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The first image we are confronted with: Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), not in a suit, but bare chested, typing a seditious pamphlet, with new Indian girlfriend, also a rebel against the British — he is somewhere in Bengal


Upon returning to Simla, now in the British suit, Aafrin is confronted by Alice (Jemima West), who has been coerced into accepting her abrasive sadistic husband, Charlie Havistock (Blake Ritson)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been far more than a week since I last wrote about Indian Summers; more than a full month has gone by since I framed the series and summarized as well as evaluated the first half of Season 1, one of the finest series ever made, and its second half, a tragic and ironic denouement. In the series itself, it’s three years later, and we are startled to see as our first image, Aafrin, ever trussed up and respectful of the British, naked to the waist, living in what looks like a worn-down bedsit, with a Indian lover, Kaira Das (Sughandha Garg); he is typing a subversive pamphlet, which is about to be printed and distributed in the streets to stir up demonstrations as the possible new viceroy is due to come to Simla at any time. Aafrin looks hard, tough; he has been away from his parents for three years. Kaira is involved with a violent revolutionary we only glimpsed in the first season, Naresh Banerjee (Arjun Mathur).

We switch many miles and with Aafrin as our POV (he is our POV most of this episode) find Alice back with Charlie, the son she had fled with, Percy (Caleb Allen), a blonde toddler who we discover later is the reason she chose to stay with Charlie (so that she would not lose custody). We are soon immersed in the lives of the familiar characters whose circumstances appear to have changed far less.

I shall take it as propitious that I’ve not had time to finish this brilliant series with my readers — for in the interim, the queen (who would have been queen-empress as her father, George VI was king-emperor, if India had not achieved its independence before George VI died) died, Elizabeth II Windsor, causing what seemed the whole world to sit up, take notice, watch the official 10-days mourning of “a nation” and then see put on a spectacular ritual aired everywhere in the world on TVs, internet, cinemas, as a kind of last gasp of the Raj in spirit. And few as they were, we read and heard the voices of protest that called all this magnificent display so much hypocrisy, a vast disguise behind which the grossly unequal arrangements of colonialism and capitalism carried on, less unchanged than you might think (see the comments to my blog The Passing of Elizabeth II).

For myself I’ve determined I will do (if the OLLIs last) The British Indian Novel Take Two, having thought up four different novels/memoirs, books of essays (J R. Farrell, The Seige of Krisnapur; Kamala Markandaya, The Nowhere Man; Salmon Rushdie (nearly assassinated): Imaginary Homelands (a book of essays, columns, life writing); and Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowlands … . I have two 18th century epistolary novels & memoirs partly set in India and hope to get to them soon: Eliza Fay’s Original Letters from India, ed, introd E. M. Forster (!), and Phoebe Gibbes, Hartley House, Calcutta. Both by women. And found my copy of Emily Eden in virago about her time in India in the early 19th century, Up Country

So you see I’ve carried on reading and thinking, and am glad to return to watching, remembering, coming to terms with this more explosive season than the first. Let’s dive in. The second season’s episodes have acquired titles.

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Season 1, Episode 1: Three Years Have Passed. While it seems so much has changed, more thought makes one realize the same patterns, the same emotional relationships and conflicts are being repeated. Again Aafrin is torn. After three years he has taken up with a revolutionary woman in Bengal, and the man who has a plan to blow up the club or the Whelan house – we are shown that bunch of dynamite immediately. And again Aafrin finds himself over his head. He wrote the seditious page, typed it and brought it to the printer, but then he is identified and we are left wondering whether Ralph knows or not. He might. Ralph again this cagey ambiguous character with Cynthia Coffin, looking out for him, a very vicious yet older woman. We see her with two helpers humiliating an Indian man who is trying to get into the club. He has to have a coat of arms. He has to study something and know it. She tells Ralph to send the old Viceroy home, Willingdon (Patrick Malahide) – he has a heart attack when a toy grenade thrown at him. She is gearing up for seeing Ralph become the next Viceroy He’s not sure how to grab the position.


Cynthia (Julie Waters) watching Ralph intently

Madeleine, complete with ayah Bhupi’s wife, and a baby girl in tow, follows Ralph now. The horrible Sarah (Fiona Glascott) is as horrible. ow we see her stealing flowers from the gardens of the house she once lived in but no longer does. She had gone to England to leave her son there, and when she returned found the Dalal family installed. She is enormously pregnant, and has thus trapped Dougie (Craig Parkinson), who has separated himself from Leena and is nowhere to be seen. Instead Sarah sits teaching on a throne, “lessons” which consist of asking the children absurd questions, and laughing at them when they respond with “wrong” answers. She berates and condescends to them. Only a few have left as her pregnancy necessitates their return to England. Dougie is as pliable and useless, grieving over the loss of his school. And surprise, surprise Adam now a young adolescent has been taken into Ralph’s and now the Havistock home as another boy servant; soon he will be joined by Leena (Amber Rose Reevah), who avoids homelessness just, as governess to Alice’s child. It takes half the season for Madeleine to realize Adam is her husband’s son, but his behavior makes it obvious to those who know

The Muslim reporter, Naseem Ali Khan (Tanmay Dhanania) is still sniffing about. Ian (Alexander McCleod) now running his tea plantation, thoroughly his own man, who has not forgotten Ramu Sood. Sooni (Asha Kala) cannot be far away, still politically involved but cannot get Aafrin to tell her anything. Worst off is Alice: returned with a vicious spiteful sadistic husband who denigrates and spies on her, passive, giving in (we learn he buggers her regularly to hurt her) He works for a bank and we will soon learn that Ralph needs this man’s money. Rowntree (Guy Williams going about with his policeman intruding in Indian houses and bazaars, no need for a warrant and arresting supposed culprits.


Kaira has little sense of self-worth …

Season 2, Episode 2: Black Kite (code name for Kaira, who will not survive). Now we note subtle changes from the 1st season; new characters and new emphases. To the credit of the creator-writer Paul Rutman, there is an attempt to give nuance to the character of Cynthia Coffin so she seems more vulnerable and less powerful –- while at the same time as nasty, bullying and ruthless-racist as she had been. Ralph Whelan seems softened because he too is more vulnerable: a Lord Hawthorne (James Fleet) sent from the UK and parliament is either there to himself take over the viceroyship or check out if Ralph is “fit:” Hawthorne is not “radical,” does not wanting really to share power with the Indians (Muslim or Hindu), much less hand power over. We see him respond to Alice’s coaxing that he tell Adam that he is Adam’s father . When Adam is given a copy of a child’s classic owned by her dead brother, Madeleine takes it back. At the same time Ralph is pushing Aafrin to find the terrorist who printed the pamphlets (he knows or suspects that the writer is Aafrin himself).

Aafrin is again like Alice, easily vacillates, easily blackmailed. We are shown more closely a male of pure evil for the first time (like Captain Merrick in Jewel in the Crown. Naresh Banerjee is a crazed terrorist, and when he is shot down by the British (using the excuse Rowntree believes Banerjee spread the pamphlets), Aafrin saves Banerjee’s life, but in ironic reciprocation Banerjee plucks Kaira back from the safety Aafrin had tried to send her to — as she has also been a mole for Whelan (she too has a son to protect). Aafrin had tried to placate the man, first finding a file to satisfy him (that’s an obvious thing Aafrin should not have done, it implicates him too) and when Banerjee uses the information to threaten Kaira as the Black Kite or mole Aafrin desperately says he fabricated the whole file. At this Banerjee coolly shoots Kaira through the head.

The count of those ruthlessly unfairly murdered thus far includes only Indians: Ramu Sood was the first; Jaya’s brother the second (in prison beaten and cut to death) – now Kaira Das. They will be joined by the end of the season when Leena is sent away to prison for 9 years after Hawthorne tried to molest/rape her and Adam, showing real fury, throws sets Hawthorne on fire – she takes the rap. The only white killed will be the moral minister, Raworth, white, is killed – by mistake trying to save a child from a bomb the child is wheeling about.

It’s the truly horrible Charlie who manages to needle Cynthia by calling her Mrs S, a char woman; we see how awful he is again, but this time accompanied by his giving Ralph a big check to keep that mansion up. Alice is unable to free herself, but still making gestures at Aafrin. Cynthia wants to get rid of Alice and urges her to go home (the way she did Madeleine), but Ralph, now more alert to this kind of thing, puts a stop to that. Cynthia also insults Leena when Cynthia sees that Alice has hired her (she was homeless, a beggar when deprived of the missionary job when Mrs R returned and became pregnant) and threatens her if she tells that Adam is Ralph’s son. Sooni’s role remains normative somehow: the mother wants to marry her off to a proper Hindu male and invites a woman friend/relative to bring her son to dinner; Sooni is resisting marriage, she wants to use her lawyer’s degree – it’s the most situation comedy storyline of the series.


Sooni, three years older …

Season 2, Episode 3: White Gods

One might be forgiven for thinking the series is turning into the story of Aafrin, as his trauma and behavior under terrific stress is central to the over-riding plot-design of this one. He is so deeply distressed by Nareesh Bannerjee’s murder of Kaira, and fear what he will do next, Aafrin, again on that same broken typewriter, writes a warning the man has a box of explosive bombs he intends to blow the club or someone’s mansion up with and its in a cave. He manages to persuade Ralph to take this seriously and send Rowntree and his men to search. Nothing is found, but the camera shows us it is in the bazaar. We can see that Ralph follows Aafrin’s advice because he believes Aafrin’s underlying motive is loyalty. Ralph as a character is and must be more self-contained.


Dressing the maharajah (Art Malik) for cricket (sly humor here)

A central scene is a cricket game where Aafrin is required to be umpire. Not easy for the spoiled Maharajah (Art Malik grown much older) whom Whelan is courting wanted to win. We meet this vain and amoral man and his mistress, Sirene (Rachel Griffiths), apparently actually from Western District of Australia (real name Phyllis).

A dinner at table reveals to Cynthia how ugly is Charlie’s humiliations of Alice and so she stops pressuring Alice to leave and to get back at him for calling her Mrs Sparrow provides a room for Aafrin and Alice to carry on. The stress of this cricket game, what he endures at the club (from his well-meaning benign father), and now this fulfillment makes him break out into hard sobbing. He had loved Kaira but cannot refuse Alice and the profferred English way of life she might take him into.

We see Lord Hamilton begin to chase Leena, that Raworth refuses to help her and his kowtowing to his wife again seen as coward’s way. Ralph is beginning to have his whole household treat Adam better, teach him things a Sahib should know … Madeleine watches this


Ralph Wheelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) showing Adam (Dillon Mitra) something

I have omitted my favorite male character: Ian McCleod played by Alexander Cobb: I love how he trails around in an Indian version of a kilt, the relaxed atmosphere around him, the lack of phoniness, the friendship he is building with Sooni — they go together to investigate the place where it appears Bannerjee was “confronted” (it was the other way round) by Kaira and Aafrin, and where Jaya took lost her life too.


Ian relaxed, dressing comfortably for heat and work …

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For Episode 4: Empty Chair (clicking on comments) and Episode 5: Hide and Seek (ditto).


Ralph comforting Alice

The titles of the episodes are mostly ironic. This second season is not nearly as melodramatic as the first, but the politics and human relationships go deeper, have gone on for longer, and are at the end (Episode 10) harsh for many, yet accepted … At this point we are reaching the midpoint of a second volume of a novel.

