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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)

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Elizabeth (Heida Reed), Geoffrey Charles (unnamed) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing)

She’d say life holds only two or three things worth the having, and if you possess them the rest don’t matter, and if you do not possess them the rest are useless (Graham, Warleggan, Bk 4:Ch 5, p 439; repeated in screenplay but attributed to Ross rather than Demelza, screenplay, 70 INT, pp 578-79)

Dear friends and readers,

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the art as well as content of the books and this older and the new 2015-16 mini-series. I don’t re-cap, expect the viewer to have seen the film, understood the story, and remember it generally.]

So we come to the end of the second season of the Debbie Horsfield’s new Poldark and Winston Graham’s powerful fourth novel, Warleggan. I was powerfully moved by the new finale, which remained close in most respects to the book, but have to admit I was equally deeply engaged by its counterpart in 1975, Jack Russell’s Episode 16, whose events moved so far from the book so as to present a different story, but whose sense and spirit were a theatrically Jacobin version in spirit of the book (rather like Jack Pulman’s Episodes 3 and 4 related to the conclusion of Graham’s first novel, Ross Poldark). I burst into tears at the 1975 version, not just because Demelza’s beloved dog, Garrick, is shot by Warleggan’s thugs, but at some wrenching of me within as Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees), continue fiercely to tear at one another.

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I didn’t cry during this second iteration because I have a hard time accepting one of the changes Horsfield made: in Graham’s book and in Russell’s rendition, well before Ross’s last visit to Trenwith to talk with Warleggan and (in the book) Elizabeth, Demelza makes the difficult effort to forgive, accept, and let her love for Ross come out and respond to him again so that they could have gone to bed again (Bk 4, Ch 3, pp 413-414 — he feels he will wait until she will feel no reserve once again). In Warleggan they do quarrel angrily in the last scene (over very different and woman’s way of seeing his conduct and his refusal to acknowledge her understanding of what happened is just too), such that they nearly break up as they nearly do in Horsfield’s version (Bk 4, Ch 7, pp 460-66). In my view Graham stopped writing the series for 20 years because he had reached such an impasse, with Ross still at least longing for Elizabeth to acknowledge an ex-love (she won’t, now that he never turned up after the rape, left her pregnant, and she has had to marry a man she doesn’t love and who she knows doesn’t love her, she hates Ross), and Ross and Demelza reconciling themselves to the reality of conflicting emotions they must live with. But Horsfield and Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza reached a point of bitterness, sarcasm (she jeers at Ross — “What it is to be married to such a great man!”)), spite in her eyes, hate in a visit to Elizabeth (not in the book)

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Demelza confronting Elizabeth

Elizabeth: ‘Why have you come?’
Demelza: ‘I thought ’twas to tell you that I hate you. That you’ve marred my faith and broke my marriage. That I envy you. for the passion you roused which Ross could not withstand. That I pity you … But now I wonder what do any of it matter? what you did — what Ross did — cannot be undone. And you both must live with that. But I need not.

and reluctant grudging silence even in her last scene with Ross, her eyes so narrow, her face so pinched, that I felt alienated from the character I had bonded with. I found it just so painful that she did not seem to value Ross, invest her whole being there (the way I had with my husband and have imagined Demelza does in the book). A part of my deep joy in the novels is the character of Demelza as imagined by Graham and she is never hateful with fierce looks of spite; never stalks anyone. I can respond better to open hurt than rigid withholding of the self and resentment. Horsfield’s conception and Tomlinson’s acting makes deep pyschological sense, but I could find little to comfort myself with here. I felt for Aidan Turner as Ross, remorseful, trying to be honest (she says he is not honest when he is), and clinging to her (Horsfield gives Graham’s Demelza’s words to him (see above). In the long feature to the DVD of this second season, Jack Farthing remarks that the series “is not a museum piece,” but treats of issues, presents characters of direct contemporary relevance today. In book and this episode she does sow doubt in Ross’s mind that she just might have gone to bed with MacNeil (Henry Garrett) and the scene of Ross’s anger at this in this episode’s penultimate scene is word-for-word from the book and very good (and not in the 1970s version where Demelza never moves away from Ross at all), and she does threaten to leave with Jeremy, but in the last pages of the book and here on the cliff again does not.

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Agatha has nearly the last words of the episode as she tells Elizabeth she has made a pact with a devil and warns the baby may come in February (9 months after May 9th, the night of the rape)

For the record the changes in Demelza are not the only way Horsfield departs from the Warleggan (perhaps, some would say, modernizes). Some of the material comes from Black Moon (Book 5); so too George’s attempt to part Geoffrey Charles from Elizabeth in Black Moon, Elizabeth’s fuller realization her coming baby might be Ross’s – she suspects, worries but the realization comes later. Here it comes at the close from Aunt Agatha’s (Caroline Blakiston) insight; entirely new (not in book, not in earlier series) is the way Horsfield has developed the relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth. Agatha functions in the way the fool did in Elizabethan drama: she tells Elizabeth truths Elizabeth doesn’t not want to hear but knows in her heart. In Warleggan she realizes George has married her as a trophy, is not manageable or comfortable to be with as Francis, but it takes the time passing in Black Moon for her to see she has married a mean bully in George.

The mob scene is the invention of Jack Russell. There is none in Warleggan (as Pulman invented the idea that Charles Poldark took a needed £300 from Ross after he borrowed it from Pascoe, and Horsfield changed that to Charles trying to bribe Ross to leave). Horsfield has not allowed this natural result of enclosure and destroying the tenants’ houses to move into open riot, murder (the crazed lonely Paul Daniel is shot through the chest by Warleggan in 1975), nor allowed Trenwith to burn down, but the episode does give us a theatrically effective rendition of the rage the tenants and all around Truro George’s behavior is causing. Having Trenwith burn down in the older series made havock with Black Moon and Ross and Agatha’s deep resentment and George’s exultation to be in Trenwith. I object to the new way it’s done where Horsfield far more blames the workers (as a foolish group, not a starving deeply wounded people with nothing to lose) but the new episode gives Ross a chance to redeem himself by stopping the riot and appealing directly to Demelza to come home with him. He has come for her.

