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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

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Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Mildred and Richard Loving (2016, written and directed by Jeff Nichols) — he enjoys watching cars race

Friends,

As many know, this is the story of the interracial marriage which led to a judgement by the supreme court which included the assertion that the marriage is a fundamental human right. Before this decision, states could and did outlaw marriage between people of different races. Over the course of the two hour movie I found myself deeply respectful of Mildred and Richard Loving: we see how they love one another, how they marry in DC, are arrested in the dead of night in Virginia, thrown in jail, treated with bullying disrespect and anathema by a succession of disdainful white male authorities. The story moves slowly and symbolically, rather like an outline where after an initial attempt to return home while Mildred has her baby, and re-arrest, with a dire threat of many years in prison, they live in DC (or risk imprisonment) for several years. Mildred finds the city demoralizing and streets dangerous for their children so they brave going back to a hidden place in Virginia. Terrified, hounded, she writes to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, and he suggests to an ACLU lawyer and civil rights expert that they take on their case. We follow them over several years and risky behaviors until the case reaches the supreme court where they win.

What I liked best about the film was its quietness. I feared I would be subjected to another ratcheted up melodrama, complete with thriller moments, high crisis scene and speechifying denouement. We are spared this. I did recognize that this was still another of these so-called art-films, which, as if in order to appeal broadly, be commercial, is produced with a super-solemn stance or tone, pompous and somehow (even with the poverty presented) over-produced (glorious colors, very close closeups). So I agree with Richard Brody’s New Yorker review which finds a much earlier TV movie, Mr and Mrs Loving, much more realistically human, comic at moments, entertaining, bringing out the very messy issues and petty and important bad harassment this couple experienced for years much than Jeff Nichols’ still super-dignified treatment. Yet this film is apparently more accurate and based on an intermediary documentary, The Loving Story, by Nancy Buiriski for HBO (2012).

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The actual Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving

Maybe real people aren’t comic. We hear from both sides of their families (black and white) individuals who lash out against the couple for marrying as a betrayal, a selfish indulgence (!), even a crime. There is a lovely rhythm to the presentation of years, birth of children, everyday life going on. Richard spends his existence building buildings as well as caring for his wife and family. A photographer comes to give the couple more presence in the media and he takes a photo of the couple enjoying themselves in front of the TV. (The credits include a real photo of the real couple at just such a moment.) We worry Mildred and Richard’s children are at risk from authorities, and are told that at the supreme court the argument was made that “mixed race” children are unacceptable, but I felt we could have been given more information about the issues the case rested on. Nonetheless I was much moved, especially by Ruth Negga’s performance, and here and there actors playing individuals in the family: Richard’s black brother-in-law, Virgil (Will Dalton) who is a genuine considerate friend to the couple is one that comes to mind.

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Films do not occur in a vacuum. So in this wretched moment of US politics where a white supremacist racist has been appointed by an overtly racist president as his chief strategist, where a man noted for his cruelty and draconian tactics running a police force in NYC (Giuliani) is said to be under consideration for Attorney General, where what is promised includes registration of people based on ethnic origin, rounding up and deportation in huge numbers of others, and outright mockery of #blacklivesmatter (not to omit disabled people), and doubling down on harsh prison sentences, such a presentation is not out of place. The film shows it matters who is attorney general. It showed how dependent an average person is on the supreme court to enunciate as law genuinely principled enlightened assumptions. As triumph of good came into view, I felt heartsick. You can go in the same spirit as you go on a march, sign a petition, phone your congressman. Here is the case as outlined in wikipedia: look at who were the judges. Do you think the same favorable decision would be the result today?

It’s also an absorbing quietly suspenseful (anxious) two hours. Anne Thompson in Indiefilms covering different aspects than I have calls it Oscar Worthy. The movie itself is also is a gentle depiction of a kind of marriage: the wife so careful of her working class and inarticulate husband’s feelings, his attempt to do all he can within his nature and character. Thompson says the film dramatizes how love is an inalienable right — for all the characters, children to grandparents.
Ellen

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The LA and Kennedy Center cast

Dear friends and readers,

I’m told that Ivo Van Hove’s New York City production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which rightly received rave reviews as a production, though not as a play, when it played in New York is not attracting the full house it should at the Kennedy Center. Granted, I was row H on the side (next to a friendly couple who had also bought at the last moment); but all around us were empty seats. So I write to urge everyone who has a chance to see this production (no matter if other actors, at any rate in this case all superb), if it comes near to you. It speaks to our dire situation in the US gov’t today.

It’s not that the play concerns immigrants but its core depiction of Eddie, as a rawly emotional deeply resentful sexually sick white male (Mark Strong in NYC, here Frederick Weller of Center Theater, LA repertoire group) at the center. The story is this: Eddie’s childless wife, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols, Center Theater) has invited two male relatives from a starving place in Sicily, Marco (Alex Escola, Center Theater) and Rodolpho (Dave Register, Russell Tovey did this part in NYC) to sneak illegally into the USA to do hard labor on the waterfront. Eddie is all generosity, offering bedding (a place on the floor of an extra small room), meals, but is more concerned with his niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs) who wants to take a job outside the home. He claims to want her to stick to her studies, but since these are not college, but stenography and typing alone, whose intention is to enable her to take a job, he is on weak ground. She wants to work for money badly, to be independent.

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The London production

A fierce struggle ensues in which she wins but we see with many concessions to his male pride: he is in a continual vigilant posture towards her: why is that skirt so short, why wear high heels. She is continually trying to placate him. Marco is there to get money to send home to a wife and four children, which he duly does, but Rodolpho is unattached, and he and Catherine begin to go out and fall in love. Eddie is incensed, and becomes aggressively hostile at first just to his niece and wife, sowing doubt about the man’s motives and character. He loathes that Rodolpho can sing like rock star, that he can cook, he sews, and begins to say explicitly Rodolpho is there to marry Catherine so he can become a citizen and then desert her “for the big time.” That’s why Rodolpho wants to take Catherine to Broadway, not because the movies there are fun, or plays, or lively street life. He insinuates that Rodolpho is gay, “not right” (he does not use the word pervert but we feel it in the air). He becomes ugly before Rodolpho. Beatrice moves from mild expostulation over his trying to keep Catherine a baby and without a job, to withering insinuations that Eddie is “in love with” his niece. Eddie does not appear to register this until near the end of the play when he gasps out in intense insult that Beatrice thinks he has incestuous (he does not use that word either — having a limited sexual vocabulary) longings.

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New York City

What makes for the two hours of emotional turmoil and anguish is how everyone in the play is so chary of Eddie’s feelings, so respectful of him who by the second is bitterly complaining he is not respected in his home, and making life a misery for them all. A horrible scene occurs where Eddie coming upon Rodolpho and Catherine alone in the house after they have obviously been half-naked physically assaults them both – by first hugging Catherine painfully and kissing her, and then doing the same to Rodolpho. The latter is taken as an ultimate insult; but Eddie jeers that since Rodolpho didn’t throw Eddie off successfully that proves “he is not right.” He will not hear of an engagement; he becomes livid when Catherine wants to leave; when the marriage is set, he will not come and forbids his wife to go out of the house or he will never let her in again (this harks back to before the later 19th century when husbands had a legal right to throw a wife out). We have an intense scene where she begs to be let to go to the wedding and when he will not give permission, tells Catherine after Catherine urges her to come, she will not. Not that she dare not. But she will not disrespect or hurt this man, something Catherine is continually telling him she does not want to do. Also how grateful she is to him as his niece for all the years of fatherly tender affection and care (which he did not owe her). She also half-believes his suspicions about Rodolpho.

