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PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und NINA KUNZENDORF .Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intentität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und RONALD ZEHRFELD.Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intensität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung
Nelly (Nina Hoss) having returned to where she once lived finds a precious relic while Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) looks on

Dear friends and readers,

I hasten to write about this film to recommend it lest it leave movie-houses quickly. It seemed in no danger of this after its second week of screening at my local semi-art film theater (calls itself Cinema Arts Theater) as in the later afternoon on a weekday there were still some 20+ people in the auditorium; but as this theater has a substantial percentage of Jewish customers and it’s been billed as a holocaust film, a first intense interest is understandable. The title in English and one of its sources (1965 film, Return from the Ashes) offers a clearer idea of its slightly fantastic story content and theme.

Phoenix caught my attention because it stars Nina Hoss who starred in the powerful film adaptation by Max Faberbock of Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (about gang and individual ceaseless rapes in war); it is a another startling movie focusing on a woman that works like a fable and thus reminded me of another German film, The Wall (Marien Haushofen’s novel adapted by Julian Polsler). I do tell what I understand of the ending and a couple of central acts in order to give the feel of makes this movie valuable as an experience.

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How she looks soon after the surgery

The first act is Nelly (Nina Hoss), is brought out of a concentration camp with her face just about totally ruined (smashed cheek bones, nose, horrible behind bandages) by Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) who works on the humanitarian tasks of “bringing” back into society the devastated human remnants of these camps. We are to believe an operation restores her just about wholly, that she cannot resist hunting for her long-lost husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), and readily finds him in a Berlin nightclub. No one could be so restored as she is by the end.

Another holocaust story you might still say, or about German guilt but that does not capture its inner life. The characters are haunting, haunted people, and the way it’s filmed (in a bomb-devastated impoverished Berlin) suggests how intense is the human emotion to recapture one’s identity if it has been taken away, to take back and resume a past that seems to have been wiped out, utterly undermined forever. It is about Nelly’s refusal to give up a love and set of beliefs in the value of humanity because not only the person you loved but everyone else around you betrayed you.

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Crossing the border

Nelly persists. After the initial getting past the check-point (some danger for the brutal soldiery only let Lene pass when she shows them Nelly’s damaged face), Nelly’s surgery and first recovery, she begins to wander the wasteland streets, and bars and clubs open all night. We see women dragged out of these places and beat up by men in the wastelands behind the taverns; some of them enact super-sexy numbers on stage (parodies of Marlene Dietrich), and we fear for Nelly. Johnny is one of the poorly paid waiters.

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We are afraid of Johnny when she meets him, he is rough and domineering. Lene gets Nelly a gun and says if she can’t use it, just pulling it out might help. So it’s about the abuse of women in part, and the violence of men — the SS guards at the checkpoints are frightening, ready to kill or maim; to call the men in the film patriarchal doesn’t capture the steely feel of them.

There is an muted but intense grief suffused throughout the movie whose active dynamic comes from Nelly’s ceaseless quest (she says she cannot resist it) first to get her original face back through plastic surgery and then to find her husband. The first direct loss in the action of the film itself is Lene’s: Lene has brought her out; Lene has found a place for them to live they can afford, has arranged for the surgery, and now plants a new life for Nelly in Israel, but Nelly protests she is not a religious or even secular Jew — she was a German and is a German woman. Lene is not disinterested: the mannish way she dresses and her affection for Nelly suggests that Lene is a lesbian, and loves Nelly intensely. She feel after all she has done for Nelly, Nelly is not reciprocating in the way Lene has planned for her. Moreover, Nelly’s behavior suggests she forgives her husband, will allow herself to be used and dominated again. Lene asks, Are there not some acts that are unforgivable?

Lene tells Nelly after Nelly finds Johnny that Johnny betrayed her. He told the gestapo where she was. Nelly’s sense is that Johnny did this out of fear for himself, he was not active in it. Lene then tells Nelly that Johnny did get in touch with her to see if he could inherit the money she had from her years as a cabaret singer and from her family (there’s a fine mansion in his family now half-ruined). All this does is galvanize Nelly to pretend to be Esther, someone else who offers to imitate Nelly for Johnny, offers to enact the role so he can claim she is alive after all and both of them take the money. She puts on the clothes he buys for her and her old shoes which (miraculously?) fit her.

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She seems to feel revulsion at her act of redressing as herself here

We see while he is willing to be courteous and on the surface kind to Nelly-Esther, he is also willing to do anything to Esther to make her look like Nelly, and as Esther gradually begins to look like Nelly he becomes confused and troubled but his emotions are not enough to deter him say from asking her to re-carve numbers on her arm so that she will look like she’s been in a concentration camp.

PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und RONALD ZEHRFELD.Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intentität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und RONALD ZEHRFELD.Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intensität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung

The movie comes to a first climax when Nelly comes home for her usual reports to Lene (she does not desert Lene) and finds Lene has shot and killed herself. Lene is that desolated at Nelly’s behavior, made that desperate at Nelly’s abjection. Her last act just before was to leave Nelly documents: those which show Johnny actively betrayed her and a set of divorce papers where he divorced himself from her in order to have no ties or responsibility towards her. The suicide and these papers have a strong effect on Nelly; she seems almost to give up her project of pleasing Johnny, but she does not. She persists.

The culminating thing Johnny needs for Nelly-Esther (how he sees her) to do is get on a train and meet the members of their old community and friends; they must recognize her without him pointing her out. He tells Nelly who they are and what to say to them and what they will automatically say in response — their cant. They utter that cant. They all look like they are rejoicing, she hugs Johnny and all go to a room in the mansion. He sits at the piano for her to sing as a final proof. She begins awkwardly by the end she is singing Cole Porter’s Night and Day (a song played on and off through the movie) as melodiously and hauntingly as she once did. He looks at her and finally seems to recognize she is really Nelly and look remorseful or at her as a person. At this she stops singing, she looks around at these phony superficial people and slips out the door.

What has happened? it’s left ambiguously. In life Nelly was a singer, wife, chatelaine — it’s like she is no longer in life anymore even if she has her appearance back — and when Nelly has fooled everyone and it seems that Johnny will get the inherited money, she looks about her and walks away from them all. It’s as if this song is a final blow. But on whom?

Will she walk away? or stay around the corner for another turn of events and just live with these memories. If the emphasis is on how this is the return of ashes, then she will at least escape from these people, refuse to pretend to trust them and that all is the same. But if the emphasis is on persistence and the need for an identity, she will stay as she has no other choice she can stand. She did not want to make herself into a Jew she never was; she does not want a false identity.

The film comes to no conclusion what she should do. In a way it relates to all the movies of devastated worlds, people floating about anonymously, identifies destroyed, but it is more like Mr Holmes and I’ll Dream of You in that there is a community to return to, belong to — sort of. The difference is this community Nelly re-finds, betrayed her before: all of the people were willing to give her up to the Nazis as she was born a Jew lest they get in any kind of trouble. We are to ask what would this community do if the world turned upside down again and they had to give her up again. Would they hesitate?

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From late in the movie when Johnny and Nelly take a photo together in front of her ex-mansion — the photo makes him look as vulnerable as she

Ellen

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What happens to a dream deferred? … Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun? from Harlem, Langston Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I watched a YouTube of all of American Theater production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with Danny Glover and Estelle Rolle. It is long (2 hours and 50 minutes) and to do it I stayed up to 1:45 am, but it was well worth it, yes. I recommend to all who come to my blog to watch it sometime in the next couple of days (or soon) too and then read on:

Elaine Pigeon, a listserv friend, who I’ve also met at a JASNA conference, who alerted us on WomenWriters at Yahoo to the production, wrote concisely:

While it’s main premise is an African American’s family’s desire to realize the American Dream and own their own house, Hansberry’s play touches on many issues that resonate today: racism, gender conflict, the fragility of masculinity, money, class issues, slavery, Africa and colonialism and more.

For some excellent essays and exegeses and commentary (one by Hansberry herself), see commments. I was deeply moved. I have read it before (just once) and seen it once but no longer remember that production. Now done rightly it seemed to me the equivalent in strength of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. At mid-century in the US there were a number of plays exploding the realities of American culture, the “American experience” as PBS glibly calls one of its (good) series. Williams’ plays shows us what sex is like, its premises; Miller shows how class and money work, and here Hansberry, race. What was omitted (and still is) are the imperialist militarist facist politics of the gov’t; at mid-century the gov’t was merely oligarchical, it’s gone well beyond that now. It may be that this level of life is hard to dramatize in a play where we are most affected by intimate human stories; at any rate, the only medium it’s been is film as in Gavras-Costos’s Z (so one can have a nation- and city-wide landscape as what the action is embedded in). I suspect too that the strong Jewish component of American arts (especially the theater for funding) prevented this even then, as Israel already existed (its gov’t has done all it can to stop any treaty with Iran these last few weeks). Why don’t we have plays like this any more beyond the patriot act declaring presentations of the realities of continual-war global politics treason?

