fear and imprisonment. What the people in the film are fleeing is an earlier Hitlerian-Goebbels arrangement (only Trump has Barr, Wolf, Pompeo, McConnell …)

Ellen

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Andrew Marr on Winston Churchill: a superlative treatment of Churchill as a painter, showing, explaining, contextualizing many of the paintings:

What unites the best of popular documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks).

The particular pleasure of these documentaries with favored character-personalities at the center is how much I like to watch and re-watch them. Far more than a fictional narrative movie.

During this profoundly worrying summer when it appears that a minority party, the Republicans, as headed by a criminal liar, is readying up to prevent the majority of US citizens from voting or having their votes counted lest they rightly throw out of office these people who are doing all they can to inflict harm, take away economic security, ruin the environment, make warring arms deals & money with the worst dictators around the world (consider 150,000+ Americans dead in 5 months, and a devastated economy), not to omit destroying even the ancient post office, it would seem understandable that no one notices in print the prevalence of documentaries in on-line movie theaters.

Or on YouTube — many a nowadays virtual conference places part of their presentations on YouTube. Comedians, people lecturing on areas of concern to subgroups of people (Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin on Aspergers and autism), universities sharing lectures, to which are nowadays added thousands of people coming online to cheer one another up: reading whole novels, reading poetry, playing instruments, doing dungeons and dragons. I’m there too with my “The Modernity of Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset.

Let’s admit among all this outpouring, some are inevitably very poor (if well-meant), many banal (there needs no ghostly presence come from an ipad to tell us this), more troublingly, some made by crazed fantasists (QAnon, people who hate others and encourage hatred and violence), and political groups, nowadays many fascistic (see above) determined to spread misinformation, to screw up democratic elections.

More commonly as on popular TV stations, some are superficial, gimmicky (this is true of too many of Lucy Worseley’s — exceptions are Jane Austen At Home and Suffragettes), disappointingly insidiously right-wing under a patina of liberal wit (alas too often Marr himself in for example his History of Modern Britain), too compromising (Spaceship Earth), too careful, guarded, worried lest they give offense (“Just one of those things:” on Ella Fitzgerald), which seems odd as the makers cannot really believe they will gain a large audience outside those sympathetic to their subject.

It is also true the professional or paid-for movies are probably there because the movie-theater operators are holding off on their movie “block-busters” for when all the millions of people are (it is imagined) to begin to return to going out to crowded movie-theaters once again. I would not hold my breath.  (Maybe 2022?  but not in the same way.)

Yet many of these are within the terms they set out to cover, on their own terms, remarkably good, excellent — as the above by the famous BBC interviewer, journalist, once strong man of the left, and now a centrist maker of documentaries, Andrew Marr about Winston Churchill’s incessant hobby and apparently real achievement as a painter of effective contemporary pictures. These (along with online university level courses when they are good, e.g., Future Learn) are the silver lining in a dark and frightening time.

What unites the best of documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks)

Not all are this way: it’s the distinction of Frederick Wiseman to remain absent from his severely controlled documentaries. They are famous for nothing much happening at intervals except the rain or quiet daily life. In Central Park, a duck goes upside down in the water to capture a fish and eat it. Wiseman, let me say it, makes genius level films with serious insightful critiques of the way organizations are at the heart of reality. Cathy Come Home (Tony Garnett), Culloden (Peter Watkins), and other British radical political films are unforgettable. When the subject is a revered or political hero, the documentary maker may make him or herself secondary. So in the documentaries about John Lewis, Malcolm X. Ada DuVernay wants us to pay attention to what the realities of African-American life have been since the inadequacy of the 13th amendment, how it has been undermined almost from the very beginning. But I think the most popular type documentaries, the ones where the documentary maker keeps making them are those where the documentary maker is our chief character, whom we are made to delight in

I’ve written about a few of both types these over the years: Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians some years ago; more recently Mary Beard’s excursions into classical history across Europe on her bike. John Lewis: Good Trouble. But you can’t do better if you are looking to cheer yourself with a realistic (not fatuous) slice of life than Ceyda Torun’s Kedi: Cats of Istanbul. All three women. Women do documentaries: I don’t say they prevail in numbers, but their woman’s point of view is not the usual rare minority. Lucy Worseley is a case in point.