The play is framed as a play. It’s done inside a kind of arena on both sides of which are audience members. There is an intermittent narrator-storyteller confiding male who speaks to the audience, the lawyer, Alfieri, whom Eddie comes to consult at intervals. The second form of suspense emerges when half-way through Eddie begins to think he will inform the immigration authorities in order to get the two young men sent back to Sicily. But he goes to Alfieri to consult about more than that: the point of their dialogues is Eddie continually wants Alfieri to do by law what the law refuses to condemn, or even pay any attention to. The law will not act to prevent Rodolpho from marrying Catherine. It will not act to prevent Catherine from leaving his home or make her obey him. The law will not punish Rodolpho for being “not right.” Nor Marco either — for anything but being illegal immigrants. The point these dialogues bring out is how this white male wants things as his right he has no legal right to. I leave it to my reader who will remember the election of a deeply corrupt white male for president whose major constituency was just such people as Eddie (and probably Beatrice too). The lawyer as a role functions very much like (anticipates) Robert Bolt’s The Common Man in his A Man for All Seasons (another play to read and watch this winter of our distress; Michael Gould reminded me of Corin Redgrave.)

Things are brought to an explosion when Eddie does inform the authorities and an official comes to the house to take Marco and Rodolpho to jail. Eddie has needled Marco that if he does not go home soon, he will find his wife has more children than she had when he left. A ridiculous contest over who can lift a chair with one arm from one leg has gone on where Eddie cannot do it, but Marco can. Marco then emerges viscerally as he calls Eddie a “rat” and tells him he is responsible for the starvation of his children. He leaps to murder Eddie. He is prevented and taken to jail. Alfieri plays the reasonable voice: he comes to jail to pay bail and enables Rodolpho to go out and (if he wants) marry Catherine before his hearing comes up; but he will only help Marco is Marco promises not to murder Eddie. Again he must tell Marco that the law will not help him either.

The play starts slowly and the actors say their lines so slowly I thought they were actors playing actors playing New York City 1950s parts, getting the accent right, the gestures, the time. But if this is so, it moves more rapidly and becomes smoulderingly emotional with the actors becoming the people and the pace becoming frantically emotional by the end.

The play is peculiarly significant for this terrifying political moment where we now see how easy it is for the US republic to slide into a dictatorship because at the grief-stricken final moment, the lawyer – however reluctantly, however ruefully — justifies Eddie. Alfieri says he mourns for Eddie, he feels for him, everyone was so right to care. A tableau of Beatrice holding onto Eddie like a Madonna with Christ in her lap with all the characters in intensely held characteristic postures all around her is the play’s final moment. In the language of conventional normalizing cant criticism, even including the dripping condescension of critics towards Death of a Salesman in the earliest productions, Ben Brantley intones that finally “Bridge is an imperfect work, awkward in its aspirations to timeless grandeur. After all, it is framed by the self-conscious recollections of a Brooklyn lawyer, who speaks as ponderously of inexorable fate as any Greek chorus ever did.” But not a word about what is wrong in words meaningful to viewers or readers today.

Lyn Gardner of The Guardian comes closer: “This is not just somebody else’s family tragedy. It speaks directly to us and suggests that there is an Eddie Carbone lurking in all of us, just as there is a vengeful Electra and a blind Oedipus.” Really? in women too? How is Catherine a vengeful Electra? Jordan Riefe of the LATimes gets yet closer: “While as his brother Marco, Esola is a brute at rest for most of the play until finally stirred to action. In the end he becomes Eddie’s match — the roaring embodiment of injured ego masquerading as paternal (or in Marco’s case, fraternal) protection.” There is an acknowledgement that it has not been Marco all play long causing the problem, but none that the ego is white male.

We should not be surprised at the lifting of a veil in another direction. After all, what do some people say the very central concern of Death of a Salesman is? Avoiding the insistent explicit economic message that Willie Loman is being thrown away after a lifetime of hard work, with barely enough to survive on (that social security that Paul Ryan is now exulting he will at long last privatize, hand over to Wall Street and thus destroy), people quote Linda’s pathos: “He was so wonderful with his hands,” the ne’er do well rake son, “He was a happy man with a batch of cement; Biff at least tries: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” But again and again I’ve heard the play summed up as “Attention must be paid,” we are not paying enough respect and attention to this man.

Well we are paying attention now. He is getting back at last. what is remarkable and important about this production is the lawyer’s remarks feel so perverse.

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Mark Strong as Eddie (who also played the torturer in George Clooney’s Syriana, a political recreation of wildly savage Jacobean drama as film) at Lincoln Center fierce with dark rage, lecturing everyone else

See it. Feel it. Then think about it (see my Post-mortem). I read that what happened in a New York City theater when our present gay-hating vice-president elect provocatively came to see Hamilton found himself unsurprisingly lectured and told he is supposed to represent all the diverse peoples of the US. This is a clever distraction on the part of Trump (who does not meet with reporters now, only issues lying distorting demanding tweets) so that the top story is not how he had paid $25 million to squash the suit of the defrauded students who went to his university. He is now making money hand-over-foot in his hotels, and will probably rake in enough in the next weeks to cover that easily.

No, go see and then read this play instead. it made me and some around me tremble.

Ellen

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Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitrionia Balfe) drinking, eating, confiding on their wedding night (Outlander 7)

Friends and readers,

I carry on my comparison of Outlander with Poldark (see Outlander as a descendant of Waverley): as film art, as mini-series, made using the same kinds of cinematography (rich, mesmerizing, computer enhancement continual), dramaturgy (figures in a landscape not on a stage, montage, juxaposition), briefer dialogue, both seen as “women’s material,” albeit with plenty of male heroes and villains about, this dyptych again shows where the new Poldark is lacking (see scripts): the pair are symmetrically structured with the underlying paradigm for both a repetition of the same alluring exploration. As Emily Nussbaum puts it,

Outlander is, finally, as thoughtful about male vulnerability as it is about female desire, a rarity for television. It’s a quality that makes the show appealingly romantic in multiple senses (Emily Nussbaum, “Out of Time,” New Yorker, April 8, 2016)

When Dougal proposes that Claire marry Jamie, he says to Jamie and Claire separately that his purpose is both to secure Claire from the depredations of Black Jack Randall (yes played with fierce intensity by Tobias Menzies), and (as Murtargh [Duncan Lacroix] also suggested was needed, wanted) and to secure for Jamie an older mature woman.

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It might startle some viewer that Jamie responds to Claire asking him if he will mind that she is not a virgin, no, as long as she doesn’t mind that he is (not that he’s never kissed a woman, “I said I was a virgin, not a monk”). But it fits the frequent reversals of roles in this series.

Garrison Commander when viewed as a whole is the second of two linked phases: in the first (from Jane’s memories in Rent or Outlander 5) we see Tobias capture, at first seem to negotiate with but then longingly flay Jamie, flog him until his back is permanently seared, scarred, somehow made shameful (like a slave’s); in the second, Garrison Commander, Claire lands in his hands for a few hours, and just as she thinks she has succeeded in winning him over to take her into an English situation where she can make her way back to Craig Na Dunn or where she wants to go, he kicks her hard in the stomach, threatens her humiliatingly and seems about to knife her mortally (as it is mortally dangerous for Jamie to come into the English lair).

The Wedding has three phases of love-making: the first just after the episode begins and the two, just married, come into their apartment together, almost as a duty:

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the second after a long period of conversation about themselves, only Jamie tells far more of his family, background, memories than Claire, this a deep coming together lovingly, tenderly:

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and then the third after Jamie tells her of his preparations for the wedding, where he takes over the woman’s role it seems — securing the priest and ring, getting the proper beautiful clothes which will endow them with great dignity, and finally the ceremony itself; and then third, hungrily, far more aggressively, letting go,

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after which they are hungry and morning has come. We are allowed to dwell on each phase feeling it with no interference as it were.