I’m not discounting earlier plays, e.g., Lilian Hellman’s plays on lesbianism and the politics of war (Watch on the Rhine, The Children’s Hour), Sam Shephard’s True West exposing the results of the macho male hegemony, but in the 1970s the impetus turned to the new independent film industry and for a while there were remarkable films. Arthur Miller talked and wrote about the turn to psychological -fantasy angles as a strong retreat and I believe he’s right. He also said that films were killing live theater and there’s a truth to that.

I was most impressed by how many things in that play are still so. Yes black people can now some of them get decent jobs, but many have none at all. Ta Nehisi-Coats’s essay on how for over a century the way local economics are structured and allowed to be practiced prevents black people from having accumulation of money is relevant. $10,000 from the father’s insurance policy and irreplaceable. The bombing and desctruction of a black person’s home who dared to move into a white neighborhood.

The most disquieting aspect of the continual police murders of black people at the rare of a couple of week is that they continue. The police were taken aback when the first videos of what they do began to surface. There were riots as genuine knowledge this is happening daily spread and we’ve seen a couple of inditement –a couple! just a couple and do not know what has happened since. But yesterday it surfaced a black man’s face was destroy while he was murdered. The police are now shameless and determined to continue. Sandra Bland is not a turning point, just a low that happens. Two years ago a woman terrified of the police’s response to her running her car into one of these cement barriers in DC was gunned down and murdered and the police congratulated. (Disabled people are nearly equally at risk; homeless people.) The massacre of 9 black people while in church followed by a demonstration of the Klu Klux Klan re-asserting its right to murder black people (with its swastikas, flags, in sheets, with red crosses) is a paradigm of the behavior: murder of blacks (immigrants), riots when an individual encounter manages to be publicized, and then the power reasserts itself.

There would today be guns in play as there are not in this 1959 play. I’ll tell all that in the south east Bronx preferred weapons were bats, razors and knives. But it is harder to kill with these weapons. I bring up where I grew up (from age 4 or so to age 10 1/2) to say as I watched I bonded utterly and entered into the anguished feeling of these thwarted people. The self-inflicted berating, the loss of self-esteem, the turning on one another (especially that), the wild mistakes (because you don’t know the middle class rules nor how to protect yourself or at least try) was what I saw in my home growing up, and that of relatives and people living round us.

The qualified happy ending of the play to have its full bite shows why sometimes it’s not just irrelevant but necessary to know the autobiography. Hansberry’s family moved into a white neighborhood, and the white home owners association went to court to have them thrown out on the grounds the white man in the play cited: people have a “right” to form what communities they want. WIkipedia article writes: The restrictive covenant was ruled contestable, though not inherently invalid.” Today we have gated communities everywhere and the leaders of these associations set the grounds for who”s allowed in.

I end on the reality too that Hansberry as she became more active was surveyed, harassed, probably hounded by US agencies — as today BlackLivesMatter is. This has not been reported in mainstream media. Never is. She died at 35 (!) of pancreatic cancer. I agree with James Baldwin that this hounding and the strain of being alive in the US at the time helped bring on that cancer and her very early death.

Elaine also included a worthwhile YouTube telling of Hansberry’s life: remember as you listen to the words (the play tells people “we are just as complicated” as they — meaning white people) that the popular TV show about black people in the US was Amos ‘n Andy:

Ellen

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‘What the deuce is it to me?”‘ he interrupted impatiently: ‘you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Mr-Holmes-train.jpog

Dear friends and readers,

Mr Holmes has a couple of obstacles or problems to wide-spread acclaim. It is melancholy. Its themes include how to cope with aging and its losses, death, stigmatized class status (a no-no). For those brought up on the action-adventure of Robert Downey, Jude Law, Michael Strong and Rachel McAdams, it will not answer your expectations; for those still wedded to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (to say too little of the justified paranoia of WW2), it will make fun of the 1943 fanatical adherence to the deerstalker hunting cap and pipe (Holmes goes to a black-and-white simulacrum of such a movie and just cannot sit through it); it lacks the giddy pace and surrealism of the first 2 seasons of the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman Sherlock concoctions; but to say it’s not Holmesian (as the New Yorker guru critic in residence, Anthony Lane means to insinuate) is just not so.

I concede fully that the perspective is post-modern (conventional thought and cant, especially about death and grief be damned), that there is something deliciously Jamesian (Henry) about it. Characters have deeply traumatic encounters on park benches while wearing impeccable hats.

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Hat
Close-up of hat

They fail to understand one another, cannot bear one another’s emotions. It moves slowly, with shots that capture a poetry of stillness and costume drama in its green landscapes, seascapes, the sina qua non steam train rushing serpentine and noisily through. More than twice, though in one climactic instance it matters as someone is (reminding me of a Trollope scene in The Prime Minister) voluntarily smashed to smithereens.

But that it’s not Holmesian is unfair. Once you try to drill down to what could be the psychological or thematic or even political motive or moral explanation of at least two of its flashback and front story plots, you end up with ideas that will not bear any scrutiny. Convention defeats me here: I do not claim to be writing a consistently post-modern blog so allow me to explicate and show at least miminal story consistency.

There are three time frames: the present, 1947, Mr Holmes, aged 93, losing the last vestiges of memory from the past, living on the south coast of England, cared for by a housekeeper (natch) Mrs Munroe (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker) who turns to Mr Holmes as father figure because his own father died in WW2: a bitter moment of memory has Linney as Mrs Munroe remembering how, like herself, her husband, was corroded by the stigmas of lower class status, and for his efforts to become a pilot in WW2, was blown to bits immediately (his mates, content to be menial mechanics all survived the war).

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Miloparker

A story from thirty years ago is painstakingly put together (& dramatized as flashbacks) by Mr Holmes about Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who had two miscarriages or stillborn children, cannot accept this and whose grief is only moderated by lessons she eventually finds for the glass harp (Frances la Tour, the crook teacher), whose intensity bothers her husband to the point he cuts off her money-supply and refuses to set up stone monuments for the never-developed nor born children. It is not giving away the story to say she plots to kill her husband.

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Holmes (McKellen) remembering (a difficult feat in the this story) Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan)

It’s not true though that there is no sense to this story. The moral is the husband was wrong; he should have allowed his wife to be deluded by the crook teacher — this reminded me of Woody Allen’s frequent defenses of fortune-tellers in many of his movies and there is a fortune-telling scene here.

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The glass harp medium (Frances de la Tour, aka Mrs Western in the 1997 Tom Jones)

Another backstory told through interwoven flashbacks is set in Japan: Holmes has gone to Hiroshima (1946?) to obtain a promised solution of which is said to restore the memory, only to find himself confronted by a Japanese man who accuses Holmes of seducing his father away from him and his mother through the stories of Dr Watson (The Study in Scarlet is the culprit), all the while we know that Holmes now deplores Watson’s fictions a providing false gratifying endings and heroism, with many details so wrong they are embarrassing. Of course this story “falls to pieces in your hands” (as Lane says). Worse, the explanation is reactionary defense of “national” and family secrets, of absurd honor which one sacrifices one’s life for? What Conan Doyle story does not do something like this?

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It is Holmes’s self-imposed mission in the film to retrieve: to retrieve the memory of who his Japanese man was (until near the end Holmes believes the man a liar, coward, and that he never met him — the man just deserted his family); to compensate for how inadequate, insensitive, absurd, selfish was his Jeremy Brett-like behavior to Anne Kelmot (the way this Kelmot thread is dramatized is closely reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Holmes movies), something which depends on memory and rewriting Watson’s story.

Much of this is done through the techniques of filmic epistolarity: voice-over with Holmes writing out new texts to replace Watson’s. Part of the fun of this is withholding. We do not see Mycroft (who explicates the Japanese story) until near the end of the film and it’s John Sessions (for me memorable as Henry Fielding, also in the 1997 Tom Jones); we do not see the bumbling inspector (played by Phil Davis, great in sinister, threatening roles in Dickensian film adaptations, now Jud in Poldark), until near the end. There is fun in recognizing these character actors from other costume dramas quietly semi-parodying the roles.

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Indeed the uplift at the close is the same fantasy Dickens plays upon in A Christmas Carol. We are asked to believe that people can make up for what they did wrong in the past, find a new person like the one you so hurt now to do better by. We do come near searing calamity in the present, brought on by both Mrs Munroe and Mr Holmes. I can’t deny that sometimes people (as characters) are lucky. The film is as Dickensian as it is Jamesian.

Hattie Morahan was once again “emotionally aflame” — Lane talks of her in A Doll’s House in BAM, but she was astonishing in Duchess of Malfi and I still watch her as Elinor refusing solace. I felt bad for Laura Linney(unbeatable in Love Actually, unforgettable in Hyde Park on the Hudson) that she was given the howling role. I found myself crying at the close because I couldn’t believe in the self-reproach and better behavior of our principal trio: Mr Holmes and Mrs Munroe, to say nothing of the maturation of Roger.