Beyond calling your attention to the numerous good documentaries available at a single click for not much money or for free (once you’ve paid your electricity and internet computer bill) I mean to alert the reader of this blog to a couple of Marr’s lesser known documentaries about literature because they are very good, and may serve to divert the viewer’s mind from the over-arching calamity (Trump winning again, or stealing the election and then turning the US into a deeply dangerous rotten brutal fascist dictatorship) while leaving us with some relevant knowledge-food for thought and perspectives.

In his wider ranging work (like telling us “the history of the world”!), he often slides by serious and unexamined art. He has a ready wit with quips that can dismiss Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a memorable (if misleading phrase — for the sake of the joke) but in these two he is sincere, earnest even, taking us (and himself) back to the younger man who meant to make the world better and acted at times bravely, with some integrity. That’s why Noam Chomsky bothered to chide him.

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But in these on literary and art topics and with enough time given over, he is superb.  He is himself by birth a Scotsman (born in Glasgow).

I treat first (in time) his Great Scots, a 2014 three-part series where he explores some of the problematic aspects of Scottish identity and political and geographical history through meditations on four male Scottish writers and one English: Part One is on James Boswell, whose work cannot be separated from Samuel Johnson, and their famous tour to through Scotland to the Hebrides. Part Two is mostly on Walter Scott with Robert Burns brought in as a strong contrast. Burns, Marr rightly says, was a political radical who had to suppress himself, or communicate indirectly to protect what income he had (Burns nonetheless died at 37, partly from hard work and exhaustion, poverty) while Scott was politically high Tory and very much a unionist, though endlessly trying to do justice to specifically Scottish culture, sensibility and the old Jacobite cause (at least explain it).

The series was made in 2014, just before the referendum on devolution and it’s clear that Marr is on the side of “no” (stay, not leave England) in Part Three which he devotes to Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve): while Marr presents the beauty, depth of thought and interest of MacDiarmid’s poetry fairly and with high praise, he treats MacDiarmid’s separatist point of view as a fantasy which for a long time was not taken seriously by those who read him. All three hours have beautiful photography, the sections of the books read aloud are done brilliantly by actors and readers, we are taken to the truly appropriate interesting places. I knew nothing of MacDiarmind before I watched this hour and now feel I do understand something of the man; I know a great deal about Boswell & Johnson, Burns & Scott (I have read far too much Scott over my life — especially in my teens and early 20s) and can vouch that they are presented with real insight.

I do wish he had included a couple of women, at least mentioned one (?), and was hoping (when I learned of the series) for a survey, but I admit his choices are well taken and by sticking to three primarily he treats the writings of these men in depth. I wish even more that these were online for American viewers. At best there are podcasts, commentaries, and if you are lucky, you may find them reprinted on DVDS in sets of Marr’s work on Amazon at UK.

More recently (2016) he has made a quietly brilliant three part analysis and feelingful projection of the popular subgenres of the novels he identifies as Sleuths, Sorcerers, and Spies. I rejoice that these are on YouTube. First Sleuths:

Second Sorcerers:

And thirdly, Spies:

Marr’s persona comes across more strongly in these three than his series on Scotland or his political series: he portrays himself as decidedly un-aristocratic, far from a member of any elite or academia, a “smart-aleck” who is, if not anti-intellectual (he cannot present himself that way as he is so patently perceptive and analytic), at least not a self-satisfied public one. The subtext of these is a kind of vehement anti-snobbery: he wants to counter anyone who looks down on these “paperback heroes” (and heroines) and their best-selling authors to show that their books mirror the eras and worlds they wrote in and bring home to the alert viewer their deeper problems and anxieties and needs. He presents himself as uncovering the “rules” each genre follows religiously.

