Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category


From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.


Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Lucky
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.


Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.


Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

The most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job, but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.


Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …

Ellen

Read Full Post »


John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.


St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation


Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography


Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick


Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber


Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.


The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)


Ensemble scene from Exterminating Angel (Thomas Ades, Tom Cairns, 2016, from Bunuel’s 1962 film)

Friends and readers,

Along with blogging less, I’ve been going to the opera less this year. Thus far I’ve gone twice for wildly different experiences. In the first case, Bellini’s Norma in October, I loved some of the music, but thought the drama potentially so meaningful, thrown away, and just so dull in the second half. In the second case, Ades’s Exterminating Angel this past Saturday, I couldn’t stand the music, to me it was so much noise, sounds that made no sense (though I could hear the singers had themselves resonant voices capable of making beautiful melodies), felt the first half excruciatingly boring, contentless; while in the second half I found myself watching an rare opera commenting directly and cogently, bitterly on the political powerlessness of much of the world today.

I want to write about these to mourn for Norma how the Met simply out of cowardice (I suppose) worry the audience will be offended, refuses to modernize operas when the themes break taboos for real — this one having women’s subjectivity and love for one another as the driving force of a story. And for Exterminating Angel, express astonished exasperation that no one on the stage in the intervals where they are supposed to have explanatory talk (but of course they rarely do, just have silly hype or ridiculous questions about how the singer enacts the characters as if operas were novels), no one offered the least explanation. From the introducer, to Thomas Ades, to Gelb, they all professed themselves unable to comprehend the mystery.

I’ll begin by offering an explanation, one easily derived from reading Bunuel’s and various critics’ comments about his film.

The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed (Roger Ebert).

My task is made easy because Anthony Tommassini (The New York Times) also understood it

The opera has discomforting timeliness at a time when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking. The willpower of the ruling classes, or lack thereof, has become an especially pressing topic in Washington, as elected officials debate how forcefully to stand up to President Trump on policy and governing.

In a way, this production dares to confront audience members in the moment. Are we somehow complicit when we encounter art in a safe, gilded house? Or, in fact, can grappling with the arts, including this powerful opera, be a way to take action and exert will?

The principles are of course us. They and we are the sheep. We are being and have been for the last 50 years, with some breaks, Obama the most obvious but kept weak by virtue partly of his race, being slowly devoured, destroyed and we do nothing. It need not be Trump particularly, but the intuitive con-artist, ruthless moral moron, managed it and is kept in power. Ades is British and they have had Thatcher, then Cameron and now Teresa May. Brexit (well-meant by those who wanted to overthrow the pro-bank neo-liberal austerity stance of the EU) is counterproductive because the upper class and those in charge of Parliament will not break with neo-liberal oligarchic reactionary policies Bunuel and Ades blame us.

That’s unfair in part because the average person is trying to make a living while the powerful hire lawyers, teams of people to elect patsies, invent legislation for them to enact, do all they can to defund all social programs and stop any new ones from being enacted or effected. No wholly as the democratic party refuses to go left, liberal humane, return to the New Deal of FDR and Keynesian economics. And now we have invisible walls, doors, and if you say demonstrate, protest, with unions destroyed and the leaders of those left also centrists, long prison sentences.

I have wondered before this what Bunuel’s Petit Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Now I know: it’s the superficial surface the rearranging of the chair on the Titanic; The Exterminating Angel is the Titanic itself sinking.


You can see the sister (the singer with the blonde hair) with her brother just behind her

Only one of the individual stories were moving. The brother, Francesco, who has ulcers, his dependency on and love for his sister, Silvia, his mother-and-lover figure, her love for her child. I could make out a decent doctor with a deep base voice, the well-meaning host and his wife but could figure out nothing about them. I was even unsure who was the host. For the most part, the characters were not particularized, so the piece remained impersonal. This lack of characterization is responsible for the harshly critical reviews of the opera as “dead on arrival.” There is nowhere for us to know anything about these people and it’s only the peculiarity of the brother and sister (he with ulcers), she caring for him like a lover that made them stand out. All of the characters we get to see a bit of but the butler were the “upstairs” set, the 1%, the staff having fled. I had no Anna (as in Downton Abbey) to feel for.

The opera can be seen as a black comedy trying to be gothic. Wilbur Hampton took it as about trauma. My caveat on those reviews which understood the piece is they objected to its pessimism; they wanted uplift. There is none. The directors seem to want to make it scary, a gothic, a ghost story, but I suggest only film can project the uncanny hallucinatory feel necessary. On the screen and dressed up in a costume, one man enacted a huge fierce bear looming over all. Perhaps they were thinking of Goya.