If I had anything to object to in this film it was that both Ian McKellen (too many great films and plays to begin to cite) and Laura Linney could have been given much more deeply nuanced moments. She is literally kept behind bars, looking out from windows:

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The film-makers were chary about releasing stills of McKellen showing the ravages of old age in the film, as he falls, eats, puts down stones for those who have gone before him. There was a pandering to the sub-genre of old man-and-hopeful worshipping-boy

OTOH, the beautiful loving feeling at the close of the film was authentic. Doyle’s ever-cool, ever witty, impatient Sherlock is now taking the risk of giving of himself; entering into loving relationships directly. Mr Holmes will leave the property to Mrs Monro and her boy when he dies. We see Mrs Munro and Roger in the garden working together and we see them walk off hand-in-hand too. The boy is now respectful of his mother under an eye of approval by Mr Holmes. He is 94, and we last seem him putting down stones (as Ann Kelmot did) for each of his friends now gone to the earth. He bows before them murmuring a lullaby. McKellen himself is very old now. It is a summer movie because through Jeffrey Hatcher’s marvelous screenplay McKellan as Mr Holmes is believable and comforts you.

Ellen

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Murray Griffin (1903-2), The Stables

Two Fires

One, the summer fire
outside: the trees melting, returning
to their first red elements
on all sides, cutting me off
from escape or the saving lake

I sat in the house, raised up
between that shapeless raging
and my sleeping children
a charm: concentrate on
form, geometry, the human
architecture of the house, square
closed doors, proved roofbeams,
the logic of windows

(the children could not be wakened:
in their calm dreaming
the trees were straight and still
had branches and were green)

The other, the winter
first inside: the protective roof
shriveling overhead, the rafters
incandescent, all those corners
and straight lines flaming, the carefully-
made structure
prisoning us in a cage of blazing
bars
    the children
were awake and crying:
I wrapped them, carried them
outside into the snow.
Then I tried to rescue
what was left of their scorched dream
about the house: blankets,
warm clothes, the singed furniture
of safety cast away withthem
in a white chaos

    Two fires in
    formed me,

    (each refuge fails
    us; each danger
    becomes a haven)

    left charred marks
    now around which I
    try to grow

from Margaret Atwood’s poetry sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie

Dear Friends and readers,

Since my last blog on Trollope from a post-colonialist perspective about two weeks ago, I’ve been reading more Australian authors, about Australian history and literature, and watching more Australian films, especially those having to do with Victorian and Edwardian settlers. I’m still trying to work out thoughts I’ve had and understand the criticism and controversies. In this blog I’ll focus on a novel, bringing in a couple of films and critical-historical essays more briefly.

Cover

I’ve finished Catherine Martin’s 1890 An Australian Girl about Stella Courtland, a perceptive, ethical reading girl, who lives just outside Adelaide, South Australia. We see how family and social pressures, unscrupulous relatives and friends who use her to extract money needed to carry on an ambitious social life, the limited range of options and people the heroine can meet — all lead to her ending up with a thwarted life. Letters and the heroine’s experiences within Australia among different towns (or the city) and Bush (rural, mining, farming, desert, aborigine) communities enable Martin to elaborate a persuasive understanding of the environment and varied cultural groups in Australia, and of its books, of the influence of landscape and climate. Martin roots the manners and crises we see in the real Australian and colonial past of her characters and their families. Boredom or frustration and stress seems the cause of the alcoholism of Ted Ritchie, the unintellectual businessman Stella is tricked into marrying by Ted’s unscrupulous desperate sister, Laurette, who lives in a version of le monde in Sydney; her sexually unfaithful, spendthrift husband bankrupts them. That Anselm Langdale, a young physician Stella falls in love with has to go back to England thousands of miles away from her enables Laurette to separate the lovers and causes Stella’s tragedy — the loss of a man who could have helped her lead a fulfilled life.

Meanwhile due to what Stella reads, her education, her thoughts, how she understands life is mainly as a person living at the far periphery of an English empire where the center is London and (from her reading) ambiance European. (This reminds me of Andrea Levy’s Small Island: black Jamaicans are given English history to read so that they identify as English and are shocked when they emigrate to London to discover they are not respected, not seen as English at all.) This is not to say she doesn’t know better at some level: one of the remarkable features of the book is how Stella repeatedly comes across characters outside her milieu whose life stories are fitted into the narrative and we read of types of desperate characters enduring harsh lives, brutal experiences typical of life in Bush stories where characters are carving out an existence where there is no built society or cultivated landscape to start with. These feel powerful in the way of Henry Lawson’s famous sketches (“The Drover’s Wife”) or the grim scenarios of Barbara Baynton (I loved her one of a servant’s life of semi-slavery, servitude in a middle class home). Stella shows real respect for aborigine beliefs and the people she sees (admittedly from afar). Memory is treacherous but the only (it’s not only) group omitted seems to be convicts; at least I don’t remember any characters (maybe the realism made them ex-convicts hiding their pasts). The book has a lot of subtle satire exposing the European characters, a post-colonialist outlook where she inveigns against the devastating desolating wars the imperial powers inflict on the native people.

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Telegraph Depot, Ninety Miles up the Roper River, Northern Territory,” Illustrated Sydney News, 31 August 1872

I’ve been reading about what is Australian identity or the central hallmarks of its culture and again and again it’s said to be life for people in the “bush:” its terrific hardships, the background of forced transportation of the poorest and most miserable as convicts, or self-forced emigration because voluntary life had no future (one reason for the rise of these horrific organizations is there is nowadays no new continent to take over, to send young men and women to to get rid of them); the strong leftist communitarian ideals of early Australian politics come from this. It seems most classic Australian literature is of the Bush type.

What are some of the results for women — they are the marginal vulnerable people, victims who could be raped, or the stalwart re-creators as far as is possible of the older British homelife, with all its mores, holidays (Christmas) and repressions.

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Ray Winstone and Emily Watson as Morris and Martha Stanley (The Proposition)

Martin’s book pinpoints this Bush material (so to speak) philosophically and emotionally and as something aesthetic and spiritual. I dislike that word very much as it seems to me so ambiguous so let me define my use as something not pragmatic, not dependent on something that gives the person bodily or monetary advantage or prestige. Inward experience that is valued that comes from this odd living in an imagined perphery, in this harsh but (to Europeans let us remember) strange and beautiful landscape. This inwardness which is identified as religious feeling may be found in Patrick White, especially it’s said his Voss (which I’ve read about, not read); but also is in his Fringe of Green Leaves (which I have read). — central to it. I can see that as opposed to White, Martin wants to analyse this. And she wants to make an unconventional woman her center (as does Barbara Baynton).

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

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Hanging Rock

The second Australian film I chose (my first was Cave and Hillcoat’s The Proposition) was Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir, often identified as a “first” and primary one which began the “new” Australian film industry (post-WW2) that seemed modern contemporary and was carried outside Australia to the US, to Europe. There was an Australian film industry before this film by Weir (a 1970s film), and it told important mythic stories — the very first of the talkies was about the Kelly Gang: Peter Carey’s book which won the Booker was about the Kelley Gang; The Proposition centers on the Burns brothers.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on a novel by Joan Lindsay, said to be a mystery but if you expect anything like Agatha Christie you are quickly disabused. There is no Sherlock Holmes, solver of puzzles. It moves slowly and most of the time not much happens in a dramatic or theatric way. A group of girls, adolescent, going into puberty, go on a picnic they hold once a year by a scary outcrop of rocks (like a neolithic site). The heat, snakes and insects are venomous, can cause disease or death. We are not told why they go to such a place, only see the headmistress is a fierce woman not likely to give any reasons.

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Once there the girls seem to fall into an entranced state, and playfully go behind or into the rocks.

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Disappearing in an kind of trance

Cut to the end of the day when they are late back (worrying this woman), and we learn that four of the girls and a key teacher there never returned from the rock: were they abducted and raped? did they decide to join the aborigines, a bushranger gang? did the landscape gods take them? One is found near death, without her corset; she is gradually nursed back to health but either never tells, cannot tell or is not asked to tell what happened to her and the others. The pace, the continual return to the rock, filming it from this and now that angle, the girls’ interactions, the music, the juxtapositions of incidents that happened and are happening at the school make the film mesmerizing.

In the features to Picnic at Hanging Rock it is suggested by one of the different members of the team (Weir himself, screenwriter, producer, production and costume design, also actors grown older are among these) that the girls eventually themselves joined some violent group of men. These bushrangers, people living outside the control of state apparatus (with their control of legitimate violence), people gone into a permanent rage from what has been done to them by such state terror and punitive militarism, torture (convicts say, with Israel as the equivalent terror state). There are parallels with American outlaws, not to omit modern Middle Eastern marauding groups under a central command (like ISIS). The movie is a meditation on intersections between Australian kinds of lives (class is important in the interactions of a couple of young males who become part of the search team), manners and cultures and its landscape and geology akin to An Australian girl.