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Demelza climbing up in front of Ross once more

Jack Russell has Ross called to war to join his regiment (this is anachronistic), so that at the close he leaves Demelza with Jeremy; there is nothing like this in the book — for the very good reasons Pascoe (Richard Hope in this version) and Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) in the new episode tell him not to: he needs to be there to develop his thriving tin business, to keep up his family. But Horsfield picks this up too as theatrical; he joins Dwight in London after the disillusioned Dwight (he has been told wrongly that Caroline has engaged herself to a Lord Coniston) has signed up, but cannot get himself to leave. Horsfield conveys the ominousness of war through having Jeremy play with toy soldiers against the larger background of taverns, and men readying themselves. There is much less romance to it than there was 40 years ago.

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The two friends reunited

Much was done very well –- and the parts that were closer to the book finer in conception, subtler, making more true sense than what Russell concocted (see my account in the comments). In general throughout both seasons 1 and 2 of this Poldark and the whole of the previous, where the writer is closer to Graham, the series is better. As so common, it opens with Ross and (now) Henshawe, Paul Daniel all working at the mine. Only now Demelza is not there; she is not helping but acting out the “elegant” lady, walking in the meadow. We move to Trenwith where George is having Francis’s picture removed, placating Elizabeth with a dual portrait of them in its place(by the “celebrated John Opie — “oh George,” says the fool, “you spoil me”), all the while thinking of how he may part her “reasonably” from Geoffrey Charles (a good school you see) and plotting with Tankard to shoot people on sight who take the hitherto public right of way, and by the next scene seeking to wrench from Ross the shares he paid Elizabeth for from Wheal Grace while they were worthless. In this second scene, Elizabeth lurks by the door and does realize for the first time that Ross had tried to help her, but after a ferocious physical battle where Ross tries to burn George, and he has his men eject him after smashing his face, she seems to side with George. Jill Townsend’s Elizabeth was cooler, assessed George better (as does Graham’s), knew she was caged upon marriage.

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Townsend’s face hardens as she realizes George will not keep any of his promises (to take her to London, to provide her with a great lady social life ….)

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Reed is ever soft: the scene ends now with her telling her boy, George will be his papa now — the child is not impressed

The Dwight and Caroline (Gabriella Wilde) and especially when John Nettles as Ray Penvenen is there are very well and carefully realized. Nettles is a deeply appealing uncle, who conveys complex feelings: we have the scene where Dwight tells him he has “the sugar sickness” and will not get better by altering his diet (no wine) but may prolong his life.

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I cannot warm to Horsfield’s conception of a shallow egoistic heiress slowly growing up, but there is something touching when Ross comes to thank her, and brings her back to Dwight (she stands there looking more penitent than ever seen before), and after the lovers’ night together her return to her lonely uncle to care for him. I also warmed to the added scene of Verity’s (Ruby Bentall) childbirth: that’s not literally in the book but a fair extrapolation. And it gives Horsfield a chance to have the sympathetic Verity try to talk Demelza into accepting and forgiving, into remembering, believing Ross does love her — and not to let go of that.

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Verity is dropped from the books, marginalized as a character from the time of Black Moon on. Instead Demelza’s great friend becomes Caroline Penvenen Enys. I hope Horsfield changes that, and keeps the sister-friendship up as she has developed the aunt-niece relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth.

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Turner in one of several scenes between him and Demelza where he is reasoning with her, trying to apologize, to explain himself.

I thought Turner superb in the episode: it was a hard part. He had to be didactic and explicitly say moral things left to interior thoughts in the book and he did it very well. I found him very appealing throughout. He has become this complicated character thoroughly, driven, with many conflicting loyalties, rightly fiercely protective of everything good which Warleggan would blight. Given the present horrible things going on in the US where a man has taken power and is inflicting pain and deprivation on the majority of Americans, treating non-whites as semi-criminals (they are not safe in the streets anymore), having immigrants snatched up and deported to anywhere, prosecuting parents, increasing private prisons (shown to be cruel to prisoners), Ross Poldark is now an important hero for our time in a way he has not been since the 1940s when he was conceived as an antidote to the barbarism and nightmare war of mid-century Europe. His finally striking out at George, meaning to kill him almost unless stopped is another moment of understandable rage for the character who is emerging as flawed but meaning and doing well often (exemplary in most ways). Farthing is acting George as he is in the book (and as Ralph Bates acted him in the 1970s), we see the banality of evil, cold selfishness, no care for anyone but himself and those he deems extensions of him. I regret they dropped his father Nicholas as a semi-moral villain, slightly comic, amusingly acid (Allen Tilvern); we are in an era where there is no room for comedy and so we have the icy relentless Cary Warleggan (Pip Torrens).

A telling repeat image in this episode is that of people writing letters to one another; we see George writing, and and switch to Ross writing and back again:

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There are scenes of signing, Dwight leans down to sign his return to the navy (as a doctor aboard a ship), Ross nearly signs, he takes documents from Pascoe to London. George is continually among his documents, looking at them (as was Ralph Bates in 1975). No longer boxing and fencing with someone, but attacking the world through ownership and lawyers.

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Not a museum piece as Farthing said.