A huge backdrop scene was used to project film images; there real sheep on stage at first

You might say of course the audience understood. As I walking out of the theater I heard three different groups of people puzzling about it, genuinely puzzled. When I offered my explanation, one couple, possibly Trumpites looked offended but then saw one could generalize out, and then “get it.” A review by Walls and Kenny astonishingly regards the whole thing as so much fun. The fell back on talking of technique and marveling over the transfer from film to stage.

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


Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, a temple virgin, loving friend of Norma

As to Norma, at the core of the opera is deep good true human feeling and in a contemporary opera would be permitted to come out directly.

Again if you listened to the talk during the interviews, you see the opera was framed as if it’s pro-macho male, with the two women betraying one another for this hunk of a male:

They went on as if this was a romance opera. Seriously. Jokes about how thrilling — Joseph Calleja as Pollione is heavy, unattractive. They talked of Norma’s threat to kill her children by Pollione — there is a Medea subplot which doesn’t come off. Mild misogyny here. A production might have emphasized how perverse this is; tried to understand Medea. As Alex Ross says, they could have changed the era and costumes, and made the anti-colonialist faultline clear. They didn’t. I was waiting for talk of druids but they didn’t go that far. I can imagine someone today making costumes emphasizing the women as a pair in a country taken over by a militaristic tyrannical state — the opera could have been in dialogue with The Exterminating Angel. None of this.

In our time it’s so important for women’s depths and needs and outlooks to come out and this opera was doing that; it is equally good to see an attempt to make motherhood, children and decent emotions surrounding children — not made saintly not twisted by repressive institutions or macho maleness. The Oedipus-Jocasta story is often seen solely from the male point of view when it is a woman driven to madness, a woman who in earlier cultures had to give up culture to kill them for sects. I grant the scenery and atmosphere of beautiful peace fit that first famous aria, Casta Diva, but what the opera also projects is a deep wish for oblivion (a death wish Freud called it). This essay on the opera’s complexity is worth reading. It’s “between two women.” The Met also provided program notes about Bellini and the opera.

With no understanding, again one finds complaints of boredom and flatness. The Observer critic thought the lead two women just had no support. The production was “lazy and senseless.” That’s not fair; they just stayed with the Druids originally chosen to obscure any political meaning. And the set was a lovely dark fairy tale natural withered landscape:

On the other hand, with a new production of Puccini’s Tosca to come, the Met might have seemed almost too much on point. All three choices are linked, and brought together seem to be a response to today’s dark violent world. Police are outside the open door in the Exterminating Angel, and a violent presence in Tosca too.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Nora (Marie Leuenberger)

Dear friends and readers,

I saw this delightful serious film about two weeks ago in my local film club at the Cinema Art (Fairfax, a sort of art movie-house), and have been waiting for it to appear either in this theater (which if they are played for the general public usually begin by this time) or in local theaters as it has been nominated for a couple of prestigious awards. I’ve just about given up hope — after the trivializing condescending (“cartoonish” and “clever navigation”) or ho hum reviews (“not exactly breaking new ground,” “a lark”) that I’ve read, and the resolute erasing of its content on wikipedia. Photos of Nora deliberately make sure we see the actress as not conventionally smiling, all pretty; she has a narrow face and is earnest. How off-putting.

A couple of reviews do it justice: Film Journal International; Criterion (but it’s promotional). RogerEbert.com ignores it.

What’s remarkable about the film is how it shows how difficult it is for women embedded in their daily culture to rebel. As the story opens, Nora is spending her life hanging up wet socks in her basement, waiting on her father-in-law hand-and-foot; a comic rendition of a stultifying life. She apparently loves her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek); he has just gotten a raise in his factory in a scene where we see another male made fun of for not fitting in, for being ineffectual (effeminate). But although they don’t need the money, she would like to have a more interesting life of genuine achievement. She has sufficient education to apply for a job in an office, but he does not want her to go. And he can forbid her; in Swiss law she has to have his permission (he tells her flat-out) to sign this contract. Meanwhile in her brother- and sister-in-law’s house, her niece (Ella Rumpf) is sent (not to reform school as one review has it), but to a punitive detention center (a prison) because she is refusing to obey her parents’ daily orders and going out with a young man.


Theresa

She watches her sister-in-law, Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) rage at the girl after she runs away, only she won’t tell Nora where the bruises on the side of her face come from: her sullen angry husband whose masculinity is as threatened as Hans’s and takes his frustration out on her. The daughter has no recourse, but true to life, her rhetoric is anything but sensible. At each point Nora tries to do something for herself, it seems to be pointed out to her how this person is suffering (the father-in-law who keep porn magazines under his pillow), or that (her two sons whose luxurious breakfasts and daily routine are disrupted). Her desire causes them to lose out somewhere because she is serving them but her hurt and her needs don’t matter and they won’t compromise.