It is framed by another wedding: as the episode opens we see Claire walking a city, perhaps London streets, in modern outfit with Robin Hood hat, and Frank suddenly eagerly begging her to marry him now, at city hall, with no preparations. She protests she has not yet met his parents, to which he responds, well now you’ll meet them as Mrs Frank Randall.

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He is (like Jamie) while in the male position, yet abject and in need of her permission. This scene makes a striking contrast to the elaborate decorative ritual Jamie and Claire go through,

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and lest we forget this, at end when morning comes and Jamie has left the room, Claire picks up the wedding dress, and out tumbles her wedding ring from Frank. In order to marry Jamie she had taken the ring off, and put it down the front of her corset, and now it falls to the floor almost going down a crack. But not quite. She kneels and picks it up and puts it on the ring finger of her right hand. This knits The Wedding back to the Garrison Commander for of course we know the same actor plays Black Jack as plays Frank.

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There is nothing like this kind of consistent loving development in Horsfield’s Poldark. it’s partly the result again of taking a small and self-enclosed portion of a single novel (Chapters 12-15, “The Garrison Commander,” “A Marriage is Announced,” “A Marriage Takes Place,” “Revelations of the Bridal Chamber”); but it’s also this trusting to the material, not feeling that you have to supply something else, or qualify it.

Nussbaum suggests that what we watch in the first season is a “continual crumbling” of a bridge they build between them. I think that’s so, from when she “disobeys” him and he beats her, to when after the witch trial, she at long last tells him of who and what she is, where she comes from (the future), her other husband, and he generously takes her to the stone and leaves her to make up her mind. She does — for him, and again it’s his vulnerability risked, and her desire knitting them as one, her strength too as she says to him, “Get up, soldier” (making us recall her as as a battlefield nurse).

I just reveled in these two episodes. Yes because I loved the love-making (the first time watching I was embarrassed by the candour and directness of the scenes), but also because the way the development was placed against a background of serious disruption of any morality among the English and hedonistic vicarious joy among the Scots (though sometimes the episode again made me feel Claire had landed among a group of disciplined frat boys). In Garrison Commander there is an earnest British soldier who first sees Claire while she is with the Scotsman seeking rent, and thinks she may be their prisoner; he takes her for safety to the English fort, only to find she is now open prey and he can do nothing about it because of his lower rank. This holdover of emotion of a subaltern is matched by Dougal (Graham McTavish) in The Wedding, who clearly would cuckold Jamie, were Claire to be open to this; Jamie’s is as subject to Dougal and Colum as other of the British officers who would try to stop Randall, protect Claire but they can’t. Dougal is the linchpin of both episodes: following Claire into the English stronghold, pulling her out, engineering this wedding, to hold onto her. He has decided she is not a spy and wants her identity as useful to him and has a fierce authority over Jamie, his nephew it seems.

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These patterns are not found in the chapters, rather they are filled with nuanced dialogue and thought between Claire and Jamie. In the novel for these chapters there are no memories of Frank. There is loss here: effective as the outward dialogue in the scenes of clash in Garrison, of argument at table, and of gentle and raucous comedy (the priest who must be dragged out of bed and then bribed to perform the ceremony, the trading of Biblical passages, Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson) among teasing prostitutes who are presences out of The Beggar’s Opera), I found the long give-and-take conversations in Gabaldon’s novel much more moving. The movie can risk only suggestive fragments of Jamie’s childhood, boyhood, who was this relative and who that. This is a building up of a picture of him as having pride as Laird.

The next episode, Both Sides Now (Outlander 8) will be a continual movement back and forth from 1943 and the desperate Frank at the police office, with the Reverend Wakefield, told by Mrs Graham that some supernatural neolithic charm has taken Claire off to another time, with Claire and Jamie traveling or wandering themselves as semi-outcasts through the highland’s landscape. They encounter a beggar, Hugh Munro in the novel, now called Willie (Finn Den Hertog) whom Jamie welcomes warmly, and has himself been made permanently mute (his tongue cut out), his feet ruined, during a captivity among the Turks, in Algiers, as a galley slave. Now he wanders through the world.

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He is a parallel to Frank.

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And this new trio comes near danger.

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Again this is a lingering juxtaposition not in the book. But this is for another blog.

Ellen

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WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 27/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: **EMBARGOED UNTIL TUESDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2016** Francis (KYLE SOLLER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Kyle Soller as Francis Poldark — these were “his” episodes

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read all twelve of Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the content and art of the books and this older and the new 2015-16 mini-series]

Those who are left are different people trying to lead the same lives … Demelza to Captain MacNeil who attempted to console her for death of infant Julia (Jeremy Poldark, Bk 1, ch 4, p 55)

There’s no to-morrow. It doesn’t come. Life’s an illusion. Didn’t you know. Let us make the most of the shadows … Ross to Elizabeth (Warleggan, Bk 3, Ch 5, p. 314(

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I dreamt of Poldark for the first time in a long while. When I first began to read Graham’s books in the 1990s, and then watched the 1970s series, the actors who realized the characters entered my dream life, were there vividly in the way this past year the characters and actors who realize them from the first season of Outlander have. When I woke, I found the new actors from the new series had intruded upon my consciousness. So, although I’ve hopelessly inadequate stills from the new incarnation, I thought I’d record this crossing over for me, but keep the outline of the episodes’s structures brief until such time as the DVDs of the season are made available to the public. I am remembering to hold fast.

My dreams began with the books, and, like Graham at the time said, the original casting was inspired. Many 1970s castings sought to embody what was thought to be the common reader’s image of a character (nowadays there is much casting against character for older novels). Graham’s novels are incomparably better than either series – the politics so relevant to today, is erased or qualified in both series (albeit differently), the analysis subtler in the book on all levels, but of course films can visualize, make oral, offer such specificity vividly as no book can — from the hallucinatory image on the light screen, to the voice, to music — the 1970s series had a haunting refrain.

The only creditable point of view to take on this new mini-series is that there is no such thing as “the real” Demelza or “the real Ross” or any of the other characters. There were the characters as originally conceived, of which I am very fond. But there are now two iterations. In the way historical fiction works, there may yet be more Rosses, Demelzas, Francises, Warleggans as the texts are rewritten, reproduced, re-filmed, re-designed. I’ve just taken on an assignment to review for an 18th century periodical, Martha Bowden, Descendants of Waverley and have found it a help in understanding the Scottish features of Outlander, and take Bowden and other critics’ view of the relationship of the historical setting and times the specific books are written in and filmed to be accurate.

We are on our fourth set of images. There are four shifts of eras: the 18th century itself, which Graham, the 1970s film-makers and now Horsfield seriously engages in, the books written in the aftermath of the horrors of War World Two:

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The first edition of Ross Poldark

thirty years later a first series during a time of radical questioning of society, of second wave feminism:

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A 1970s edition of Demelza

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1990s edition of Warleggan

and now forty years on, a reactionary, war-torn era again, one seeking to believe in group identities which themselves become the source of conflicts.

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) on the cliff: end of Demelza as seen in the 8th episode last season

All the heroes of this new series have been exemplary, Francis had a hard time getting there, but once he does, Lady Fortune turns her wheel and he is gone. The heroines are all supporters of the society’s norms, pro-establishment family figures. The working classes are taken utterly seriously, and authority figures uphold the order regardless of personal loyalties (very different from the 1940s books and E.M. Forster) or are savagely repressive. There seems no third choice between cutthroat capitalism and paternal socialism and care of the type the new Ross and Dwight Enys embody.

So, as last time, you can click on the links below to read a summary and evaluation of the comparable older episode, and this time I have added links to summary and evaluation of the two books.

Jeremy Poldark: In the midst of life there is death ….

Warleggan: Unabiding renegade; sexual possession; the power of memory ….

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

Episode 4 (12 in the 1970s series)

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It was very well done. Ross was at the center. A full concentration on him as exemplary if non-conventional non-mainstream hero (only he is mainstream, utterly). Turner’s expressions sometimes reminded me of Douglas Hodge who has in his years as British actor, often on BBC costume drama (but now seen as the well-meaning gov’t agency employee in The Night Manager) played the same type as Ross is becoming: the deeply well-meaning man who has realized no one will understand what he is trying to do, and fewer than no one give him credit for any altruistic motives. The new realizations include the visit of Verity’s husband’s eldest daughter by his first wife, Esther: Verity’s new problems, cut off from the Poldarks, and seemingly dependent on her husband for her social life, are felt. The obtuseness of the girl does make for yet another portrait of a woman as really mean; Gabriella Wilde as Caroline is made much worse in the early stages of her relationship with Dwight (though it should be noted this is true to Graham’s book). The baptism scene was touching.

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Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner as Ross and Demelza

In the older series, Ross’s scene negotiating with Trencomb was comically effective, and this was tried for again with Richard McCabe playing Trencomb realistically.

Some of the changes signaled to me that Horsfield just doesn’t trust the books to hold us and they jarred: Ross is made to recklessly endanger himself by going out with the men. He only draws his curtains in the book; in the 1970s he agrees to conceal the goods as his debt-promissory note is bought by Warleggan; but now he goes out with the men. Horsfield has George show up at shareholders’ meetings, George (again!) threaten Elizabeth if she doesn’t get intimate with him, he’ll call in loans (?!). Demelza is not permitted to get herself to shore, no the male must rescue her.

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Whenever Horsfield does trust Graham (as in Ross’s remark he wants freedom to call his soul his own) how the film rings out. But she does not trust him to have written adequately as before her Henry James did not trust women writer nor male warrior types. Nor some of the writers of the first 1970s season, namely Jack Pulman in the first four episodes (for Ross Poldark) and Jack Russell for the last four (for Warleggan).

At so many turns she ratchets up what is happening — that’s why the improbable and dangerous going out with the smugglers; why she has Ross deliver a speech at the trial that would have given the judge amunition to over-ride the jury. Horsfield makes Demelza and Ross bicker! She has Demelza smoldering with resentment. What makes them happy in Graham’s book at first is they get along; they see the world similarly. They enjoy one another’s company; they like one another.

A few details worth noting in the order presented in the new film: Horsfield invents and then emphasizes how Warleggan sends a mole to participate in Ross’s company’s meetings. Francis continues to refuse to allow Captain Blamey a place a Trenwith, though seen relenting in his face. Ross says Warleggan wants to own me. The ferocious beating of Jud, with George proclaiming he had not ordered the men to murder Jud. The beautiful harvest scene, with Francis holding out his hand to Ross: “Cousin, it’s an unexpected pleasure.” Meanwhile as in the novel and previous series, Demelza overhears Ross and Elizabeth broaching their love in words once again; she tells Elizabeth of her pregnancy. She and Ross see captured “free traders” passing by the new ruined Wheal Grace. Ross’s dialogue with the prevention men: “Your commitment to the law is heart-warming.”

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Demelza.  Demelza ((ELEANOR TOMLINSON) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Mike Alsford

We see her gone fishing. Now the men in the mine blasting. George wrestling with man hired to do with: his hands fists switch to Ross’s as he looks at a worker; he worried, “Were you hurt in the blast? And now illness spreads, Dwight called, but cannot work out symptoms. Unfortunately Horsfield choses to make Ross the hero that saves the day: Ross’s talking of sicknesses at sea makes Dwight remember scurvy. The men need fresh fruit. The meeting of Demelza with Elizabeth in wood and Demelza’s fear Elizabeth will betray her — Heida Reed given a good black hat.

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Heida Reed as Elizabeth

Encounter of Ross and Warleggan: Jack Farthing’s needle face in their encounter: “Is that a threat?” Ross over hears women in house: “fish won’t keep … no salt.” Ross now forbidding Demelza to fish: “Have you no sense — do me the courtesy of taking more care of yourself in future.” This is disrespectful voice. Comically Francis seeks metals on his land with magic wand. Lovely Dutch paintings in mind in scenes with Caroline at her desk writing letters (the correspondence found in the book). Caroline’s nasty Malthusianism. Slowly Francis becoming more open as Ross’s company begins to lose confidence of “investors.” We see George rush out to Caroline — like she was a peahen.

The Trencomb meeting – with Demelza a more active presence against it, as she was not in the books or 1970s. Am alternating with George’s pressure with Ross and Elizabeth. Intimacy is what George wants. Long sequence in mine — edgy; memories of Mark’s statements. Demelza shows irritation at Ross’s dealings with Trenwith; she would not be involved; he wants more money and improbably salt for the average person. Then a mining scene: the company needs a pumping engine which costs.
Francis joins Ross in front of Wheal grace: you don’t intend to resurrect her? the curse of the Poldarks is too much ambition with too little financial. Alternation of Dwight and Caroline (going badly on the surface) with Blamey bringing treats to Verity: James and Esther will come in a month, when another engagement rejoicing. An assembly for Caroline’s engagement. What Caroline wants is eternal youth. The quarreling of Ross and Demelza reaches new depths. Demelza’s is a bitter resentful tone. Verity waiting. Dwight ever more seduced by the fruit.

Last part: the really painful scenes of Verity with Blamey’s children. A failure in the episode is Jud’s funeral. The scenario is supposed to be comic but the kind of condescension necessary to make the working class characters at the funeral funny is apparently not acceptable. To do it in this grim way makes little sense. The birth, the baptism, the knock-down dragged out fight of Ross and George in the tavern: in the book, in the 1970s and again today. Ross just has had too much. The family getting together to open Wheal Grace.

A survey shows that the episodes are well shaped, given time, and the threads make sense as they move back and forth. There is no sudden interruption of one kind of matter (say the commercial meetings) with another (the romance stories)

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Episode 5 (or 13 in the older series)

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Kyle Soller just before he falls

I was deeply moved by how Horsfield, her director and actors performed the death of Francis Poldark. The episode differed considerably from the book; again the method was concentrated, this time on Francis. If you knew (as I did) because you had read Warleggan (ditto), it’s obvious that the whole episode is built for those who know too: it’s filled with ominous hints, and the irony that Francis is now doing all this successfully (including persuading Halse to give a more lenient sentence to a smuggler and even finding his wife will let him into her room and bed) and chance will kill him (in the book later on Ross says he died like a dog or some such words, very bitter). Kyle Soller was again brilliant in the role: he is the linchpin of this episode which keeps returning to him. Horsfield’s character has been quite different from Graham’s in the 1940s and the film-makers of thte 1970s: an anachronistic failing entrepreneur (in the 18th century a gentleman was seen to be a gentleman when he didn’t work) and Clive Francis in the 1975-6 episode was much closer to 18th century norms and Graham’s, with important additions of rebellion, anger, a la Joe Orton plays (which Clive Francis starred in). On the other hand, details provided emphatically by Horsfield are closer, such as Francis holding so desperately onto a nail and not being able to do so for hours on end, as who could? Tiring.