I aim to reread the coming novels, Black Moon and The Four Swans this summer and am now eager for the third season and for all twelve novels to be adapted into this film adaptation. I also hope they will keep the same actors when after The Angry Tide, the series must move ahead ten years to The Stranger from the Sea. As with The Pallisers (where they age considerably) or I, Claudius, I would enjoy seeing the actual presences grow older and change and endure on.

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The working mine the set-designers keep to

In Maureen Turim’s book, Flashbacks in Film, on history: she makes the point how Hollywood films seem always to tell a political or historical story through the story of individuals; one must. Her philosophical criticism is that this must distort realities, especially as often the film-makers choose exemplary characters and of course they get to chose what example they want to present, and often provide a happy ending. One way the history film can get past this is the use of flashback, montage, retrospective, wide far shots, the characters remembering: well at the close of Poldark on the cliff and in the returns to the symbolic buildings, Trenwith, Nampara, the village, that’s precisely what the film-makers are suggesting.

Next up: Outlander, the second season, when I’ve finished War and Peace. Just now I am watching in a row all the Anna Karenina movies, and especially loving the 1978 13 part BBC mini-series written by Donald Wilson, the same man who wrote much of the 1967 Forsyte Saga. Keep hope alive, my friends, keep hope alive. And I will be writing on books too.

Ellen

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The young Sonya and Natasha as we first see them on Natasha and her mother’s name day, Sonya revealing to Natasha how much she loves Nikolai (Episode 1)

Dear friends and readers,

I just loved this mini-series, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov (quietly marvelous); Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova and Joanna David as Sonya Alexandrovna (cousins, both perfect in the roles almost as envisaged by Tolstoy, only Pulman writes for Sonya far more depths of pain and rebellion within); my favorite actress from the 1970s BBCs series, Angela Downs as Marya Bolkonskaya, Alan Dobie slowly melting into a thoughtful conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky, her brother, and perhaps best of all, Frank Middlemas as an unforgettable scene-stealing General Kutusov against the steely-iron egoist Napoleon performed by David Swift. I could go on to name more (Sylvester Morand is a more sensitive Nikolai, brother to Natasha, but perfect as the conventional man, with Gary Watson superbly just your moral effective soldier, Denisov, understandably in love with Natasha). And must not omit the other central controlling creative presence, John Davies as director. There is still such snobbery about TV films that the recent anthology Tolstoy on Screen never discusses it.

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Pierre, young, nervous, puzzled as his father (not legally. and whom he hardly knows but has been all powerful and is enormously rich) lies dying in a nearby room (Episode 1)

It was after my first watch-through of this that I proposed on Trollope19thCStudies that we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace together. Of Tolstoy’s text as translated by the Mauds, and revised by Mandelkera realized: What is so entrancing is how carefully subtly done are all the scenes, how Tolstoy’s philosophical and political thought is gotten into the film by inventing further scenes that frame what’s in the book; how each hour is a unit in its own, with its own mood and juxtapositions fitted so perfectly.

My experience was at first it is hard to get into the story as Pulman is moving naturalistically and not attempting to rivet our attention at all costs. Very like his quietly opening magnificent I, Claudius, this War and Peace series grows on you (like Tolstoy’s book). After a while, you realize you are so involved with the characters and stories and themes. As with my blog on the first two War and Peace movies (going in chronological order of making), the 1955 King Vidor and 1966 Bondarchuk W&Ps, I won’t go over the book’s story line and characters but leave the reader to find a summary or read my first blog on Tolstoy’s novel — or (as I hope) the reader has, or is about to, read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I find the wikipedia page contains minimal cast lists and awards, and no break-down of episodes, no commentary, and there has as yet been not one essay in a published film journal (on-line or off), I’ll proceed episode by episode, 20 in all.

Episodes 1: Name-Day; and 2: Sounds of War

Uncannily (for I doubt Pulman read Tolstoy and his wife’s manuscripts as described by R.F. Christian in his book on the ms’s and sources of Tolstoy’s W&P), uncannily, Pulman reverses the scenes the novel opens with in the way they appeared in an early draft of the book.

The first episode in early drafts of W&P allow us to meet our central Rostov family: the fond weak naive count (Rupert Davies), uxorious over his calculatingly worldly wife, the Countess (Faith Brooke pitch perfect in this part); enjoying themselves by the spectacle now that they won it, all the while they are (clearly) overspending and being sluiced by everyone around them. In this the same limpet-clinger, Anna Mikhailovna (Anne Blake) greedy for money for her slowly emerging worldly son, Boris (Neil Stacy, aptly the same type in The Pallisers, Laurence Fitzgibbon, Phineas’s fair-weather friend). Episode 2 brings us to the first passages of Tolstoy’s novel, “What do you think of this man, Napoleon,” the fake patina of concern, the cant feeling of Anna Scherer (Barbara Young) in talk with the novel’s strongest site of mindless corruption for money and rank, Prince Vassily.

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Anna Scherer and Prince Vassily – the first moments of the novel realized (Episode 2)

Pierre comes in and his candor, intense interest in and sympathy for the “revolution” and Napoleon immediately makes him a pariah, laughing stock, but his equally sincere (if far more polished or cagey) friend, Andrei is there, and we see how bored this intelligent man is with his wife, but also how rough and hard to her. Pierre is as yet flotsam and jetsam and after promising not to go to the debauchery party of the novel’s slimy amoral drone aristocratic male semi-rake, Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker, fitting son for Vassily), Pierre goes and thrusts himself into the drunken feats and cruelty to a bear and police officer that ensue. And then the (for me the first time) the astonishing frank depiction of the fight between Vassily and Princess Katische (cousin to Pierre, stands to inherit a lot if he doesn’t) on the one hand to grasp the money, and Anna Mikhailovna on behalf of Pierre who she hopes will reward her well, over the dying man’s papers & will. The unscrupulous Anna is in fact responsible for Pierre becoming a rich man, a fact that empowers several sets of characters in the book. A fitting contrast to Andrei’s austere, old-fashioned patriarchal home, the rasping tyrannical father, old Prince Bolkonsky (Anthony Jacobs) making life miserable by enforcing geometry on his self-effacing deeply generous puritan of a daughter, Marya.

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From the first scene of Andrei and his sister, Marya, they capture the implicit depths of bonding and communication of this pair (Episode 2)

Andrei unburdening himself of his wife by setting off for the “heroism” and honor of war duty. Andrei will be disillusioned slowly. The different worlds of the upper classes, gender faultlines, feeding off war of “le monde” that form the novel.

And then our first battle: Episode 3: Skirmish at Schongraben

This is a remarkable hour. The BBC people had to film real people, crowds of them in formations, real animals, gotten real canons and shot out from them. They tried for historical accuracy with weaponry and uniforms. They burn down a real bridge they had built. The scenes of masses of men must be there. I wondered what park they were using :). They were not able to project and show the carnage Tolstoy’s language can do so efficiently but it enough was done to be suggestive. The whole hour was given over to these hard war scenes, and an anti-war bias of the film has begun. Frank Middlemass particularly believable, effective — as when they learn of a massacre of the whole army of General Mack, and Andrei appalled to see how little seriously many people take this.

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POV Kutusov hurrying out of his room to Mack to register his sense of the horror the man has known, from the back Andrei

It helps clarify the novel for someone reading this part of it. David Swift starts up the character of Napoleon quietly; Tolstoy begins with the man as nasty, as numinously strong in his manipulative letters, cunning and bold: Swift and Pulman’s Napoleon only gradually shows himself centrally egoistic. But note how we are now in a historical film. And at the close Nikolai’s first experience of battle: his shock at the real danger, at people actually wanting to kill him (though he had wanted to kill them and hadn’t thought about it); when they blow up the bridge it seems to him a game (not so to Denisov)

Episode 4: A letter and two proposals; 5: Austerlitz; 6: Reunions

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Now the spillages begin as well as clear structuring: as the scene opens the Count is weeping over a letter; it’s from Nikolai telling of how he was wounded, the family’s characteristic half-comical over-responses and mode of re-assuring themselves. The unvarnished sincere emotionalism is then contrasted to the worldly cunning which despoils lives: Vassily maneuvers Pierre into marrying his daughter, Helene (Fiona Gaunt, a thankless role), shown to be utterly hollow, embarrassingly sexy, and after wealth of a man she hardly knows and despises, but Pierre unable to extract himself (not for the last time).

The pain to come of this contrasts to the pain experienced when the plain Marya finds herself courted for the first time by Vassily for his son, Anatole.

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She cannot but welcome the possible escape

But the complex old man maneuvers the situation to leave Marya distraught over Anatole’s hypocrisy, and chasing of the French companion-semi-mistress, Mlle Bourienne. The old prince is saving Marya a lifetime of grief, but she is so hemmed in by him she can meet no one naturally. Contrasting close-ups of Pierre desperately pressured and allured and Marya in bed brooding

caughtbecauseattracted (Episode 4)

And again a full episode of war: Austerlitz pivotal in the book, for at its close Andrei seems to have been killed, and the Russians permanently defeated. Long war scenes which show incompetence, scores of people dying for nothing (the book shows this), Napoleon emerges multi-sided, powerful man with an attempt to explain (he’s not at all like the characters seeking true friends, he’d laugh), a man strongly controlled on battlefields and seeming enigmatic political performances.

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Nikolai maturing (Episode 5)

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One of many moments in the battle landscape (Episode 5)

By the end of Episode 5 all the characters are dispersed and then in 6, Reunion, they are brought back to where they started: grief as Andrei’s death is understood from uncertain letters; Nikolai’s home-coming to love; Pierre’s to cool indifference; Helene now having an affair with Dolokov (Donald Burton), a bright cunning amoral rakish and sadistic side-kick of Anatole’s; the death of the princess in childbirth just as Andrei does return. What’s plotted is a cyclical repetitive structuring, a return to the same character in the same situation but older, there’s been intervening experience

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Far shots, odd angles, landscapes each make a different statement: this is a courtyard modeled on typical Russian country mansions of the early 19th century (Episode 5)

I am impressed by how: how brilliantly and convincingly Pulman conveys Tolstoy’s depiction of nervous distress in a nuanced way so as to show it in public situations. The explorations of the miseries of these arranged marriages by showing someone marrying badly and how he’s engineered into it: Pierre with Helene. Pierre has a rich good nature and is thus taken advantage of by Vassily who forestalls his holding off by just pretending that Pierre has asked for Ellen’s hand. Yet Vassily does not succeed with Prince Bolkonsky: Vassily having garnered Pierre’s fortune into his family, makes a move on Maria, the homely Bolkonsky daughter, and ironically the ill-natured man are much better able to fend off this than the semi-trusting instinctive one: Anatole is precisely wrong for Maria who is fooled by him: he would have had an affair with the French governess before he left the mansion. Ironically we see how the foolishly aptly-worldly Andre’s wife, the little Princess does just fine with the hypocritical shits like Anatole and Vassily. Yet she’s become poor in health; she needs society, Andrei as her husband with brains, or her pregnancy will destroy her. Anthony Hopkins’s performance: young then and calibrated just right, with no embarrassment. People individually; in “le monde,” in war.

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

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Walking and Talking (Episode 7)

Episodes 7: New Beginnings; 8: A Beautiful Tale

The first ironically titled; the second (unusual for any book or film) uses a surge of idealism and hope first to undermine Andrei’s bitterness and losses. Andrei is pulled by Pierre’s visits from his retirement and meditatiom, meets and is “recalled to life” (a Dickensian phrase for a man come out of prison) by the intensity of Natasha’s youthful hopefulness and joy in all the sensuality and thoughts, plans of existence found in Natasha at a ball.

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Andrei asking Natasha to dance (Episode 8)

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The sun on his eyes (Episode 8)

Pulman, together with stunning performances by the actors, did justice to Tolstoy’s book. After Austerlitz, after a dual, a death from pregnancy, disease, we see a turn to meaninglessness as the good characters cannot get others to act seriously, usefully, lives not realized, gifts thrown away, the absurd lack of thought and also how the man given big honors knows this (Frank Middlemas as Kutusov got that across at this table). Pierre is driven by needling and insults from Doloknov at the same dinner party to duel with him as his wife’s lover and shoots to kill — an act of naivete (I bond with this aspect of Pierre.) Luckily Doloknov does not die as he in his apparent last breath tries to kill in turn, and then grieves over how his mother will miss him.

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Dolohkov, Nikolai, Denisov Laughing at Pierr, his POV (Episode 7)

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Pierre fleeing the scene of the duel (Episode 7)

Then we have the scene of Pierre shouting hysterically at his awful wife (the portrait in Tolstoy is misogynistic and Pulman keeps to it) to get out. He can’t stand the sight of her. She says oh yes, she can hardly wait, but he is going to pay.
 
Very moving were too long dialogues you’d never see today. The first Pierre on his way to his estate, in retreat from the corrupt society, meets with a Mason and they talk deeply about life’s meaning: whether one should believe in God or an afterlife and what if you don’t. He becomes a Mason. Pullman shows the ceremonies to be absurd (modeled on some performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute either Pulman or Davies saw. 
 
He visits Andrei and now we have another more enlightenment type discourse where Andrea is the atheistic view and more or less wins as probable and Andrei proposes another way to get through life – -you don’t need to believe in this overarching pattern at all. It seems more or less you muddle through. Don’t even try to do good – -which is what Pierre has been trying on his estate. We do get views of the peasants where are deeply class-ridden but the film means seriously
 
A wholly invented scene for Napoleon in council conveys Tolstoy’s views on history (how it works), philosophy (what is the meaning of life even) in ways relevant to politics today. It’s a relief for em to re-watch this film over and over.

Episode 9: Leave of Absence

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Natasha dancing to a folk violin played by her uncle

The title is utterly inadequate: this hour includes the beautiful renditon of the Rostovs’ Christmas embedded inside the family pathologies and tensions and misunderstandings of the Bolkonskys (the old prince’s biting cruelty to Andrey, the countess’s hysterical tirades at Nikolai, his at the stewards) and the desolation of Pierre as with over-voice he tells us of his life with whores/flunkies in his wife’s salon (the Masons have not helped). To me nothing comes near this rendition of War and Peace. From the point of view of moving the story forward, or about the character’s coming fates, the film “wasted” the whole hour. This was a splendid full scale elaboration of a Christmas interlude at the Rostovs in the country just after we are told their finances are in a wretched state – we’ve seen how Nikolai gambled away a huge sum in the previous episode. All the characters are in character: the dinner, the dancing, the hunt with another family; it was atmospheric, the idea Talleyrand’s about how sweet such lives were before the tumbrils began to roar through Paris. it is a high point in the novel too.

Episode 10: Madness

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Natasha trying to explain her vulnerability to such a seduction/attack.

In this episode as Pulman presents this supposedly nadir of Natasha’s young life, she succumbs to her nervous distress at having to wait for a year for a man to return to her and then decide if he wants her, the disdain of his family, and falls for anyone who says he values her. I know outwardly this kind of incident — the young girl eloping with a cad or looking at him so idiotically happens; in the book Tolstoy finds less explanation for it than Pullman in this BBC movie. Davies (BBC, 2015, Lily James as Natasha) has the Freudian erotic enthrallment paradigm in mind more (for Tolstoy that seems to be the whole matter). Sonya saves her and Pierre comforts her. Probably because I now know of the opera playing on Broadway with the title, Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, for the first time I took note of Pierre’s pointing to it as an omen. I didn’t note it much when I listened or read either. Especially the 2007 mini-series made for TV of W&P focuses precisely on this particular incident: that film turns the book into a soap opera heroine-centered Victorian melodrama (idiot girl fooled by vicious young man ends up punished but is comforted by good young man). Pulman’s shows how the same literal material can make a viewer/reader soar as these beautifully natured characters begin to recognize a life’s companion.

Since the characters have been given so much time to develop, the awakening relationship because of this incident between Pierre and Natasya is believable and touching. Beatrice Lehmann is superb as the aunt who rescues Natasha from eloping with the shit Kuragin male, Antoine (married to someone else) on Sonya’s say-so then castigates Natasha for “disgusting” (read sexual) behavior. Unlike Tolstoy’s or Davies, Pulman’s Andrei is hurt but also relieved — he was about to make another mistake, marry another girl far too young for him. Pierre is the site of consolation in the book and this mini-series. No one comes near him in moral understanding. Though he hasn’t got the strength of character to withstand the society around him when he confronts evil, and he certainly hasn’t the power to change much, he is getting better at it. The episode ends with him comforting Natasha

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It is not hard when experiencing this mini-series or reading the book to understand that this core is not the whole even to a limited extent what shapes the experience (which is the mistake of both the Vidor 1955 and the 2007 mini-series). The moment would not have the larger meaning it does without our exploration of the larger corrupt society, the worlds of Russia, the family lives, how so many types find different meaning and loss in their interactions, and how politics by military violence, the top pest males (Alexander I played by the quiet David Douglas is as selfish and uncomprehending of anything beyond himself as Napoleon in the film), and their imitators at all levels impinges on everything. In this scenario, Helene, Anna Mikhailovna, Anna Scherer, Countess Rostov, Katische are the female servants of this order. Those major characters resisting are Pierre, Natasha, Sonya, those upholding but with decent values Nikolai, Denisov, Count Rostov (though he’s been sluiced)

As Borodino is the pivotal moment for “the war” and larger history parts of the book, so Natasha’s enthrallment out of weakness, shame and her near-abduction incident is the pivotal climax for the “le monde” part of the novel. Pulman imitates this structure.

Tomorrow the second 10 episodes.

Ellen

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A photo I took standing in the Metro waiting to get out

Dear friends and readers,

I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for something so important that even that the 6th and 7th episodes of the second season of the new Poldark, and the 1972 BBC film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pulman, featuring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, must give way to another day.

Like a couple of million people — if you counted all the cities and towns inside and outside the US — I went to the Woman’s March against Trump and his truly scary domestic (do not think he means just to take away some unimportant or secondary rights and social programs) and foreign agenda. On the latter I urge you to read Jessica Matthews of the New York Review of Books on “What Trump is Throwing Out the Window” (64:2, February 9, 2017). We are at much greater risk of war, which it would be naive to assume could not go nuclear.

Your intrepid reporter went with a friend and was not able to see very much. To get out of the Metro took I and a friend forty minutes, so crowded were the inadequate escalators and few turnstiles. (The city did not see fit to allow people just to flow through as happened in 1976 in NYC when a happy occasion of an enormous crowd celebrated 200 years of a Republic now under dire threat). So you will learn more generally if you want DemocracyNow.Org, Amy Goodman:

https://www.democracynow.org/live/watch_inauguration_2017_womens_march_live

See also: the Los Angelos demonstration was 500,000, larger than the one in DC:

https://www.democracynow.org/2017/1/24/nobody_speak_new_documentary_probes_billionaire

But I do want to say a few words. I found myself in wall-to-wall people four times. My friend and I were near where some major speakers of the Women’s March were talking and listened to five. I had pushed our way to a grate which was next to a wall and was able myself to sit on the wall and eat my sandwich and drink my water. My friend sat on the grate and ate her snack. But after an hour, she and I and all most of the rest of the crowd had had enough. Chants of March!, We want to march now!, were (I regret to say), were at first ignored. Then the leaders at the place we were in thought the better of that, and said they had a program to present. They cared more about pleasing their speakers and getting their points made. But my friend had had it, and we pushed out and became part of a chain of people slowing making our way to 14th Street. My friend by then exhausted and cold, nervous from the intensity of the crowds, people so close, so packed in, went home.

I trudged on. I discovered that to march in the way originally envisaged was not possible. There were too many people. I saw different groups rallying. Nurses behind a wide banner talking to one another and others outside the nurses. Unions holding rallies with speeches. I got to Independence Avenue and witnessed a swell of people filling the avenue, moving glacially slowly towards the White house. I spoke to a few people on the street as I had in the Metro and did again. They came from all over the US. Everywhere all were friendly; everyone in such a mass crowd astonishingly cooperative and polite. The only exception was a cavalcade of police on motorbikes who behaved discourteously to those they pushed out of their way as they appeared to survey the crowd. At this point I saw a Metro stop and went home. At home I discovered my neighbor-friend had gone. Everyone I have spoken to went.

Trump’s first act in office in the first hour after taking his vow was to forbid the National Park Service from tweeting or reporting daily on their website news. It was a spiteful act because they had reported the low number of people who came to his Inauguration. 10,000. To even put the weather up, one brave employee has put up a personal FB page. Remember Congress has said it can fire at will any federal employee at any point, or put their salary down to a $1.

Then he signed into his administration suspended indefinitely a scheduled cut in mortgage insurance premiums—effectively raising costs for middle-class borrowers by about $500 a year. The drop in rate, which was announced January 9 and supposed to go into effect on January 27, had been lauded as an opportunity to make homeownership more accessible to an estimated one million first-time and low-to-middle-income borrowers. Not content with that, he signed an order that allows all states to use waivers to refuse to enact any of the ACA act. (The hard truth is Obama passed a health care bill which wasso easy to de-fund and destroy it has taken Trump one act to do it already. You can’t do that to social security. To destroy medicare they must de-fund as part of a trillion dollar destruction of all social help for everyone and everything — they’ll do it unless we act effectively to stop them).

You may say that the rump or minority party in power can and will ignore all demonstrations. The demonstrators are like the Occupy Movement. They have no focus. The problem with the march was millions came as individuals and there was no preparation to get them to sign onto anything effective. It was not a global day of action. Alas one of Trump’s uncannily effective insults comes to mind: it was a day of talk, talk, talk, talk.

But the Republicans are a rump, a minority party who has gotten into power by ruthless gerrmandering and huge amounts of money spent on their campaigns since Citizens United permitted this without any controls. They represent a minority of hugely wealthy powerful people who harnassed enough white working class jobless, houseless people without hope or given any concrete solution to supporting themselves and gaining a good life, who felt desperate; and who were fed fake news, but also who (we must say this) are white male supremacists who want to blame all black and minority and immigrant people for their woes and punish them as as compensatory exultation. He has been pleasing all of them (united by systemic racism) with his appointments because the working people do not think social programs help them. These people are ignorant; the education in this country has been bad but not because it’s publicly funded out of general taxes (or has been until recently). They think there is still public housing (none from the federal gov’t since Reagan put an end to all federal public housing) and it goes to blacks, they believe all welfare helped black women. They do not understand that medicare is a federal program, a single payer system — which if they had been given by Obama they would have loved. They read only fake news and watch a propaganda outlet for the wealthy, Fox News. So it is very hard to debate with them since they dismiss all you say as lies.

The simple formula of utter de-funding will now put an end to the extraordinary growth of PBS channels across the US— there goes Frontline, PBS news, wonderful and good drama, good children’s programming. Who will fight for them when so much else is at stake?

So if the democratic party can re-invent itself and from the ground up start winning elections by following a genuinely progressive agenda, this rump can be put out of business. But it must be genuinely progressive: see The Future is Bleak without Radical Reforms. The only people to question Pruitt over health care was Bernie Sanders — only he nailed the man with a question, did he believe everyone had the right to health care. They must break from their millionaire donors, from the lobbyists who grease their lives, resists pressure and threats. And endless ridicule from Trump. And threats.

The second is that this huge demonstration needs to bring home to people that much of the good of their livee has come from the New deal. My father’s good and stable job for many years, my husband’s, the rent control they could rely on for decades (so they could save money), the university I went to (24$ a term), NYC health care, and now my pension, Izzy’s job — I can’t begin to name all the things I have had from the New Deal. I expect everyone else. Their plan is to defund everything. One trillion dollars to be cut from all social programs. That means destroy medicare without admitting it. They even want to end 30 mortgages backed by banks. In Chile two years after their social security system was privatized, most people lost all thei life savings and are now bankrupt.

We need also to understand the tactics here are similar to the Nazi party in Germany. Read the new website that replaced Obama’s. Instead of information about the climate and long reports on realities, there is a short page declaring that no politicized science will go on and the government will support all fracking and “clean” coal and nuclear power plants as well as fossil fuel pipelines and whatever they want. The page outlining civil rights (assembly, the bill of rights) there for decades is gone. Instead there is a page saying the new gov’t is determined to stop all anti-police agendas and its atmosphere. They will support our police absolutely. I would not be surprised if there is an attempt to outlaw videos of police beating and killing people from the Internet.

Five decades — since just before Reagan with the forming of organizations like ALEC: they took hold of courts, aimed at them, got passage of Citizens United — huge amounts of money at the heart of the take over of the states: then they added the suppression of the vote through various techniques: from gerrymandering, to laws which prevent people from voting (voter IDs, mass incarceration robs huge numbers of people of the right to vote ever after — and it’s no coincidence they are mainly black), to simply ignoring the law (Congress is not supposed to prevent the nomination of a person to the supreme court, but advise and consent). The Republicans have discovered they can even get away with nullification: in North Caroline they stripped a man elected to governor who is a democrat of most of his powers to do any good. They are no longer afraid of the “many” (militarized police, egregious injustice it the courts, horrific prison conditions – large percentages of people in solitary confinement, proven a form of torture). Read about Richard Nelson’s family in The Gabriels, how they’ve been ground down.

So yesterday what we saw was a major step in the destruction of the republic that we had — it had evolved into something better than its original during the later 19th century and again during the FDR years (LJB added further helps). All this is about to be cancelled; but not just back to pre-FDR, the very foundations of the republic: voting, obedience to law, observance of the original bill of rights (much of it now gutted).

If people can realize the threat of nuclear war, the threat to their own basic prosperity now and for generations to come, and the deep threat to democracy, that there is only a rump between a good life, peace and what Obama was trying for, then something worth while was achieved today. We still have the vote. It’s not yet been taken from us. VOTE next time for someone who will act in the interest of the 47% (remember Romney who said he thought privately 47% of Americans were free-loaders: he meant all Americans whose lives partly depend on social programs) or if you like 80, or 99.

How to act effectively: you must take what is happening as threatening you, you mus realize it does, and then phone your senators and congressmen, join in wherever you can, give money to organizations like the Citizens United, today’s demonstration will be like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic as it goes down. This final sentence is the reason I wrote this blog here.

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Don’t let this quilt of signs become a symbol of pathos from 80% of people victimized exploited immiserated by the 1% and their 19% of hangers-on.

Ellen

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Mak (Ryan Sellers) and Gill (Tonya Beckman)

Mak (to his wife and the 3 visiting shepherds looking for their lost sheep: Ye have run in the mire, and are wet yet;
I shall make you a fire, if ye will sit.
A nurse would I hire [to groaning wife]. Think ye on yet?
Well quit is my hire — my dream, this is it —
A season.
I have bairns, if ye knew,
Well more than enew;
But we must drink as we brew,
And that is but reason …

Gentle readers,

You still have three days or evenings to get there. Are you down in the dumps and obeying the social conventions to appear all gaiety and cheer? If you can’t catch the theater (live too far away?), not to despair, from photos I gather this production has been done elsewhere so it can move again. Of course I can’t guarantee this inventive staging and lovely music of The Second Shepherd’s Play, as directed by Mary Hall Surface and Robert Eisenstein (music director) now playing at the Folger in DC will do it. Indeed, the reviewer for the DC Theater scene seemed strangely half-apologetic (“though this will not appeal to all tastes” — what, pray tell, does?), so clearly the “magic” he so praised is rare, and the high spirited “originality” another reviewer attributed to the experience (also worrying about the depiction of women as well as something overdone in sentiment), may come across as tepid to our 21st century aggressively explosive film and art experienced taste, but I felt what was so good about it was its quiet human feeling.

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Shepherds, sheep and musicians

What the anonymous cycle play has been known for since it has been revived from the Townley manuscript of 15th century plays (in which it is found) is how it mixes the ordinary vexed feelings of put-upon serfs (giving full play to their complaints about their lives), farcical comedy and (at the close) with sublime religious feeling. David Siegel provides the story-outline turn for turn. In the program notes I counted 23 songs and dances.

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From an illuminated (with pictures) manuscript

To be all scholarly the author is known or recognized as “the Wakefield master” — who lived in Wakefield (to which I used to go taking at least 4 buses from Leeds in the later 1960s). He wrote the First Shepherd’s Play, and four other “pageants” (this one is sometimes called a pageant because of the ending in a creche scene): The Murder of Abel, Noah and His Sons (probably a comedy), Herod the Great and The Buffeting, as adapted by the great poet-translator, Tony Harrison as one of the Yorkshire Mystery plays, a powerful play where we watch a group of Roman soldiers prosaically nail said Jesus Christ to a huge cross and hoist it up. You can read The Second Shepherd’s Play as well as other plays by this Wakefield Master in an old Everyman paperback edited by A.C. Crawley (Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, Dutton, 1959).

I’ve seen it twice. I remembered a film of the Monty Python group doing this story of a hungry shepherd and his wife stealing a sheep and hilariously trying to pass it off as a newborn baby in the wife’s cradle: Dudley Moore was in it and he somehow made the idea he was “biding” in the fields peacefully deliciously absurd. Upon reading the program notes, Izzy told me she and I had seen it before: 2007, and with Jim, but when they’d done, she said it was very different from that earlier version, and this one “much better.” For a start it was longer, something over two hours with intermission.

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Over the mountain to home Mak goes

What was different was the intermingling of song and dance and puppetry. The one large puppet was the sheep, and he (or she) was done with sticks and reminded me of the way a cat will respond to its beloved staff-friends. Its head was all nudge. At different junctures, for example, after Mak ferrets away the sheep while the three trusting shepherds lie asleep, there is a quick set up of a temporary arch and two puppets representing Mak and the sheep are seen traversing hills and valleys to get back to Gill at home spinning. When the shepherds discover that the baby in the cradle is a sheep and elect to toss Mak in a blanket, a large blanket is suddenly there with a puppet tossed up and down. The three shepherds, Coll, the most articulate (Louis E Davis), Daw (Megan Graves, she was a young Juliet in a Romeo and Juliet play I saw at the Folger a few years ago), and Gib (Matthew R. Wilson) are turned into puppets traversing the snow. This is the kind of thing done in the recent Sense and Sensibility: really taking advantage of the live performance aspect of play-making. There is a rolling machine turned and turned to make high winds of a tempest, and the actors twirl ribbons across the stage to make a storm. You could not do this in a film.

I like Renaissance music very much, and as at previous concerts for the last few years, there were guest artists: particularly felicitious is Brian Kay on the lute, performing love music in a melancholy moving way. Daniel Meyers plays various instruments but I remember best what looked like a Renaissance flute; and of course Eisenstein. The ending in the coming of the angel to tell Mary she is carry the “god-head” — a dea ex machina from the balcony sung by an opera soprano (Emily Noel, who sang two other individual songs)

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and the music from the mass (“Gloria in excelsis deo”) was prepared for at the opening of Act II. The play was held off while we had a small concert of very touching music both appropriate to the season and on peculiarly Renaissance instruments (I can’t name them). For me that was the highest moment of the play. Songs familiar (Greensleeves, the Coventry Carol, rounds like Blowe thy horne, hunter) are threaded in along with less familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The titles of the whole lot are reprinted in the program notes.

The underlying feel — desperately needed for more than 2 hours is a group of people who are trying for a peaceful life where they “turn all to good.” (As I say, there’s a 1970s film somewhere of Monty Python finding this very funny — lucky them.)

Third shepherd to Mak & Gill: For this trespass
We will neither ban ne flite,
Fight nor chide ….

As luck would have it, this week I got my bi-annual copy of the Sidney Journal (34:2 2016) and will wonders never cease (?). Two new sonnets by Philip Sidney have been found (!). To me they sound like him. I like these lines in the first (yes plucked out of context, and re-contextualized):

In humble sorte contented yet am I,
Though in dispaire I dye without regard

I also got my yearly Christmas card from Arthur F. Kinney, a great Renaissance scholar who sends Christmas cards each year to each and every person who contributed an essay to English Literary Renaissance (he must have quite a mailing list by this time — I published but one paper, on a sonnet sequence by Anne Cecil in the early 1990s), and this year he chose to reprint and slightly modernize passages from Milton’s “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and I quote these

No War, or Battles sound
Was Heard the World around,
The idle Spear and Shield were high up hung,
The hooked Chariot stood,
Unstain’d with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng …

These lines could be slotted into this play.

The experience brought back memories of when I was an undergraduate just beginning to major in English and read The Second Shepherd’s Play in an Norton Anthology (as well as the great 15th century tragedy, Everyman) and thought how all this is abolished for English majors and certainly for everyone else in most American colleges. I remembered watching the National Theater production of the Yorkshire Mysteries one Christmas for a couple of marvelous hours with Izzy and Laura (then 7 and 14); we would replay it on a video cassette we had taped it onto, and even made two to have a back-up. How joyous and funny the whole thing was. Both cassettes now unplayable.

Somewhere in me too I have never gotten over Christmas at Dingley Dell (Dickens’s Pickwick Papers Christmas) – when I was young my father read aloud to me — so yearn for some re-enactment in that direction. It is, since Jim’s death, not quite out of the question as Izzy and I try for one another. The best way for me is low expectations and minimal joining in (as what is available to a person like me is — or perhaps you too gentle reader). I decorated as far as I could; I send out cards; Izzy and I are going to three events. I was thinking this morning appreciate the use of music reaching out (as in the Folger Consort group) and stay with that, don’t seek anything more.

Jim was something of a musician (read music, would play scores of opera for piano on our piano spinet) and used to say the Folger Consort group was too determinedly scholarly and authentic, and the pre-Renaissance stuff was done dully. Then it was just four aging white men. Two of these people are gone, and now the group hires all sorts of people and are truly creative in their approach, and regularly dare to move well into the 17th century.

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Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape

Ellen

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Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

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Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

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They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

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While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

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

I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

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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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