Ellen

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Ira Aldridge as Othello, by Henry Perronet (1830)

Dear friends and readers,

I saw Red Velvet yesterday and want to recommend seeing it if you live in the DC area (or near enough by) or if it comes to an area where you live. Right now it’s playing — magnificiently — at one of the two Shakespeare theaters in DC. At first I thought I was watching a 19th century American play, but a few minutes thought told me “this cannot be” (because of the humane attitudes of mind towards so many actors in the play’s story); it is a 2012 recreation of an imagined 19th century play

The most central value of your experience might be — for me this is true — is it’s about a black actor of the 19th century who had a remarkable career and life, Ira Aldridge, who, of course, I’d never heard of until I sat down to watch the play. I know there are many 19th century actors and actresses who were white and I’ve never heard (though because of my scholarly area I know about the Irish theater), but I have heard of the most famous ones — and I do know of many in the long 18th century. Aldridge was in his time a phenomenon and great actor; the Shakespeare company has a extraordinarily good actor (very Shakespearean type) to fill the role: Amari Cheatom:


Aldridge (Cheatom) greeting ever-so-chivalrously Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest) who plays Desdemona

A powerful scene over the handkerchief late at night in Othello is enacted before us:

It recalls a painting of Garrick as Othello in the 18th century.

There are flaws. The opening has a curious conventional situation comedy feel, and at times I felt like I was watching some version of Guess who’s coming to dinner?, more than a bit cringe-worthy. It also went on too long as the playwright was determined to include women’s problems in 19th century professional and theater life too. One actress, Kimberly Gilbert, played three roles in the performance I saw (Halina Wozniak, Betty Lovell, Margaret Aldridge) — all of them calibrated to bring home aspects of women’s lives in the European and American theaters at the time (at least two actresses were ill). She managed to be pitch perfect and didn’t need the books she was carrying. But, on the one hand, once the initial introduction of the situation, and some of the “worst” characters was done (the most embarrassingly racist partly because they were transparently trying to hide their attitudes), the story of the play and my deep empathy for Aldridge became gripping;


Here he is, reading the cruelly denigrating reviews

and, on the other, it was so obvious that the woman character was simply describing the realities of female existence then (and sometimes now), especially just after US women had been deprived of a constitutional right to have control over their own body’s welfare and their whole existence’s fate, I was won over. Since when do plays have to be literally probable — the truth is never as plays are by their very form of art a massive suspension of disbelief.

My curiosity was aroused since I knew nothing of the actor (I knew nothing of the way his performances as Othello were received) nor his actual childhood and family background or slow rise in the theater. It had to have been talent impressing enough audiences — in Europe it seems where enslavement of black people had made little money for anyone. One of the places where his performance was not erased from memory by insistent racist denigrations of his physical negroid characteristics was Poland where he played King Lear. This play begins in Poland where he is playing Lear in his dressing room where a woman journalist has come to interview him in the hope of forwarding her career; there is a powerful penultimate scene between Aldridge and his French (very pro-French revolutionary) producer, Pierre Laporte (Michael Glenn) simply the two in front of the stage curtain; the play ends on him back in the dressing room with the Polish journalist, only this time with his face whitened in the way I once saw in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign the despairing black man about to allow white men to murder him in the most humiliating way possible.

The realities of Aldridge’s complicated existence, the ambiguities of his character are not brought out here — these belong to thickened (by full context, by history) biography. It is meant to be a play whose attention pointing content (to American theater, to highly talented black men) contains its importance.

Two worthwhile reviews: Thomas Floyd, in the Washington Post; and Morgan Musselmann for Washington DC News.

As performed in the Old Globe Theater


Albert Jones as Ira Aldridge and Amelia Pedlow as Margaret Aldridge

I came away wanting to know more about this actor and his peopled milieus. It seems to me significant that the playwright is a Bengali woman, born in the UK, grew up in Birmingham, has been involved in producing Calvino (Italian 20th century modernism) and now seems to live between London and NYC. She also adapted The Life of Pi


She is married to a brilliant British black actor, Adrian Lester.

A quietly (it was not over-produced) towering event on behalf of black Americans and the history of American theater putting on poetic masterpieces against all odds for this Shakespeare company. Also by extension Afro-English literature and art — I note she tends to go for distancing forms, does not choose direct realistic kinds of stories. I hope I do not seem mad, therefore, to classify this text as also belonging to Anglo-Indian diasporic texts.

Ellen

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Mandy Deans (Charlotte Riley) and Gabe Kelly (Obi Abili) dancing as the sole interracial couple


Fred Dawson (Joseph Mawle) comes home to find his wife, Rose (Natasha Little) and son, Danny, have developed close, and loving relationship with a German POW, Joseph Schultz (lent to them as a farm worker)

Dear friends and readers,

I spent this afternoon watching two episodes of Foyle’s War with a friend: “Broken Souls” (S5, Ep 2), about the excruciating emotional pain and damage done to people by the war as they come home from that war and attempt to adjust to what has happened during the years gone and as they learn to have to live with the memories of beloved people killed, often in horrific ways; and “Killing Time” (S6, Ep 2), the fierce unrelenting and open racism of US white people in the army towards their fellow black people fighting equally in the war but discriminated against by humiliating and ostracizing practices towards them, threats, beating, excluding them, as well as how in Britain done more discreetly, equal refusals to accept black people as equal human beings. These are just two of six extraordinary exposures and intelligent dramatizations of social problems in society then and now as exacerbated by the violence and cruelty of often senseless and hate-filled war behavior all around everyone.

This is a different slant than the previous four seasons where the emphasis was more criminal behavior occasioned or allowed by war behavior, often on the British side (see my blog on Seasons 1 & 2, May to Oct 1940; and on Seasons 3 & 4, February 1941 to March 1943). The comedy is different too — more class-based, as in (in “Broken Souls”) two elderly once aristocrats, having to do the housework for themselves, but keeping up humane values: Phyllida Law and Graham Crowdon, Sir John and Lady Muriel Sackville, as the kindly couple who take in a traumatized young evacuee who flees his father in London, returns to them. When the boy’s father accuses them of (in effect) not feeling the war, Sir John remarks that their only son was killed (and the camera shows us his photo in the room).


Ironing

The series is often remembered for its brilliance, the seriousness with which the film-makers studied and present real history, the main character of Foyle (Michael Kitchen’s impeccable performances as a morally just and good man), and the emotional power and still extant interest in social problems the separate stories dramatized with clarity and forceful humane inferences. It is also remembered for the puzzling several attempts to cancel it, just after the ending of Season 4, where we are given a story that seems to provide closure for the series; and again the third concluding episodes of 5 (see below) and 6 (ditto). This is not the first time a reasonably popular series has been cancelled, usually on the insistence (falsifying grounds), the ratings were just not high enough (examples include the 1975-1978 Poldark, The Bletchey Circle (2012, 2014), and 2015-16 Indian Summers).

But in some of these there is evidence to show the people in charge wanted to exert their power to change the way the station was operating, were embarrassed by the shows’ content (women-centered, women’s romance); in the case of Foyle’s War I think various people directly and indirectly involved did not like the critical attitude Horowitz in his scripts took towards what was done in the name of the war, and his decidedly anti-fascist and nationalistic stances, his revealing how capitalistic practices (gains for individuals involved in war businesses) caused unnecessary death and suffering. As opposed to other shows, Foyle’s War is incessantly against the idea the ends justify the means; Foyle, let us recall, is a non-compromiser. I can’t prove that beyond retelling the stories, bringing out their uniqueness in these regards.


Sam (Honeysuckle Weekes) from Season 6 (2010)

Today I became aware in conversation with my friend that the second four seasons (5 & 6, so cancelled that 3 years went by before 7 & 8 appeared) have often not been re-aired or screened, with their explosive material thus forgotten or never seen, so decided I would go on to summarize and present them here. In these episodes since the lives of Foyle’s two assistants, Sam Stewart (Honesuckle Weekes) and Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) moved on with time and changed more than the solitary older Foyle’s and war circumstances changed too, Milner’s role was diminished and then dropped, and Sam was seen even more involved in the community of Hastings where her good heart and emotionally moral nature again supported Foyle’s judgements from a spontaneous involved POV, now mostly dressed in civilian clothes.

As in the two previous times, in order to keep the blog a little shorter, I will put the second of set (here three of six episodes) in the comments, separating them out there so the reader can read what he or she is interested in. But this time I am myself going to rearrange or re-order the episodes so three whose content today remain as relevant to us as ever come on the blog itself, with the others (not less searing and poignant or comic than the others) requiring clicking to reach. As Horowitz was forced into moving more quickly in time (or simple did, because he destroyed episodes, possibly over anger at the reactions to them) so the closer relationship of what literally happens inside an episode to what was happening just then in the war is somewhat lost and less time-bound.

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Tommy Duggan (Sam Spruell), the conscientious objector who at the end accepts responsibility for Mandy and Gabe’s baby rather than let the child go to an orphanage

Season 6, Episode 2: Killing Time, June 1945:

The story concerns Mandy Davis (Charlotte Riley) who unwed has given birth to a mulatto child whose father we learn is Gabe Kelley, a black American (Obi Abili). She lives in the boarding house owned by Adam Wainright (Max Brown) who has hired Sam (Honeysuckle Weekes) to be cook, housekeeper and whatever else is needed. Many is desperately unhappy, and hasn’t enough money to buy milk for the child, much less pay rent regularly. We see how cruel her mother Mrs Dean (Gillian Bedford) is to her. She had been going out with Tommy Duggan, a boxer (Sam Spruell), who a conscientious objector, had been sent to farm in Scotland, and who when he returns find himself spurned by everyone but one friend-boss, a manager of boxers who gives him a place to stay for free for now, and who had dreamed of marrying Mandy. Tommy is deeply hurt in several ways all at once.

Sam befriends Mandy, loves the baby great-heartedly, and offers to go with Mandy to a local dance, Ludy will come. To the dance Gabe comes with three black friends, and at first they are badly ostracized but slowly as he asks Mandy to dance and she agrees, the British at least return to the dance floor. We see how the two love one another and long to be a family with their baby.

Meanwhile the murder & violence mystery story is proceeding. Twice we see a rich businessman stopped, fooled by a woman and then robbed by her and an accomplice male – in the wood One of them is on the town council which has been pressured by the local American army captain, Wesker (Adam Jones) to practice segregation in the town. Foyle votes against this: isn’t protection and better lives what we fought for? But he is over-ruled. We see the harsh ways the white American army men treat the black, but there is a especially mean bully, Sergeant Calhoun (John Sharion) who incites others against Gabe hating him for going out with a white girl, who he also terrifies with horrifying stories of lynching and torture black men who so much as look at a white girl are subject to in the states. Many talks with Sam asking why should the color of Gabe’s skin matter. She is fearful for him.

Well, Foyle finds Gabe lying on the ground that night having been beaten by the whites, they form a congenial acquaintance. Then Gabe goes to Captain or Colonel Wesker to request permission to marry Mandy, and at first refusing, Wesker seems to agree.

Foyle still goes fishing (he had shown some of his tackle to Gabe who appeared to understand what he was seeing). Foyle brings fish to Sam, who says he must come to dinner. He arrives, meets Lucy, and a Mr Hains, a man with one arm who is bitter about the war; also sees Many and Gabe openly a pair. This partly happens as Adam had tried to tell Many she must leave since she’s not paying, she had begged him to stay, and Sam protested this, so to make up for bad behavior, Adam is hosting the dinner beyond the fish.