The equivalent Episode in the first 1970s series is by contrast very diffuse with a depiction of the whole community part of the scenario — time given to the informer, to Rosina and Hoblyn, and Caroline (Judy Geeson) shown early on to be trying to understand the lives of those who experience precarious and beaten-up lives, deeply ill because they haven’t fruit to eat. Episode in 1975 differed from the book too and I liked the new pro-family element in the 2016 of bringing Verity back to Trenwith to care for Aunt Agatha (not in book or 1970s). Warleggan’s role is an element but not the key driving force it is in this new episode 5. Ralph Bates was stern, angry, out for himself, but not Envy itself (as Farthing is made to be literally): Farthing as Warleggan again threatens and attempts to cajole Elizabeth into having an affair with him (not in the book at all, not in the previous film). I did find this new change and Elizabeth’s reaction of trying to appease George, made for more details of drama, dramatized moments between the two (in the 1970s he brings presents and is getting along with Elizabeth merely). The new pro-active emotional Elizabeth (different from book and first series) will make the coming aftermath of Francis’s death more emotionally complicated, but I predict or surmise that it will make Demelza a much more hurt character, and the whole relationship between Ross and Demelza painful to watch. The new Elizabeth asks, “Why should not a woman love two men — if a man can love two women.” Indeed, as she claims to have loved Francis, she is now loving two, but Demelza has not loved two men: she has placed her whole identity in Ross as his wife, giving her status and place and self-esteem (that’s the book) and enjoys flirting with Captain MacNeil (that’s the first series), likes his kindly courteous attentions, but knows he is on the side of the law first; she knows where to draw the line, that’s not love.

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Details worth remembering. The scenaro shows too much juxtaposition saved by having Francis in so many of the scenes, the POV, and Soller’s acting, his presence: on the beach the two boys running. This is Ross remembering his boyhood with Francis. Francis becoming exemplary: he says “father would be amazed” at his reading matter. People and coves being picked off. There is an informer. Francis as magistrate softening Halse. Quickly Rosina with her lame leg brought in, her father Hoblyn: much less time spent and hard to pick up what they have to do with the story. Again it’s said there is an informer. A swan shown. We see Caroline and Unwin back with her uncle saying she should embrace her fate. Verity on her way back to Trenwith, very glad to be with Geoffrey Charles too. Dwight this stable good man (as is Ross, and as Francis is becoming) who tells off George. A scene with Francis where there is something very touching about him. Uncle Cary now has promissory note of Ross’s.

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The party at Killwarren – Both Poldark families showing up. Dinner scene: Elizabeth next to Ross, and as in book she uses occasion to confess her love for Ross; Demelza sits by MacNeil, Unwin and Caroline. We then see Ross meditating over his conversation with Elizabeth. Unwin flees from infuriating Caroline – she is told Dwight is wedded to his work. Dwight called to Agatha. Engagement publicly falls through. A wonderful warm scene of Verity and Dwight over Agatha. Francis now turns his on George: must you be envious even of that? George now turns to Cary. The twin love-making scenes: Ross and Demelza in bed, Francis let in Elizabeth’s room. We are happy for him, but what kind of person is Elizabeth: this is like the cool customer of the book, with her firm self-esteem.

Again who is the informer. Horsfield brings in Nick Vigus and has him say, Why shouldn’t a man sell himself to highest bidder? Derisory comment thrown at Ross once again over marrying a scullery maid and living in squalor? Gorge wrestling away with hired partner. Cary: What price would you pay for the promissory note of Ross’s? Ross and Francis so hard at work on wall of mine. George’s visit to Trenwith after Francis reception: Elizabeth is welcoming him manipulatively. Ugly words of George to Agatha: the same raw insults as the book: he wishes there was a law to kill off crones; she replies “your mother had no taste. MacNeil now taking tea with Demelza. (Here I can’t resist remembering how deep the scene was in the book where he made truthful remarks about grief to her sense of Julia). Vigus talked of informer, and now we see Rosina and Kempthorne (who is the informer) who claims to make money on sails.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Caroline Penvenen and Dwight Enys.  Caroline Penvenen (GABRIELLA WILDE), Dwight Enys (LUKE NORRIS) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jon Hall

Dwight tells Caroline of his obsessive love symptoms; by contrast, Ross and Demelza’s uncomfortable conversation. Elizabeth and Francis – modify your hostility. Francis goes to George to tell him, “Never set foot again in my house;” and to implied threat, “it’s a small price for avoiding the noxiousness of your acquaintance.”

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Demelza bathing Ross — has Horsfield been watching too much Davies? Elizabeth seen with boy, Francis overlooks and says “I’ll be home in time to read you a story.” We know he won’t. Dwight wants Caroline and Demelza asks, “May not a woman confer status?” Back to blasting in the mine. Ross and Francis looking Ross called above: note from Pascoe “Wanted in Truro.” Francis stays. Horsfield now has Caroline exulting at the jilting, and Dwight relieved; Ross says that Dwight stands for himself, who and what he is, but I find Caroline (like Keren before her) just awful. This one schooled in learning to be heiress she in London.

Trenwith: Elizabeth, Verity, Geoffrey Charles; they have a dinner and desert waiting for Francis who is himself super-excited by the copper he thinks he has found. He rushes to Nampara; finding Demelza confesses at last and her face hardens; “It is my dearest wish to be of use to make amends.” He instist Ross still loves you.” to which she replies “Sometimes I think he lovse Elizabeth better. Francis that she doesn’t think well enough of yourself. “You mistake your own value; do away with notion someone has done you a favor by marrying you.” A version of what he says in the book. Beautful moment
Pascoe tells Ross. The mine, Francis back there. Verity must leave Agatha to rejoin her husband. And now Francis falls deeply into water, pulls himself out enough to hold onto nail. She reinforces too obviously with image of spider in web.

Quietly waiting dinner for him, Elizabeth sends to Nampara for Francis. Ross at home says by Christmas we must have 1400 pounds. Someone come from Trenwith looking for Mr Francis. Back to mine: no one seen him for hours. We see him holding onto nail. Now he should have been dead hours ago … Dwight: Francis missing. One last dream: now Francis dreams it: the two boys running over the shore together. Francis sees Ross as saving him, in Ross’s arms. Back to real men frantically going deeper and finding the dead corpse, still warm and wet. Not good moment to have him say this: “Why the hell didn’t you learn to swim.” Knocking at Trenwith. Elizabeth POV, Ross looking in at her appalled. Funeral. Her crying in Ross’s arms. Demelza watches.

We can see that Horsfield lacks an aesthetically clear structure for Episode 5; she uses too many cliches, and her instincts for the right moment for a statement are often off. There is too much interruption, she is trying to get so much in. But the episode soars through Kyle Soller, sided (so-to-speak) by Aidan Turner, and by Horsfield’s script’s concentration on the figure of Francis Poldark, his dream life, his relationship with Ross, and how he is by chance replaced (not saved, Ross is no miracle worker) by Ross. Ross is now the eldest male Poldark, though the heir as it was understood at the time will be Geoffrey Charles, to whom Francis gave his part of the ownership of Wheal Grace.

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There has been interesting illuminating talk on the Poldark Appreciation face-book page and I record some which gives insight into how people today are regarding these different iterations.

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, rough working class girl when first taken in

One person (Stephen Burk) on the Poldark Appreciation page wrote that he saw the story as “the evil Warleggen family warring against the good Ross Poldark and family.” He saw “humane values represented by Ross Poldark pitted against upper class snobbery;” he saw this in another version in “Ross’s gentry cousin marrying the middle class sea captain with a troubling past.” He accepted “Caroline’s haughty, flighty character (she was very good by the way) contrasting with the Doctor’s good and stable character.” Demelza’s character he also saw a “contrasts; a miner’s daughter, lower class (probably about the lowest just above slavery, prostitutes or thieves) who has obviously had a rough and tumble existence and who’s entrance had her groveling in the dust wrestling a man, dressed in men’s clothing when Ross saved her. The feisty, “feral” young female with little or no advantages not to mention social upbringing wanting to punch people out when they give her trouble rehabilitated by Ross into gentry, more or less. People though never totally change, they may to an extent but there are always ways of thinking and actions that will remain.” These simple oppositions are at work, and he accepted the class system and was entertained by “the rough lower class Demelza and the cultured, gentry class Ross and their relationship.”