Meanwhile the woman’s suffrage movement is reaching a height once again in the towns where there is going to be a vote on whether women should vote (of course they are dependent on the men to decide) and Nora is caught up in the excitement, call for fairness and justice, and makes friends with an older woman, Vroni (Sybille Brunner) who has lived a frustrated life and now is supposed to reside meekly with her daughter-in-law (caring for grandchildren).


Vroni

The fourth central women is an Italian restaurant owner, Graziella (Marta Zoffoli).

Daringly the three, eventually with the sister-in-law set up a house for meetings, and when ridiculed and thwarted by the men, go on strike. Shades of Lysistrata. They go live apart in this house until the day of the vote and gradually many women join them. The most powerful scenes are where Nora defies a majority of people who heckle her or don’t support her even if they (the women especially) want to agree but don’t dare to speak up. She tries to give a speech and is mocked by the men; one woman who is fiercely against the vote (and is the boss at the husband’s factory) gloats in triumph when Nora loses control of the microphone (reminding me of how clever Reagan was decades ago when Bush senior tried to prevent third party candidates from using the mike, and Reagan grabbed it and said he had paid for this and decreed all would talk). There are numerous failures. At one point a group of more thuggish men break into the house and drag their wives away. Discouraged, Nora takes the signs down — her husband is intensely mortified by her picture everywhere and begins to say he would have voted for her to have the vote but not now.

Towards the end and before the vote can take place, Vroni in a moment of intensity, has a heart attack and dies. At her funeral the priest gives an account of her life and personality that make her into a pious contented woman, and Nora again gets up and protests and tells a little of what Vroni was and what was her life. How many times in life I’ve had to sit and listen to half- and full lies. Group pressure this time does not win out as decorum makes everyone sit quietly as she speaks.

The film has nuanced quieter and sad moments. The Italian woman’s husband follows her to Switzerland and she takes him in. Nora finds her embracing him on the night she is driven to leave Hans and takes up residence in the attic as she goes about to write away and seek that job. Graziella says she does not want to be alone when she is old: he needs her. But at another point she says as she stands in a shadow one can be married and feel very alone. Realism: the story is set in one of the two most conservative areas of Switzerland. Hans and the sons give in and start to make their own food, care for themselves. Theresa works to have her daughter released; permitted to have her own life, the first thing the girl does is jump on the motorcycle of her insouciant lover. Theresa’s husband leaves her, and we see even if he at first falls apart (he drinks heavily), he may eventually be happier because he hated the life on the farm and was bad at it — the father-in-law would needle him. Vroni did not live to see the women get the vote nor the gains they had afterwards.

It has faults too. It is conceived broadly and offers few details. It offers no backstory to explain why in 1974 the men this time (they did not in 1959 but claimed women didn’t want it) gave the women the vote. We only see the women openly standing there as a group the men have to walk through. There is a 1970s style feminism “raising consciousness” scene where the women are urged to love their vaginas, encouraged to look at their clitoris. There is some serious talk and it emerges that Nora has never had an orgasm — nor have several of the women. But it is over-the-top, a caricature, complete with a copy of Betty Friedan in Swiss. I found the ending grating. Of course Hans and Nora get together again, but did we have to end on a scene of him sucking her between her legs (her nightgown over them) with her all in ecstasy. In the theater I was in, we had a discussion afterwards and (wouldn’t you know?) the first things said to be “good” about the film is how there is sympathy for the husband. This last scene was laying on the reassurance thickly. Not to worry guys, she’ll still be this great sex partner.


Supposed to be month later, with him walking behind as she votes too

Petra wants to reach people today, to make an upbeat film, to energize us too — for, as she knows, feminism has had some bad losses in these decades since 1974 — and has a long way to go. I loved the soundtrack that used “You don’t own me” and remembered the ad for voting for Obama: all that the ad says — the Republicans will do all they can to kill Roe v Wade, shut down Planned Parenthood, repeal the ACA is now coming to pass:

Aretha Franklin’s demand for Respect is also heard.