Then one night Calhoun offers to pay Tommy for boxing. The episode had begun with a violent scene of boxing where a white and black man are in the ring; at first the white is winning, but then the black begins to win and beats the white; but as he is about to be given the prize, Calhoun jumped into the ring and gave the win to the white Well, the black men come in (oddly allowed by Calhoun) and soon they white guys are beating the blacks, and Gabe flees to the wood, and when he returns is told Many has been murdered. This is the story he tells Foyle, for Foyle has been called in earlier to view the body, and hear Wesker say obviously Kelly did it, and behave as if Foyle has no jurisdiction; Foyle insisted he has and begins to investigate. At one point Calhoun gets into Gabe’s cell and threatens to kill Gabe’s baby daughter; next thing Foyle is told Gabe confessed, and Gabe will not retract. There’s a scene where Wesker shows how bitter he is – he wishes the war would have gone on for at home he is nobody and here he was respected.

Sam has taken the baby to Mrs Dean who will not take her granddaughter I – her name is Catherine. She goes to Tommy who insists the baby has nothing to do with him either. Meanwhile the social services have come to demand the baby – this happens in Caryl Philips’s novel, Crossing the River: a child of a black man and white woman is taken from her after he is forced back to the US without her.

Tommy has been feeling very bad: he was a genuine conscientious objector because of the fate of his parents after WW1; he was willing to marry Mandy if she’d give up the baby. Foyle watches him very angry at Calhoun for refusing to pay the fee he agreed to.


Sam as housekeeper for Adam Wainright (Max Brown)

There’s a scene where Adam and Sam think if they were a couple, they could take Catherine in – but they are not (yet).

So the key here is that there is payroll robbery the night Mandy was killed – the same night of the boxing match. Foyle has figured out Mr Hains is a Mr Cole, and Lucy his wife, and they are doing the robberies. The new DC not very useful but he does see the prosthetic arm being used as a bat and takes it to Foyle and the serial number reveals it’s owned by a Mr Cole – who is Hains, as Foyle surmises, because he gave wrong answers when Foyle asked him about D-day. Cole was not there he was at Alamein. Through Cole, Foyle learns that it was Calhoun who threatened them into robbing the payroll, then through Calhoun (once he is accused of the murder) that the plot to have a payroll robbery as a distraction was thought up by Wesley who was having Mandy over that night to get her to bed with him in return for really allowing her a Visa to the states. Wesley gets angry at Mandy for refusing to go back to bed, she says she overheard the plot, and he strangled her.

The last scene of the murder-violent robbery mysteries is Foyle walking up to Wesker playing basketball and accusing him of the murder from all the evidence and affadavits he now has. Wesker admits it – as do just about all the criminals in the Foyle series. Wesker is your ambitious American, is brought up in these final moments. It was his ambition that drove him.


Sam as joyous and cherishing baby

We switch to a scene where Gabe is being urged by his black friends to get into the truck to be shipped home. He stands there and drives up Foyle and Sam with the baby. Sam gives the baby Catherine into his arms and says he will return to bring her back to the US. The orphanage people are there to take Catherine back, but Tommy turns up and says he will take care of Catherine – with the older man who has given him space and the man’s wife – until such time as Gabe returns. He is actually a good-hearted man, and the Coles not bad people.

I came near tears in several of the scenes with Gabe, and I worried intensely for Many and him.

I feel I was that moved because of all the horrible racism I’ve seen in the US since Trump became POTUS, last week the Buffalo slaughter was just so painful to read about Apparently there was segregation forced on some towns during WW2 by the American white army men; there were outbreaks of racial violence in the UK after the US army arrived; conscientious objectors were vilified by ordinary people. The terrible stories of lynching and what happened to black people in the 1940s and still today wouldn’t have pleased a US audience, nor the nailing of ambition and greed as central problems in life beyond racism. US and UK soldiers said to be killing time while they waited either to be disbanded when the war truly over – or sent back to the US It’s also a possibly killing time – time when characters are killed.

Horowitz didn’t write this one; David Kane did. Horowitz also didn’t direct; David Richards did. But this is a Horowitz story in content, feel, mood.

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Foyle playing chess with Dr Novak (Nicholas Woodeson)

Season 5, Episode 2: Broken Souls, October 1944:

This was the saddest of all the stories thus far; its central themes are the criss-cross of people coming home from the war and finding that those living w/o them for45 years say have found new friends, new associates. The example is a working class or agricultural farmer , Fred Dawson (Joseph Mawle) come home from having been a POW, crippled in his legs (frost bite from having been badly treated), to find Rose, his wife Natasha Little) has developed a tender friendship with a German POW, Johann, (Jonathan Forbes) and his son Danny is very fond of this German man. Fred is nasty to Johann, refusing to give him a meal, a place, cannot accept the man’s apology that we are the same, and the man returns to the German POW place. Johann so lonely flees, perhaps back to the farm.

Alas, another man deeply troubled, the head Doctor Josef Novak, in the nearby mental clinic happens by and hears Johann speak German. Novak has tried to kill himself, tried to take on the blame of the murder of a Dr Worth (Jessie Birdsall) who was about to go to Edinburgh for a promotion; he plays chess with Foyle regularly; it emerges the murderer was another lower level doctor, Iain Campbell (Nicholas Woodson) having an affair with a Peter Phelps (Alexander Gilmore) patient’s wife, Joy (Sally Leonard); Worth found out, blackmailed Campbell and was about to expose him anyway. Novak thought it was the pathetic patient, Peter because he was seen with blood all over his hands crying over the body. That was a scene cruelly set up by Campbell who sent the man to a kind of prison. Novak goes into a rage because all the war he has been carrying the burden his family was sent to a ghetto (Lubin, terrible place) and then a concentration slave-death camp and he happened not to be there, and that night at the movie-house he hears of the camp’s discovery and the probable deaths of his whole family so horribly.

Novak feels terrible; he is seen by Tommy Crooks (Danny Worters). Everyone suspected the murderer was Fred Dawson, but it wasn’t. And the penultimate scene is of them coming together: she has accepted him all along, and now he must accept how she survived with the help of Johann for 4 years. Who’s Tommy Crooks?

There are people who’ve lost beloved relatives, an elderly man and women, a Sir John and Lady Muriel Sackville, now w/o servants (Graham Crowden and Phillipa Lawe) and their one son, who took in 3 evacuees find one of them returns, a troubled working class boy, Tommy, from London, trying to escape a rough crude father and loving the countryside, which father comes looking for him, very angry: when at the end the father finally gets access, the boy asks, why do you want me, and the reply is, because you’re mind Not good enough, the father breaks down and says he is desperately lonely since his wife, the boy’s mother was killed in a bombing raid, and needs Tommy. Then the boy agrees.

The only pair we feel little for are Campbell and the truly faithless wife, Sally who abdicates responsibility for her husband allowing impersonal people to remove him from the scene to where he’s the least trouble. They as types could be found in any sleuthing story.

I’ve unraveled the relationships but this is not the order in which we see the people nor the order in which Foyle slowly uncovers who did what, what are the deepest feelings of those involved. We begin Dawson come home and painful scenes; move to with Novak, in the clinic (where we meet some of the clinic characters) and then come to the restaurant to play chess with anyone who is usually Foyle. We then see Tommy racing around the countryside, seeking the kind people and lovely place he had been in for a few months.

Foyle is quietly central all throughout with Milner (Anthony Howell) guessing things and doing the bidding of finding information. Again Sam (Honeysuckle Weekes) carries the comedy – as at the end when she and sergeant win some football bet and are at first dismayed that Foyle wants to give the whole of the 100 pounds to a Jewish refugee fund. He relents with a smile, to say let’s keep and with rations see what we can eat. She helps find Tommy for thought that uncle Vicar (who we don’t see in this episode) she knows the Sackvilles. And so it goes on for 90 minutes with beautiful scenery to boot.

Michael Kitchen, Foyle seems to take on him, within him the world of profound loss and at the end some gentle hope that he comes across in most, many of the characters. A class bias is going on – – for as presented Foyle as boss seems a more serious person, or higher rank and the others somehow not quite his status, but we should remember that he is not high status, a policeman is middle class – early on we met a genteel upper middle woman who loved him (Amanda Root) and rejected him because her father could not approve of her lowering herself and so married a man of her own class, not a bad sort, but she never loved him as she once did Foyle.

I don’t have a Companion for this episode and there is “making of” or information notes, but Wikipedia does say the concentration camp Novak’s family (all but his daughter who it turns out in the last chess game did survive), Mjdanek was notorious; so too Lubin a horrifying place. German POWs were billeted near Hastings. The movie the doctor meant to see on the night he killed Johann, Going My Way, was playing in 1944; he saw instead an Abbot and Costello and news report,which can be located as by BBC correspondent Alexander Werth. Finally the fictional article Dr Worth used where he told the case of Peter Phelps about trauma in war existed (Oct 1944, Journal of Medical Science). Foyle can be seen reading real newspapers.

One of many peculiarly fine programs. The people attempting to cancel this program should have been shamed.

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Foyle and Hilda Pierce, “Special Operations, a ruthless spy type (Ellie Haddington) who becomes a regular in the 7th & 8th seasons as “cold war” politics and post-colonial themes take over

Season 5, Episode 3: All Clear, May 1945:

I found myself moved to tears by the end of this one. Again the theme was the people coming home, and instead of a naïve celebratory stance, we see how hard the war has been on everyone, and how difficult it is to re-integrate. The calendar is used: we mark the days in May to the announcement by Churchill that Germany has surrendered, with which announcement the series and season ends. This is where we have the biggest jump in time until now: 5:2 was April 1944 (D Day June 1944), so it was in this actual year that Horowitz discarded a number of scripts intended slowly to bring us to the end of the war.

One story repeats a motif from 5:2: a soldier, Edward Hylton, comes home to intuit that his wife, Janice, has changed; we learn over the course of 100 minutes she has had a baby by the hotel manager, Martin Longmate, now looking to run for public office. It’s living with her mother; Longmate wanted her to abort it, but she has not, and this story of alienation, an obdurate husband, ends with him overhearing the truth and (apparently) forgiving her and taking in the baby – but we do not stay for how he manages to re-integrate as a carpenter.

As the episode opens a celebration is being planned, and the American officer we met in Invasion is back, Keiffer, unable to renew the fishing friendship he had with Foyle. What we gradually learn is he is hounding Mark Griffiths, a member of the committee who made a mistake in calculations which resulted I the drowning deaths of many soldiers (an event both Griffiths and Keiffer have nightmares about), it’s been hushed up. Through several different contacts, most notably (once again) Hilda Pierce, this spy intelligence agent Foyle learns of this hushed up incident. Foyle can do nothing as Griffiths killed himself so no one can be tried in court.

Still the reason Foyle chases this one down (with help from Milner) is that Griffiths was seeing a psychiatrist who is murdered during the episode. The murder victim is Dr Henry Zeigler, an Austrian, who was doctor for Janice as well as Milner’s now wife, Edith, expecting a baby. It’s Edith’s recognition of Janice that alerts Edward, her husband, to something significant that Janice is hiding.

The depth of feeling in all these is created by the script and the actors so we do not feel this is a circus of improbable distress at all.

Meanwhile while on the one hand, Milner is waiting for a letter to transfer him to a promotion elsewhere (which come at episode’s end) and Foyle has put in for retirement, Sam is looking for another job – and finds herself up against interviews demanding hypocrisies of all sorts. She finds a volunteer position (so unpaid) by a charity organization where we see how hopeless such impersonal attempt to help people find jobs, or places; among those turning up is Andrew, Foyle’s son.