It’s a woman’s movie as the central characters are all women — though the sexual perspective on the students is that of a man who thinks most of their problems come from sexual repression (the girls play voyeuristically and are shown to be prurient) The fable was a woman’s of the more genteel type. We see do see their rigid obedient routines, their trussed up bodies in clothes that grew out of a northern European climate.

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The strict headmistress who cares intensely about money: she threatens to eject a girl whose parent has not been paying her bills; the girl dies, seemingly trying to get back to Hanging Rock, perhaps murdered by the headmistress, who seems also to end up destroyed by what has happened.

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Weir credits Lindsay with giving him the basic matter for what can only be called an inexplicable visonary film; I’ve just gotten the book. On first blush it appears to be a gothic — more Shirley Jackson and DuMaurier than the 1930s gentlelady mysteries. Maybe it will help me understand what the fable is intended to convey; I feel it’s a flaw that the film remains inexplicable.

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Jimmie (Tommy Lewis)

On the night of July 4th as I heard the noise of (as my husband, Jim would have said) senseless firecrackers outside, I watched an intensely compelling Fred Shepisi’s Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, based on a novel by Thomas Kenneally (nominated for Booker). I cannot speak highly enough of this film — again it’s the “weird melancholy” of the landscape that does stand out as the suffusing ambiance of the work — Marcus Clarke, author of For the Term of his Natural life, used the phrase This is neither the usual bush frontier story nor that of the struggles of genteel or convict or working class or unfortunate women. It’s the story of an aborigine young man — this is so rare because it’s hard to tell their stories as their way of life does not lend itself to the conventional European narrative story of individual social rise, and they are not individualist in their worlds overtly nor do they seek success in this manner. Shepisi and Kenneally manage to make a film that somewhat fits by dramatizing the story of an aborigine young man said to be half white.

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We see him taken from his tribe by a well-meaning but strict, repressive white clergyman: the clergyman has a switch with which he hits the boy when young after he has done something deemed wrong. Jimmie is educated to be Christian, taught to read, and live in the modern world with real skills, but when it’s time to leave this Reverence and find work, he not only cannot find work commensurate with his education, but at every turn as he does very hard menial tasks (like putting up fences) he is cheated, insulted, mocked, threatened, kicked, debased and given impossibly high standards before he can get his fully-earned salary. We see he is decent, not violent, and when given the opportunity gentle and courteous. The setting and time are the turn of the 19th century, just when a referendum for federation (what Trollope is so intent on as needed) is about to be voted upon. Also talk about the colony separating from the UK. We hear the talk of all this as background.

Jimmie becomes an officer briefly in order to better himself — to have less arduous work, dress better, be treated according to some rules. But he soon learns he is still treated derisorily, and put in a filthy stable to sleep. He becomes complicit in policing and repressing the aborigine groups in the area (breaking up their encampments, whipping them, wrecking their campsites), and finds he gets some real money (less than the others but still a percentage that is visible) for the first time. He experiences gestures of respect. But when the boss gets drunk and one night and tortures and kills an aborigine who has begged Jimmie to let him go (out of terror of this policeman), Jimmie cannot endure to cut the man down from where he is hanging and destroy his body before burying it. He runs off, and has made some enemies at that station.

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We see too how aborigine culture has changed a lot — how they do dress in a sort of modern style and how they are prevented from developing a reasonable way of life with parts of their culture intact because what’s wanted is their disappearance.

The crisis occurs when while working on a farm he has an affair with a white girl servant, and marries her because he think she has gotten pregnant by him. He takes her to live with him in a cabin (very poor but comfortable enough) that he lives in on the bare land nearby. It turns out the child is wholly white, not his. She cries when she sees how hovel like is their home, but she has experienced his kindness, how well he means, how gentle and tender he is with the baby and her.

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Jimmie’s wife (Liddy Clark)

Almost immediately though he is again not getting the pay he is owed and the farmer’s wife refuses to bring groceries back from town for them. Soon they are near starving — no milk for the baby. The boss’s daughter wants that girl servant as cheap servant for herself as she is about to marry; all the whites think they have the right to part this couple. He tries to reason with them; they reject him, citing how he has his brother and family members in his house on their land, showing how they regard his people (and him by extension) hideous.

In a mad rage he returns to the house with an axe and begins to kill, the women there, the children; he picks up a gun, and begins a killing spree of all the people who have treated him so deeply abusively. Schepisi says in his feature we are seeing Jimmie tipped over the edge finally; he is having a mental breakdown, he feels horrible about what he is doing (and Tommy Lewis had a look of appalled horror as he axed the women who had tried to erase him, take his wife, starve him) and yet has no control over himself any more. He conveys the horror of the people who are being killed. Who Jimmie is doing this to.

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Well this mad spree of self-inflicted horrors brings down on him a vengeful posse and on his brother too the brutal vengeance of these people — who are themselves deeply grieved at their losses. Jimmie did hurt them back. A couple of the whites – the original pastor, and a schoolmaster he takes as a hostage — could be and are decent to him even in the exigent circumstances of the flight into the bush. The pastor blames himself for taking Jimmie out of his culture. Jimmie tries to save his brother by going off alone; it only enables the posse to find and murder his brother quicker.

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His brother’s traditional face-mask out of make-up takes on a poignancy (Freddy Reynolds)

Exhausted, hungry, he is cornered in a stream, his mouth shot off and he creeps into a nunnery. He is picked up by the police, beaten savagely by butts of rifles, rakes, hit by stones, anything people can lay their hands on, on the way to the temporary prison, and last seen, he is shivering, shaking uncontrollably, miserable wrapped in a blanket leaning on a wall. One of the images from The Proposition I remember is the youngest brother of the Burns gang put in prison by Ray Winstone as police officer (to protect him from the mob), looking like that.

Tommy Lewis has said Jimmie is the underdog in all situations, all of us; the film enables the underdog to gain strength, to sit up and buck: “the medicine is to keep singing, the chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the song of all men.” The film projects all that has happened to aborigine people in Australia.

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Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984), An Image of Bonfire in the Bush

Tamara Wagner’s Victorian Settler Narratives, a collection of essays, includes three centering on Trollope’s fictions, one about bushfire (a terrifying event for anyone new to it) connects to Trollope’s Harry Heathcoat. Wagner’s book is informative and judicious and looks to see what was the cultural work done by most of the ficitions, not which were the best artistically or as statements about imperialism or colonialism. I made notes only on those pertaining to my project, omitting for example an essay on Susannah Moodie whose great Roughing it in the Bush I loved, as well as Atwood’s Booker Prize, Alias Grace, and Charlotte Gray’s biography of Susannah and her sister, Cartheine Parr Traill: Sisters in the Wilderness. In the book somewhere it’s mentioned that Moodie’s masterpiece may be read as about futility (yes, she exposes false ideas about independence and what the experience is like). It seem to me Atwood’s poetry sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (quoted above) tell all that the popularizing narratives below elide, erase, and try to impose colonialist-imperialist agendas on.

The introduction by Wagner: that the representations of the settler world transformed the idea of home itself (p 1), that while the narratives were “meant to realize the Utopian plans that promised a better world … successful or disrupted … they “exploded as often as reaffirmed the metropolitan home’s presumed inviolability as a cultural center or home.” The porosity of the imagined borders … Some stories were presented as “masculine adventure,” genre experiments emerged (3). The “portable home’ was part of the conception (3), propaganda for emigration, cautionary tales. Disappointments included the nature of the land, the real hardships (not mentioned explicitly by Wagner), and that emigrants were easily made dupes (Susanna Moodie mentions this). Wagner sees this phase of literature as ending in attempt at re-mapping of what is greater Britain (7). On Morusi’s essay Wagner adds state welfare for orphaned children in Australian (and elsewhere?) consolidated the imperial family.

Dorice Williams Elliot’s “Unsettled status in Australian Settler Novels” is on emerging tropes of Australia’s popular image in 19th century; she says the wild west as a trope was worked back into early Australian novels. Mary Vidal’s Bengala (1860) and Alexander Harris’s The Emigrant Family (1849) redefine gentility and feminity in a new Australian model while solidifying class positions, which are themselves paired with metropolitan reactions. She presents a rereading of Harry Heathcote: it consists of a new amalgam of masculine gentility, not just (or not quite at all) family connections and at least manners, taste, dress, but also business skills, resourcefulness, practical skills. Harry Heathcote resembles Bengala because we get an alliance between rivals. The hero very like Harry and Giles Medlicot. The new (or expanded) style of femininity stresses the creation of home with alliance on the wife having to have practical skills. The Emigrant Family and Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlin shows a woman squatter and ex-convict working side-by-side: more roles for women. Critical to present squatters as sharing work ethic and work, lead and compromise, practical skills. These books tried to do the cultural work of creating a united Australian gentry.

From Amy Lloyd’s “For Fortune and Adventure: Representations of emigrations in British Popular Fiction, 1870-1914.” The US rivalled Australia as most popular destination. Canada much less popular as a place for emigration; depicted as a vast wilderness, hardworking and lucky people might achieve a better life, daring seek adventure. They were envisioning a new lot; women not shown as independent but joining relatives abroad, escaping desperate circumstances and abandonment (Diana Archibald begins with story of her grandmother where she finds the latter at the core of her story.) Positive emulation is the thrust. Paul Denham’s After Twenty Years is thus an unusual story of a man broken by his experience, returning to the US to die. Some stories of dangerous violence but mostly not. Absence of females in these stories did not encourage female emigration; an intense desire to return with enough to build better life in the UK is part of these stories. Trollope’s books could serve as an antidote to idealism and exotic portrayals.

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Mrs Smith aboard the Goldfinder: from Francis Moseley’s 20th century illustrations for John Caldigate

On Tamara Wagner’s “Setting Back in At Home:” Imposters and Imperial Panic in Victorian Narratives of Return.” She finds often in these stories the best reward is the return home to an idealized existence. She brings out how Tichbourne claimant connects to fraudulent identities made possible; adds to scams the Indian emigration story in Collins’s Moonstone. She discusses Clarke’s For the Term of his natural Life, Charles Reade’s Gold! and It’s Never Too Late; Diana Craik’s Olive. The 1886 A Rolling Stone by Clara Cheeseman (New Zealander) comes out of trials (fraudulent identities again). We have failed emgration in Great Expectations: Dickens novels have unwanted returnees (so too Lady Audley’s Secret, Collins’s No Name). These and Mansfield Park lay bare dysfunctional arrangements in England. People’s existence in English homes are ripped apart by returnees or emigration results: Jane Eyre, Craik’s Olive, Trollope’s John Caldigate. It became common for emigrating women to be represented not just as useful and vulnerable, but also as undomestic or corrupt. They must transport domesticity and the domestic virtues changed and do not. She thinks that John Caldigate complicates the sensational plot of the return home, satirizes the stereotyping of undomestic space by allowing Mrs Smith, the shabby genteel widow, to speak, although Trollope centrally uses a sexual double standard. We have a reverse portability – Shand returns to Australia; Mick Maggot becomes an alcoholic; but Caldigate discovers he does not like this new Australian life, although he has been moderately successful. She sees a reversal of the literary conventions and finds the scenes of Hester’s imprisonment comic (I disagree on both counts). Three Clerks debunks notion that emigration is magic cure for whatever has been wrong.

Grace Moor’s “Surviving Black Thursday: The Great Bushfire of 1851,” on the sheer terror of the bush fires and how people learned to avoid and then cope. Moves from stories of destruction and horror to heroism and survival. She sees how fiction became an important means of reasserting a mastery of the landscape and the permanence and stability of the home.

Kristine Morusi: “The Freedom suits me: encouraging girls to settle in the colonies” – this one is about Catherine Spencer’s Handfasted and girls’ magazines and finds an empowerment of white women as well as stories which intend to control mixed marriages.

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An 18th century picturesque style depiction of Varanasi, an area in India (Utter Pradesh, by the Ganges)

To conclude: I now see emigration anew and remember it takes in far more texts and historical individuals than I usually think of in this context. For example, in The Austen Papers the story letters of Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, Jane Austen’s cousin, daughter of Austen’s aunt, Philadelphia, the woman who went (or was pressured into going) to India from England to sell herself in marriage, and of Warren Hastings (never openly acknowledged). The letters of her legal father, Tysoe Hancock, to her mother and hers call out for contextualization by post-colonial studies of the British in India. On wikipedia you may discover a famine was occurring as Hancock wrote one his letters so we can see the true context for this man’s complaints that he had to do some work as a surgeon for his sinecure, and his indignant irritation at the state of the streets too (which he does not explain) — just littered with these corpses and the starving and diseased? Eliza is the child of an emigration; she became an emigrant when she went to France and lived with a man who hoped by marrying her to gain money to drain his land after he threw his tenants off (instead they or their representatives guillotined him and another ruthless female owner who said aloud she had the right to salt the soil rather than let the tenants continue to grow produce on it). These Austen figures will yield far more about what happens to people under the pressure of imperialism and settler colonialism than Mansfield Park; they call out to be seen in the context of colonialism and all that was happening in India and France globally.

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Joseph Vernet, Antibes Port Hinterland (1756)

Ellen

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Anton Lesser as Thomas More (Peter Straughan defying a fear a wider swathe of viewers will declare a series boring or slow-moving returns to some of the techniques he used in Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy … ) The Washington Post featured a editorial column by Charles Krauthammer inveighing against the distorted portrait of More, showing how seriously these films are taken …

Dear friends and readers,

My concluding blog review of this unusually rich volume of essays on the often neglected and casually dissed costume drama from the BBC, for several decades a leading and influential creator of fine TV drama. The first part covered different ways of dicussing these serial films ; the second the history and evolution of historical films, and this last on the power of these drama’s audiences (especially in the age of fandoms on the Internet with their instant commentary) and how they can influence how a given mini-series might develop and frame how the series is discussed in public media.

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All we are permitted to see in the 1970s is the morning after (Ellis as Ross, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth)

Chapter 16: Julie Anne Taddeo’s “Why don’t you take her?”” Rape in the Poldark Narrative.” I liked this one — it coheres with my point of view on gender politics in the Poldark series (though I differ in how I see Graham’s stance). Where she differs from the approach I would take is she organizes her findings around the fan groups which protest regularly, where misreadings are a result of mainstream cultural values. It offended many viewers of the 1970s mini-series that Ross rapes Elizabeth, and they are given ammunition in this view by the relatively chaste presentation of the 1970s depiction, and by later qualified backtracking in the novels, to be noted in Ross Poldark’s memory — but not sufficient to turn away the reality that Elizabeth manifests intense bitterness towards Ross in The Black Moon and is in The Angry Tide given a very “rough deal” indeed (Graham’s terms for the realities of women’s lives in our culture): she dies of miscarriage she pays a doctor to bring in by causing early parturition, using some herbs known to lead to gangrene. why? the intolerable life she finds herself having to endure when George Warleggan, her aroused jealous husband begins to believe that her second son, he thought his, and born prematurely, is Ross Poldark’s.

Taddeo begins with the enormous popularity of the Poldark mini-series as well as the unacknowledged (by elite groups) extent of Graham’s readership for years of his Poldark and mystery-thrillers-psychologically complex books. Her point will be to show how the fan groups managed to influence how the film-makers changed Graham’s books when they filmed them. The central dilemma of the 12 books is that Ross Poldark loves two women, Elizabeth Chynoweth, aristocratic, upper class, who chooses to marry Ross’s cousin, Francis, partly because she fears marriage to Ross (as a man of renegade risky outcast behavior), and thought he was dead and promised Francis; partly because Francis is the oldest son’s older son, and thus the heir and she hopes can provide her with a high culture social life. Ross takes in a pathetic abject working class (beaten up or abused) young girl, Demelza Carne, to be a servant in his house. Demelza grows up and eventually they have sex (almost inevitably and this carries on) but he marries her quickly — as someone he really likes and feels comfortable with, as a good sex partner. As to defy his class; it is an act of rebellion.  He falls in love with her gradually and deeply. In the 1970s series this altered so that Ross and Demelza have sex for just one night (the film-makers feared the audience would think Demelza unchaste if there were many nights, and that even today would not condone breaking the taboo of marrying far beneath him); Demelza becomes pregnant, even tries to an abortion, but Ross finds out, stops her and “gives” and their child “his name.” When Francis Poldark dies, and Elizabeth finds herself impoverished, alone, insecure, lonely, she marries George Warleggan, even though Ross has made intense efforts to help her (like giving her a lump sum he and Demelza needed badly for his mining business).  Incensed, enraged, he goes to Trenwith and forces himself sexually upon her.  To take her back, to assert his right to own her.  Fans resent bitterly the idea that Ross could have raped anyone. Just the other day I debated this issue off-blog and off-facebook with a long-time ardent reader of Graham’s books and about his life.

So fans of the mini-series argue over this triangle, wanting to absolve Ross and turning to hating Elizabeth. Taddeo shows that Graham is seriously interested in the question of rape, presents women as subject to men; in the second mini-series (out of Books 6-8), we have a young woman, Eliizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna, forced into marriage and Graham dramatizes her experience of married life as continued sadistic marital rape — happily her husband dies, and she remarries a brother of Demelza, but she never recovers from her two years of such experiences.

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A scene related to the one focused on above: another rape scene written by a man, and this time we are encouraged to see coerced sex as aggresive seduction (Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, forced down by a Turkish friend of one of her suitors, Downton Abbey, the first season, 2010)

Chapter 16: Andrea Schmidt dilates on “Imaginative power” of the fan fiction and postings on the Net about Downton Abbey. She demonstrates how these fans — often disdained — expose the absurdities and perversities of Fellowes. He hires a “historian” as a reinforcement of his claim that he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics because is he keeps to “historical accuracy” no anachronisms in his characters. “Historical accuracy” is his mantra (like the US uses “national security”) behind which he wants to control the depiction of the characters to suit his defense of this super-rich order of people. At the same time he can write dialogue and invent presences with the power of suggestivity. He is usually real enough, and registers the depths and amorality of people sufficiently to open up suggestions we can play with — such as my argument last year that Mr Bates murdered his first wife and Mr Green through the clever ruse of accident.

Schmidt suggests that Downton Abbey fan fiction develops his characters from hints and behaviors Fellowes refuses to make clear or explicit — he cannot sue them as they are making no money and are not acknowledged as legitimate or serious by those in charge of literature and art. These fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity. They complicate his stories in more “interesting, self-aware and sensitive areas” that he (in effect) refuses to. One I noticed is a fan fiction that postulates a love affair between Miss Obrien and “arguably the most underdeveloped character in the series, Cora, Lady Grantham.” A pair of lesbians. In another “poor Edith” is given a sarcastic and funny voice and describes the passive-aggressive relationship of Matthew (his sycophancy and making up to her) and Lady Mary (her cold indifference and potentially needling tongue) one New Year’s Day. They allow Robert (Lord Grantham to have his affair with Jane (the widowed housemaid?).

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From Mr Selfridge: the opening episode, Miss Agnes Towler gazing yearningly at the dress in the department store window

Chapter 17: Andrea Wright’s “This Wonderful Commercial Machine” defends and analyses “Gender, Class, and the Pleasures of Spectacle in The Paradise and Mr Selfridge compared to the 1970s House of Elliot. The 1970s is incomparably more genuinely feminist in outlook — for a start, the owners are women. These costume dramas have lots of “good girl messages” I’d call them — stay home, be obedient, don’t rock the values that sustain you supposedly and you’ll be safe and maybe unhappy critics who complain about the spectacle and shopping should realize that’s the point of these series; women go there for pleasure. The older program had 2 ambitious women now we have ambitious men.

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Like The Bletchley Circle, The 1970s House of Elliot featured women in charge, dealing, negotating

Wright finds that conservative ideologies have taken over; we espape the present. In The Paradise something less authentic is taking over – modern retail is characterized by cavernous hypermarkets that lack all individiduality. The Paradise maintains its French origin in feel and tone. She carefully goes over the décor of the two series and what is projected – -an opportunity to revel. Respectability and reputation are central to women of all classes. Agnes the desperate girl of Mr Selfridge is matched with Denise of Paradise, a prey to men, clerks on display like the goods, women as a consumable pleasure. Wright compares the kinds and fates of the female characrers in the two series. They fail to offer progressive roles for women and reiterate rigid class structures. A French business women Clemence is a threat sexually as she seeks to win through sexual enticement; she is cast as a dangerous other. Normalcy restored. Agnes has little opportunity, she gets paternistilc support, a sexual education rather than emancipation. We have also another Miss Bunting, desperate over debt, who steals is not pardoned and kills herself.

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The upbeat 1940s Cherry Ames/Sue Barton feel to the series can be seen in this kind of stylized cheerful promotional shot — connected to the above still, women going to work

Chapter 18: Louise Fitzgerald’s “Taking a pregnant pause: Interrogating the feminist potential of Call the Midwife.” It’s the story of a newly qualified midwife who arrives in Post WW2 London to take a position alongside other novice midwives and Anglican order of nuns – Jenny Lee, a middle class woman who once loved classical music. The midwife can be seen as a feminist figure because she has been cloaked in misogynies – female strength not liked, a scapegoat. Birth and reproductive rights continue to be a central feminist subject; the show breaks this aesthetic taboo. Abortion becomes a flash point in the series – a story of a backstreet abortion at a time abortion not legal; Nora Harding almost dies – we witness her screaming. Neither woman (a story of Trixie who is first seen painting her nails with blood red varnish) is judged by her community, but both women are in effect punished and abortion and sexual assault are seen as the result of sexual desire. After success of first season Heidi Thomas (the writer who is a centrally important person in costume dramas, especially British) began to try for feminist content. Midwives are a much more visible presence in the UK; US media did not like its bleak ideologies and socialist Health care system. It is feminocentric and about women – none of women defined by relationship to a man – it suggests a communitarian spirit and that domestic history is valuable history.

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Another promotional still which does show the ambiance of at least the first season

The main concern of the series is the relationship of poverty and social welfare even if topics – domestic violence, abortion, rape, birth, prostitution are feminist issues – there are so very few programs with women at the center is one reason for its success. Channel 4’s reality TV show One Born Every Minute has a high prioritization of birth stories – central in popular culture today and does reinforce “fact’ of women’s biological difference from men – Call the Midwife is a ghettoizing of what it means to be feminist because midwifery childbirth and motherhood seen as female space. No new points of identification. There is a nostalgia in the way class identity and hierarchies are used (reinforced too). It is white – one nun makes an “unintentional racist” remarks does not provoke disquiet that working class women’s behavior does. A story about a black child is told without referring to the child’s race; the story about the man as a father and man. Call the Midwife does not offer new paradigms for identification nor systematically challenge sstems of oppression and inequity. The larger problem in feminist of racism is here.

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As general constant across the three parts of the book and different subgenres of costume drama and mini-series is the gender fault-line: there are men’s films and women’s films from the point of view of the characters and stories and from the point of view of how the screenplay writer, director and producer treat this content. And even if they are apparently feminist, written by women, feminocentric, sympathetic to women, they do not escape the hegemonic male dominance of our culture.

Chapter 20: Elke Weissmann’s “Transnational Complexity and the Critique of Masculinity in Ripper Street.

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Promotional: Matthew Macfayden to the fore, the women ghostly

Elke Weissmann writes on a mini-series Ripper Street (2010-) produced by BBC and BBC America. She feels the mini-series “emphasizes the problem that is constituted by traditional patriarchal masculinities.” This drama exposes while it attempts to critique the results of these behaviors and especially a nostalgic view of them. It offers an intense emotional engagement with its characters — part of serial drama. A central character played by Matthew Macfayden is at first presented as a traumatized and admirable male; he’s a versatile actor and apparently unlike Walter White in Breaking Bad where (according to Weissmann) we see a good man gradually corrupted, Reid was corrupt to start out with. A large theme is the problem of policing: who is to police such a society when the police are part of the problem. Along the way she describes similar min-series which she aligns or contrasts with this one: none of them have I ever seen; Dixon of Dock Street (British 1955-76), Wire (HBO – -I know this one is much admired), Hill Street Blues (I know it was popular.

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It’s telling how easy it is to find stills on the Net of profoundly wounded women with supposedly protective standing over them (from Ripper Street)

She thinks Deadwood the best of these, but it too makes an exaggerated use of violence, which is shown to be “deeply troubling”. Ripper Street manifests deep unhappiness and does allow for other concepts of masculinity. Violence is shown by the storylines to be a “key element of traditional, hegemonic masculinities,” is traumatizing and central to the problems men face too.

I’ve probably seen so little of this type of thing because I avoid high raw and continuing violence that I know is typical of a lot of filsm — Breaking Bad was an unusual program for me to watch

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Rob James-Cellier as Thomas Barrow, a homosexual footman who attempts to blackmail Charlie Cox, the Duke of Crowborough but finds the Duke has far more power than he (Downton Abbey, 2010, the first season)

I’ve omitted Chapter 12, Giselle Bastin’s treatment of the two Upstairs/Downstairs series and keep Chapter 19: Lucy Brown’s “Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey to a minimum. As I remarked in the second of these blogs, I watched the two seasons of the 2012 Upstairs Downstairs and want to deal with the changes from the older to the new series separately, but here I would like to record the central insight of this essay. Lucy Brown shows that paradoxically the depiction of a gay footman in the 1970s, Alfred Harris, much more hostilely than that of Thomas Barrow, which actually ends on Harris’ execution as a spy is in a way far more truthful to the suffering and reality of life of homosexual men until the mid-1970s (Stonewall anyone?) than the sentimental way that Thomas is on the one hand sympathized with when it comes to his love relationships but otherwise stigmatized as a spiteful angry desperately snobbish man (in cohoots with that witch, Miss Obrien).

A single collection of essays has to leave some topics out. I was glad to see the emphasis in two of the essays on the importance and central function and dominance of the screenplay writer in the way the BBC does its actual film-making, but wished that there had been more about the business side of things. For example, a British friend told me:

it no longer produces drama itself. It commissions it from private companies — many of them (originally at least) comprising people who used to work at the Beeb. This new system has been in place for about twenty years, and certainly applies to Wolf Hall. Commissioning seems to work both ways — the idea may come from the Beeb, or the independent companies may pitch to them.

There are reasons to dislike this way of going about things, but it has resulted in many cases in higher production values — contrasting Wolf Hall with the 1970s Wives of Henry VIII shows the difference. It has also led to dumbing down, but Wolf Hall is not guilty of that.

Some the aspects of these dramas beyond dumbing down (short scenes, much less dialogue, itself much less complicated and thoughtful) which the essayists in the last part attribute to the power of audiences could be the effect of profit-making companies who want values that uphold their company and executives to be enacted.

I am a lover of historical fiction, biography, narrative history, historic fiction (older fiction) and think all these literary forms directly connected to, give rise to serial costume drama. I will be writing soon about Peter Weir’s Master and Commander (adapted from an amalgam of several of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, directed and written by Peter Weir, featuring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany).

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Bettany as Stephen Maturin on the Galapagos islands, writing up his notes)

Ellen

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Maggie Smith, here as receptionist still

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been almost two years since Part One. Izzy and I went again because we had been moved, exhilarated and for a time intensely cheered by the 1st Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Unexpectedly it almost pulled it off: again Ol Parker gave to powerful actors some speeches that resonate deeply with anyone thinks he or she has experienced irretrievable loss and gets a second chance, with longing for companionship, self-doubt; since I’ve watched Richard Curtis’s Love Actually twice since (two Christmases where I sorely needed some wish fulfillment), this time I saw the parallel with this Christmas film: an overall trajectory of hope, optimism, good things occurring, lucky strokes, within which each set of characters experience real anguish, and we see how much failure and loss and compromise in each case there is. Yet in each case some love, companionship and at the moment of the ending joy is known and celebrated. Love Actually is better because the anguish arises more naturally, out of family situations, long-known people — as it did in the 1st Hotel movie, but then this is supposed to occur abroad among old or aging people whose lives at home and families have fallen apart and are just about making it in this hotel now filled with retired, aging, and about to die (the bleak joke is) people.

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Last time Judi Dench as Mrs Greenslade (Evelyn) was narrator, now it falls to Maggie Smith as Mrs Donnelly (Muriel). It’s not so much voice-over as she soliloquizing using voice-over in front of us. Not easy to do, and again I was powerfully reminded of her performance as Susan in Bed among Lentils (linked in below). Maybe it was the working class accent, or her real desperation and gratitude to have found a substitute son, family, place she belongs in and functions once again to save, but I found her character so much superior to that of the Duchess she has been enacting lo these five years. No comparison. The director, John Madden filmed her in continual close-ups, and she has not used any Botox or cosmetic surgery so all the deeply felt inward life of her comes out on her wore face and large blue eyes. The closest to true devastation this movie comes is when Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) rushes back from the wedding reception because he misses Mrs Donnelly and worries about her, and for a moment thinks her dead. I feared I’d go into hysterics. No, just resting. It’s a trick, a manipulation of the audience’s emotions, and this is done more obviously and with more strain than the first time round.

I should qualify if you hated the kind of thing the first movie represents, or hated it, you will hate this yet more. Little irritants: preaching against “self-pity,” and how we all can make it, and in the movie several of our original group have improbably become successful entrepreneurs. All I can say is we overlooked that and entered into what was not cant. The young Untouchable girl who began the first movie is brought back at this movie’s end for Muriel to thank, and I did break up into crying when Maggie as Muriel talked of how there is no ending, and death is somehow part of a continuation. Not so. For individuals there is an ending.

Cut to wild Indian dancing at the close of Sapoor and wedding reception, a combination of traditional Bollywood dances with modern Indian movie dances. They dance on behalf of life in the midst of aging, loneliness and coming death.

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Not everyone of the original band is there,

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so there are two newcomers: Richard Gere posing as a writer, and thought by Sapoor to be the inspector sent by the American corporation to whom he and Muriel have applied for a loan to renovate the hotel and open a second to accommodate more guests, needed to provide enough profit.  Tamsin Grieg as Miss Lavinia Beach (pseudonym), a real hard inspector for a rival chain whom Sapoor misguidedly pointedly neglects.

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I last saw Grieg as Miss Bates in the 2009 Emma by Sandy Welch and Miss Hardiment in the 2010 Tamara Drewe from Posy Simmonds;  I knew I had seen her or at least heard her distinctive voice, before but would not have placed her as the same actress who did either of those two very different parts until I saw her name in the credits.

20th Century Fox and two Indian production companies produce the most alluring of colors, it’s filmed on location. the cinematographer, Ben Smithard, again knows what he is doing: there was a moment when the camera looks at Judi Dench as the eyes of the loving Douglas (Bill Nighy) and she just looked transcendantly beautiful, even if she is in her 70s.

Dench

As in Love Actually and the previous Hotel, Nighy delivers the memorable epitomizing moments. It’s no use to go over the plot-lines this time; they don’t make much sense; they carry on from the previous (so I wished I could remember the previous better), giving some momentary closure to a few when the first movie gave no closure, left the people there still single, with their families back home fallen apart or gone. Now they have formed more definite heterosexual couples having sex (this time there is no gay man), even Sonny Kapoor’s mother must be included, dragged in, to her credit, most reluctantly, to (as Touchstone in As You Like It would say), the mandatory country copulatives — all but Muriel. The character is to my mind given more respect even if the pragmatic realist would say, well of course, she’s too old, who would love her but as a grandmother. I’m tempted to say go see to watch and listen to Maggie make a movie once again, or better yet click your way through Alan Bennet’s Bed Among Lentils.


Keep clicking to see the whole

Izzy and I went at the last minute; we bought take-out Chinese food to bring home, set up our supper in front of the TV and watched World’s Ice-Skating on NBC.

Ellen

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Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon as Mr and Mrs Miniver with their children in a locally dug-out air raid shelter with their children, Toby and Judy (Christopher Severn and Clare Sandars)

Dear friends and readers,

If you read my other blog, Austen Reveries, you know I’ve been working on a paper on the importance of screenplays to be given this March at the ASECS, part of my larger project on Austen films, and just enjoyment of, interest in screenplays.

This week I’ve been reading great and powerful screenplays, chosen mostly as a result of what’s in print and well-prepared in two sets of what ought to be famous collections (John Gassner and Dudley Nicols, 10 Best Film Plays, 1942, and Best Film Plays [10] of 1943-44; and George Garrett, Jane Gelfman, and O. B. Hardison Jr’s Film Scripts 1, 2, 3, 4 (1970s). This to help me demonstrate the centrality and great power of them when well-prepated, and how they are a new changeable experimental genre, worthy reading and study in their own right. When I read Dashiell Hammet’s Watch on the Rhine adapted from Lillian Hellman’s stage play of the same name, the experience was gripping, almost as good as watching it. When I read Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man this week (once again), maybe it was better in some ways. To my surprise, and not meaning at all to have Downton Abbey in mind (though Fellowes has been smart enough to publish the screenplays of the first three seasons completely annotated, with omitted scenes, stills, the works), I discovered a real provable source for one of the striking episodes of the first season: The Flower Show. Here is a still from that in Mrs Miniver:

TheflowerShow
Probably not one of the more remembered scenes of the movie, though it leads into the tragic climax

First let me suggest just a few of the characteristics of screenplays that put them apart from other genres that I’m working on: The writer writes with camera visualization in mind, and an awareness of there will be a world created by the hallucinatory screen from production and costume designs: screenplays presuppose encompassing specific worlds constructed so the viewer shall suspend disbelief, and within this assumed imagined environment the scripts present bits of dialogue, descriptions of movements of setting, suggestions for actors and silent moments, and camera angles as a quick succession of fluid and suggestive experiences with movement involved, freed of the time and space of a literal stage. In recent contemporary films what happens in this film is conveyed through a continual movement back and forth between past and present time, with lingering voice-overs that spill voiced thoughts across the interwoven obsessively remembered past and present time in quick change montages. Studying film adaptations alongside the scripts has taught me the films are made of dislocated series of images which can be moved about; Sarah Cardwell demonstrated these are not in the present tense, but tenseless or timeless (in her essay “About Time”). The relation of the words, the dialogue and voice-over, crucially tell the relationships in time between the images. They are concentrated, the feel is intimate because of the close-ups, split seconds of visualization brings us close-up and magnifies the experience. From this comes fan groups for cults of stars. If you know who played the parts and have not seen the movie, you try to visualize the actors and actors; if you don’t know who played the parts, or the screenplay was never filmed, you try to cast it with favored actors and actresses.

In the second Gassner and Nicols volume the screenplays are accompanied by stills from the films dropped it (like illustrations for 19th century novels) at the spots in the screenplay they visualized. That’s also done in the New Market paperback shooting script series, and in many publications of screenplays — often the better ones will have essays by the writer, or a journal of the filming, or particulars about production design, costumes, houses …. Mrs Miniver is in the first volume so I went onto the Net to find stills. I was not surprised to discover I could not find shots for the most traumatic and best scenes — that’s typical. What one finds are stills where the people look beautiful. It’s also hard to find stills of landscape, and the encompassing world which is so central to films. I did find this one of her compassionating the German soldier after he terrified, threatened and was ready to kill her but then sat to eat and wait, and collapsed:

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Helmut Dantine played the part of the German pilot forced down

First the 1940s screenplay is extraordinary. It is not by Joyce Anstruther (also a poet) whose columns in the 1930s were a precursor of The Egg and I, or Bridget Jones, the self-deprecating woman, here quietly ironic about much of her life, but herself the cynosure of competence and complacent assured middle class life (discussed extraordinarily well by Alison Light in Forever England). I can see from just reading the screenplay, how it could have the effect on its viewership it did. It subscribes to the most appealing myths of what England is. Paradoxically at the same time like so many movies of the 1930s and 40s the central characters are upper middle class and as a matter of course have servants (This is true of the characters in Watch on the Rhine, it is not true of the characters in screenplays starting in the 1960s, then we are no longer in firm middle class households, no servants anywhere, e.g, Darling a 1965 screenplay and movie, The Apartment, same era). Mrs Miniver opens in an expensive men’s club in Pall Mall; they are going about their business undisturbed as yet. She is the wife of such a man; we see her first jumping off a bus and rushing back to an expensive shop to treat herself to an unnecessary concoction of a hat. Yet as the story went on, and we go home with her, are introduced to her servants (whom she treats well but keeps in good order by her benign orderly ways herself) I believed in her and these children. Her grown son home from Oxford. The girl he meets and falls in love with — but lacks her upper middle class rank (Orwell would find all the careful nuancing par for the course).

Well emotions are worked up as this orderly life begins to fall apart, but everyone is stout together. I found myself coming close to tears, especially when the family was in the bomb shelter under their house, intensely engaged when the German soldier broke into Mrs Miniver’s house (of course she dealt with him, a bit of luck too, which Mrs Miniver ever has). One of its authors was William Wyler, and apparently some of the lines he wrote for the screenplay were used by Roosevelt in one of his speeches. The sense of the characters are turned far away from Anstruther then.

What startled me though is here is an important story in the first season of Downton Abbey. Remember that Flower Show and how the dowager at the very end gave the prize for roses to Mr Moseley’s father. It had been assigned her as always. The way you can tell if something is a source is if the source has something idiosyncratic which is repeated. In Mrs Miniver the movie the prize is again award to the great dragon lady turned women-with-heart-of-gold, Lady Beldon and similarly when up there Lady Beldon lies and gives the prize to the man who deserves it.

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Dame May Whitty as Lady Beldon

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Maggie Smith as the Dowager doing precisely the same generous act — we might ask why we should be so charmed after she has been taking the prize for years (Miss Obrien [Siobhan Finneran does ask]

It was then I asked myself if Mrs Miniver had a first name. Had Anstruthers and now these writers gone so far as to imitate earlier novels and not give us a first name for this lady. I hunted and found that at night when they talk (in separate twin beds of course) Mr Miniver who is referred to as Clem often calls her Kay.

Much is left out by Fellowes from the original: Mr Ballard (Henry Travers) who grew the beautiful rose wanted to name it Mrs Miniver and that had angered Lady Beldon as no rose should be named after a non-aristocrat. She had learned to accept that, and was about to about to accept seeing her granddaughter become engaged to Mrs Miniver’s son; Fellowes instead has Mr Moseley’s father accepting that he will always win second place though it breaks his heart. But Lady Beldon has always gotten it the way the Dowager had. The moment is much stronger in Mrs Miniver because of this secondary story of love and because the sirens have begun to wail loudly that the German bombers had been seen on their way.

Mrs Miniver is an important source text for a significant Downton Abbey the first season, and the attitude towards war in the second. In Mrs Miniver we see how class barriers break down and how everyone is valued together as they fight — so too in Downton Abbey season 2. (Sigh … .). Flower shows and the beauty and science in Kensington Gardens (its world-wide reputation alongside the Bronx Botanical Gardens) remain important symbols for middle class English-speaking people today. Another story in the first season, about Carson’s past was modelled on a story about Hudson’s past from the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs. But using Mrs Miniver exposes how Downton Abbey repeats all the myths of this movie — other images in the movie reappear in Downton Abbey.

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All applaud the Dowager for her tremendous act

Let me bring up another unlikely or unexpected collocation: Dora Bruder, the autobiographical meditation by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel this year. One theme of his book is how Dora Bruder, this young girl was just thrown away, powerless flotsam and jetsam when things got at all rough — or when the establishment decreed. Well in Mrs Miniver at said Flower Show we see a group of working class children from London who have been parceled out to people like Mrs Miniver. Of course not quite living in the great houses, or put in an attic, but that is not mentioned. We are to look quite sentimentally at them and think what an opportunity to get into the country. When the reality is these children in this movie are Dora Bruders. Who cares what happens to them as individuals, who considers it? how they got back home? if they got back home? why these were sent?

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I did come across two other more general sources for Cora, Lady Grantham: I’m following a Future Learn course on British imperialism (on which much more in another blog) and came across the name of Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon, the first American wife of a Viceroy of India during the Raj, and aspects of her life reminded me of Cora, Lady Grantham. I like reading memoirs, someone recommended to me Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (1877-1964), who wrote a readable autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon in her famous super-expensive peacock feather dress — her expression reminds me of royal people in Goya’s paintings

Mary’s book is a slender volume of letters selected out of volumes and volumes by John Bradley. Once Mary Leiter marries and becomes the viceroy’s wife her life is endless showing of herself for spectacle, and having babies and caring for them. She becomes less open too, much less. The glimpses of a worthwhile person become rare. She begins to sound like Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide when she poses, and registers no sense at all of what she (as a symbol and to keep up in this life style) is costing everyone else. Mary Leiter died of disease, sick and ailing by her early 30s, probably childbirth at the age of 36-37. Her mother-in-law died young too, similarly.

A biography by Nigel Nicolson tell you that Mary Leiter had been the daughter of a man who was a partner in one of these huge luxury-serving department stores that opened in the 1880s in NYC, London, Chicago — a Mr Selfridge (!), and Nicolson’s book opens with the portrait of such a store. These are a dying breed; now we get these cavernous warehouses of mostly junk. There are still a couple of them around: Lord and Taylor’s on 37th and 5th was still practicing making the person shopping feel as if he or she were a rich guest and all the objects important art, the experience somehow home-y, comfortable — complete with coffee for free at 9:30 (this was only 3 years ago). Anyway all her life she lived in a privileged environment, a glass box — only her real body she could not escape nor diseases. She was thought Jewish or half-Jewish because some names in the family “seemed Jewish.” In fact they were Memnonites. So she fits Cora, Lady Grantham — a link between one costume drama and another.

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Consuelo and Jacques Balsan, her “commoner” husband

CVB reminds me of the Mitford sisters; she has that strong sense of what she deserves, who she is, and while she was wholly tyrannized over as a child (she was even whipped), and when a young adult could be coerced into making bad important decisions (like marrying the super-rich Duke of Marlborough), give her time and she gets out of it — and married a nobody Frenchman who she lived happily with in France until WW2 when they escaped to the US. Lady Carnavon, the turn of the century owner of Highclere Castle who wandered about the world as an anthropologist of sorts, was a strong independent individualist iconclastic too — none of them stayed home to obey any gongs for dinner ….

Long ago at the close of Caleb Williams William Godwin had his imprisoned driven-insane servant hero, ask why are these people numinous (he had actually told the truth about his employer killing a man), why is are they so much more valued than others. The interest of Modiano’s book is how hard he tries to discover her life and what happened to her, and that he does find a trail. It’s much more than a detective story.

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Here is one of Joyce Anstruther’s poems — about whom I’ll write one of my foremother poet blogs next week, the first I’ve done in a couple of years:

Dedication to an Unknown Reader, from The Glass-Blower (1940)

Like rays shed
    By a spent star
The words of a dead
    Poet are,
That through bleak space
    Unchecked fly on,
Though heart, hand, face
    To dust are gone;
And you who read
    Shall only guess
What thorn-sharp need,
    What loneliness,
What love, lust, dream,
    Shudder or sigh
Lit the long beam
    That meets your eye:
Nor guess you never
    So well, so true,
Shall comfort ever
    Reach from you
To me, an old
    Black shrivelled sphere,
Who has been cold
    This million year.

She was nowhere as uncomplicatedly competent and cheerful as she made her Mrs Miniver to be. See my preliminary foremother poet blog: Joyce Anstruther.

Ellen

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