So if you should see this film advertised, don’t be put off by the enigmatic title, which makes it sound like a religious film re-affirming changelessness, patriarchal tyranny. I wondered who gave it that title. Go see it. And while you’re at it, refuse to go see films which beat women up, show them as sheerly prettified sex objects (no matter how much the gloss is see this empowered woman) or nurse-mothers.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Harry Dean Stanton is himself, living independently

Friends and readers,

Companionship. What I miss most of all is my husband’s companionship. This past Sunday was another “session” of the Film Club held at the Cinema Art Theater in Fairfax, a semi-art movie-house. Once again, our “guide” is Gary Arnold, a movie-critic, now retired, who used to write regularly for the Washington Post. I wrote about this film on my Sylvia blog, but, after thinking about it, I decided I wanted to recommend it to as many people as I reach.

Lucky focuses on the real man who acts the character in the center: the film is a homage to Harry Dean Stunton by the film-maker and actor, David Lynch, presumably Stanton’s friend. Stanton was a known and respected character actor in Hollywood for decades, a singer of American labor and mainstream songs — he would sing in Spanish and we see him talking Spanish. It a story of great courage in the face of aging and death ever nearer: we are not spared the least wrinkle on his face; he looks every inch of his 90+ years; yet the emphasis pictorially as well as narratively is this man lives alone, having (apparently) been married, divorced and had no children. The theme of aloneness, of loneliness, the longing for companionship is parallel in the story of Howard (David Lynch) whose turtle (tortoise, Howard insists) has wandered off, and that of Fred (Tom Skerritt) who says he’s been rescued from a hollow meaningless existence, a nadir, because Elaine (Beth Grant), the owner of the bar he sits in each night, has become his partner.

What happens is we follow Lucky’s daily routine with him. We hear his alarm, we see his hand push the button, put on his radio, reach for a cigarette. We see him pushing his body to exercise. He goes into his kitchen, makes himself a bowl of cereal, cooks bacon, has bread, and drinks instant coffee he just made. Each day he goes to a diner mid-morning for more coffee where he talks to the same people — who know more then I do probably about his life. Each day he watches these inane game shows where all that is said is about winning money, with the word money repeatedly endlessly as goal (more of it). He also takes a paper with him with crossword puzzles and is endlessly doing that. He takes his crossword puzzles everywhere but the bar he goes to at night. He then goes to the same CVS (?) drug-store for milk and talks with a Hispanic woman whose son is having a birthday party on a near Saturday. Her son is the center of her existence it seems, and she invites Lucky to come too, but he demurs.

At night he goes to the same bar with the same people — a white Trump-follower type man (tattoos, all muscle, chains across his T-shirt, in his fifties), a black man who serves in the bar; the owner, Elaine, a tough “old biddy” of a lady (in sexy sequined clothes); Howard, her partner (or perhaps husband) who says he was suicidal and nothing without her — so whatever she does is right. Meanwhile Howard is grieving because his tortoise, whom he named President Roosevelt (FDR?) left the compound. Disappeared for now. But he lives in hope, and buys insurance from Bobby (Ron Livingston) and leaves all his money to President Roosevelt. He misses his turtle very much. This is quietly wildly parodic and yet we are not supposed to laugh. The acting is so earnest, sincere.


Lucky listening to Howard telling how much the turtle meant to him and how he wants to provide for it

Not that Lucky sits still for this. He insults continuously the insurance man for conning Howard. He wants to fight him outside but would obviously lose, and everyone in the bar becomes excited and stop the coming fight. It’s silly. A little later the man comes into the diner and sits next to Lucky and is almost tempted to start his thieving spiel on Lucky. He stops himself in time. Lucky is tolerated because everyone realizes how alone and vulnerable he is — and they are too. This communal feeling of desperate togetherness characterizes the film.

As with Waiting for Godot, we have this minimal note of high hope at the end: when the movie began we saw Mr President moving slowly off the scene to the left; when the movie ends, we see Mr President coming back.

The movie starts out so grim, but as it proceeds, we feel cheered or buoyed up because Lucky carries on. About half-way through he is visited by the black women behind a cash register in the diner; he is suspicious she has been “sent” (shades of Hamlet against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) but she says no. They smoke some marijuana together as they watch a game show. He ends up going to the hispanic lady’s son’s birthday party, and being the only white there (if you categorize Puerto Ricans good enough rise). He seems to enjoy being surrounded by people who are happy to be alive. He sings a Spanish song spontaneously and the band surrounds him back him up. These two incidents are the high happy moments of the film. When accosted about his smoking, or talking with others about his age, in daily social situations Lucky is not cooperative in pretending to believe in the world as good or meaningful. He insists outside this life there is nothing; he feels hollow. He won’t allow cheerful false cant or sentimentality – and ires people.