One of the deepest moments in the episode is when Julian Overden turns up as Foyle’s is fishing alone. I cannot account for how Michael Kitchen’s face conveys so much relief after pain. Andrew re-starts his relationship with Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks) who is no easy turn over; Foyle reminds his son, Andrew, how he has hurt her. Their scenes, Sam and Andrew, are done in that third person with the pair of them referring to themselves in the third person the way we’ve seen Foyle do on several occasions with women attracted to him.

Glad to say the shit Martin Longmate, clearly from conversations against the labor transformative goals including Bevin’s heath care is nailed – though the references by Foyle to Longmate being hanged should be bothering – – this viewer is glad Longmate who hurt Janice, was going to take on Sam In the same spirit will be stopped. Foyle says what a shame, you are prefer for a politician.

Again class-based comedy comes out of the sergeant and other police officers going off for mild celebrations. Very moving Churchill’s speech heard over the radio. Quiet diurnal: people can’t sleep because they don’t hear bombs coming over. Milner’s wife wants to name a boy Winston as in Winston Milner; he’s relieved it’s a girl but now she’s Clementine Winston. Sam is for voting for Churchill – he’s pulled us through, hasn’t he?

Quiet diurnal: people can’t sleep because they don’t hear bombs coming over. Milner’s wife wants to name a boy Winston as in Winston Milner; he’s relieved it’s a girl but now she’s Clementine Winston. Sam is for voting for Churchill – he’s pulled us through, hasn’t he? E.M.

The episode ends with the furniture of the old office taken away and Foyle left alone to turn around and leave


Horowitz’s success was partly due to his wife, Jill Green, as also producer, a central part of the film-making team

The disk does return us to better times. A 12 minute making of Foyle abut the secret map making activities behind 5:1, and some real people testifying to how it was done. The Imperial war Museum head now talking for the first time. And reasonable commentary in words from Weeks and Milner about how much the series has meant to them and what they did otherwise (Weeks participated in marathon runs). Another thing to mention about the disk for 5:3 — intrusive trailer at the beginning and no trailer at the end ruining your feeling about the ending you’ve just experienced. As Horowitz thought he was going out, he at least got respect and silence for the program he had just made and the viewer just watched.

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To read about Season 5, Episode 1, Plan of Attack, April 1944, in comments; Season 6, Episode 1, The Russian House, June 1945, in comments; Season 6, Episode 3, The Hide, February, 1945, in comments.


Kitchener as Foyle and Weekes as Sam, 2013 — 7th and 8th season (this will be my last blog on Foyle’s War)

Ellen

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Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) arriving at the Indian station

When Aziz reads a poem at dinner to assembled friends, who most of them don’t understand it very well, we are told “it voiced our loneliness nevertheless, our isolation, our need for the Friend who never comes but is not entirely disproved … (A Passage to India, Ch 9, p 77, Norton edition)

Dear friends and readers,

As my wonderful course (if I do say so myself) draws to a close, I feel I must give tribute to Forster’s stirring masterpiece, A Passage to India: talking of Forster by the end of the first day, and reading and discussing his book (and other writing by him) together for nearly the next three sessions began our 10 week journey wonderfully well. There seemed to be so much to say that was meaningful to us, so many beautiful and intriguing and witty and poignant passages to read aloud and decipher, with Forster himself as a humane prophetic voice outside his novel too. We kept coming back to him and his book too, as having laid new bases of developing thought against colonialism, in the context of a genuinely realized (if narrowly glimpsed) Raj context. David Lean’s film brought the book visually before us, helped us to see what Forster was describing:


Crossing the bare rock mountains using an elephant on the way to the Marabar Caves …

I’ve been surprised to discover I’ve never written on A Passage to India: I’ve blogged on A Room with a View, Howards End, and Maurice, books and film adaptations (sometimes there are two) together, on his anti-fascist politics, aesthetic theory, and connections to Bloomsbury. My guess is I’ve been intimidated by the book’s reputation, and now that I’ve recognized the flaws, strengths, the characteristics A Passage to India has, along with other Anglo-Indian novels, I grow braver. It belongs to a kind (discussed ably by David Rubin in his After the Raj:  British Novels of India after 1947 — also before).

First how it relates to the other well-known fictional work — the realistic novels.  All but one was published in a short period, that is, 5 novels (the two I’ve not mentioned are Where Angels Fear to Tread, and The Longest Journey) between 1905 and 1924.   The 6th and in some ways least flawed (least inconsistent) is Maurice, published posthumously in 1971 (a year after Forster’s death) because it tells the tale of a homosexual young man growing up, falling in love, and like other novels of manners has a very hard time choosing the life he truly wants to live, with the partner he truly loves. Its central dilemma or preoccupation resembles that of the other 5:  can his characters resist society’s perversion of their heart’s desires, think and feel clearly for themselves. Even A Passage to India manifests this dilemma — in Adela Quested’s case.

But A Passage to India also goes beyond this:  it dramatizes how we are as individuals products of encompassing group cultures we cannot escape, no matter how contradictory that culture is.  So it’s not enough that Fielding defies those around him.  Deeper attachments limit the ways and the whole society as a presence prevent him and Aziz from forming a long-lasting close-by relationship.

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Dinner at Fielding’s gov’t college gardens: Aziz (Victor Bannerjee), the book’s central consciousness, Muslim, a trained physician, Adela, who has come out to India to discover it so she can decide whether she cope with the role of memsahib and become the identity asked of her by her bethrothed, Ronny More (Nigel Rivers) and Prof Godbole (Alec Guiness), not to be trusted, evasive, undermining, a Hindu, two feeling congenial

Then how does it relate to the author’s life: A Passage to India directly mirrors Forster’s own experiences twice in India: 1912-13, with friends touring and visiting; and 1921-22 , living as a private secretary in a princely state. Aziz is a portrait of two men Forster loved and the maharajah he worked for, and the uneasy time he experienced there, plus of course probably much reading. He poured himself into it; he struggled to present his own experience of sexuality transposed to a publishable fiction. Here you must read his Hills of Devi, and Wendy Moffatt’s biography of Forster, A Great Unrecorded History (see the bibliography).

The novel is divided into three parts: Mosque, Caves, and Temple – with the longest section the middle; all three begin with a deep dive immersing us into landscapes, the first immediate realistic; the second geological, geographical moving wide and far; the third turning inward to show ceremonies and rituals’ affect on those participating and watching.

The first section is a varied and graphic comedy of manners, where we experience the prejudices of the English, the way they inflict humiliation (as a minimum) in the way the English interact with Indians. An intuitive and unusual rapport emerges between Mrs Moore (Adela’s fiancé’s, Ronny Heaslop’s mother) and Aziz, between Aziz and Fielding. We see Aziz’s profession of doctor, his friends; the crass officials; Ronny and Adela are groping their way into becoming a pair (they are deeply alike in some ways).

The second section is the trip to the caves, the misapprehension of Adela which results in an accusation of assault and rape by Aziz, the tremendous explosion of the British into such distrust, and near hysteria. We experience the trial, Aziz’s acquittal when Adela is courageous enough to defy everyone and say nothing happened that mattered, the ostracizing of Fielding when he responsibly, humanely, sides with Aziz, Fielding’s having to leave, Mrs Moore choosing leaving (in her case death), the intense anger of Aziz and his distrust of Fielding.


Fielding, worried, looking out to see what is happening to his friend …

Third section, two years later, Fielding returns with Mrs Moore’s daughter, Stella, as his wife, and her son, Ralph, who seems weakly autistic, but gentle, meaning kindness and homoerotic in his behavior. So many lies told Aziz which he wanted to believe (he has gone to a princely Hindu state), are barriers Fielding must break down. Their friendship seems to be returning, but as ever then end in a quarrel with Aziz demanding the British get out and leave the Indians free to be fully dignified, in charge of themselves

Major Characters: Aziz — filled with good feeling, meaning well, wanting to trust people, to love them. He doesn’t think. He is prejudiced – and distrusts profoundly English people and their values. Sees them as very mercenary. Has he bought into the idea he might be inferior? He over-reacts his eagerness to please. You find that Masood, a beloved Indian friend who came to study at Cambridge, to whom the novel was originally dedicated, lies behind parts of Aziz’s character, was the muse of the book.

Fielding — our enlightened man, basically an atheist – he says quietly at one point he goes along with things but believes little.

Adela is searching to make for herself a livable identity.  Does she want to be a memsahib? As Ronny’s wife? there was a rapport, but could she have endured the social life? What was there for her in England.  It’s arguable Ronny Heaslop is a major character; he is left reactive, but I’d like to note that he is made more understandable and sympathetic in Lean’s movie.  A letter forgiving everyone at the end of the novel from him justifies Lean’s treatment.

Mrs Moore. It’s hard not to be fond of Peggy Ashcroft in the film (especially as Barbie Batchelor in Jewel in the Crown film) and there is a carry-over . How does she appear at first? Very enlightened? Yes, she is fundamentally a kind reasonable woman, but aging and now under pressure easily irritated. She has been married twice and has two grown children, Stella and Ralph. It seems she has more affection for the other pair, is hostile to her older son, Ronny. She speaks against marriage more than once – one theme across Forster’s work is the absurdity of heterosexual courting patterns and reasons for marriage.  Forster very good at inhabiting women characters here and in previous books (Lucy Honeycomb, Margaret and Helen Schlegel) and we like her and believe in her, but she is no goddess.

Godbole — fundamentally untrustworthy (a caricature possibly of a Brahman type personality?) He lies a lot, and lets other down. He is given more presence than any of the other non-British characters but Fielding.

The characters and narrator engage in conversations of some depth: about metaphysical issues (death, ghosts, memories) and everyday ones as how to cope with this other person; with a job requirement, with the food, heat. They shout at one another, they cry. There is also a wider and deeper dimension to this fiction – It’s been called an existential meditation. Most of the time they are woven into a character’s thoughts or a scene. Claustrophobic codes for western women, purdah for eastern. How each of the characters responds to Adela after the accusation and also after she tells the truth a measuring stick, men dizzy with outrage. How very hard it is for people to socialize for extended periods of time. But sometimes it’s the narrator there frequently and importantly commenting, switching our POV, ironic, passionately there, with striking original thoughts as we move through the experience.

More on its themes: it’s arguable that while the novel dramatizes the failure of the liberal humanistic POV literally and often in life, it also dramatizes its source in the kindest, sensitive, intelligent and loving-loyal hearts and that without this producing friendship and sustaining order life is not worth living even if your surroundings are beautiful.