Yes, they are formulaic. It may be said he hams his material up, but the result is fun, and his interviews with working novelists and quotation from those no longer literally living are of real interest. As this is more popular entertainment, I cannot find a serious review — so perhaps he failed at his seeming aim. Not so, when you can watch them over and over.

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How to close? Myself I’m a lover of Scots literature (as the reader to this blog and my Austen Reveries must know), went to Edinburgh for the equivalent of a honeymoon, and have visited Scotland now three times, once all the way to Inverness and up to the Hebrides (across the way, still the mainland on a bus). One of my favorite 19th century novelists is Margaret Oliphant. In my studies of historical novels and romance, I often find the authors whose books I so enjoy also wrote in this distinctively different genre (these thrillers are until very recently usually masculinist even when women write them) and try to understand the relationship between these genres in book and movie form.

My most recent reading for sheer pleasure and interest has been Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Gowk Storm, to learn the truth of a still wrongly maligned destroyed woman, Margaret Macaulay’s The Prisoner of St Kilda (the true story of the indeed unfortunate Lady Grange, shocking even today), Elizabeth Taylor Russell’s Tomorrow (it takes place on an island off Denmark — in the same kind of edge-marginalized culture).

But from years ago and more recently, I am a strong admirer of Liz Lochhead, a brilliant poet, playwright, polemicist too. So (as my title promised), first two poems by Liz Lochhead:

Rapunzstiltskin

& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come to almost love her tower,
along comes This Prince
with absolutely
all the wrong answers.
Of course she had not been brought up to look for
originality or gingerbread
so at first she was quite undaunted
by his tendency to talk in strung-together cliches.
Just hang on and we’ll get you out of there!
he hollered like a fireman in some soap opera
when she confided her plight (the old
hag inside etc. & and how trapped she was);
well, it was corny but
he did look sort of gorgeous
axe and all.
So there she was humming and pulling
all the pins out of her chignon,
throwing him all the usual lifelines
till, soon, he was shimmying in & out
every day as though
he owned the place, bringing her
the sex manuals & skeins of silk
from which she was meant, eventually,
to weave the means of her own escape.
All very well & good, she prompted,
but when exactly?
She gave him till
well past the bell on the timeclock.
She mouthed at him, hinted,
she was keener than a TV quizmaster
that he should get it right.
I’ll do everything in my power, he intoned, but
the impossible (she groaned) might
take a little longer. He grinned.
She pulled her glasses off.
All the better
to see you with my dear? he hazarded.
She screamed, cut off her hair.
Why, you’re beautiful? he guessed tentatively.
No, No, No! she
shrieked & stamped her foot so
hard it sank six cubits through the floorboards.
I love you? he came up with
as she finally tore herself in two.

from Part Three of Lochhead’s The Grimm Sisters collection: ‘Hags and Maidens’

Everybody’s Mother

Of course everybody’s mother always and so on…

Always never
loved you enough
or too smothering much.

Of course you were the Only One, your
mother
a machine
that shat out siblings, listen

everybody’s mother
was the original Frigid-
aire Icequeen clunking out
the hardstuff in nuggets, mirror-
slivers and ice-splinters that’d stick
in your heart.

Absolutely everybody’s mother
was artistic when she was young.

Everybody’s mother
was a perfumed presence with pearls, remote
white shoulders when she
bent over in her ball dress
to kiss you in your crib.

Everybody’s mother slept with the butcher
for sausages to stuff you with.

Everybody’s mother
mythologised herself. You got mixed up
between dragon’s teeth and blackmarket stockings.

Naturally
she failed to give you
Positive Feelings
about your own sorry
sprouting body (it was a bloody shame)

but she did
sit up all night sewing sequins
on your carnival costume

so you would have a good time

and she spat
on the corner of her hanky and scraped
at your mouth with sour lace until you squirmed

so you would look smart

And where
was your father all this time?
Away
at the war, or in his office, or any-
way conspicuous for his
Absence, so

what if your mother did
float around above you
big as a barrage balloon
blocking out the light?

Nobody’s mother can’t not never do nothing right.

And then she is online too — at the Edinburgh Festival:

Ellen

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