It reminded me so of a film I saw in the spring, Paterson, also shot on a low budget, also with no high tech pretensions, or fancy furniture: by Jim Jarmusch, featuring Adam Driver, about the daily life of a poet who lives in New Jersey and drives a bus for a living each day. That too took us through the days of this man’s life with the Hispanic young woman he lives with. Both ultimately hopeful. Patterson gets to have a book of his verse published. Lucky is lucky to be alive; the film comes out “for life” as F.R. Leavis would say. The film suggests it’s good to be alive even though …. Gary Arnold who chose it for the film club this month said Stanton recently died and Arnold felt that it might just have a general release because of this. Stanton was well-known and well-liked and he really did live in a small house in the San Fernando valley where we see him walking amid the desolate streets of a town fallen into deep economic desuetude.


Lucky leaving the bar

Lucky is alone most of the time and when with friends or acquaintances, in company, stays mostly shallow. He doesn’t ask too much of them. He finds sources of comfort in being alive. So it did my soul good to watch this man endure life.

A third important element in the film prompts me to recommend it. Each time we have a movie, Gary Arnold gives a brief introduction, and after the movie is over, tells about the director’s career, once in a while the director is also the script writer. Then we are told about the chief actor’s life — it is usually an actor, for like other males I’ve come across in these art worlds I find he is apparently unconsciously wholly masculinist. He has yet to show a film by a woman, yet to show a film where a woman’s life is at the center. He then speaks briefly of the movie’s content and art, and throws the time left into discussion.

Sometimes there is almost nothing, often there are some comments, but (as you might surmise) I’ve become someone who usually speaks, and as a result of what I say others respond and threads emerge. He asked for any comments. Silence, no hands. He looks disappointed when this happens, and so I raised my hand. He smiled, recognizing me. I stood up and said it began to grimly but gradually a cheerful even uplifting note began to dominate and then (more or less spontaneously) I referred to an independent film of this type (low budget, a genuine statement from someone) he showed last summer which unlike this was all white. The film purported to show a slice of US society among working people in the southwest and yet all were white. This film presented a world of several races, ethnicities. And those who reached out to this lonely aging white man were a Hispanic youngish woman and an African-American slightly older one. In the second case, he responds by sitting in front of his TV with her, smoking and talking; in the first he becomes part of the songfest.

See this film. It has that old-fashioned superb characteristic of the best stories: true to life. The video below suggests the character of Lucky — plain, non-hypocritical, common sense, kind — is the one Stanton played throughout his career. He’s famous for a hymn-like song in Cool Hand Luke.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Cromwell, thoughtful (Mark Rylance)

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in the ending we all know (Claire Foy, 2015 Wolf Hall)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Ten Mondays, 11:45 to 1:15 pm,
September 25 to November 27
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll discuss 3 winners: Paul Scott’s Staying On (1979), Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996) and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009). We will explore our prize-obsessed culture, how the Booker functions in the fiction industry. The Booker is more than a marketplace niche, though. The books characteristically share a group of themes: historical, post-modern, post-colonial, self-reflexive, witty, melancholy books. Many are masterpieces. All three choices also have also been made into brilliant and successful films, and we’ll discuss film adaptations as well.

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Scott, Paul. Staying On. 1977; rpt. Chicago: University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-226-74349-7.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. NY: Vintage, 1996. ISBN 978-0679-766629
Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. NY: Picador [Henry Holt], 2009/10. ISBN 979-031242998/978-0-8050-8068-1

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 25: 1st week: The politics of selling good books: history of the Booker Prize; we begin with Paul Scott and Raj Quartet (aka The Jewel in the Crown)

Oct 2: 2nd week: Paul Scott’s Staying On; for next week read Weinbaum essay on Staying On, finish the novel if you can.

October 9: 3rd week: Staying On; film adaptation; clips from the film and discussion; for next week read first third of Last Orders.

October 16: 4th week: Graham Swift and full context for Last Orders

October 23: 5th week: Last Orders; clips from the film and discussion

October 30: 6th week: Last Orders and post-modernity; the figure of Thomas Cromwell; for next week begin Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

November 6: 7th week: Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More

November 13: 8th week: Discussing Wolf Hall

November 20: 9th week: finishing Wolf Hall; mini-series; clips from film and discussion

November 27: 10th week: finish discuss all three books and movies final comments on prestigious prizes

From Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2004): Jack’s four friends (Ray Winston, David Hemminges, Bob Hoskins, Tim Courtney) on the pier, by the sea, and his wife, Amy (Helen Mirren) getting on the bus

Suggested supplementary reading & films,audio reading:

Bannerjee, Jacqueline. Paul Scott. Plymouth: Northcote, 1999
Carley, James. Review of Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, “That woman again.” Spectator 31 July 2004: 30.
Chotiner, Isaac. “Revisiting the Raj,” The New York Times Book Review. September 10, 2017,p. 13
Cooper, Pamela. Graham Swift’s Last Orders. NY: Continuum, 2002
English, James. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.
Hopkinson, Natalie. “The Booker Prize’s Bad History,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017. Online.
Last Orders. Dir and Screenplay. Fred Schepisi. With Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine … Sony, 2004.
Moseley, Merritt. “Britain’s Booker Prize,” The Sewanee Review, 101:4 (1993):613-22.
Last Orders. Unabridged text read aloud by Gigi Marceau Clarke. High Audio Books, 2003.
Nussbaum, Emily, “Queens Boulevard” Paths to Power: Wolf Hall and Casual Vacancy,” New Yorker, May 4 2015
Showalter, Elaine. “Coming to Blows over the Booker,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 48 (June 2002):42
The Jewel in the Crown Dr and screenplay Christopher Morahan and Ken Tayler and Irene Shubik. With Peggy Ashcroft, Geraldine James, At Malik, Tim Piggot-Smith, Judy Parfitt, Eric Porter, Nicholas Farrell. Granada TV, 1984.
Staying On. Dir and Screenplay Silvio Narizzano and Julian Michell. With Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Saeed Jaffrey, Pearl Padamsee. Granada TV, 1980.
Loades, David. The Boleyns: The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Family. Gloucester: Amberley Press, 2011.
O’Tooler, Fintan. “The Explosions from Wolf Hall,” New York Review of Books, Mary 21, 2014. [On the novel, mini-series and stage-play].
Rao, K. Bhaskara. Paul Scott. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Robertson, Mary. “The Art of the Possible: Thomas Cromwell’s Management of West Country Government,” The Historical Journal, 32:4 (1989):793-816.
Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2008.
Simon, Linda, “To Write Myself into Being’: A Profile of Hilary Mantel,” The World and I, 19:4 (2004):245ff.
Spurling, Hilary. Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. NY: Norton, 1990.
Strongman, Luke. The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire. Netherlands: Rodopi, 2002.
Suneetha, P. “Homo Homini Lupus: A Note on Wolf Hall,Journal of English Studies, 5:3 (2010): 45-53.
Sutherland, J. A. Fiction and the Fiction Industry. London: Athlone Press, 1978.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.
Wolf Hall. Unabridged text read aloud on CDs by Simon Slater. Macmillan Audio. 2009.
Weinbaum, Francine. “Staying on after the Raj,” Journal of South Asian Literature, 17:1 (1982):225-29.
Wolf Hall. Dir and Screenplay Peter Kosminsky and Peter Straughn. With Mark Rylance, Damien Lewis, Claire Foy, Anton Lesser, Charity Wakefield, David Robb, Saskia Reeves. BBC TV, 2015.


Tusker and Lucy Smalley (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, 1980 Staying On)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Friends and readers,

I’ve just read that Dunkirk is this summer’s “big movie.” In his column about it in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen wrote “since July 21 opening, it has taken in more than $100 million in North America and been hailed by ecstatic critics everywhere.” Richard Cohen professes to “admire it even more the second time. It is a stupendous achievement, although more than a little odd. It’s a film for the Trump era. It is deaf to history.” He then goes on to trash it.

My view is more akin to Anthony Lane in the New Yorker — unless I’m misreading him. I wish it were better. It is worth seeing as long as it’s not prefaced by what it was prefaced with in the AMC movie-theater I went to: 20 minutes of trailers for coming film and TV shows, each more horrifyingly violent, fascist,and racist than the one before: advertising a TV film on the Detroit riots which appears to be a Trump vision of cities where the majority of people are African-American as places of wild carnage; two films ratcheting up paranoia over ISIS and terrorist states (of which obviously the US is not one; we are the good guys). Or, one could say, in comparison with these, this is a sane decent truthful film.

What the film-makers do is attempt to make us experience what it was like to be on Dunkirk beach on those few nights. Chistopher Nolan dramatizes what it feels like to be in what MacNamara called “the fog of war.” We experience Dunkirk from the point of view of several individual men trying to escape the beach onto a ship, any ship. Nothing makes sense; there are few boats to rescue them, and the boats that have come are torpedoed by German airplanes. No false explanation, no heroics except for the people on the one small boat we are permitted to experience and the stubbornness and hysteria of those who want to live. It feels like a fragment off another movie the rest of which has been mercifully cut. That’s the point: each person’s experience of war is like a fragment and many young soldiers have no idea what the real quarrel is about or what group of people have incited it.