There is also an important vein of mysticism or transcendence in Forster’s ideas about art and life and his art here and elsewhere. Something ineffable and beyond what words can explicitly reach or explain that makes for beauty and the finest moments of experience. I capture it best in a small vignette from Howards End that Reuben Brower points to:

The heroine Margaret Schlegel goes Christmas shopping with the book’s Mrs Moore (her name is Ruth Wilcox) and is depressed because the inadequacy of buying and selling (profanation) and worse yet sometimes gift giving as an expression of some sublime event that gives meaning to lives: “in public who shall express the unseen inadequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity, personal intercourse and that lone hints at something beyond … “ The inner life the two women have lived in this house together … At several turns Fielding and Aziz have conversations where they too try to reach for some deeper insight or companionablenss


Fielding and Aziz in the film’s closing adieu: they have no social space allotted them in which to form a relationship

Problems in the book: Forster is a homosexual man masquerading as heterosexual and the drive in the book is to dramatize his experience of sex, so that the deepest friendships are male; each part ends with talk frustrated and longing between Fielding and Aziz. Caricatures and condescension towards Indians as well as the Anglo-English characters.  The depictions of sexual interaction are veiled because this is territory Forster is not allowed to speak for real in. He adumbrates the political dimensions of the ongoing crisis between powerless and many abysmally impoverished Indians (as yet) and British blindness, insularity, prejudice, wealth, but he fails to explore any level of gov’t seriously, name or describe any realities on the ground then (heaps of blackmail, injustice, gouging of people), not even the 1919 Amritsar Massacre.

Here is what Forster said of his book to a contemporary Indian critic:

this book is not really about politics, though it is the political aspect of it that caught the general public and made it sell. It’s about something wider than politics, about the search of the human race for a more lasting home, about the universe as embodied in the Indian earth and the Indian sky, about the horror lurking in the Marabar caves [of nothingness, no meaning, and despair at what is] … It is — or rather desires to be — philosophic and poetic.


The scenes of the excursion itself, the train across the landscape are among the most striking of the book — and the film captures these

I’ve enjoyed all the movies made thus far enormously — perhaps David Lean’s A Passage to India less so (I don’t care for the way Adela is turned into a neurotic sexually twisted woman, maybe I’m not much for the epic approach) than the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s (A Room with a View, Howards End, Maurice), Andrew Davies’ (A Room with a View), and Kenneth Lonergan’s (Howards End).

I admit in the end I just loved Forster’s A Passage to India, the way I’ve learned to love all his books, and long to go on to read more. Jim loved Forster’s biography of Lowes Dickenson; I find I love his criticism, his short biographies, his essays (Abinger Harvest, Two Cheers for Democracy) and talks for the BBC from 1939 (“What I Believe”) to the end of WW2. I love reading the best critics about him and his books. And I love Forster’s taste in poetry, reading his favorites (Cavafy), about what his friends wrote of him, about the places he traveled through and what he felt (Alexandria, Italy, Greece, India).

The sky settles everything … (A Passage to India, Ch 1, p 2, Norton edition)

Ellen

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Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King in the background


James Baldwin (see I am not your Negro)

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” — George Orwell

“Why of all the multitudinous groups of people in this country do you have to single out Negroes and give them this separate treatment?” — Thurgood Marshall, arguing in Brown vs the Board of Education.

Dear friends and readers,

For the past couple of years, beginning around the time the pandemic quarantine began (March 2020) I’ve been taking courses in Black history at the two colleges for retired people where I also teach: OLLI at AU and OLLI at Mason.  These included: “The History of Reconstruction;” “Racism in America Civil to Post World Wars,” “Teaching Black history in Virginia;” “Black History;” “The Life and Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks,” August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. I’ve made an effort to watch Black films, .g. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing); King Richard (very recently), on Richard Williams and his two tennis-champion daughters, Venus and Serena).

I’ve gone to museum exhibits, The Warmth of Other Suns (adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s book), made a real effort to teach Black authors (Caryl Philips and Toni Morrison) and Black History myself.

I discovered a history of cruel devastation inflicted on people of color whose ancestry was in Africa, not only during enslavement, but for over a hundred years thereafter, with 1965 an important gain but not enough to offset hundreds of years of money and labor exploitation, imprisonment, humiliation, periodic massacres as part of a reign of terror (lynching just one aspect of this), to say nothing of their renewal in the 1990s with the movement to mass incarcerate Black men and the continued casual killing of Black people by police in the streets.

I had when a teacher of undergraduates regularly taught James Baldwin, once tried Richard Wright’s Native Son and once Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (very painful experiences), as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

Lincoln’s birthday. In NYC when I was growing up, we got the day off in school and other places and lots of ceremonies remembered him. Heather Cox Richardson (2/12) shows the logic that Lincoln used to show how dangerous and pernicious the right to and legal practice of enslaving others is. I know from my own reading one term where I taught a course for American University called American Literary Masterpieces that Lincoln’s speeches all show a man repeatedly arguing for the equality of man (alas he does not mention women) and against enslavement of people. It’s unmistakable – whatever historians say about the delay of the Emancipation Proclamation. I felt I could not teach a course in American literature of the 19th century without some real grasp of who Lincoln was. It was that class where I read with students Frederick Douglas’s autobiography, told of slave narratives and we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as one of the units).

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So from this long complicated history of egregious injustice, from all these heart-rending and uplifting stories (because Black nonetheless have made astonishing advances in the few years of liberal outlook (say 1960 to 1980s in custom, in law 1965 until the present Supreme court began to gut all the civil rights legislation that had been passed since the 1960s), what can I offer to add to public memory.

One sobering pattern: repeatedly throughout Black history in the US when a great and good Black man rises to prominence and begins to do wide-spread good he is murdered in his later 30s (true of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, David Walker; see also demonstrations/protests; my blogs on LiveJournal under racism in America). John Lewis almost was.

One heartening one:


Henry Ossawa Tanner — The Banjo Lesson

The history of the initiation and growth of Black education in the US, the slow creation of colleges so that what one saw briefly in reconstruction for a very few people slowly slowly grows to have a network and buildings and libraries and places of order and safety of which today Howard University is a kind of crown jewel. – though recently they too have wiped out, gotten rid of their classic department – no more Latin and Greek study. It is through hard study, her education, going to Howard University (itself infected by class and racism), as teacher at a historically black college, and then editor in a publishing company.

Students who are freshman are sometimes so puzzled as to why learning this text is going to lead somewhere – why memorizing this or that formula matters – experience teaches them if they have not had parents who were able to. Also Civil Rights (1866 Gates mentions) acts which while ignored or undermined were put on the books and when we come to obey the law matter.

Focus on Oberlin College, founded in 1833 as a communitarian settlement, admitted more Black students than all other American colleges combined before 1865. It was coeducational and early in its history had financial troubles under pressure white males only but they held out. One private preparatory school for Black children supplied 1/3rd of the Black student body. They had some extraordinary individuals even in the early years; a weakening between 1880 and 1948 when Black and white students made to eat separately and segregated housing. Again and again in the history by Gates you see Oberlin active for good for enabling Black people to become professional, to be trained, to later seek places for some power. Oberlin is now the base for the Toni Morrison society

In the perspective I’m outlining the importance of Affirmative action can be seen.

After emancipation, 1865 Freedman’s Bureau, Freedman’s Aid societies, Northern missionary groups establish schools. The most enduring ones have been Fisk University, 1865, Morehouse College and Howard University 1867, Hampton University 1868. Since I have to go fast I fast forward to the important conflict between those I’ll call appeasers, Booker T Washington and not just aspirationalists but aware that being taught to be more than skilled people in trade jobs was crucial for Black people to build a society– among these an important voice. W.E.Dubois, famous for Souls of Black Folks. Which I have read. He sounds like a hard Emerson. What shall be in the curriculum intensely important. One needs Black physicians for a start. Black people conflicted themselves over their goals and how to go about it early on. As Malcolm X and MLK did. By 1890s should you include Black people and achievements in international expositions. Black journalism promoted by liberal whites (previously abolitionists)

In popular history a great deal is made of the star – star athlete, singers, musicians, fighting in these wars too. There are so many in different walks of life I’ll confine myself to one: Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander, 1898-1989; she earned a Ph.D in economy at the University of Pa, dissertation was Standard of Living Among one Hundred Negro Migrant families in Philadelphia. She went to law school, serves in National Urban League, ACLU, hired by Truman for committees, for Kennedy and for Carter. History of wonderful paintings – early Henry Osssawa Tanner The Banjo Lesson.

The central importance of the church for African-American people – and its leaders. Rev William Barber comes to mind

Two individuals lost from memory, whom you may not have heard of.


1875-1950

Carter G. Woodson, 1926, a historian, determined to write The Negro in History. He was one of the moving people behind the successful creation of the NAACP. From his achievements:

In January 1916, Woodson began publication of the scholarly Journal of Negro History. It has never missed an issue, despite the Great Depression, loss of support from foundations, and two World Wars. In 2002, it was renamed the Journal of African American History and continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Woodson published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. His other books followed: A Century of Negro Migration (1918) and The History of the Negro Church (1927). His work The Negro in Our History has been reprinted in numerous editions and was revised by Charles H. Wesley after Woodson’s death in 1950. Woodson described the purpose of the ASNLH as the “scientific study” of the “neglected aspects of Negro life and history” by training a new generation of Black people in historical research and methodology. Believing that history belonged to everybody, not just the historians, Woodson sought to engage Black civic leaders, high school teachers, clergymen, women’s groups and fraternal associations in his project to improve the understanding of African-American history.

He served as Academic Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, from 1920 to 1922.[26] By 1922, Woodson’s experience of academic politics and intrigue had left him so disenchanted with university life that he vowed never to work in academia again. He continued to write publish and lecture nationwide. He studied many aspects of African-American history. For instance, in 1924, he published the first survey of free Black slaveowners in the United States in 1830.

And David Walker (1796-1830) — one of those murdered in his later 30s. His centrally important was was An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Read his life and work in wikipedia; here is a central section of An Appeal:


Freedom’s Journal, first newspaper owned and operated by Black people in the US

In his Appeal Walker implored the black community to take action against slavery and discrimination. “What gives unity to Walker’s polemic,” historian Paul Goodman has argued, “is the argument for racial equality and the active part to be taken by black people in achieving it.” Literary scholar Chris Apap has echoed these sentiments. The Appeal, Apap has asserted, rejected the notion that the black community should do nothing more than pray for its liberation. Apap has drawn particular attention to a passage of the Appeal in which Walker encourages blacks to “[n]ever make an attempt to gain freedom or natural right, from under our cruel oppressors and murderers, until you see your ways clear; when that hour arrives and you move, be not afraid or dismayed.” Apap has interpreted Walker’s words as a play on the Biblical injunction to “be not afraid or dismayed.” As he points out, “‘be not afraid or dismayed’ is a direct quote from 2 Chronicles 20.15, where the Israelites are told to ‘be not afraid or dismayed’ because God would fight the battle for them and save them from their enemies without their having to lift a finger.”[33] In the Bible, all the Israelites are expected to do is pray, but Walker asserts that the black community must “move.” Apap insists that in prompting his readers to “move”, Walker rejected the notion that the blacks should “sit idly by and wait for God to fight their battles — they must (and implicit in Walker’s language is the assumption that they will) take action and move to claim what is rightfully and morally theirs.”

[W]e colored people of these United States are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began, and I pray God, that none like us ever may live until time shall be no more. They tell us of the Israelites in Egypt, the Helots in Sparta, and of the Roman slaves …whose sufferings under those ancient and heathen nations, were, in comparison with ours, under this enlightened and Christian nation, no more than a cypher. Or in other words, those heathen nations of antiquity had but little more among them than the name and form of slavery; while wretchedness and endless miseries were reserved, apparently in a phial, to be poured out upon our fathers, ourselves, and our children by Christian Americans.


The Frontispiece

— Walker’s Appeal, page 1 (lightly edited)
Walker’s Appeal argued that blacks had to assume responsibility for themselves if they wanted to overcome oppression. According to historian Peter Hinks, Walker believed that the “key to the uplift of the race was a zealous commitment to the tenets of individual moral improvement: education, temperance, protestant religious practice, regular work habits, and self-regulation.”