So this is one reason the new Demelza is not liked: he wanted “the feisty and probably surly at times girl” with a loud accent — though this is not what is presented in the book. Demelza does know her place. The viewers today wanted “street wise smartness” to contrast with “Ross’s upper class posture.”

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Demelza come to Falmouth to talk to Captain Blamey (Richard Harrington) — I prefer this gentle kind of scene in the series much more

When I watch these films and those of 40 years ago I look for complex characters, subtlety and political and social commentary which is liberal in thrust and values courtesy until injustice begins to rule the day.

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Angharad Rees as the witty Demelza at the dinner table with Clive Francis as Francis enjoying the talk

Someone else (Gill Roffey) wrote: “Horsfield has made Ross the focus of everything,” to the “detriment” of the other characters, especially Demelza: “Demelza has a mischievous flirtatious wit. She gets tipsy at her first Trenwith Christmas and flirts with John Treneglos under his wife’s nose. Whenever she goes into society she charms everyone she meets. Horsfield is giving us none of this. When she meets Justice Lister in the book she charms him too, and makes a favourable impression, whereas in the mew series her attempt is clumsy and ill-judged. Then there is the infamous boat rescue. In the book she is the resourceful woman feeding her family, Ross doesn’t know about her fishing. Now, of course, it’s all about him, so he has to rescue her.”

I learned from this and replied: “Yes Demelza is witty, yes transgressive, yes she loves to drink and lose herself in pleasure. I see those social occasions themselves somewhat differently: finally she fails at them (especially that first assembly) because she’s of lower status and is a woman; but after each one she learns how to cope, what she can do and what she can’t. In the later books she is more of a recluse (keeps to herself) but also has made an adjustment to how to run a party. she also throughout continues to defer to Ross: she says early on he is her, he is her life; she has invested his view of him in herself as her. That might not be popular but it resonates with me and Angharad Rees inhabited that and I loved it and bonded with the character in the books. I agree that the books are as much about her as him: her growing up, her education. So yes these changes hurt — especially the bickering between them.

I can see what is meant today: Ross has to be the hero rescuing everyone. For me that’s such a simplification: in the books he makes many errors, some of which are irretrievable. I prefer that too. I prefer a character who is fully human and like us has many failures. The hero of the book and the 1970s was someone with fortitude to endure what goes wrong — due to himself. More novelistic. What such a man might have been, what the women of the era, is something else again.

Ellen

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Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth — as characters digging the deep past up in the form of a coffin of a Muslim who once painted a mural on a 14th century church wall (A Month in the Country)

Dear friends and readers,

While the fall term has hardly begun, today was time to put in a proposal for next spring for the OLLI (Oscher Institute of Life-Long Learning) at George Mason. I enjoy enormously Booker Prize books, winners, short-listed, nominated. I love most of the film adaptations, which also win prizes.

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Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche as the English patient and wandering nurse (screenplay Anthony Minghella)

At the same time I am aware only a certain kind of book wins: you’ll find no John LeCarre’s there. And it’s not just books which can be fitted into formula genres that are excluded, non self-reflexive historical fictions are out. Nor is it that mawkish uplift, and the kind of woman’s novel that garners an Orange prize; anything profoundly reactionary. So casting about for some kind of framework whereby term after term I could slot in books and explore books of our time as well as the publishing industry, I came up with this:

The Booker Prize: a marketplace niche & selling tool?

In this course we will discuss 4 gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, and the three of the texts I’ve chosen have been made into great films. I ask that before class begins everyone have read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country; in class we’ll read Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders.

I originally had Paul Scott’s Staying On in lieu of Restoration, but it is such a painful story of retired people now vulnerable to subalterns and the readers I read with are older retired people, so I worried. I ruled out Carol Shields’s Unless on similar grounds: perhaps they had a grown child who succumbed to such a syndrome. None of the Raj Quartet has won — the prize usually eschews sequel kind of books. A course just on Paul Scott is possible.

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Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Staying On carry over the typologies of Brief Encounter

[NB: later on I discussed it with other people in classes and with the organizers and I may well substitute Staying On for The English Patient (after all an exotice romance) and Unless for Restoration (not commonly known history though the topic of mental illness during and after a war is central). They are shorter, easier reads and that they come home to people might make for a much richer class.]

I loved Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, but perhaps that makes the list insularly English. We can discuss it in claas; it is so slender — a characteristic of some Booker Prize books (they gave a prize to a long short story by V.S. Naipaul once). Byatt’s Possession (very precious), Atwood’s Alias Grace (complicated structure and POV too), and Mantel’s Wolf Hall were all too long to do other books with; Adhalf Soueif’s Map of Love long and too Eygptian: I can see doing that with her In the Eye of the Sun, but hesitate before a heavily Jewish population. I like the idea of pairing Alias Grace with the real woman behind the novel: Susannah Moodie and her Roughing It in the Bush. And in future terms I can see myself doing Ishiguru’s Remains of the Day — how I wept over that film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson at the close, just missed out on what would have made their lives good, just.

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The four frenemies carrying Jack’s ashes (in a box) to the jetty in “style” — a fancy car

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Reconciliation by the sea (Last Orders) — my students loved the film

None of my choices are darkly despairing. There are fascinating films for all four. I hardly remember Tremain’s book except liking it intensely (and have never seen the film).

As a side-note: I noticed something typically about women’s books who win the prize: typically women winning the Booker either write very long complicated books — with a George Eliot impressiveness — and if I chose one I’d hardly have time for another. One or even two swallows do not a summer make for my thesis about Booker prize books. Or they write odd and/or very slender ones. It’s “as if” they have to strike an impression more than the men.

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Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn (one of a continuum of heroines in Wolf Hall)

This is a new venture like my 19th Century Women of Letters which I hope to develop over a few terms — well within my taste, each time expanding my knowledge this or that way without asking too much, leaving time for scholarly reviews, essays, papers.

These books, indeed this sub-species, will be great fun to write blogs about here too.

Ellen

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Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village

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(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase. That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing. And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.

Friends,

It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century:

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This older cover for and BBC Radio 7 image for a reading aloud of The House on the Strand capture the strangeness of a book moving back and forth from mid-20th to 14th century Cornwall

Also her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.

The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.

The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.

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As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:

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I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.

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Sunlit

Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.

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They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.

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Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.

What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.

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We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.

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She leaves her car

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She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants

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She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone

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The transported moment

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Waking

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An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)

At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank

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So it’s a re-encounter

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He now the 18th century educated man

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she still the mid-20th century educated woman

The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:

Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
She: No.
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.

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Mutualnurturing
One blanket, one whiskey pouch

The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:

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Leogh

Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.

When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:

Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.

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Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see

Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more

It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.

As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.

I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.

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From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today

Ellen

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DoubledLifecover (Small)

Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friends and readers,

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) has occupied a paradoxically at once hagiographic and controversial position in studies of Hitler’s Third Reich, which suggests an audience familiar with his name, life and writing; he is not well-known to people outside Germany, the religiously inclined, pacifists, and those who’ve studied the elite German milieus who supported Hitler as a bulwark against socialism. The reasons for the peculiarity of the way he’s been heroicized and marginalized come from the unwillingness of people to confront painful realities of the past or overturn the continuing male hegemonic structuring of much human experience and stigmatizing of people who don’t conform to simplistic sexual norms. Bonhoeffer’s is one of the (when we are telling truths) ambivalent stories of those who resisted Nazism.

His life history has been kept muted and/or distorted to erase his homosexuality (an important source for aspects of his thought), especially his relationship with Eberhardt Bethge, who, as the man Bonhoeffer was ineradically in love with, built books intended to mount a difficult barrier to get past. The widely-popular (a surprise best seller of 1953) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, edited by Bethge from unpublished manuscripts, fits squarely into the kind of first edition Donald Reiman (The Study of Modern Manuscripts: Private, Confidential, and Public) describes as a “family book” where the editor acts as an advocate of the writer’s family’s view of this writer, the family itself (Deirdre LeFaye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters is such a book), in Bethge’s case also to obscure his actual relationship with Bonhoeffer and his own ambitious political and personal choices during Hitler’s regime.

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A photograph of Bethge and Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer has not been forgotten because his extensive original writing (very ethical in bent), the rich, powerful elite group he belonged to (which survived the Hitler era), the positions he achieved in the powerful church structures, and his imprisonment and murder for conspiring against Hitler. He has been useful as a martyr, as a conservative religious hero, an ethical thinker, and a corpus of far from disinterested books and essays continue to be written about him.

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Tubingen University Library (where Bonhoeffer studied as a young man)

Diane Reynolds has studied this secondary material, and the extensive primary documents; she interviewed people who knew those who knew Bonhoeffer, visited the places he lived in, and has produced a candid, lucidly written biographical account of the man’s life and his behavior, drawing especially on his letters (the life-blood of biography). She has been preceded by Charles Marsh’s flamboyant biography, which hers is an improvement on because of her scrupulous care not to claim anything for which there is no consistent substantial evidence. Some LGBTQ people may object to her reluctance to concede the probable where the nature of the case cannot provide evidence, such as Bonhoeffer’s sexual activity:  there is evidence for more than one close male relationship and several revealing portraits of male supporters and friends, e.g., Franz Hildebrandt with whom he lived for a time. True acceptance, respect and fulfillment, not to omit safety, for LGBTQ people in society requires adult understanding and acceptance of their active sexual lives, but nothing else is elided over, and she is critical of her subject where criticism is called for. We see a root cause for his reluctant betrayal of his sister and her Jewish husband, and on the other at the same time as he remained loyal to an upper class luxurious community who had supported Hitler: he gave up while in the US an opportunity to escape Germany, the offer of a good position because he couldn’t bear to live apart from Bethge (241-45) or lose his sense of some meaning through belonging with numinous privileged people who shaped important social structures and beliefs in Germany.

Women readers will see how he was willing to support as his patroness the domineering reactionary Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow, who was ceaselessly coercive over her daughters’s lives and engineered the pretense of an affair with her granddaughter, Maria von Wedermeyer. Maria was herself unable to throw off the Nazi training in submissiveness and self-sacrifice until years later. We learn of Bertha Schultz, a brilliant scholar who could only get work as his housekeeper and personal assistant, translated for free for him, and then is dismissed (79-81). He had a friendship with Elizabeth Van Thadden who opened the genuinely anti-Nazi progressive school for girls (Maria attended), had her school taken from her, re-Nazified, and was later imprisoned and beheaded (228-29, 22, 396). He was himself deeply attachment to a number of female relatives: his grandmother, his mother, a life-long close congenial relationship with his sister, Sabine: they go on a walking tour together which may reminded readers of English poetry of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

This is an excellent biography of a man placed in the context of his time and directed to our world today.

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Family summer vacation house in Freidrichsbrunn

Reynolds’s book’s historical significance is its irrefutability and portrait of a fallible and quietly courageous highly intelligent man who was pro-active in creating moral schools (for men), who displayed far more integrity than most, and expanded his horizons: a telling time was his sojourn in New York city where he attended a black Abyssian church and experienced a religious rejuvenation and saw “a view [of life] from the bottom looking up” (66). Just about all he did was in the face of discomfort in others (he was not a manly boy). Sometimes it’s mild (from his family) pressure; he had excellent connections and was chosen for high positions, but in these he encountered outright hostility from his own church and the Nazi state it complied with. And at the last imprisonment, interrogation, and towards the end (when his part in a failed plot to kill Hitler was discovered) vicious abuse leading up to his execution.

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A clavichord Bonhoeffer and Bethge played on together

A summary with paraphrased and quoted vignettes: Her book is a narrative of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Part One situates the reader in the Bonhoeffer family background, telling of events and people who influenced Bonhoeffer’s grandparents, parents, moves through Bonhoeffer’s siblings and their childhood during World War One and its aftermath. . A characteristic chapter is called “Life Amid the Ruins:” Reynolds shows the family continuing its privileged life against the backdrop of the growing power of the Nazis, all around them desperation, Berlin crumbling, half starved Berliners, and soldiers posted everywhere in the streets, children with rickets. Hitler ominously blaming Jews, and father and uncle saying that the best types of people were killed off, glimpsing the possibility of a sociopath coming to power. But everything they read, the music they played has nothing to do with what’s happening outside; they lived within an idyllic strain in the European culture, divorced from politics. Bonhoeffer refuses to pursue a career in music (the family’s preference), and moves to theological studies. His sister and friends all marry while he evades a proposed bride for him, a third cousin, Elizabeth Zinn. Reynolds makes an astute use of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, where he constructs the image of maleness and femaleness the Nazis projected, one troublingly close to what may be seen today in popular US miliarist movies today. Against this all his life Bonhoeffer had to contend.

Part Two (“Seeking Ground”) while the Nazis begin to seize control (burn books publicly), become violent against Jews (he writes, “literally no one in Germany … can grasp it … major turning point in history:” 7 million unemployed 15 to 20 hungry), he travels (Barcelona, Manhattan, Forest Hills even, Cuba) seeking some meaning, work, relationships, to ground his existence on: he writes a second dissertation, is ordained. Vignettes from this section: “Dietrich [was] vehemently opposed compromise by his church,” sermonized to this effect, but did not go to his sister’s husband’s father’s funeral … here Bonhoeffer writes that Jews are “a problem; they needed to convert;” yet he “writes against persecution of Jews, one must help victims.” May 10, 1933 book burning night. Max Reinhardt fled to LA; Bonhoeffer’s “brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, lawyer, joins party, says keeping job helps undermine the state. Nazis imposed level of regimentation that surprised and made fear grow; 50 concentration camps by 1933 … Hans von Dohnanyi, a friend and relative by marriage [later executed] liked by Hitler so original Jewishness forgiven. German Lutheran church yields to become vitriolically anti-semitic; Catholic Youth Leagues are outlawed, Nazi or nothing. In 1933 Bonhoeffer is turned down for pastorate and in October goes to London, shaken to discover himself in radical opposition to all his friends.

Part Three is called the “Incomparable Year” (1933) and Part Four “Reconfigurations” (taking the reader up to 1938 and Bonhoeffer’s first arrest). In ’33 he met and his relationships with Bethge and Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow flowered. While the Nazis are toting machine guns and beginning their imperial conquests, he opens Finkenwalde, a “confessing” school offering an idyllic community for (male) students by the North Sea. While fighter planes are taking off, he teaches pacificism and joins the world of country landed estates. Until the concentration camps begin to open, he, his friends, associates, his sister seem to think somehow they will be insulated, and carry on their lives. Vignettes: these elite families moves to small houses in Charlottenburg (Marienbad), as good for conspiracy; musical evenings are a cover for politics, people from all walks of life, a refuge too. Karl, his brother, stays on with Nazis as psychiatrist saying he is moderating worst aspects. Bonhoeffer’s grandmother is horrified to see a cousin emigrating – having to take his chances like everyone else in this world. Ruth comes across with money for seminary in Sweden (which Bonhoeffer described as “wonderful years”). Dietrich’s prison writing includes letters to his grandmother – of how he felt for defenseless epileptics. By 1935 his sister Sabine (married to a Jew) begins to understand the terror of Nazism (they come to her door for information), but her brother “would be alive now than 30 years ago.” Bonhoeffer shows a problematic disposition to spend his sister’s money on holidays for himself.

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Finkelwalde by the sea: now a Bonhoeffer memorial

Parts Five through Seven (“Cornered”) bring us to the heart of the book (1937/8-43): Reynolds weaves the unfolding of the Nazi barbaric world inside Germany with the lives, work and reaction of Bonhoeffer and many of his friends and associates. The great value of this part of the book are these individual stories and the depiction of intimate life of the semi-protected elite, what emerged in public social life in Nazi Germany at the time, and the punitive patriotic culture of Nazism easily sliding into cruelty to the weak, vulnerable, despised, anyone who dissented. Bonhoeffer seems to have joined the “underground” resistance about 1938; some of his associates compromise, some try to ignore what was happening all around them; others looked simply to survival (insofar as one could as food shortages and bombing had begun). Vignettes: November 1937 27 Finkenwalde seminarians imprisoned; 1938 Dietrich arrested, interrogated, banned from Berlin. He has underground collective pastorates, apprentices in a remote village (with Bethge there, later doing “quite well”) … Dietrich living a nomadic life working on ms’s. Neimoller released and then swept up, disappears; Confessing church fools take an oath of allegiance that Hitler treats with [the] contempt [it deserved].

A revealing element about Bonhoeffer is he continues to write optimistically, perhaps conceiving himself as supporting the spirits of others; a close friend said it was pride that kept him from revealing his anguish, but the letters have a jarring disconnect. His theological writings “encode” (that’s the word Reynolds uses) justifications for homosexual love; his bitterness against Bethge; his misery at the harsh isolated conditions of the prison (he does use the word “horrible” once). But the letters keep his hidden life in a closet.

Reynolds shows how average Germans appear to have felt about the war at this time: we have to remember Germans supported the war, and Bonhoeffer’s activity would have been seen as that of a traitor: So more vignettes: June 17, 1940 France caves. German newsreels exulted. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy quoted. Fair haired young men: “what does it matter if we destroy the world? When it is ours, we’ll build it up again” … Germans are ecstatic at victory over France; foresee short war; Germans torpedo 600 prisoners headed for Canada; meanwhile Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine, now in Oxford moves with her husband to one room with 14 trunks. Bethge’s behavior reminds me of the enigmatic amoral characters in LeCarre’s novels: he decides to marry a Bonhoeffer niece, Renate, many years younger than he since he finds himself in “untenable” position. The long sections on the reality of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria are important to read: we see her mother tried to protect her, regards Ruth’s tactics as a nuisance; for Bonhoeffer Maria is cover and unreal wish fulfillment dreams (of what neither he or she wanted). After Stalingrad, Bethge sends Bonhoeffer a picture of Napoleon; a letter remembering a year ago they were together when they shared a hotel room. Reynolds brings in the male couple in another surprising best seller of the era: Santayana’s The last Puritan.

Parts Eight (“Locked in”) through Ten (“Saints”) take us through Bonhoeffer’s years of imprisonment, his murder and the first build-up of hagiography. This was for me the most moving part of the biography. The conditions in which Bonhoeffer lived and eventually (he managed to make friends, his prestige and connections and his family’s money brought him food) even wrote were utterly wretched and dangerous. Reynolds maintains her cool stance towards the letters, pointing out repeatedly the undercurrents of bitterness (towards Bethge), egoism (in his approach to Maria), leaving the reader to feel uncomfortable, askance, compassion or astonishment. Just one vignette from many: Hitler carried a whip, beat his dogs and took disproportionate revenge on those within his reach after the bomb (detonated under a table) failed to kill him. Newspapers presented this as a coup of officers power-hungry … he writes suffering a way to freedom. He looked ill on his daily walk. There seems to have been opportunities for him to escape, but he withdrew with the excuse he didn’t want to endanger others: throughout his life he had what (I’d call) bad dreams of having a devout death which he yearned for, and one explanation for his persistent refusal to escape is a probably half-conscious death-wish.

One can fill out this section with some of the material Bethge published in 1953 (now available in an expanded edition): the book as constructed by Bethge presents a striking contrast to Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce. Readers are not shown which letters were meant to be passed around by his relatives, which private (very few): Bonhoeffer persists in hoping, presenting himself as looking forward to release (his mother was fooled for a long time), comfortable. But there are striking breaks: for example, the narrative of Lance Corporal Berg, where suddenly Bonhoeffer reveals a gift for narrative, powerful drama: we first witness an interrogation which shows us how one need not resort openly to violence, torture, emotional bullying to subdue a prisoner. He shows how prison itself is an excruciating experience because those running it are implicitly bullying all prisoners all the time. A man with his face blown away shows up, and everyone is horrified by the ugliness of the man and they are mostly very kind to him, they feel sorry for him, they respect him for having allowed this to happen to him, but when for a moment he loses it and began to cry and complain, immediately they are hostile. Another man they deride, berate, kick, just shit on because he ‘deserted” — would not obey orders. It includes poems (e.g, Night Voices in Tegel) about his experience of the night in these prisons.

Reynolds shows how Marie distanced herself from the Bonhoeffer society, and tried to tell some truths, but her silence (as well as his sister Sabine’s) implied consent to Bethge and other interested witnesses’ stories. Her upper class strong sense of herself and understanding of how to get along in higher echelons served her well, and she somewhat recovered, even married, became a highly successful businesswomen.

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Maria von Wedermeyer

If I have some criticism, it’s that I missed a sense of deep inwardness, which might have come from more analysis and quotation of Bonhoeffer’s ethical and religious treatises. Take the “Prologue: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943, also called “After Ten Years.”

He opens up with a (Samuel) Johnsonian meditation about time. “Time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.” He writes of people “with no ground under their feet.” Here he recognizes that obedience to others to erase the self comes from cowardice and Germans have been deluded to think they kept their liberty by service to the community. An extraordinary passage about folly: folly is far more dangerous than anger; it’s worse than evil. Again folly there is no defense. No matter what you see the fool carries on. (This reminds me of Trump supporters.) The fool is self-satisfied, it’s easy for him to become aggressive, he’s harder to cope with than a scoundrel. Folly is capable of any evil. He reminded me here of Erasmus’s profound ironic (sardonic) In Praise of Folly. The worst blaspheme is contempt for others. (Again I thought of Trump, his insistent derision of others.) Bonhoeffer insists we must regard others not in terms of what they can do or do do but in the light of what they suffer. That in social life there are laws that cannot be eradicated and are powerful than anything that may claim to dominate them. How reprehensible to sow mistrust, how dangerous, when we should strengthen confidence in the self and others. (I thought of training programs in the US gov’t today where employers are taught to suspect and turn others in.) I liked his definition of quality. To have an experience of nobility, of quality you have to renounce all place-hunting, break with the cult of stars, must look to pleasure in private life as well as have courage to enter public life. Most people only learn wisdom (at all?) from personal experience. This explain insensibility to suffering. Death has become what people live with daily. We must not romanticize it; we do still know too much about the good things in life and that helps. But prolonged insecurity, and destructiveness of prolonged anxiety dissolves attachment to life. Which leads to him asking if people individually or as a group are of any use? He insists an experience of incomparable value is to experience life from below, and if you can’t at least try to see and empathize with those from below: history from below, the outcasts, suspects, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, reviled.

I want to emphasize that Diane Reynolds’s book is an enjoyable book to read. She recreates places, times, idyllic and nightmare experience. The reader who is familiar with 19th century novels will find parallels between characters in Tolstoy and this German milieu (Ruth as kind of Prussian cross between Countess Rostov and Anna Mikhailovna). It belongs to our conversations today about how what happened in Germany between the 1920s and well after the end of WW2 parallels the increase we see today of violence, racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds and intolerance and the complicity of our present (ever self-regarding, enrichening, luxurious) establishment as found in books like Volker Ulrich’s Hitler’s Ascent, 1889-1939. Reading it ought to worry readers right now.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman in LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man: about extraordinary rendition in the context of an exaggerated “war on terror” which has led to stark erosions of civil and social liberty — I can see Hoffman playing Bonhoeffer

Ellen

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