Cohen complains that we are given no history, no context. He is indignant because he assumes most young people (those who go most to films) will have no idea what this is about. Well, first of all there is an explanation (if brief) at the opening: this is World War Two, the British are caught on this beach, attempting to flee the Germans who are occupying France; they have been beaten back to the channel. Actually his word is “dolts.” No we are not told what happened: that thousands of small British boats (pleasure, yachts, fishing and working boats) crossed the channel and rescued some 300,000 or so off the beach. (The boats were mostly requisitioned.) A huge number of people also died, were badly wounded. The film has a right to set up suspense. Cohen is complaining that Nolan did not make the film he would have made, which appears to be a lecture on the “evil rapacious regime” run by Hitler. Worse, says Cohen, Nolan has done this deliberately since it stands to reason the conversation (if there were some — there is very little) would naturally include references to Germans. “Nolan had an obligation” to make this as well as the Nazi concentration camps and the destruction of the rich European culture of the 1920s clear. Really?

If Cohen were the only person reacting in personal angry ways, I would not be writing this blog, but a number of critics (not all are ecstatic) are indignant. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street journal wants to know why Churchill’s role is so minimized. This is a dumbed-down film from the maker of Batman. Well, ’nuff said.’ I’ve come across ordinary people’s comments making adverse comments about the film too. The friend I went with, seeing I liked the film, didn’t want to say she didn’t, so simply contented herself with agreeing this was like a fragment (to her ears that was an unfavorable criticism), and saying “I should have read the reviews, my fault [for going].” It wasn’t what she expected.

Dunkirk, this movie, seems to have hit some sore nerve in others, made sorer by having a dangerous (evil? implicitly rapacious) man in the White House. I picked Cohen to summarize because he makes the connection openly: “This [the need to inform] is especially the case in the age of President Trump when it is necessary to appreciate that the ugliness he has exploited could escape its confines and metastasize.” My objection: why is it his age? and what makes Cohen think this ugliness has not already metatasized? Is Cohen not paying attention to the thousands and thousands of deaths in Yemen (hundreds of civilians each week), joined by hundreds killed, imprisoned, starving, in other states whose dictators Trump regularly calls to congratulate?

The ordinary viewer seems to want heroism, something monumental. This movie was apparently made on a small budget. During most of the action, we see only three Spitfire planes, and we see only one small fishing boat crossing the Atlantic. The boat makes it, and is filled to the brim with soldiers, and turns round back to the (of course) white cliffs of Dover. Where else? Two of the spitfires are shot down. All three importantly shoot down as many German airplanes as they can, because the German airplanes during this evacuation, were throwing bombs, firing, doing all they ferociously could to annihilate (one of our War Department head’s favorite words — General Mattis) everyone in sight. The proportion is right. Ridiculously, many people still think the Spitfires were glorious experiences, and in Penelope Fitzgerald’s gem, The Bookshop, never tire of seeking memoirs. There are very few, because something like 80% of the British airplanes (especially the Spitfire) were destroyed, 3 out of 4 (with all on board killed). One of the two very great anti-war BBC mini-series of the 1970s shows this viscerally; most of the characters in Piece of Cake are dead before the series ends.


Mark Rylance as the father/captain of the small boat

The small fishing boat is central. It is in this boat we experience what is best and what are the flaws in this film. Rylance embodies not so much (as Lane has it) the “gallantly narrow squeak through”, “the makeshift,” and is not just your stoic Englishman “wearing throughout the ordeal, a white shirt, a tie, and a sweater, as if he were doing a bit of Sunday gardening rather than hauling a shoal of his countrymen, drenched in oil” from death by drowning in that dark blue cold sea or bombs, fire, shots. He makes it a patriotic British film. He loses a son while crossing — killed by accident by the first numb and shuddering man they rescue, who under PTSD, becomes frantic when he realizes the boat is headed back for France and attempts to try to force Rylance to turn round. He is revealed as Cillian Murphy and knocks Rylance’s son down to the hold where he receives a fatal concussion.

But does Rylance flinch? well, maybe, but he carries on quietly, regardless. Later Murphy is seen pulling others into the boat, leg, body, arms over. All are doing their duty by this time — when they see they have a chance to live. Rylance is clearly a shining example to his second son with him on the boat. When we get back to shore, we learn a third son has been previously killed. But there he sits at the kitchen table, now drinking his tea, reading the paper while an overvoice of Churchill calling out the famous exhortation, “We will fight them on the beach …,” defending their island to their last breath.