Of course I hope you don’t need to be taught about A Philip Randolph (he succeeded in unionizing the Pullman Porters, organized the March on Washington) and Ida Wells (What didn’t this courageous woman do — she openly exposed and fought against lynching).


A Philip Randolph — one of my father’s heroes


A strong book — so too Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about a group of Black people who migrated from the south to the north and the hardships and fierce discrimination that ceaselessly they encountered

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Just now around the US there is going on an apparently successful attempt to stop people of color, poor people, aging people from voting, with gerrymandering especially aimed “with surgical precision” as one judge wrote, to prevent Black people from achieving Black representation in all forms of government, especially when the representative is a person of color (non-white, of any type). Numerous states, among them Virginia (where I live) the teaching of Black history is outlawed; a hotline is set up for any parent anywhere to report on any teacher said to teach anything divisive; any thing that can be labelled “Critical Race Theory.” The teaching of Black history as part of US history has only begun in the last few years (I certainly learned almost nothing) is to be stopped. Why? Not because what has been taught is false, or because it might make some white child uncomfortable. The point is, as Orwell suggested, to control the future by erasing the past, and in this case perpetuate a male white Protestant supremacy.

All should know that a law was passed in 1672 in Virginia that “any person [who was] a slave who resisted a white person could be [casually] killed. Absolutely legal in the colony of Virginia. The only qualification was that the colony could compensate the owner for the loss of his property (when this would seem appropriate it’s not clear from the wording of the law). Why? to see the continuity with today.

So I want to write in opposition and thought I’d write this one time for specifically for Black History Month.  My problem is I know so little and have over the course of my life done so little politically — except vote and write blogs and teach. It is only in the last 20 years I’ve begun to learn and to teach Black history and think, read and write about colonialism.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s was the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. So where better to end for now.  I don’t know if “To Prisoners,” is her best poem (see my foremother poet blog) but you can (if you know how to do this) download an exquisitely moving video where you hear four wrongfully convicted Black ex-convicts who are now poets or ordinary citizens reading this poem aloud so beautifully and movingly. They tell you how they interpret its words. The interviewer is Anna Deavere Smith, playwright and activist. Here she also interviews John McCain who recites a poem aloud that he wrote and memorized and shared with a prison mate next door to him. The doing of this helped him stay alive:


Opening image: a prison hall

https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/pia18.ela.brooksprisoners/brooks-to-prisoners/

To Prisoners

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.
Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

Ray Charles is very old in this video (imagine what he went through) and to my mind there is something ironic and heart-breaking to watch and hear him sing his own lyrics to this poignant tune:

Ellen

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I don’t always make a blog from the books we read but I felt I ought to in the this case. It would be remiss not to — especially
since it is loaded with divisive concepts …

Friends and fellow readers,

It was in October of this past year, that a group of us on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@grous.io began to read the whole of Hugo’s massive novel as translated, introduced and massively annotated by Christine Donougher. We’ve just finished this week. During this time at least one person also read Graham Robb’s massive biography of Hugo, I returned to Bellos’s Novel of the Century, Victor Brombert’s Hugo and the Visionary Novel, and, with a couple of other people, re-watched Andrew Davie’s magnificent film adaptation, as well as the film version of the world-famous musical.

Myself I had seen Eric Schaeffer’s stage version twice (once in London), and concert presentation years before, and for good measure this time re-watched twice Simon Schama’s The Romantics and Us, whose second hour is mostly given over to Hugo as finally, or at the time of the writing of this book, radical revolutionary in his thought.


Mass protest scene from 2012 film

Given how the matter of all this material speaks so home to us today, I can’t see myself not making a blog about it, though I sincerely doubt I have anything new to add to all that has been said and written – and drawn and sung and danced too. One can say with the usual semi-pompous language, the book is an extraordinary prose narrative — a combination of history, political and philosophical thought, fantastic visions, with novel framework and larger than life presences we can call characters to carry us through. And the French is visceral poetry. Full of contradictions, not to omit much muddle.

But this does not put into language that what is so crucial is how it captures the misery, thwarted aspirations, and fleeting joy in grief of millions of desperately poor, imprisoned, ravaged people, most often seen today in the form of endlessly punished refugees. Jean Valjean is Leonard Peltier, Fantine is exploited, derided, and raped woman hidden in plain sight who when she fights back becomes an outcast Christina Casey Ford (she who accused Kavanaugh and ridiculed ended outcast) without funds or friends. Mabeuf our adjunct lecturer scholar. The vast disquisitions about Waterloo, and morphing of gov’ts rarely even addressing a country’s needs, and when it tries, quickly reversed by those who cannot bear to lose a stitch of power or authority. Each type, the good priest, the barbaric cop, the base criminal and his wife, the orphan child, selfless nun, street prostitute — they stand before us.

It seems to me important to say — and maybe another reason I write this blog — that you cannot rely on any of the movies (there have been several, and I’ve tried a couple beyond Davies’) or the musical or (worse yet) the recent popular film of the musical (2012, directed by Tom Hooper), to convey the spirit or meaning of the book to you. Everything is done that can be by way of setting and choices of scenes to turn Hugo’s book into a seeming Catholic religious parable where God’s mysteries are beautiful in his churches and good people there (a reductive travesty). The movies are apolitical, with personal love the key to people’s happiness.  Nothing could be further from the feel and mood of Hugo’s book despite so often the good people being a church functionary.

Of course in the film musical you are worked up to revolutionary-like fervor and cumulatively end crying at the deaths of these good well-meaning people. And there is tragic catharsis: I found myself beginning to cry at Marius’s song too: the words “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken/There’s a pain that goes on and on” felt directly a propos. Empty chairs: that’s a phrase found in an old Civil War song (union side). And the book’s true heroine, Fantine (according to my way of thinking but not the book where Hugo chose a shallow conventional hero and mindless version of the heroine) is taking its true hero off with her to where (like Lear) he will no longer be wracked on this world’s fiery wheel of searing loneliness, and find rest. In Hugo’s book the emphasis is not personal and its significance more like what is found in a Camus novel like La Peste.


Lily Collins as Fantine after the mountebank has done with her, gathering material for dolls


Hair also needed for wigs – and teeth?

I here single out Davies’ film for making modern secular humane sense, with attention to the pathos of several of the characters (reinventing or changing some, like Courfeyreau). Davies’ script shows how despicable are others (Fantine’s seducer, the thug Madame Thenardier, however brutalized by her husband), and terrifying (Ron Cook as the mountebank who scissirs off Fantine’s hair and yanks out her teeth to leave her looking memorably ghastly). He tightens up the story, makes some realistic turns for the story, makes far more sense of Javert as a character (homoerotic, and thus obsessed with Jean Valjean), as well as filling out and making consistent the other characters in ways that bring out the egalitarian strains in the book. The only film adaptation of a classic that comes up to the presentation of the relentless killing of ordinary people practiced by the militia of the state that we see in the Paris streets in Davies’s Les Miserables here is Davies’ own Dr Zhivago.

I don’t feel that Davies quite captures the sinister and chaotic reality of a senseless unjust society and downright evil in law and deepest thought patterns (punish, isolate) of Hugo’s book: in Davies’ Dr Zhivago he has the totalitarian state as run by seething madmen whom ordinary people are terrified by. Dr Zhivago differs from most of  Davies’ work where there is a Trollopian or Dickensian (Victorian?) comic-realistic vision of the world.  Hugo’s world is tragic and exaggerated so in feel with the beautiful French fantastic.  Both project in their different mediums, Hugo with his story, Davies with the considerable apparatus of film adaptations today, the prisons, trials, hierarchical social gatherings, servitudes, what good and powerless people have to contend with. Both are short of the kind of thing we must turn to Primo Levi to find presented consistently (in If this be Man).  Nonetheless because of Davies’ skill in characterization (dialogue, instructions for gestures, collaboration with Tom Hooper, the director), when you finish Davies’ film you will have understood the underlying politics and source of some of the passions of Hugo’s work better.


Hugh Jackman’s lonely face as the dying scene begins


An unusual moment for Madame Thenardier: Helena Bonham Carter bringing out a flatness Olivia Coleman never attempts (and is not in Hugo either)

As for the musical: as presented (no matter where, stage or film), the book script and songs assume we know the story. Hardly anything is explained. It’s arguable nothing need be explicated clearly, except I appreciated what the composers and lyric writers were doing now: it was one long symphony or piece of music which had interruptions for a little dialogue but basically one long song I’ll call it; it changes mood and character voice but it seemed to me consistently a expressionist reaction to Les Miserables basic concept: here are the wretched of the earth, mixed in with cruel senseless authority figures and rules which have nothing to do with these wretched people. At any rate do not help them but seek to control and to punish. Sometimes a voice of kindness is singing, sometimes profound loneliness. The driving rhythms are a build up of rage, passion kept caged and finally reaching some height as the people climb the barricades.

The out-of-whack piece, brought back more than once, “Master of the House,” is a subversive and mindless mocking contrast, with one of the lines referring to Voltaire — as music and song it seemed to say the Voltairian Candide vision might be seethingly hilarious, a release but no use at all to suffering people.  Costumes and settings are imitative of Marat/Sade (that wild grotesque burlesque protest piece of so long ago), intermixed with Dickensian tropes so Gavroche in the film musical is an adorable Artful Dodger cut down.


Reece Yates (2012 Davies’ film) escapes both the cuteness of the Hollywoodized Artful Dodger and Hugo’s own (to me) unfortunate way of not taking the boy quite seriously

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It is so much easier to write about a movie or stage musical than one of the grand novels of the 19th century. To say I loved the long supposed digression (but the book is more digression than it is story) on language and slang won’t do.


Donald Sumpter as Mabeuf (still prosperous, in front of the church with his volumes, 2018 film)

But in order not to go on for too long, we shall have to limit ourselves tonight for exemplary detail to the ending of Hugo’s Part 4, Book 8, Chapter 7, where Mabeuf, once a lowly functionary in a church, is living in a hovel, and due to conditions out of his control, finds he can no longer pay the ridiculous rent for such a place with what he once did.  He is driven to sell his precious collection of books. He refuses to take a gift of money left for him (he would not steal a loaf of break presumably) and takes it to a bank. The last place that needs it. The cry of anguish from his heart matches the cry of Marius’s mean ancien regime grandfather when he cannot threaten Marius into loyalty, much less love in just the previous chapter. At core there is stark grief in the old man’s unwillingness to open up to his grandson or inability, and in the destitute idealist.

This does happen. Charlotte Smith in the early 19th century had to sell all her books to keep herself and family afloat. It was a terrible bitter experience for her – she didn’t quite sell them all, but those which fetched a good sum. Ever after she couldn’t write the same books. I’ve a male friend who lost his tenure, and came to DC and tried to live and get a job and couldn’t and was finally driven to sell his books in order to pay up his rent, move back home (horrible place – deep south, utter Trump country) — but then he was okay for he had a small job there and place to live with his family , a family which the high-minded Marius would have rejected and, as he does in the book (improbably) make his way (to use a very Trollopian phrase).

Looking at the book from a distance, it is very controlled. The story is minimal but it has enough twists and turns and new archetypal characters to take us through several related climaxes while moving along a trajectory of imprisonment, desperation.  I refer to JVJ’s encounter with M. Bienvenu, the priest at the opening of the book whose transformative goodness to him finds a parallel in Jean Valjean’s transformative forgiveness or lack of vengeance to Javert.   Then luck and cleverness enable JVJ to build a business and take care of a whole community, Montfermeil. He is elected Mayor despite not wanting to call attention to himself. While the slender plot-design unravels – Javert finds him after he has rescued Cosette and secured a hovel room for them both.  Like the Zorro he is, he escapes with her (using a rope pulling her up a wall he climbed up himself)  into a convent, and finding a grateful friend, stays for 18 years. And so it goes. He and Cosette leave so she can enter the world, have a chance to see it, and the spite of an old woman once again precludes their quiet retired but unconventional life. Now and again we stop for long meditations, disquisitions on war, society, language, the right type of wedding …


Dominic West as Jean Valjean reading with the little Cosette before they are forced to flee and end up in the convent

Our Jean Valjean is all heroes. Today I have been reading Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, where the one good man in the whole of Troy and among the Greeks is Aeneas, with whom Cassandra falls in love. She plays a part like Dido’s, and he must desert her out of a sense of duty (pius Aeneas), to care for his people. Well this reminds me of Jean Valjean’s behavior towards the people of Montfermeil as mayor: he thinks about them when he is about to give himself up because he can’t face allowing another person to be taken for him and put in jail. Like Foyle (in the justly respected World War II British ITV mystery series), JVJ decides that the greater general hoped-for good (that when such a good mayor leaves, all the prosperity might fall apart) does not substitute for doing a clearly concrete moral act: you must not use someone else. So he gives himself in and must escape again before he can rescue Cosette, and Fantine dies without having seen her child, in Hugo’s book believing herself forever damned.

I think that Hugo does want us to remember Aeneas carrying his father on his back during the siege of Troy and saving his life when JVJ carries Marius on his back through a sewer, almost drowns with him in filthy quicksand. But when Jean Valjean pulls himself and Marius up and comes to the locked door, who is there? Thenardier asking for money. A sardonic joke subtextually.

True heroism is caring, strength to do the truly moral thing, though the world’s consequences show how you cannot escape hurting someone. Amid all Hugo’s investment in heroic maleness, Les Miserables is as anti-war as it is anti- the capitalist spirit. Thenardier let us recall in the book ends a slave-trader in the US.

Ellen

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The mid-19th century novel (1859) reprinted by NYRB, introd Pramoedya Ananta Toer

(published 1964)


Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan and Mel Gibson, Guy Hamilton (Year of Living Dangerously, 1982)

Friends and readers,

A strange coincidence led to this blog. This past winter on TrollopeandHisContemporaries @groups.io we read the stunningly revealing history by Eduard Dekker (often using the protective pseudonym, Multatuli), called Max Havelaar. It’s a novel in the Trolstoy tradition of novelistic examination and dramatization painstakingly studying what are the realities of an era, a place, milieus. Although written in an frequently apparently whimsical and digressive manner, a Dutch captain and then resident mine manager (Max) thoroughly outlines for us the structural, economic and (to some extent, less this way) military underpinnings of systematic stripping away of people’s rights to their land, to grow food for themselves. The reader sees how enslavement evolved from local structures run by numinous bosses. These native leaders collaborated with the people put in charge by capitalist and industrial companies backed by armies. There followed an imperialist extractive exploitation of the land with its people doing the work for starvation wages. A colonialist culture is what Max Havelaar finds himself in when he comes out to Indonesia to be a resident manager. The story of this man is the front part of the novel; an almost equally long series of comments, clarifications, and notes the back half. We learn how a prosperous tribal world was turned into a famine-ridden groundwork for growing, buying and selling what the Dutch wanted and could trade with — the shamelessness of the brutality is even today shocking.

I reluctantly decided not to write about this novel as its art is so complicated: Dekker is imitating Walter Scott in the way he has narrators distance us from the story; and the way the story is continually interrupted is reminiscent of Tristram Shandy; he moves from whimsical to searingly catastrophic matter, going back and forth between Netherlands and Indonesia and other colonialized countries between them, in time as well as space, with several groups of characters, one belonging to the trading company and the other the gov’t officials. Yet I wanted to inform “the world” this novel exists and you can learn so much about what has ruined and is continuing to ruin so many people in what’s called the third world today from it.


There is a film (1967); you can get a DVD reading aloud of the book — it is a classic admired novel

Then in my Foreign Films class (OLLI at AU where I also teach), the teacher assigned Peter Weir’s 1982 The Year of Living Dangerously, part of the startlingly rich flowering of Australian film-making in the 1960s through 80s (supported by the Australian gov’t, Australian new wave cinema). It’s an adaptation of an angry and banned novel by Christ Koch, with the same title, written 18 years earlier. Both dramatize the appalling condition of the same native peoples and corruption of what had become many Europeans and coopted natives 120/140 years after the publication of Max Havelaar. The book was promptly banned in Indonesia, never given a prize (though its author was much honored), so dismissed as far as was possible; Weir attempted to film in Indonesia and found himself under attack, so had to move to the Philippines.

Weir’s film concentrates on the difference between the tumultuous Indonesian world of the time (police-ridden, half-crazed with despair and compensatory escapist religions) and the culture of wealthy administrators and newspaper reporters to which our main characters belong. Their job is to scrutinize, report on and film this world for the delectation and control of the European masters. Among other creative acts of Weir’s was to hire a woman to play the part of the central character, the male dwarf-like deeply compassionate photographer, who we see in the earliest moments of the film in his work-apartment and whose fraught (suicidal) death concludes it. Spirituality tells you the story concisely and well. Roger Egbert emphasizes what helped make the film popular: exotic locale, to which I’ll add a remarkable musical score (includes the use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Jessie Norman, singing while Billy mourns the death of a young child he/she was supporting as well as the child’s mother. And erotic love story between two conventionally (Hollywoodesque) erotically attractive actors:


Signourey Weaver and Mel Gibson — unhappily this is one of those films where the female lead exists mostly to be a sex object

All three should be perused, read, and then watched and re-watched (at least once) by anyone who wants to understand (for example) what happened in Vietnam, then the massacres and slaughters of eastern Europe in the 1990s, Iraq in the early 2000s and Afghanistan for another 20 years:  before the US, there were the Russians, before the Russians, the British — a now ironically famous first line of one of the early short Sherlock Holmes adventures is his when he lays eyes on the wretchedly suffering Mr Watson just back: “I perceive you have been in Afghanistan.”

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What I can tell you in brief that will add to your knowledge of the 1859 novel you won’t find elsewhere?


Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) who risked his life trying to bring to light what was going on in Indonesia and then writing this novel

In Chapter 11 we have Havelaar and a Dutch character, Verbrugge telling 4 stories that are connected by injustice, the bizarre behavior the powerful can inflict on the powerless, then distracting whimsy (as a kind of cover-up). So Havelaar suddenly imagines himself in 1587 and watches in slow-motion the execution (beheading) of Mary Stuart in Fotheringay. This was not an uncommon practice in these countries Havelaar is working for this company in. We switch to present-time Sumatra where he watches a girl stringing beads. This reminds him of Arles where he’s just been, a very beautiful place with a long history. The LRB had a piece by Lydia Davis, of scraps of imagination she has written about Arles while she did a “project” there; she is known as a translator from the French. Then we move to Naal — not far from Indonesia, an African stopover. Horrific deeds keep the natives in subjection and frighten everyone else not super-powerful. Finally, a story of a Japanese stonecutter which resembles the fable of the fisherman and his wife and their three wishes. Probably it is hard to make a novel out of horrific cruelty exercised on people day after day as they labor in the fields and die — the people forcing this are thugs and criminals, extravagantly selfish princelings and their courts. Dekker is presenting the material of the type we see from afar in the Heart of Darkness through the art of fable.

By contrast:

In Chapter 14, an important investigation into brutal uses of lies (to extract money people haven’t got) is both muddled and distorted by the overt way of talking about it by the perpetrators and their assistants and then put a stop to. I followed the ins and outs of hypocrisy and vicious revenge, but the concrete details are useless — because continually Dekker is obfuscating, and not telling the hard core of truth — lest he get in trouble. What this chapter needs – and several others, is a companion book which explicates what actually happened in these places so that we can understand the nature of Havelaar’s irony — I can’t get quite what he is satirizing in the different instances except of course profound lying, inhumanity, vain, idle ridiculous behavior. One quarter in we suddenly switch to Tina, Havelaar’s wife (who is characterized just enough with her baby to lead us worry about her), and the previous resident manager’s widow, Mrs Slothering (her husband was probably murdered and she has nowhere to go) and the present time and the men are playing cards and Duclari (the military man) asks Havelaar if it’s true Havelaar has fought many duels. Oh yes says Havelaar, and the results of these (or maybe the causes) have embittered him. He says how the General at the time appreciated duels. Perhaps we are to infer that again and again other people have tried to murder Havelaar this way, but are we to think Havelaar has murdered quite a number of people also? I suggest that we are not supposed to think this through — that it might be these duels did not come off, and to tell them now is just braggadaccio. So ought Dekker not to tell us this. So we can breathe a sigh of relief that Havelaar is not a murderer.

And now the movie by Peter Weir


What Weir looked like at the time

I studied his masterpiece movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock (scroll down to see a full analysis) a close adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s remarkable novel (of the same name) where Weir mystifies an ordeal coming out of an environment deeply hostile to people’s bodies and social needs. It is crucially maintained that no one knows how the death of the girls came about so a common response is simply to feel awe. The features to the DVD of Picnic at Hanging Rock include Weir’s idea that the girls were murdered by marauding men whom the sexual repression of the girls drew them to. This kind of reductive sexist explanation suggests why Lindsay prefers not to discuss how the girls came to disappear. But in fact people in the story as well as Margaret Atwood’s similar “Death by Landscape” are also responsible for what happened.

In this The Year of Living Dangerously, Weir somewhat misrepresents the story of how the Communists came to be massacred, Sukarno (who had little interest in the West and its capitalism) overthrown (which the US wanted) and the Indonesian military put in charge (with the religionists sidelined). So there is weakness in Weir’s work. We see a wayang puppet show where shadows of souls are supposedly coping with sheerly being — a kind of mysticism. For myself I feel the love story was a distraction and there to create popular appeal; Weir did not compromise this way in Picnic at Hanging Rock or Gallipolli.

The teacher of the class emphasized the film’s threads of morality: how it showed the reporters to be frivolous, corrupt, indifferent to the plight of the desperately impoverished everywhere; one of the reporters, Peter Curtis stands for the ugly American. The British officer Signourey Weaver’s character at first appears to be living with is an old-line Tory type; one of the Australia reporters is a homosexual man who takes advantage of a male servant. Kumar and Tiger Lily who work for Guy Hamilton are genuine devoted PKI people (communists). The focus of the camera is on these starved bodies, hollow eyes, crippled people in rags in contrast to the wealth of the whites. Billy Kwan asks more than once: “What then must we do?” The answer is not try for any large solution but help those who we come into contact with whom we can help. The same answer is found in LeCarre’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In this film an analogous atmosphere of displacement and breakup, desperate lives, corrupt payoffs everywhere, is meaningful in itself — there is no good way of life as long as you belong to these groups.

A valuable subject in the movie is the press: it’s a satiric view where no one but Billy Kwan and our hero are trying to tell the truth.  Anyone who does risks his life.  We can ask the question, what should the press do? what is their role? obviously, try to get the real truth of what’s happening out.  In the last few years (unsurprisingly) any journalists doing this have been imprisoned and murdered and the numbers keep going up.  The most famous case is that of Julian Assange where a 19th century law is being used to try to outlaw publication of hard factual news files.

You must (it seems) opt out to find yourself. Flee. The closing scenes at the airport very like what we recently saw in Afghanistan and before that in Vietnam. Those who profit mightily from all this have no reason (I fear) not to repeat it and it makes them enormous profits. So through their GOP agents they are now trying to destroy the hitherto stable world of the US and (before the 1980s) a generally prosperous and hopeful one.

Ellen

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The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes  elsewhere in Anglo-Indian art (novels and films): people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety.

This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant.  A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do when the one nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose an identity that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory turned out not have the capacity to generate funds. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University; he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory:there are good biographies (much better than the ones I’ve provided), insightful details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen

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Frances McDormand as our thoughtful Fern – she recites a Shakespeare sonnet by heart, and at other moments shows herself to be well-read (Nomadland)


The owner, boss, chief of the glass-making factory who permitted American Factory to be made

Dear friends and readers,

This might be labelled now for something somewhat different. Most of the contemporary movies and plays I review on this blog take a liberal, sometimes radical, left-wing, anti-racist, social humanist stance: these are the kinds of stories I enjoy. Theatre I look for something profoundly (if possible) exploratory of the human spirit, especially in distress, on the edge of not coping (Uncle Vanya: scroll down). For tonight I’ve a film to recommend as mesmerizing, whose not-so-hidden agenda is libertarian enabled by sleights-of-hand. Nomadland, scripted & directed by Chloe Zhao, featuring Frances McDormand, based on a book of the same title by Jessica Bruder, resembles Mudbound, in being a movie made by, coming from material by women, and much be-prized. I had been sleepy and the experience projected woke me up.

But then I recommend that the next night as contrast you watch on Netflix, American Factory (made partly because of the Obamas’ presence, also an independent film, directed by Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert). You will discover what is the true context for Nomadland and how what is presented are desperate self-induced romantic delusions, which people tell themselves as in: they have made a good choice in their apparent willingness to flee inside their van-homes from a ruthless asocial society to wander about deserts, snow belt, and forests. (There are those who refuse to consider they will end up with this kind of job as a life choice.)

At the center of the Nomadland is a widow, or should I say wife whose husband has died a hard death of cancer: asked her status, Fern says she is married, only her husband is dead. His death has not parted her from him. Her memories, the decades she spent living with him in the way he wanted (in factory jobs), in a house he preferred (tract house), situated in a place he liked (at the edge of a desert), surround her mind, keep her company. To be fair, this emphatic inward shaping is not brought forth at first: what we are immediately confronted with is a factory sign which tells us the factory is shut down, and intertitles inform us that upon that factory closing the community vanished. No jobs, no way for the people to stay and to survive. She appears to be living a subsistence life, near destitute, in an old “ratty” van; caging the lowest sorts of jobs (a packer at an Amazon warehouse, a cleaner in a campsite, a cook and washer-up in a huge fast food place (turns out to be a sort of Disneyland store-as-mall called Drug Wall), at which she works for as long as they need her, and then is either fired or she quits. She has made enough money to live for say weeks on end in her van traveling about the west in the midst of spectacular scenery (beautifully photographed of course — never dingy, never just grey, when it rains it rains impressively). We see her looking at her pictures remembering happy moments – I’ve seen this in many films centering on older women.


The life of Fern and Dave presented as if they were on a perpetual sunny picnic (see the review it appears in)

Only gradually do we see the hardships of such a life, but they do not seem to bother our heroine. What if she urinates or defecates in a bucket – she can empty it the next day. What if her van lacks heat: she has plenty of blankets. She has a TV, radio. Once a tire goes, and she is almost stranded: but a woman she has the nerve to ask help from relents and they become close friends for a while — until it’s time for the friend to move on, probably to a hospital for she is dying of untreated cancer. Once when she is told to move on, this is not a place to park overnight, her car stalls. Turns out to fix the car she needs $2300 and she is told the car is worth $5000 — but it is she says her home. (She has told someone she is not homeless, only houseless.) She doesn’t have it, and on the phone, her sister refuses her, so we see her somehow take a long journey by bus and foot to that sister living in a beautifully appointed middle class home. The sister would clearly keep her, and the sister’s friends sort of accept her, but Fern will not stay; she gets the money in an envelope and promises to pay it back, and return to her truck. We see her disappoint herself and a small dog by refusing to take the poor creature into her truck with her. She stiffens herself and walks away.

There are some “feel-good” compensations. She travels to real life gurus about whom people like herself gather and learn how to survive from, as well as in groups celebrate together their existence

She attends several such events during the movie. Enjoys dances. Becomes friends with a man she is clearly compatible with, one Dave (David Straitharn) who she travels with for a while: they take hard jobs together; then his 30+ year old son shows up, and asks his father to return home with him and see a grandchild. Dave confides to Fern he’s been a lousy father and seems unwilling to go with his son, asks Fern to come with him, or later on; the son (miraculously) seems to hold nothing against the father and when she does take Dave up on the invitation, we find ourselves in another beautiful middle class home, the food just gorgeous and originally cooked; she is told she is welcome to stay. But she foregoes this. As with her sister, she says she cannot. It’s not her? When the movie is over, we are told the charismatic leader whom she returns to more than once (and he has his tale of hard grief) and many of the people she meets are real “nomads” like herself.

The movie was just showered with awards. Rotten tomatoes gave it a rating of 98%. Most reviews give high praise with little qualification: Ebert’s reviewer just “loved it”:. Ditto as “the critic’s pick” for the NY Times. I began to wonder what was wrong with this film? My mind was very tired by the time I came to it at 11 pm (nowadays you can watch films into the wee hours w/o worrying about how you are to get home, or the movie theater’s hours). But then I found what I was troubled by expressed by Richard Brody of the New Yorker: A nostalgic portrait of itinerate America, he calls the film. He noticed all the characters were presented in a simplified way and kept at a distance from us through Fern’s mind. Read what he has to say. Here’s how I’d put it

The way the subsistence existence of these people is presented is that this is their choice — as Fern chose to live with that husband and not stay with her sister (who complains she could have and she left a hole in their family). They seem to want to live this way, and indeed the real people say this – but real people in social life do not like to present themselves as impoverished and near destitute, especially at the end of their lives. Ask about the company they work for and they will often excuse its hard behavior to them, identify with the company that is gouging them. Fern clearly chooses this because in front of us she has a new right now (romantic) offer from Dave who could go live with his son, who (as I say) seems to have forgiven his father for a boy- and young manhood of total neglect and be living in very nice middle class circumstances — as do Frances’s sister and relatives. Amazon looks a horrible place to work, so too the kitchens of a restaurant stop on some big highway, or as someone who is the cleaner of a campsite for RVs — but our Fern needs only work there for as long as she needs to get together enough money to go out on the road again.

Who needs Biden’s infrastructure or plan to make good jobs, bring industry back when we can spend weeks in the mountain moon light? There are a couple of lines now and again by someone very old who implies he or she was given no chance for anything else once the job was up. Could save nothing. I remembered Willie Loman of The Death of a Salesman; Arthur Miller has him say in anguish, am I to be thrown away after a lifetime of hard work? We are confronted with a refrigerator engineered to last as long as it takes to pay for it. I remembered Grapes of Wrath where the people go on strike; where they are relieved when for a short time they can go inside a gov’t run camp and live better (if there are rules to abide by).

I don’t say there isn’t enough here to show you what the economic reality is. But all but one or two people who if they offer no help, look very sorry over Fern’s plight and tell Fern of a bed in a near by church — of course she is not bothered, remember she is houseless, not homeless. A friend recognized in this movie “an American spirit, a sort of go it on our own mentality in opposition to going along with a government plan for everyone, though it also avoids being very political. These people have a sense of pride that doesn’t want to take charity.” He did remark he had never seen Wall Drug from the harsh point of view we were shown it in this film (a hot kitchen, a place where garbage mounts up).

Brody notices all the things the film leaves out: practicalities: how do they pay their taxes? He says the film omits in the case of Dave’s brief stay in a hospital how before a hospital will perform a procedure on you you must sign a document accepting any and all related charges. I wondered also where they kept any money they might have? do they vote, ever? In the large scheme what is left out is the salary structure and price of goods in a society that disabled them from ending up with savings or pension. Of course the people are on a spiritual quest now. Right.

When I was identifying with the heroine as a woman who choses to be alone rather than re-marry or get a new partner, there is a huge difference between me and this woman. I own a house, have widow’s annuity (2/3s of my late husband’s federal gov’t pension), my social security, and both my parents’ savings — I can afford to say no to someone like Dave — who himself is apparently going to live of the charity of a son he was a lousy father too. Maybe it’s foolish and useless to complain about this kind of (in effect) libertarian propaganda, but maybe not. It is not my mentality to live liminally continually, oh no, and not (I submit) most people’s.


Miss Pettigrew before putting on attractive clothes …

I am wondering if Frances McDormand makes a specialty of portraying white working class type women. The last movie I saw her in, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she was a very violent woman and very angry and working class essentially — what I remember best about the film is the continual profanity and anger and abysmal poverty — cars loaded down with guns in the back. Mississippi Burning was a whitewash (pun intended). It was years ago I saw her in witty comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, again a person with low expectations, so very appealing in a very non-feminist film.


Workers

Earlier this spring I saw a documentary, American Factory, recently about a Chinese company — huge corporation — who came to the US and took over an empty US factory that had failed the capitalist demands of high profits — very like the what the factory in Nomadland. did When it closes, almost everyone in the town is unemployed. I recommend it because it exposes the workings of capitalism from the inside of the work day, from the point of view of American and Chinese workers, the long hard hours (Chinese will endure hardly any time off and long periods away from their children), the required worship of a boss, high efficiency demands, no vacation for long periods, demands of utter loyalty and pretend obedience rituals. What people in the class said was they were amazed the company allowed the camera in — the answer was it was supposedly fair — showed “both sides.” Well it did show how the boss regarded his profit, but it made clear how his company (very like Amazon) thwarted an attempt to unionize (forced meetings, constant propaganda against it, threats made good to fire people). The real thrust was to expose the ruthless stealing of people’s very lives so one man or several can make huge sums. What enabled the making of it was the Obamas backed it. Here is an excellent review by Peter Bradshaw (from The Guardian), e.g.,

the workforce realised that to show their gratitude they were expected to conform to the Chinese culture of regimentation and submission, uncomplainingly working six or seven-day weeks, pushing up productivity at all costs and declining to make a fuss about decadent and lazy American indulgences such as lunch breaks and safety precautions …

He found this “solution” for a stable life “discomforting and desperately sad.”

Sheelah Kolhatkar places the film against the backdrop of our political polarization as US society is confronted, as the New Yorker puts it, with challenges of a global economy, i.e, mass unemployment, menial jobs, or the harsh regimen of non-unionized corporate work.

So here is your alternative. Get yourself a van, try to live in the most minimum way possible, take jobs as you need them (the way the boss hires you) and call it liberty. Only a romantic movie like this can persuade anyone you will not soon get into hard trouble. How many popular and be-prized books quietly urge the same alternatives dressed up as this Nomadland. How rare to get a real look at the factory or capitalist life increasingly inflicted on US people?

Ellen

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

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

Dear Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Anna and Dumi

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

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

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

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

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


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

It’s a vimeo:


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

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

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

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

Ellen

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