Nolan punts at the film’s close; he gives it a close. The one Spitfire that survives is seen floating down out of gas and the man is able to throw off the glass top and Tom Hardy emerges. Elgar’s music is heard softly and then swells up. As the men arrive, the people on shore are waiting for them, blankets, more tea, biscuits, sandwiches in hand. Like some chorus in a play. Late in the film Jack Lowden (perfect as Nicholas Rostov in Davies’s TV War and Peace) is seen busy doing effective things. From afar in the train soldiers glimpse British people at work on the railways, undaunted. Kenneth Branagh is the other famous box-office pull older actor in the film: he is the grimly cheerful man, facing up to this colossal catastrophe, who stands at the head of whatever it is, binoculars in hand.


That’s James D’Arcy with him

His faith is rewarded when he sees (as we do) the flotilla of small boats speeding in, and pulling people one by one, aboard. It is moving. I don’t say it’s not. But the emotion worked up to this point didn’t need Elgar. Nolan cut one of Churchill’s often forgotten lines: we do not win wars by magnificent evacuations (words to this effect). I admit the sentence is seen in the newspaper print but I who have poor eyesight was able to read it. And until near this conventional movie ending, Noland attempts to be as true to experience as his limited budget will allows.

The film begins with a soldier running frantically through the streets of a French village (seemingly empty) leaping over a wall, to find himself on the beach, where he sees long lines, crowds of soldiers waiting at its edge. Hitherto the films I’ve seen which included Dunkirk, made it look like a party (almost); not here. If I’m not mis-remembering we see a horse killed (again just one — very economical, we can call it epitomizing). This Frenchman does manage to grab someone on a stretcher and together with another man (stranger to him) they push their way onto a boat. Later he is almost murdered by the British on that boat when they discover he is not English; at first they think him “the enemy” (not German, the word is not use); when they find he speaks French, that seems just as bad.

Attention is paid to making us experience what it is to be in a war zone directly attacked by ferocious weapons determined to destroy you (me, the individual). This reminded me of a play written in 1929 which Jim and I saw in a London theater the last time we were in England: R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. the audience was made to feel through noise and lights that bombs were raining down on us – as they would have the men in the play. That’s why we are not told the names of the individual stories we glimpse. What happens is and slowly he begins to talk and act to help others. Of course he helps others.

There are no women with real roles. We see them in the teams of people down in a hole in the boat, on shore, serving food, handing out blankets. This is kept up and is a conscious choice for when Rylance and son get home, there is no wife/mother at the table. See Meherer Bonner’s well-taken complaint about having no women; on story lines they are over-rated and impose meaning. This film displayed the meaninglessness of death; it held no briefcase for justified “good” wars. On this watch Howard Zinn’s lecture on three “justified” or good wars: the US revolutionary, the US civil war, and World War Two.

But in our time where what is shown to us in films is cruelty, inhumanity and torture almost as a norm, deep distrust and far from social behavior, individual ruthlessness, this is tonic. It is good. No it’s not a true expose, like Danger USB (the other great mini-series of the 1970s, about a bomb disposal unit), not searingly anti-war so that you not soothed, cannot be mistaken, like Kilo Two Bravo. Kilo Two Bravo was not distributed in the US (though it was in the UK under the name of the place where the British troops came upon a landmine, Kajaki). Dunkirk is reaching a huge audience.

I wonder how it would compare with the 1958 Dunkirk with Richard Attenborough and John Mills. The reviews declare this older film to have been one of the best war films ever made (!): the wikipedia article shows this earlier Dunkirk was presented with a historical context.


Richard Attenborough, John Mills (Platon Karatayev in the 195 War and Peace), Bernard Lee

Quite a number of people on my Trollope19thCStudies listserv at Yahoo have been moved to tell of parents, grandparents and if they are old enough, their own memories or experience of Dunkirk. It is not that long ago. I had a friend who was on the listserv for a few years (not a Trollopeian, she gave it up), who would tell me of what it was like at age 6 to hear the German airplanes come over the channel nightly. It’s only 90 miles. Nowadays if a soldier carries some form of iphone, he may be kept informed – though not of the larger picture or politics. I had an uncle “missing, believed killed”in World War Two who it turned out was not killed; he hid out on an Asian island. When he returned home, he acted differently than most people: he would not go to parties or large gatherings of people; he’d break off suddenly in response to others, but would not say what had bothered him. He was a fruit and vegetable peddler in New York City for a while, and then was given a job (compensation) at the post office. He slept in a separate room away from from my aunt. There were no children. I feel my aunt led a sad lonely life. They had been married before he went away to war.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »