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Archive for the ‘satire’ Category

WmFrederickYeames1835to1918OntheBouldvardsBrittanyDinan
Wm Frederick Yeames (1835-1918), On the Boulevard, Brittany

Dear friends and readers,

As with Barchester Towers, since I and my class had such a good time over Dr Thorne, even though I’ve already put on my website more than enough on a reading and discussion of Dr Thorne, my “Trollope and his Contemporaries listserv” enjoyed years ago, I’ve decided to share some of my notes from my lectures and the class discussions over four weeks. We also had special topics, on illustrations (which when well done I love), Trollope’s epistolary art (which I’m interested in and have written and published about, and the effect of The Cornhill on his books, and Mary’s illegitimacy. Here I include only these last two: as Trollope and The Cornhill; and Women and Property Rights.

Among the joys of doing this is I can share what my younger daughter, Isobel wrote at age 14 about the novel. She was asked in a middle school class to pick a book (it needed to be approved), read and answer questions about it. She said that the teacher was a bit surprised at her choice but also delighted: here she is on Dr Thorne versus Dr Fillgrave; and on that most painful of chapters, the abjection of Augusta Gresham before the cold treachery of Lady Amelia de Courcy.

As most people interested in Trollope or mini-series costume drama know, Julian Fellowes is now scheduled to do a 3 part film adaptation for ITV of Dr Thorne. Despite what I say of Lady Arabella Gresham as a character below, I hope that Fellowes does not make her the witch of the piece, like her daughter, Augusta, she is a creature of values that actually help to ruin her own life (in the brilliant epistolary chapter, “De Courcy Precepts and Practice,” which my daughter treats of just above and I and my class do further below).

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Arthur Clifton Goodwin, View of a Garden in Boston (1866)

The difference between Dr Thorne and The Warden; The Warden and Barchester Towers; and Barchester Towers and Dr Thorne, reminds us of how when Trollope set out, he did not think of himself as a writing a roman fleuve or serial at all, and in this novel he eschew recurring characters (essential to romans fleuves). OTOH, the second “sign” you are in a roman fleuve or series of novels is the imaginary place and in this opening we begin to see a map emerge (see map on syllabus).

The place. Suddenly Barsetshire subdivides (like a zygote) and we have a west and east Barsetshire. Trollope says this was not very good for the county, soon they were having antagonisms between them, but in order to obey the reform bill and have more equal representation this was done. Of course it’s a joke as it’s he who has subdivided it.

West Barsetshire is Whig, great whig magnate lives there, the Duke of Omnium in Gatherum Castle. Trollope rightly identifies the great country house first by its political function. Pleasant as books about them often are – because of the beauty of the places – they were there to enforce a hierarchy, maintained considerable controls over their tenants and farmers, the people in the houses were magistrates, JPs, controlled institutions; you had to get letters to go to a house, needed a “character” if you were to get another job (overwhelmingly most people were servants still in the first half of the 19th century). Chaldicotes, Sowerby’s house is there (comes out in Framley Parsonage), an appendage of the duke’s as Sowerby is a client, and we hear a lot about Courcy. Both will emerge full and complete in Framley Parsonage. On the other side of the divide is Greshambury and Boxall Hill; they are northerly with Barchester itself, the cathedral town close to the center. In a map drawn later we find St Ewolds, Puddingdale. Plumstead Episcopi, and the other more obviously comically named places to the south (Crabtree Canicorum). Plumstead is a plum; puddings are hearty things and so on.

People love a stable place and ongoing characters. It gives us a sense of security and permanence and beliefs in survival. There’s been a terrific resurgence in this form in the last 10-15 years and not just because it fits the TV medium.

This political map is going to count in the story. Now the clerical world is encased in a larger one. There is a railway to London too – as well as an Old Coach Road. This is the first of many novels where Trollope’s visualized  amps central means by which he organizes and expresses the social, political and psychological relationships of his characters and themes. What you own expresses you; what you lose expresses you; we can plot where a character is in life and how he or she is doing by his or her relationship to a place. So when Mary is for a time exiled that is very hurtful – and Dr Thorne very mad about it. Later on Trollope will grow more explicit about these geographies of power. But we see it start here.

Deep past. We are to be immersed in the feelings and thoughts of fully realized presences. Trollope here signals his allegiance to the idea that character or personality is not just the result of an evolution of the particular person’s circumstances, class, and background (family, genes), but shows how we are the product of a long evolutionary development over time. Freud said he learned a lot from novelists, well Marx’s idea of how there is this class struggle and antagonisms and development interacting with changes in means of production and social realities came from the 19th century novel, beginning Scott. This are Marxist chapters – and throughout the book Trollope notices change and how it effects everyone and everything. He did read Marx who wrote in newspapers. But it was more from Bulwer Lytton.

In the 18th century and in Barchester Towers character emerge full blown and there is a sense in which their characteristics stand for types, like archetypes. Not here. We might ask what is the difference between a historical fiction (one written today and set in earlier times – Wolf Hall in early 16th century and Poldark in later 18th) and historic fiction, like Dr Thorne, fiction written in the 19th century. I suggest we strongly tend to read them the same way – we watch the characters as products of time and place, circumstance, slow change. George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Hardy all do this, Bronte in her Shirley, Dickens not so much because his characters are not psychological sociological studies in the same way. We enter into the characters as if they think and feel as we do inflected by the time, space, events.

So what happened in the pre-history of this book? Chapter 1 opens on Frank Gresham’s 21st birthday, supposed to be a day of great celebration for the heir. Is it? Why not? We move back to learn some recent history. It seems that Frank’s father was not the firm large able and generous spirited man his father had been, father could not fill the shoes of the grandfather. Is weak (Ch 1, pp 4-6). He has hankered after false gods: married rank, a woman, the Lady Arabella whose idea of happiness is showing off to others, vanity and pride, and he has allowed himself to be lured by the whigs and become their friend and yet he is running as a Tory (p 5). It won’t do. Elections cost – though laws against bribery increasing enormously. That’s why you need campaign managers like NeartheWind and Closerstill. No longer can you just say this is my county, only these people can vote and if they don’t vote the way I want I cancel their leases. There are too many of them. He is also not personable, does not easily know how to make himself hail fellow well met.

My theory (not published except here!) is the Greshams are very realistic versions of Austen’s Mr and Mrs Bennet, he in his library and she all about the mercenary and rank values, materialistic, and shallow, and nagging too. Trollope shows us that such incompatibility is no joke, that a woman with the values of Mrs Bennet taken seriously can wreak far more havoc than stopping a courtship. Squire Gresham is complicit (as is Mr Bennet ultimately): he wants to enact the traditional hierarchy and get its rewards, but at the same run with the new big money world. He finds he or one can’t. When he has no occupation, he takes over the hunt . But apparently not being paid for it as a Master of the Hounds (pp 14-15). This does give him a place among people like himself and those of his tenants and farmers who can afford to ride sometimes too. She resents his occupation – one of his joys. She poisons many wells over the course of the novel (like her tabooing of Mary, stopping her husband’s friendship with Dr Thorne, a mainstay of their family economically through the loans from Scatcherd). The costly expedients are borrowing money at high interest.

What is another? His son. And he has ruined his son – as he sees. By among other things these costly expedients. When Frank says he will “study like bricks” before you despise the meanness of the countess de Courcy’s response, remember she is probably right, for as to making money from his studies at Cambridge it does not at present seem probable. He is not studious and making money from law say requires going to live in London at the Inns of Court and working your way up on the job.

Do we have another deep feeling man who is deeply flawed? Roger Scatcherd. The most brilliant of characters in this novel is Scatcherd: an alcoholic because he doesn’t fit in anywhere. Turn to Chapter 10, p 139: the man “shrieks.” He has real genius and understanding, the kind that does make money. He can do construction well, and recognize others who can, organize teams, and so build a business, and then with his money he lends money out for further people to build railways. But no manners, no reading. I dislike the way he treats his wife: it’s criticized but not enough. I suggest we are to accept his behavior to Lady Scatcherd.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the book: Trollope does honor “blood” (gentility in the genes), does not eschew the violence that put the hierarchical order in place originally (as in his talk about the heraldry), at the same time as he invents a plot-design and characters designed to make us value merit and human bonds and truth to one’s heart. We see this especially in his treatment of Sir Roger’s son, Louis Scatcherd, the way he’s characterized makes Trollope’s writhing condescensions to Slope seems the height of egalitarian decency (Ch 10, p 142). To be a gentleman or lady is a high aspiration, and not everyone has it “in” him or her to do it.

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Manliness, what is it? One of the themes of this book is what makes for manliness, and how the male characters react to its demands; this is a question Trollope comes back to throughout his career though in different permutations. Here Trollope contrasts a man who bullies his abject wife with an inferior son (the Scatcherds), a man who allows his wife to overrule his better judgement and whose son will emerge eventually as “the better man” (Greshams) with our exemplary Dr Thorne.

PettieCountrySurgeon
J. Pettie, “The Country Surgeon,” Good Words, 1862

We learn about the Thorne family; two brothers and a proud father. When the “lousy son” – and we are never told anything good about Henry Thorne – is rejected by the Thornes of Ullathorne, father rejects them. This hurts second son, our hero. We move to violence over sex. Henry Thorne impregnates Mary Scatcherd and when Roger is told he marches off to Henry, sees his insouciant attitude and takes a stick and hits him hard. Does he mean to kill him? (p 24). Trollope suggests we as readers will think a punishment of six months (for manslaughter) too severe! (Connect up to honor-killing). Our Dr Thorne (Thomas his name) is at first mad for vengeance but learning the provocation, “his heart changed.” How does he behave? On one level, beautifully. He takes responsibility and acts to help and support everyone. Manliness includes seeing what is a true priority and exerting self-control. He works to pay for everything. So he is strong. But his strength has its characteristics too: he is very proud. Will not accept overtures from Thornes of Ullathorne. Not wise but human. He is not given to kowtowing, to suffering stupidity easily – patients feared he was laughing at them – that’s for false complaints, for real ones he is tenderness itself (P 37) He does make a connection with Squire Gresham who invites him over and is open and humane (p 25). A respectable tradesman agrees to marry Mary if she will go away from the area where she’s been disgraced — far far away – but will not take the child. I fear this attitude towards another’s man’s child especially when young is not gone from us – and not gone from many societies at all. Older people remarrying and accepting one another’s adult children is different, p 29. The question of manliness with respect to the male’s control over the female’s body is still part of the unwritten code of what’s not admirable or admirable. Notice the language: he was very proud as to family, as to blood, as to respect – in his later years he mellows, but “now promised to take to his bosom as his own child a poor bastard whose father was already dead” (p 29).

Dr Thorne makes the book questioning.

Our heroine is a bastard and she is the person we are to care intensely about, root for. How beautifully Dr Thorne welcomes her to their home” (p. 39). It matters what you are within not what your rank is – is that the burden of Trollope’s song? Well we have the terrific hurt of Dr Thorne as a young man when the girl he loves rejects him for being concerned in such a scandal (P 31). We feel his intense grief at the girl’s dropping of him. The emphasis in the book falls on the hurt people feel when such arrangements are inflicted on them. A very moving chapter in this first quarter of the book occurs in Chapter 7, The doctor’s garden, p 95. What has happened? Of course Frank and Mary have fallen in love and now Mary for the first time thinks is she a fit partner for him? She has great self-esteem based on herself; we see that in her scene with the DeCourcys and Patience Oriel too, but what if she is illegitimate? That’s the question, pp 99-101. It’s very hard for them to talk about; they use euphemisms. Does she really have the right to call Dr Thorne uncle?

Rights of this type are central to our self-esteem, whether when we know in law someone is not supposed to treat us badly and we see them do, do we protest? Our sense of what rights we really have in daily life is not from law but from something within that develops over time and comes from how others regard us, how we are treated ( ch 7 p 99). That sense of self Dr Thorne develops in Mary Thorne.

Dr Thorne finds he must tell Scatcherd that his will as worded would leave his money in the case of his son’s death to “Mary’s eldest child.” In the chapter called The Two Uncles (Ch 13, p p 169): Roger comes off very well. Why? He wants to see her, his emotions not yet that perverted by the values and norms of his society (Richard Holt Hutton said this was a central thrust of Trollope’s fictions).

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mudieslibrary
A 19th century semi-comic illustration of a lady come to Mudie’s library to take out a book

Frank goes to Courcy Castle and visits West Barsetshire: Miss Dunstable and Sir Roger Scatcherd; Mr Romer and Mr Harding.

What kind of character is she? Some characteristics? She’s smart, she’s perceptive – who else in the book is smart and perceptive who is an important character? Dr Thorne. I call her an ironic festival figure. She’s on the wrong side of 30, has ridiculous hair (never mind bad hair), big teeth, broad nose, little black eyes, high color, and she’s irremediably vulgar. What she does is what nobody does: she talks money, she does not skirt this topic which others wish she would. When she does, they say, such a card Miss Dunstable and try to change the subject. Now the countess de Courcy wants Frank, aged 21 to propose to Miss Dunstable. : An Ironic Festival Figure She is continually exposing the hypocrisies of everyone else. She deflates everyone around her, all their pretensions. Our joy in her – if you do joy in her has little to do with her spunk or aggression — because she isn’t very aggressive. She fits in. But in this first novel at least she remains untouched by the venality around her, is not angered or embittered, keeps her honest values and integrity and can recognise and become friends with those she recognizes as spirits like her — say Frank and later Dr Thorne and Mary. Is hers really a fun position? An old maid people want to marry who couldn’t give a shit about her for her money. Doe she have any rank? None what so ever. She’s like Sir Roger. They even think no one could possibly marry her for anything else. It’s really hurtful.

Why does she like Frank? He is not yet corrupted at his core. Who is corrupted at his core: the Honorable George for one. Never mind your governor might just pop off any minute now and then you’ll get to spend as you please. What did you think of his proposal letter (p. 242-43). Frank is young and as yet noble-hearted and innocent; how did he get that way? We are back with Tom Jones, that’s his nature but it could be changed. It’s Frank’s business to propose to her and is he doing this? Not quite. Probably he wants a younger beautiful girl too – anyway he’s in love with Mary (inoculated). But he does try to obey. In the Rivals (Ch 18, p 198), things are heating up between these suitors. It’s time for Frank to act and he does make the attempt, but Miss Dunstable cuts him off with how fond of him his aunt seems. Oh yes says he. Tell me, she asks, what was the countess talking to you about last night?

“What did she say?” That Miss Dunstable was beautiful. And her virtues. “How very kind” of her. (p. 239)
“Virtues and prudence! She said I was prudent and virtuous?’
‘Yes’. ‘And you talked of my beauty. That was so kind of you! You didn’t either of you say anything about other matters?’
‘What other matters?’
‘Oh! I don’t know Only some people are sometimes valued rather for what they’ve got than for any good qualities belonging to themselves intrinsically’ (p. 190).

Frank is lying. And suddenly Miss Dunstable’s tone changes, becomes quite sharp. She says sharply out it’s quite out of the question anyone at Courcy castle would value people for what they’ve got.

We are told that Frank doesn’t get it, doesn’t think what he’s doing, he is heir to embarrassed property and as a male he sees other males going after Miss Dunstable so like some lemming to the sea he does so too (p. 24)0
She seems to forgive him – because he does not ask her to marry him because he does not want her, to his aunt (p 250): the aunt says Miss Dunstable is “very fond of you.” “Nonsense Aunt he says.” By the end of his sojourn – I’m skipping the visit to Gatherum Castle – he does ask Miss Dunstable to marry him (Ch 22, p. 269): what happens is when she breaks the code, he tells the truth. She appeals to the better man in him (p 271): she had hoped he was better than all around her; she cannot laugh at the world if there is no one around to laugh with her (p. 271). Has the aunt “blackened you so foully as to make you think of such a vile folly as this?” oh for shame.

I’ve learned in life “shame on you” often doesn’t work as a formula, but it does here: Frank boldy says he never for moment meant to make Miss Dunstable his wife (p 272). He didn’t think it out, and now they can be friends as they have a basis for the friendship (p 273) – truth. How does he feel after this interview? Revolted at himself. Deep sense of disgust at himself. One of his best moments in the whole book (Ch 20, p. 274): when the countess taps him on the shoulder, he looks at her. She knows it’s all over. Her reaction is to get rid of Miss Dunstable – no longer wanted.

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The very naive John Bold as we first see him in Barchester Chronicles (John Gwillim)

The Election.  Mr Romer is a barrister, greatly interested in liberal causes, he’s there to assist Roger. How does he assist Sir Roger to win. There were still few people who could vote in 1858 (first larger franchise comes ten years later); polling places were places where people were pressured and thugs hired to intimate, violence went on until the secret ballot was passed in 1872. And suddenly they vanished. Who says people’s behavior cannot be changed is not very observant. It seems that Mr Reddypalm’s whole bill had not been paid by Mr Moffat or Closerstill. And Mr Romer pays it (p 236): our narrator admonishes us to pay the whole bill, and if you feel you are overcharged, you are getting at least friendly service. “Why make a good man miserable for such a trifle” – irony is you say one thing and mean another. Problem is people don’t always get your message.

Trollope wants you to see the egregious hypocrisy of the unseating of Sir Roger – the reason Mr Reddypalm’s bill surfaces is the Duke of Omnium and DeCourcys cannot bear that their power be overlooked: “Mr Moffat had been put forwad by the De Courcy interest; and that noble family and all its dependents was not going to go to the wall because Mr Moffat had had a thrashing (Ch 22), Sir Roger is unseated (p 290). All that over-the-top talk against bribery means nothing. It’s cant. Now it must be admitted that Sir Roger buys into the code.When he is unseated, he pretends not to care (p 295), ”And the blow to him was very heavy … “ read it. In the wake of this blow little people get blown over, the employees, like Mr Romer,ends up in Hong Kong, (p 295).

Mr Romer is unfairly destroyed (pp. 296-97, Chapter 22) You may pass a law as they did in 1832 against bribery and the Courcys committed bribery as did Sir Roger – stayed just within the limits of the law. But they are not going to stand there and let someone beneath them, with less powerful connections, no rank take a seat. They go to court – if they can’t have it, no one will (p. 294). The election is null and void. The district is not disenfranchised as too corrupt by law. That did happen after 1868 – Trollope lost at Beverley in Yorkshire; went to court, and the place was disenfranchised. Read about in in Ralph the Heir, a novel which reflects his experience directly.

Mr Romer parallels Mr Harding; it may be the law is right to be against bribery in elections, p 292 – a lot of overdone sarcasm about people caring about “purity,” but who gets hurt? In The Warden did the old men get the money they should literally have – no. They were worse off. They have no power for real. Mr Bold was a foolish young man who didn’t understand how the world works – he got a lesson to some extent in The Warden. He was lucky – we are told does not have really to work as a doctor, which he doesn’t much care for.

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A poor illustration from an early edition of Dr Thorne, but the moment chosen is right: Sir Roger rasping to Dr Thorne over his will

Sir Roger goes home to drink himself to death. Had he been allowed in, he might have been able to rise to the crown of a career and whether other men drank with him or not been active and proud. Now he will drink alone as he has not been allowed a place. He has been deprived of fulfilling work.

How did they do in their speeches? Well Sir Roger held his own a lot better (pp 229-30). He knows these people, indeed he represents them, can pretend to have the skin of a rhinoceros. It is Sir Roger tells the crowd Mr Moffat’s motive for engaging himself to Augusta Gresham (p 232). Mr Moffat ends up pelted with eggs. He has no motive for getting into parliament beyond getting in. Sir Roger at least has pride and is engaged directly and deeply with economic realities. And then when this crowning achievement of his life is gotten it is taken from him. Whatever chance he had to function as a genius of sorts among his peers – Mps included people from Manchester, he never made it. Trollope waxes quietly sardonic on the phony obituary, portraying Scatcherd as just the happiest, as “serene” – the word serene is used of men because he was such a business success. Sir Roger was anything but. We are told he would have seen the monument put up to him as showing no understanding of what his work was (Ch 25, p 341). Where do these obituaries come from; when someone dies not expected to make the news, one is produced too.

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For the last two weeks of our class discussion, see Dr Thorne and the Cornhill and Novels of Manners; the last quarter of the novel: blood versus true merit; no multiplot and making Pride and Prejudice real; Women and Property Rights; Kincaid and Polhemus: an all-out class war & the moral center; the Barsetshire series on the periphery & re-framed.

Ellen

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On their way to Pompeii (2014)

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Somewhere in the West Riding (2010)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, featuring Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon a second time before writing about it as what is referred to as “a summer movie,” but summer is just about over and I’ve not made it back to Cinema Art this week when it opened there (and a few other movie theaters). I have, though, now watched The Trip twice (a DVD from Netflix), the previous travel-film, near two-hour feature made by the same director, with the same pair of males, and even female friends and lovers (Rebecca Johnson as Rob’s wife) and associates (Claire Keelan as Emma) in 2010. They went to Yorkshire or the West Riding, so that reinforcement and slow re-watching (pleasurable) will have to do.

The Trip to Italy is not a great film in the way of Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, as the loving and then vexed friends, with each reprise (Before Sunset [2004], and Before Midnight [2013]), not quite as fine; but it’s in the same mode, and unlike most sequels, an improvement on The Trip: all five seem to move us deeply into an intimate relationship (not sexual in the case of Coogan and Brydon as they keep reminding us and themselves) which we are glimpsing continual outward signs and conversation about. One of the joys of all five is you are made to feel you are listening to real spontaneous conversation and have to remind yourself that, to stay just with Coogan and Brydon, this is a fiction and this is not Brydon’s wife to whom he is sexually unfaithful while away, nor is this Coogan’s somewhat estranged son (in the fiction of the second movie, having been separated from her mother, his ex-wife). And the conversation is almost perpetually stimulating, often intelligent, fun, touching. Coogan and Brydon have some advantages over Delpy and Hawke as both are superb mimics and their patter in the second movie is a matter of their competing with transforming themselves into familiar male actors, and they visit superbly beautiful places.

It speaks well of Linklater’s three movies that he does not rely on offering us a deeply pleasurable travelogue, but this summer I could not resist it. Jim and I and our two daughters in 1994 spent five weeks in Italy, mostly in and around Rome, but we were in Pompeii, to Naples, and three days in Ischia and I had to admit we were immersed in nothing so beautiful, a salutary admission as films eliminate the hard realities of travel, the real world one is surrounded by.

As a dream fantasy of photography the earlier film was as spectacular. Brydon says they are in a Turner painting, but to me (like Alan Bennet) it’s John Atkinson Grimshaw (a famous 19th century painter of Leeds) who captured the area best and this time, having lived in Leeds and traveled across the West Riding for 2 years I did experience some of the scenes captured.

Landscape (1)
I’ve walked and driven through landscapes like this

Landscape (2)
Stone pubs look like that on a sunny day

They do omit Leeds itself with its hard older parts of the cityscape (some impoverished), and towns that are barely surviving today,and the bourgeois heavy mansions in the outskirts of cities but not in the countryside:

John Atkinson Grimshaw - An Autumn Idyll
John Atkinson Grimshaw’s forte: An Autumn Idyll

But then to me parts of Naples looked like the Bronx circa 1950s.

Both films have been reviewed favorably, Maohla Dargis in the New York Times (June 2011), and David Denby in the New Yorker (September 2014). Both reviews underline the vexed abrasions the men have now and again, and the undercurrents of melancholy, especially in the second film where the men are older, and Brydon no longer presented as happily married. The films are self-reflecting and in the second film Brydon remarks he was thought to be too “affable” in the first film: it’s been fixed, as Brydon betrays his lovers more than Coogan, and is every bit as wounded over his career losses as Coogan (who after all was in last year’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” Philomena with Judi Dench). I also found the increased level of sexual talk (bodily jokes) at times distasteful and (to be expected I suppose) masculinist: the hurts are those of males, women seen as objects, comfort dolls, or irritating bosses. At the Cinema Art Film Club where I saw The Trip to Italy, Gary Arnold (the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films and leads the discussion afterward) said if you didn’t like the actors’ characters you would hate the film; that’s one way of putting it without referring to gender. Some might be bored by Delpy and Hawke.

Perhaps The Trip to Italy had realer fuller (because darker) emotions than The Trip: the moving sequence at Pompeii is the film at its best — the talk over the stone corpses and how we relate to them. In The Trip Coogan and Brydon rely on reciting poetry by Coleridge and Wordsworth to make ironic some of their passing through tourist places; in The Trip to Italy the awareness of mortality, almost a fixation (it comes out in the 2010 film when the two are standing in a grave side and Brydon gets Coogan to anticipate what Coogan will say over Brydon’s tomb), comes out as one man wanting to open himself to his loss and vulnerability (Brydon) and the other bitterly walking away (Coogan), suggesting this sensitivity is phony.

overthetomb

Winterbottom made a great film out of Jude the Obscure where he similarly meditated loss, death, and in The Trip to Italy Winterbottom’s use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was pitched just right. For me who nowadays see in Before Sunrise a re-enactment of Jim and my first week together,

before-sunrise
Before Sunrise: the young Delpy and Hawke

there was here a personal connection to our first ceremony ending (I intend to scatter his ashes in England), as Jim loved these songs and I made them part of the soundtrack for the video that played at Jim’s funeral.

Denby tells us the two films are derived from six part mini-series made for British TV. He felt nothing was missing and you could hardly tell this origin; I can’t agree. Now and again references seem to be made to something in the film we had not experienced (not just a between chapter) and especially the second film where there was much more sexual interaction with women along the way perhaps I would have not reacted to the talk negatively had the full time of the relationships been presented. At the very least the films profited enormously from their cyclical structure. In the second especially we are made to feel this is not closure: Coogan has to go home to cope with the son he has in part failed, and Brydon wishes he could avoid returning home and suggests a hope, however improbable, of coming back. Improbable is part of the movie’s wit: they are supposed on a hard assignment to eat these exquisitely cooked meals it’s almost an embarrassment to watch being made, so detailed is the luxury appointment of the plates, and so hushed the waiter’s descriptions.

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Yorkshire being photographed

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Yet another wine-savored feast

A testament to the world of the 1%? That’s my one serious objection to the second film. The first seemed to avoid that: maybe it had less fancy meals, less luxurious surroundings, there was a sense of roughing it. If you define a summer movie as escapism, metaphysically and psychologically at least they are not that, with the second funnier and yet sadder than the first.

Both sets of films have prompted caricature:

Cartoon
Eating your way through

WakingLife
Waking up: “I keep thinking about something you said.” “Something I said?”

Ellen

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Happiness is the state of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves — Jonathan Swift, The Tale of a Tub, 1704, alluded to in Magic in the Moonlight, 2014

Clarence: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? — screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946

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Colin Firth as Stanley Crawford and Emma Stone as Sophie Baker, soaked from rain, gaze out at the sky in an observatory (Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen film)

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Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey looking up at the sky from a town degraded by misery, with people debased from lack of economic opportunity his Building Company had given him, as the angel Clarence has changed the past so that he never existed (It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra film)

Dear friends and readers,

Surely sheer coincidence that I, for whom these topics have a direct personal anguish, should have watched in tandem two films which either assert (It’s a Wonderful Life) or debate (Magic in the Moonlight) if there is a God, if prayers are answered, if there is some meaning in existence, a pattern beautiful imposed by a supernatural realm beyond the natural. I knew a belief that this is so (however comically enacted by Henry Travers as the prosaic Angel looking for a promotion, Clarence) was the central assertion of Capra’s famous Christmas movie, but I had long ago forgotten how this was demonstrated and how George Bailey came to know such anguish as is seen on the mobile face of the great actor, Jimmy Stewart, and I neglected to read the reviews of Allen’s latest summer movie project so didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

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George dreaming over travel literature

As Joseph (an angel who appears as a twinkling star in the firmament) tells it to Clarence, George Bailey’s life is one where one enemy of promise after another takes away each of George’s ambitious dreams. He dreamed of leaving the dull small town, Bedford Falls, of taking a trip around the world. He couldn’t because his father’s business, a Building Association which loaned money to people, needed his expertise. Four years pass and he is now hoping to go to college. He can’t because his father dies, and that business will go to pieces if he doesn’t sustain it. Instead his brother uses the money he earned to become an engineer, meet a rich young woman and take a well-paying job in her father’s firm far away from Bedford Falls. At each turn in his life some promise, some ambition, some average expectation is thwarted. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary (Donna Reed) and hopes to take a luxurious cruise honeymoon, and there is a rush on the association so all their money must go to satisfy their customers’ demand for their money. He and his wife take over the ruin of a house and fix it.

Unlike real life though these enemies of promise turn out to be good things: each time George is led to do good — he fights Mr Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) the mean capitalist banker, the film’s villain, who seeks to make everyone else live poorly, work for little, have no decent place to live so they will be vulnerable, weak, serve him abjectly as he grows richer and richer. George Bailey on the surface looks the selfless man who has provided a beautiful village of small houses for the people of this town, seen his brother become a WW2 hero, but we are to see he feels his lack of a fancy car, beautiful home; he never goes to Europe (a dream of upper middle class fulfillment found in the last season of Breaking Bad too: Marie tells Hanjk Walt and Skylar are planning to go to Europe but this is thwarted when Walt is found out by Hank and his cancer returns).

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Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy abject before his loss of the important money

Then on Christmas eve during some excitement either he or his faithful kind honest uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) puts a desperately needed $800 in an envelope which gets wrapped up in a newspaper and into the hands of the evil Mr Potter, who keeps it. George has been financing all he does on tenuous grounds and when the bank examiners come that night, there is no money in the till. He is bankrupt; Mr Potter as chief banker, is able to call in loans and demand a warrant for his arrest. George will be exposed as a failure, crook, shamed, and there wells up in him the years of personal sacrifice. He screams at his loving family (4 children who cost), his endlessly hard-working selfless wife (decorating the tree, making food for all), and for once tells those around them what underneath his kind exterior what he thinks of them. Fools, incompetent, irritating. He has given up his time to support others not as smart as he. He then sees how useless it is to them them these truths, apologizes, and rushes out into the street.

We next see him in a bar run by an Italian man who owes the happy physically comfortable existence of his family to George’s generous trust in him. George is getting very drunk. Heaven, though, is alerted to his suicidal thoughts because so many people in the town pray to God (we hear these prayers) and Clarence is sent down to help. Just as George is about to jump off a bridge, into teeming cold water, Clarence jumps. Naturally George jumps in also to save Clarence, and both are taken to a local station house to dry off. After some initial comic dressing by the angel (changing a heavenly gown for a suit), the two go walking, Clarence carrying a favorite book, Tom Sawyer.

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Henry Travers as Clarence listening to George

As Clarence listens to George’s immiseration, he comes up with a radical way to prove to George his life has not been wasted, worth nothing, achieved nothing: he puts a spell on the world so that George will see what would have happened to many in Bedford Falls had George not existed: George is deaf in one ear because he saved his brother from drowning in ice one winter; his brother would have died at age 8. The Building Association would have failed and the whole town resemble the impoverished huge population in the US today: dives for drunkenness, wretched food, oblivion sought, hopelessness, everyone biting at everyone else.

It’s a movie which denies Mrs Thatcher’s famous contention (today often repeated as a canny truth) that there is no such thing as society only individuals and families, each a unit apart from the other units. It demonstrates that people matter to each other. That we are all “in it” together. George’s Building Association is the New Deal, a genuinely pro-people gov’t as we’ve not seen in the US since FDR, only in fits and starts since then up to the 1970s, when an anti-people group of powerful associations began to turn the US back to the pre-WW1 era socially as far as is possible. And it does show the underside of poverty and despair: depression era places and dress abound when George’s existence is subtracted.

Stewart becomes hysterical as he sees what the town became. It’s a deeply sexist film so Mary is envisioned as a uptight virgin librarian who never married and is horrified when Stewart attempts to approach her.

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What Donna Reed must’ve been had George not married her

A secondary sexually unchaste young woman Violet (Gloria Graham) who he helped escape the punished existence she had been living

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Gloria Graham as all glistening gratitude to the kindly man who rescues her ..

is seen as just about a prostitute being beaten up and taken off to jail by cops. George is now seen as a danger to all, a crazy man, and (really sad this), the one place where what is happening in this 1946 film corresponds to US society today is when a cop pulls out a gun and starts to shoot to kill Stewart who flees back to the bridge where he had originally intended to jump. George stands there praying hard that Clarence will make it that he did exist, and the magic happens and suddenly the cop recognizes him. Meanwhile Mary has visited all the people George ever helped and they have all contributed what they could and the debt will be paid. What a contrast to Breaking Bad: no one in Breaking Bad gives anything to anyone without expecting something monetarily valuable back (it can be prestige, respectability). If Walter White wants to make enough money to afford effective chemotherapy for his cancer, he must turn to selling something that commands a big price: meths.

No American value is questioned. Mr Potter is a twisted evil man, not presented as representative of usual humanity. War is a good thing in It’s a Wonderful Life: George’s brother Henry’s heroism saving people by his airforce work is not seen to kill people at the same time. We see George help one seriously presented black man, but otherwise black people are represented as comical and contented — especially in the “colored” maid the Bailey family seems to be able to afford to keep. It is a fable controlled by the Hays Code.

Famously people cry over this film. I became hysterical as I watched — it seemed to give me a license to wild crying.

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There is something indescribably touching in Stewart’s face as he is made to feel he had a valuable life

Yes if I had never existed this house which we bought would probably not be here (have been bought and pulled down by someone far richer), Jim would not have moved to the US, and would have died years earlier from the very unhealthy life he was living. No Laura, no Izzy. I suppose on some level the argument is silly, but its radically root-and-branch evacuation of an existence make a radical point. Maybe others when they watch Stewart travel the huge trajectory of extravagant emotions their losses or yearnings come out too. For me I thought about how I just don’t have the strength I once did any more, as all happiness is gone from life for me. I see myself as trying hard and then as repeatedly finding it’s no use, stomach ache, so exhausting this being alive without him, nothing I do gives me any surcease. I will never now have the dreams I hoped to fulfill: I can’t travel, am all anxiety, am excluded from real companionship as much as ever. He alone assuaged that, he was my friend, so now for me it’s deep loneliness and frustration, true silence. I surmise others who cry do not cry with delirious joy, but because they know the film’s fulfillment for George Bailey is a fairy tale they wish were true

Izzy has told me the fable is told in many forms in various places since 1946, and when in some films one is going to get a version, of here’s what the world would have been without you, the film turns black-and-white. I know there are other classic popular films and musicals where suddenly the audience is presented with characters in heaven looking down at and affecting the people “below.” Carousel for one. The egoistic outlook which imagines that a single person (“I”) inside the vast universe can control or interfere with complicated events across a big earth suddenly so they change to satisfy that person’s needs through wishing which reaches some super-power is apparently one many people still fantasize with. When I taught ghost stories to my students each term there would be a couple of students who’d during their talks assert a belief in ghosts. They did not go on to witches, werewolves or vampires, but ghosts are enough.

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Simon McBurney is the jealous magician who with Sophie deludes Firth as Stanley into believing in her medium powers; there they are, all complacent with Eileen Atkins as rich pampered loving and loved aunt

First, let me not be misunderstood. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film fable; Magic in the Moonlight is often tiresome, exasperating (to me especially when I had to watch the half-embarrassed actor, Colin Firth fold his hands, look up piously and pray for his aunt’s life), and self-indulgent. Lazy. At the end of the movie after lengthy discussion, finally Sophie is found to be hiding in Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins)’s house, ready to kiss and marry Stanley. The young woman-older man couple is too close to Allen’s own marriage to his young step-daughter for comfort. Firth is not the first male matinee idol type actor to stand in for Allen too closely in these last years as Allen faced the reality he is even too old looking to be the heroine’s father; he needs to play the grandfather at least. As with other of Allen’s last films (not last year’s Blue Jasmine), this film occurs in a never-land of luxury, idleness and gorgeous landscapes and ceaseless effortless vacations:

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no one has any hard work to do: jobs are all of the art-y type (including being a magician); clothes are lavish (especially Atkins’s wardrobe which seems tactlessly over-designed to hide her aging body and face). The laziness is in having the actors tell one another at the opening of the film what they have been doing these last years, what they are now planning to do (go off to a rich estate and expose a fake medium), fill us in repeatedly (like Prospero in the first act of The Tempest). And everyone praises Firth’s art and Aunt Vanessa’s existence to the extent I thought of the characters in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison’s excruciating open praise of him and later Harriet. And Emma Stone is lifeless; she looks like a Woody Allen heroine, but she can’t act.

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Sophie and Stanley discuss nature of existence

Yet if you are intrigued by an ironic debate on the issues presented in It’s a Wonderful Life, interested in Allen’s films (as the New York Times critic immediately noted) which present and debate the problem of the existence of the paranormal, superstition (as in fortune-tellers — often found in Allen films), doubt and faith, whether life is worth living given how cruel are the fates of so many people, how unfeeling people are to one another, rampant injustice everywhere (not seen in this film), desperate poverty (which we are told Sophie and her mother experienced until they took up their fake trade) — the film has the suspense of whether we will end up in preferring the fatuous contentment of the deluded (go to the fortuneteller and hold to what she says) or the desperate bleakness of recognizing death as meaningless annihilation after a life of mostly failure and distress with performative lies as one way to get through knowingly. Some of the talk is absorbing with Firth playing the disillusioned misanthrope.

Conor Langton liked it, thought that Firth’s performance carried it.

The haughty reserve, the perfectly phrased disdain, the deeply romantic nature hidden beneath the chill: Firth does this sort of thing better than anyone. But this time the character’s name is Stanley Crawford … At times, the movie sounds like an overwritten drawing-room comedy from eighty years ago, or like Shaw without the irony … The renowned cinematographer Darius Khondji, shooting on 35-mm. film, with old CinemaScope lenses, achieves a soft, lemon-tinted light .. the swank is held in place by Allen’s instinctive classicism: the camera that gently recedes as the actors walk toward it; the long-lasting immovable shots as people talk and talk. It’s an accomplished, stately movie—unimpassioned but pleasing.

The movie stands up to intellectual scrutiny and aesthetically is intelligent. When Firth finally figures out how the delusion is achieved, he’s not keen to return to his arid hopelessness. The film connects to It’s Wonderful Life because Allen and Firth both want to long to believe in faery and understand it is not so, but in understanding it’s not so realize something else has to be substituted: love, kindness, toleration of those who need illusions, recognizing you do have illusions of your own in other areas, need some reassurance there is some enjoyment and at least some comradeship to be hoped for.

The final problem with Allen’s new film is it lacks of sense of humor, Allen is taking himself so seriously. Now Capra in It’s a Wonderful Life does the same thing: takes the issues and American icons of family life seriously. For myself I bothered to write this because I wanted to recognize people’s serious involvement. Yet our public visions of can’t accept more than fleeting moments

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To please today’s public, Allen needed more of the spirit of his 1972 New Yorker piece called “Examining Psychic Phenomena, “There is no question that there is an unseen world … The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?”  And Capra needed to let the dark side of his movie — what we are shown is the reality with no George Baileys about — come out more dominantly had he not had the Hays Code to contend with.

I neglected to mention the elderly very rich widow in Allen’s film who is paying huge sums to be made to believe she is getting in touch with her dead husband’s spirit. She is not quite made merciless fun of.

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Jacki Weaver as Brice’s (Hamish Linklater) mother (he is the super-rich young man about to marry Sophie)

Other widows: George Bailey’s mother who with George having lived is presented as mostly worrying about money; without George she would have ended childless, a bleak lonely woman who takes in boarders; Sophie Baker’s career is dependent on the efforts of her widowed mother to secure clients and keep the sceptical at bay. We never learn whether Aunt Vanessa ever married.

Ellen

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Macauley (Mike) Connor (Jimmy Stewart) carrying the drunken Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) back from mid-night time at pool, encountering her nearly divorced husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-husband, George Kittredge (John Howard) (Philadelphia Story, 1940)

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Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) bullying into bewildered madness the anxiety-ridden Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) (Gaslight, 1944)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been watching, reading about, and contextualizing George Cukor films with other films by him, other films in the same genre over the past week and a half. I’ve read Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor: filled with remarkable stills, photos and interviews of Cukor. He was a brilliant film-maker, really an elegant controller of a camera, a man who could form an archetypal image or picture on film and build a story from this. I especially much enjoyed and laughed at, was moved by his screwball comedy-romance, Philadelphia Story,

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Tracy looking at Dexter’s handmade replica of the boat they had their first loving honeymoon on

and found his psychological gothic, Gaslight, which conforms to the Bluebeard female gothic type, as subtle and grippingly worrying until near its end as Robert Wise’s later heart-terrifying Haunting (1960). No technological gadgetry or overproduction, nothing wildly theatrical, no bodily taboos broken, yet Gaslight similarly gets to the attentive viewer where he or she lives — until its last 20 minutes or so.

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Scenes in quiet greys of gaslight pull the viewer in, symbolic of this haze the husband surrounds the wife with.

I assume the storylines of both are familiar to my readers (if not, see Philadelphia Story; Gaslight). So let me cut to the chase, as with Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, far from agreeing with the book I’m reviewing that the greatness of these films partly stems from the coping with the repressive Hays code, I felt the Hays Code only codified and strengthened some of the troubling aspects of the screwball comedy, and hopelessly enfeebled the conclusion of the gothic.

Philadelphia Story resembles Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (as well as the very early screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, also with Cary Grant, but this time the errant wife is Irene Dunne). Its crucial turning point is a scene of possible sexual intercourse off screen which (as in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) our heroine cannot remember because she was too drunk; sometimes it’s insinuated she and Connor (your brash but literate newspaper man) had full sexual intercourse by poolside, but sometimes not and at the close Connor says there are rules and limits to what a man can do with reference to her drunken state (which is supposed to imply to have had full sexual intercourse would have been a rape, as it was in case of Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker).

In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we never learn who the man was — the erasure of a specific identity robs the function of an imagined presence so we end up feeling most decent men would never rape a drunken woman (the indecency here is felt in the cowardly man not coming forward at all; he took advantage and fled). But even if we go with Stewart’s sincerely-uttered explanation, Tracy proceeds to apologize: she apologizes to both ex-husband and husband-about-to-be, to Connor, and to her father for giving him a hard time when he was merely having a long-time affair with a Broadway dancer-star. When the father comes home for the wedding (to which Tracy did not invite him), her mother does not seem to have minded either his continued adultery or absence enough to separate herself from him. All all Tracy’s fault: she is told off by Dexter especially for her coldness, for imagining herself a goddess (and thus above all others, she should do like them), for being a spinster (this is a low blow in the film). (Trudy also apologizes to Norval, her father, and whoever else is around.)

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Tracy telling her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) they will not have her father at the wedding

It didn’t help Philadelphia Story to obscure the central incident; it would have been more effective if we could have known for sure that sexual intercourse happened with the third man or not. I don’t see that making the woman character drunk both times added to my pleasure or promoted anything meaningful for women except that the films accepted women being drunk or not just they accepted men – there was no special angry prejudice against women such as I’ve observed too often. I have discovered that not all screwball or romantic comedies of the 1940s have a heroine apologize or go through a humiliation ritual. Arguably Barbara Stanwyk in The Lady Eve (Sturges) does not; at the close of The Awful Truth Irene Dunne does not apologize, but then Cary Grant is not asked to account for his week away which we know he lied about while Irene Dunne is.

The acting of the principals in The Philadelphia Story overcomes the worst thing about all these screwball comedies done under the Hays Code: a superficiality in the relationship between men and women. By having the characters people who were once married, that endows them with an automatic depth knowledge of one another but nothing we see in most of these gives them any depth of feeling. The lack of honest sexual feeling is central to this. Grant and Hepburn give the pair real emotion by having him insult her for not having enough feeling; Grant and Stewart use the class issues between them (he is supposed lower class, though it turns out of course he really is middle) and he is made an author she reads. But the others I’ve watched, and especially the more recent of the type, Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper never give any sense of feeling over his having a liaison and her love for him remains girlish, sentimental.

The ending of a film matters (no matter how much David Lean famously downplays that). People who want to trivialize, scoff at and use Thelma and Louise as yet another warning lesson for women, use the ending in suicide — for that’s what it is practically speaking. See what happens to women like that. (Thelma and Louise is another movie where one heroine’s experience of rape and the attempted rape of the other is hardly mentioned.) At any rate by the end of Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy is parroting all that Cary Grant as Dexter says and is now his obedient grateful wife (Taming of the Shew anyone?). Dexter monitors Tracy’s activities throughout. The relationship between the two is not much different than that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s 1950s Adam’s Rib.

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There are some continuities between Philadelphia Story and very recent films worth noticing: the lawyer type in all three movies (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story) resembles Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad; an unscrupulous shyster who we don’t fear because when push comes to shove he’s a coward (not favorable at all). This is probably the way most Americans accept the way lawyers are shown in mass media. It’s utterly inadequate, if it was not tragic (as lawyers are so important) it’s pathetic. Tracy’s uncle ( we are supposed to laugh and find this funny) enjoys pinching Hepburn’s behind – the way the uncle did in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Philadelphia Story have a wry younger sister who speaks a few home truths; again her role reminds me of the vestigial Margaret in Austen’s S&S

It’s said that Cukor made women’s films, he was a woman director in disguise. He once made a film which had no men actors in it, The Women, and I remember it as excellent — feminist and yet with a fashion show because for women looks matter in our world. He himself disliked this label and said it was not true. I’d like to agree with him, and say while he had a number of strong-women actresses play ove and over again in his films, the strongest effectively subversive and comic presence across all the screwball comedies is Cary Grant. He could deliver a line that undercut whatever piety was going, lightly, suggestively, effectively.

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Anthony John, the aging actor (Ronald Colman) and his mistress, Pat Kroll whom he kills (Shelley Winters) (A Double Life, 1947): also a film where the central character seems half-insane

Gaslight is much less a studio product. It’s is based on a play; its script is literate and fine the way Philadelphia story is. But unlike Philadelphia Story until near the end when the Hays code kicks in, it does not fit into preconceived genres in the way most of Cukor films finally do — from Little Women to Lost Horizon, the ending must be uplifting, optimistic, providential. The Double Life, a film noir re-make in modern terms of Othello featuring Ronald Colman which comes closest to Gaslight in its unnerving feel suffers very badly by its redemptive ending. (All these I’ve watched before and rewatched these past couple of weeks.) Cukor could not be the auteur in his films for most of his life: later films, especially when aspects of the story reflected Cukor’s own internal story of himself, say A Star is Born, escaped this stifling.

For Gaslight is not a horror (monster) movie, it’s not a thriller either. Cukor was evolving the modern film gothic (seen best in ghost stories turned into films): psychologically disquieting and suspenseful. Cukor manages to make you fear for the wife who is being closed in, driven, quietly slowly bullied into continual isolation and humiliation, and persuaded she is mad. The sets, the lighting, the quiet dialogues, the use of servants to thwart Paula are all discreetly done, repetitive, crowded. She is crowded out.

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A young Angela Lansbury as a sexy hostile London cockney maid sides with the master and frustrates the old-world courtesy of Paula. The film does capture what a man in charge of a woman can do to her — cultures where the woman is under the control of someone.

The film’s power is then choked off. In no time at all, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) who knew the Paula’s aunt and somehow works for Scotland yard (though he has an American accent) is able to track Anton in Anton’s nightly treks up to his own attic to terrify his wife, to reach the wife while Anton is in said attic, convince her, and then easily capture, tie up and take Anton away. Ingrid Bergman as Paula gets to torment Boyer as Anton for a few moments, and holds a knife to his head, but her jeering is lame and her act tame.

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And as the film closes the neighborly like lady (Dame May Whitty) who comforted Ingrid on the train and while she enjoys reading about bloodthirsty people, believes all is fine with the world and police can and so solve everything, is seen coming to visit Ingrid again. Cukor’s little joke?

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In talking of Gaslight, Cukor said that its style came out of its story, a near murder “in a Victorian house.” He meant to make it “claustrophobic” and stir up emotion. He again says he followed the Van Druten script and tried to erase himself. If he had been allowed to take the logic of the story of a woman made a hostage to its conclusion, how great the film would have been.

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I honestly would prefer to like, to revel in these early much-praised films, but I find they grate. I watched as much as I could stand of My Man Godfrey (1936 version). I can see why William Powell stood out: he is a genuinely sardonic presence as a hobo turned into a butler for the amusement of a super-rich family who are presented (naively) as simply frivolous and naive, idle, doing nothing (including not much harm if you don’t ask how the expensive parties with their luxuriously dressed guests got there). I find I can’t take watching the supposedly elegantly mannered somewhat effete matinee idol type men and fat-cat salacious but somehow bullied older men by their fat stupid wives, with the heroines looking adoringly at the hero: I hadn’t realized how much Jean Arthur does just that, much to my surprise — from my favorite 1942 Talk of the Town to Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes to Washington which fits the type except for Jimmy Stewart’s agonized face now and again).

Cukor claimed that what irreparably weakened The Double Life was Colman lacked a sense of the demonic. I find the older films only reach this when they are made in Europe and left to be expressionistic of trauma and cynicism. The Hays Code clamped down on these but nowadays American films often flounder still when it comes to the gothic and are crassly melodramatic, over-produced with much bodily horror (e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Ironically (or perhaps in character) the US films which have been able to project the darker prevailing ironies and metaphysics of American culture are the gangster to modern melodramatic crime films, from James Cagney’s psychopathic killer in White Heat (unforgettable, his bullying of Virginia Mayo, and his blowing himself upk, “Top of the World, ma”) to last year’s Breaking Bad. Cukor does not seem to have made this kind of film at all. From On Cukor he seems to have been too sensitive (and oddly) too self-effacing a man.

He is said not to be identified or remembered enough because he did not develop a single style you could trace throughout his films. He couldn’t — he had too many constraints. He also wanted to contain a lot, so I chose this photo as capturing that ideal.

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during trial of Eichmann

Every Day: War is no longer declared,/only continued — Ingeborg Bachmann

Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

In the feature Von Trotta says she had wanted to make film about Arendt for a long time, but was stopped because this was the story of a thinking woman, a woman who spent her life thinking passionately and then writing about it. She did succeed in making an absorbing thoughtful movie on just this theme, though the way it’s done is to thread into much of the story (I tell below) with scenes of Arendt lying on her bed smoking and (presumably) thinking, walking in woods smoking (and presumably …) or at her typewriter. We get little about her earlier background, and only so much of her autobiography as sheds light on her experience of Nazism: she was fortunate enough to escape.

Although I know I’m not qualified to write about Margarthe von Trotta’s thought-drenched portrait of Hannah Arendt in a film named after her because I’ve read only excerpts from her essays or brief essays about her (often semi-hostile or not quite comfortable) and have just begun Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s Hannah Arendt: for love of the world (biography), still since I may never get to a level of reading in her or hear or see her talk, I think I can make do on what I do know, as what this blog will be about it is von Trotta’s film.

Allow me to cut to what is important about the film. While von Trotta is known for representing forgotten or marginalized women, or “foremothers” in history:

VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta.

her film about Arendt is about a centrally important & remembered philosopher whose works include Eichmann on Trial and The Origins of Totalitarianism. And though some love stories provide “beats” in the movies’ plot-design, the central of the movie is Arendt’s thought. In a DVD feature, von Trotta talked about the difficulty of portraying a woman most of whose hours were spent reading, writing and thinking. She also wanted to convey the content of the thinking.

The solution was to move quickly in the film from a depiction of Hannah’s home life and friends, a long time correspondent, Mary McCarthy (Janet von Teer),

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Hannah’s long-time happy marriage with a kindred German spirit, Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg)

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and secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch),

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a general ambience of her life living in a co-op in Manhattan, teaching at NYC, to the New Yorker invitation to her to write several essays as a reporter. It was the ferocious angry rejection of what Arendt wrote and her response that gave von Trotta her opportunity. In life Arendt carried on writing (as she does in this film) and stood up for her beliefs and her work. In this film she gets into debates with the central figures in her life, e.g., Hans Jones (Ulrich Noenthen) and Kurt Blumenfield (Michael Degan. She explains and defends her choices.

One seemed to me relevant to us here today, whether you live in the US (evolving in the most inhumane and unjust ways as a fascistic oligarchy backed by militarism) or Europe (see, e.g. Perry Anderson’s Italian Disaster, LRB): what is causing the evils we see growing everywhere (from privatizing of all things, hospitals, prisons, schools, the post office): she argues one center of evil comes from the refusal of people to behave as individual human beings with any kind of conscience and obligation to others as human beings. Not recognizing any sense of social reciprocity beyond their obedience to an organization to maintain and rise in their place in it. It’s not fiendish monsters. This idea of Arendt’s that Eichmann was not extraordinary monster provoked outrage. The key to where evil comes from is the idea individuals have no obligation to others. Here’s an economic example:

A story example: Bruno Bettelheim has a story about how real evil occurs between two men sitting in a restaurant where one offers the other a contract for a supposedly strong bridge built cheaply and gets a kick-back knowing the bridge will collapse in a few years (or need heavy repairs).

An economic example: from The Arrogance of Architects in the NYRB, June 5, 2014:

In Dubai, the much-ballyhooed botanical symbol of a sheltering oasis gives way to a more mundane reality. As Moore writes:

The Palm, so impressive when seen on Google Earth, is more ordinary at ground level, where what you see are high walls and close-packed developments that block views of the water. Owners of homes on the fronds found that they faced not so much the sea, as a suburban cul-de-sac penetrated by a tongue of brine.
Moore describes even more unappetizing realities of this dysfunctional fantasyland:

What couldn’t be seen from the helicopter was the crisis in the drains. Dubai’s buildings emptied their sewage into septic tanks, whence they were taken to the Al-Aweer sewage works, on the road out towards the desert and Oman. The sewage works had not kept pace with the city’s growth, and a long line of tankers, some painted with flowers by their Indian drivers, stood for hours in the heavy heat as they waited their turn to offload….
Some drivers, tired of waiting, had taken to pouring their cargo at night into the rainwater drainage system, which discharged straight into the sea. The owner of a yacht club, finding that his business was affected by the sight and smell of brown stuff on the bright white boats, took photographs of the nocturnal dumpings and gave them to the press. The authorities responded, tackling the symptoms but not the cause, by introducing severe penalties for miscreant drivers.

Yet such treatment of migrant workers would scarcely surprise the vast foreign labor force recruited worldwide to construct and maintain the new architecture and infrastructure of Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates, under sometimes appalling and widely documented conditions tantamount to indentured servitude, if not de facto slavery. The preponderance of celebrated architects hired to work in the Gulf States for the “value-added” commercial cachet of their well-publicized names and Pritzker Prizes—including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel—has led to calls that these respected figures boycott commissions there until laborers’ working conditions, pay, and freedom of movement are markedly improved.

However, despite the numerous horror stories about this coercive exploitation, some big-name practitioners don’t seem moved by the plight of the Emirates’ imported serfs. Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a member of Gulf Labor, an advocacy group that is seeking to redress this region-wide injustice, earlier this year wrote a chilling New York Times Op-Ed piece.1 In it he quotes the Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, now being built for the 2022 World Cup. She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. “I have nothing to do with the workers,” Hadid has claimed. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

She also devoted a number of pages to the leading well-connected and better-off Jewish leaders who colluded with the Nazis, making it easy for the Nazis to round up poor Jews and send them off to their deaths. Like Eichmann, they claimed innocence, but on other grounds: they denied knowing a massacre and enslavement were what awaited deported Jewish people. Others less well-placed did not flee because they could not or kept hoping that they would not have to (and leave a life-time’s work behind). She was accused of blaming all Jews, of blaming the victims — she was explaining the social psychology of what happened.

These are but two of the debates the film manages to convey without becoming at all a didactic costume drama where characters talk in unreal abstract preach-y ways. Also dramatized briefly is Hannah’s affair with Heidegger (Klaus Pol), a Nazi, anti-semite some said, her mentor in college, and his idea that what we flatter ourselves is thought logical thought is not; it’s ideas going through our heads as we remain alive. We see her talk with her husband, Heinrich about people politics; with William Shawn (Nicholas Woodson) about editing the New Yorker articles and Shawn talk with his staff about what the average New Yorker reader understands and wants to read.

NewYorker

Three men at the New School who hired her become implacable enemies (fearful for their school reputation).

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Margarethe von Trotta

All this is embedded in a woman’s life. The director a woman, the scriptwriter, Pam Katz, the producer, Bettina Brokemper. I enjoyed the story-line which represents another alternative script-type from Syd Field — this one personal and cylical as we watch Hannah’s relationships with her women friends and then each male, sometimes in a flashback, sometimes re-met today as older people who go back together. Her husband has an aneuryism and she’s terrified of losing him. He does seem to recover. It’s said Sukowa is one of von Trotta’s favorite actresses for her films: in this one became Arendt — chain-smoking away, going through phases of existence and writing. A friend Diane R had alerted me to the existence of the movie on Women Writers Across the Ages (at Yahoo) when she wrote:

It wasn’t a great movie, too episodic, too polemic in spots, too wooden in other spots, hampered by its clunky attempts to be faithful to history, but I very much appreciated its depiction of Arendt as a middle aged woman who is relentlessly presented as no longer beautiful but who is nevertheless a full human being with a full life. While not sexualized in a Hollywood way, she is yet clearly sexual to her husband (or partner), and while she is attacked over her Eichmann in Jerusalem book, she is never humiliated. No woman in the movie is humiliated. Although Arendt has a young, pretty assistant, and at the beginning of the movie Arendt’s friend implies that Arendt’s husband/partner must be having an affair with a student, the set up of older woman betrayed by younger woman never comes to pass.

So many movies make older women into figures of ridicule (Grand Budapest Hotel the most recent.)

A great deal of money was spent. It was a long-time germinating and took a long time to do. It was filmed in New York City, in Jerusalem, in parts of Germany. The costumes and hair-does of the sixties, the furniture, the student ambience. The way TVs worked. There was real care to imitate the look and arrangement of the rooms (their uses) and furniture in the last Riverside Drive apartments (all taken precisely from Young-Buehl’s book). Each room had several functions, all had books and places to write and places to sit and talk with friends. And it’s all there.

Perhaps the strongest stroke of inspired genius was to work in the real footage of Eichman himself in Jerusalem. He was creepy: his face twisted with humiliation and anger as he faced people he had treated as “vermin.”

Eichmann

I felt his arrogance and disdain. It was chilling, like someone out of Dr Strangelove. As Hannah and Heinlein say in the movie, the trouble with hanging him is it doesn’t get near to what might be an adequate punishment without becoming barbarians ourselves.

Other characters in the film have stories like that of Hannah: Fran on our WWTTA list also wrote the “Zionest Kurt von Blumenfeld the fatherly figure also turns from her on his deathbed, and was a writer, a survivor of the Holocaust himself, who wrote the memoir, Not all of them were murderers. A childhood in Berlin describing the way he and his mother escaped deportation and the gas chambers by assuming false identities and living with non-Jewish friends for the duration. His father wasn’t so fortunate: he died as a result of the torture he experienced in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Degen’s memoir has also been turned into a film.”

I mean to read (if I had spirit enough and time) Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book that was published from the six New Yorker articles. Origins of Totalitariansm: (from Publishers’ Weekly): “she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total domination. (e.g., Republicans in Tennessee outlawed any further money for public transportation; US cities are rebuilt to put middle and lower middle class people out of the center and with little public transportation.) The film has provided a basis for seminars in studies of Arendt.

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The real Hannah Arendt

Ellen

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Mybeautifullaundrette
My beautiful laundrette: 3 of the principals: Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), Omar (Gordon Warnecke), Tania (Rita Wolf)

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid: street-fighting, riot, encampment removal, killing people, the backdro: Rani (Meera Syal)

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last few nights I’ve been watching these strangely unforgotten films: if you cite the titles, My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) or Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (1987), they seem to ring a bell in your hearer’s ears, or your correspondent’s email. Even if both were directed by the now famous Stephen Frears, as both were filmed more than 25 years ago, there no VHS cassette nor DVD available for Sammie and Rosie, and Laundrette was made for TV on a very low budget, before it was released to movie-houses, some unusual long-remembered chord was struck.

You can buy the screenplays as well as essays and diaries about them, plus Hanif Kureishi’s third screenplay, in a volume called London Kills Me: 3 screenplays & four essays by Hanif Kureishi: I was first drawn to them as I began reading and realized here are yet another set of movies which have drawn riveted audiences which don’t at all abide by the Syd Field screenplay paradigm (true, archetypally, Laundrette can be made to fit). I seem to be intent on watching as many of these as I can: Le Weekend (again Hanif Kureishi, the scriptwriter) two weeks ago, and Only Lovers Left Alive (scripted directed by Jim Jarmusch) this week, 40 minutes into which you are still wondering what is happening here, and what is compelling me to sit here and carry on anyway. Gothic freak that I am

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Tilda Swindon as Eve, in this vampire as all anxiety

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Tom Hiddleston as Adam, the vampire determined to fend everyone off

Surely not anything I am identifying with (as I did Johnny in Laundrette) or anything making any kind of coherent political statement (as does Sammie and Rosie). No, it was the images themselves (which is why I can’t resist circulating them from other places on the Net). And images from Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie are equally arresting.

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Daniel Day Lewis won New York Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor

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An image of contemporary male Britain

Just watch the whole of Sammie and Rosie and you’ll see the point:

Maybe they are remembered because they did not give rise to copycat films; they remain sort of sui generis.

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

My Beautiful Laundrette‘s plot shows you it’s about contemporary Britain’s ethnically mixed population coping while exacerbated by class injuries and lack of cash; it’s also about love two between two gay young men (Johnny and Omar); it’s about older male Pakistani’s emotional desperation, especially the depressed impoverished alcoholic Pape played by Roshan Seth (in an truly unforgettable performance); his beloved Pakistani wife threw herself under one of the trains that whizz by their flat, and he longs for his son to succeed somehow or other:

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It’s also about a younger female Pakistani’s alienation (Tania) from her traditional culture with no welcome into white modern culture. All the characters are complex presences and time is given to characters who don’t fit the general pattern: Rachel (Sally Ann Field) the slightly aging white “mistress” of one of Omar’s rich uncles, Nasser (Saeed Jeffrey) dissatisfied with an ignorant vengeful wife who has been made to be that way.

mybeautifullaundretteLovers

Kureishi writes of how his childhood growing up in the UK, visits to Pakistan, schooling and reading (he loved Baldwin all the more because Baldwin was attacked as hating blacks and himself), career, racial experience all came together in his films. This is its beautiful lesson about life according to him:

The evil of racism is that it is a violation not only of another’s dignity, but also of one’s own person or soul; the failure of connection to others is a failure to understand or feel what it is one’s own humanity consists in, what it is to be alive, and what it is to seeing both oneself and others as ends not means … a society that is racist cannot accept itself … hates part of itself so deeply it cannot see …

It’s an impersonal truth that resonates today in the racist US. The trick of the film though is it’s odd fun: Johnny’s grin, his mischief-making as most of the time he escapes being beat the hell out of; those who savagely attack one another (feet are a target) are also intensely jealous of male fancy clothes, resentful of their own thuggishness and poverty. And memorable scenes of people having their stuff thrown out a window when they are ejected from the premises. No one has a heart but for his or her lover and not always then. Nassar weeps when Rachel says she is tired of being a sex mate and is breaking up with him. Omar berates Johnny as beneath him. Tania is last seen escaping into a train, bags in hand, no where to go where as a modern Pakistani woman she belongs. The language lacks quips (or the kind of ironic jokes Jarmusch’s film and Le Weekend specialize in); simple statements:

Tania: [Excited] I’m going. Johnny: Where? Tania: London. Away … I’m going, to live my life. You can come. Johnny: No good jobs like this [running the laundromat] in London. Tania: Omar just runs you around everywhere like a servant. Johnny: Well I’ll stay here with my friend and fight it out.

It’s easier to like My Beautiful Laundrette than Sammie and Rosie Get Laid. it has more touching moments:

touching

It’s about a laundromat too. One man (often mentioned in reviews) is continually on the phone explaining himself to Angela; there are other regular inhabitants too:

laundromat

Its real and enduring strength is in the suggested complexity of the characters and the believability of their difficult situations.

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

My guess is the Sammie and Rosie is not commercially for sale because the judgement was few would buy it. It is not naturalistic; many scenes are symbolic and the characters kept at a distance from us. Kureishi says “it concerns a number of relationships unfolding against a background of uprising and social deterioration.” It opens with the Brixton riots, police flood a slum area and wantonly murder a black woman making spaghetti (they are after her son); the first words are Mrs Thatcher’s urging the morality of her encampment and people removal; the last words are hers overheard on a speaker.

It made me uncomfortable. Sammie (Ayub Khan Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) don’t get laid by one another: he has a girlfriend he is sleeping with, Anna (Wendy Gazelle); Rosie refuses to sleep with Sammie because she doesn’t want to get pregnant; maybe she feels she’d have to carry it to term to satisfy her Pakistani father-in-law, Rafi (Shashi Kapoor). She goes to bed with Rani ((Meera Syal), a black British man whom Rafi picks up as a body-guard for a while, a street person with wife and son. She’s liberated as she sees it: dresses overtly sexually,

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doesn’t care who Sammie sleeps with and will not hide her affairs. What bothered me was the sex was done so realistically it was cloying — not parodic and crude as in Girls, and not the chaste romance of say Jewel in the Crown or Downton Abbey (one of several films Kureishi and Frears meant to counter with theirs, viz., Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, Room with a View (the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala version). I didn’t like her outfits either; I wanted to turn away. we have a lesbian couple: one of the pair appears to be Sammie’s cousin. They find heterosexual sex disgusting. We do have a genteel couple: Claire Bloom as Alice (a quintessentially English girl’s name) is brought in as a sweetheart of Rafi’s from long-ago, now living in a green and pleasant suburb; she defends law, police, order; we are to believe she was loyal to Rafi for a long time after and his promiscuity and traditional marriage hurt her. Their scenes are of tender nostalgia love:

tender

The movie has no story; basically it passes through a few nights of riot and private misery, of parties and ordinary citizen life — watching TV, eating in restaurants; parallel love-making on the screen the three couples. Dialogue concerns Rafi’s political life which he has now given up: he was high in the gov’t of Pakistan and responsible for torture and many ruined lives and places and finds himself berated by his son.

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Being interviewed

He wants to retire to a peaceful suburb (like Alice’s), share his ill-gotten gains with his son and daughter-in-law, watch his grandchildren (he urges this on Sammie and Rosie as their duty) grow up. A bit improbably by the end of the movie he feels guilty about what he has seen in the streets, blames himself for his son’s (to him) hopeless relationship with his wife, but also in a state of confusion about his own life (like Nassar in My Beautiful Laundrette when he loses Rachel), he hangs himself.

Soulsearching
Soul Searching

The trouble with the film is the characters are not as deeply seen, they are more types.

Both movies end on a slightly upbeat note on the principle you can pull down the curtain on life on a good moment as they do occur. The laundry has been half-destroyed by Johnny’s thug friends and he beat up trying to defend one of Omar’s vicious corrupt male relatives, but after some intense strain, Johnny and Omar begin to make up, and are last seen on either side of a sink, washing Johnny’s body together genially.

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Sammie begins to cry for his father and suddenly Rosie shows tenderness to him, embracing him, and implying she may even consider going to live in a suburban house with the money Rafi has left them and at least have sex with Sammie too.

As with Ingmar Bergman’s films (I recently watched another “alternative” paradigm magnificent film, Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer’s Night), Rohmer’s and any number of serial film adaptation, costume dramas (by among others Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch), My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid ought to put paid to the idea that written texts must be superior, more complex and complicated, than movies. I find myself unable to write a blog about Bergman films. They are like a super-complicated novel. To the end of his life Jim never gave up on going to see the latest Bergman; we saw them all. A favorite of his was Begrman’s The Magic Flute (it can make you cry with joy).

What I’ve been doing, what has guided my choices beyond my own taste among films in local movie-houses available this or last or the other week, is, is the screenplay available? Is a scenario (in whatever form, companion book is one)? I’m reading these and trying to work out how one moves from these texts to realization, what in the these texts are guiding indicators, how do they work as instruments for creative structure as importantly as the sequences of images and juxtapositions that are laid out in DVD analyses of films called episodes.

Who we are determines what we notice and what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant … I came away having bonded with Rachel (Sally Anne Field, the aging white mistress in Laundrette) and Alice (Claire Bloom, ditto, in Sammie and Rosie).

Ellen

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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) by the grave of her son

Dear friends and readers,

To help myself get through Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I went out to a movie that had gotten rave reviews: Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and based on The Lost Child of Philomena, a book by the real journalist, named Martin Sixsmith, who did help an elderly Irish woman locate the adult her baby born 50 years earlier and taken from her had become:

50 years ago Philomena became pregnant outside marriage (in the film after one night’s love-making at a fair); she was thrown out by her parents, and taken in by a Catholic Charity who proceeded to treat her in the harshest way: she had a breech-birth with no painkillers; she was made to work long hard hours in a laundry for 4 years for little pay in the meagerest circumstances and, along with the other unwed mothers, permitted to see her child one hour a day. Her male child and another female were sold to an American couple for $1000 and she coerced into signing her rights away. Years later the nuns lied to her when she came back to locate him: they said the records were all burnt but one, the paper where she signed her rights to her child away. In the film the journalist is immediately suspicious: how could this one document survive and all others be destroyed? We discover they lied to the boy become an older man when he returned to find her; when he died of AIDS, he wanted to be buried at the charity and his grave is now there and in the film untended (like those who died at the time of the mean inhumane treatment)

The film resembles Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I saw some years ago (2001) where the aborigine children of three women are snatched by middle class white Australians to be brought up in a European middle class culture (but in a harsh orphanage-like environment); in that film the girls make their way back to their mothers through terrible deserts. In both films, the behavior is justified by those who did it: in Philomena, the nuns say she was a gross sinner who deserved the worst punishment; in Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian authorities say the white culture will provide a much better life for the children when (and if) they grow up. Philomena acknowledges that the boy, Michael in the film, grew up in a middle class home in circumstances which enabled him to become a successful lawyer and work for top Republican people; he was gay and lived with a male friend in reasonable comfort until he contracted AIDS which killed him well before he and others could get the Republicans in charge to fund any program to help find a cure or help for this fatal disease condition.

So the premise is not sentimental. The story exposes a profound injustice done to a powerless woman.

This review (by Jay Stone, Post-Media News) praising the film tells the basic opening premise: a fired or failed and humiliated politician becomes a journalist who does human interest stories and finds himself hired to help an elderly woman locate her son. Also its moral purport: “an odd-couple drama with a dark heart and a post-modern sensibility, an expose of the shockingly sadistic treatment of unwed mothers in the 1950s, and a worldly dismissal of everything that brought it about.” Martin and Philomena are an odd couple: utterly disparate in cultural understanding and age (she reads and understands improbable sentimental romances literally), his sceptical ironic perspective and her naive defenses of those who damaged her profoundly make for oddly dark humor.

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Researching today is looking into the computer

I had not expected this political paradigm: unlike Rabbit-Proof Fence the way the film is advertised, does not bring out its critique of the anti-sex and anti-women attitude in Catholicism, its hypocritical practices: not only do the nuns in charge lie, they make it impossible for Philomena to talk to the aging still ferociously hateful nuns who did the deed. I also didn’t expect the plot-design: such stories usually end in the victim finding her child all grown up and happy and successful at the close; or dead, having died terribly and had a terrible life at the close. That’s what the head newswoman keeps saying on the phone she expects Martin to find after his journey to the US with Philomena and she wants him to write it up that way in order to sell newspapers and is paying the funds needed for travel and research in the expectation of such a story. He is to find such a story write it this way.

Instead about 1/3rd into the film, maybe less, through the computer’s access to information and Martin’s experience telling him where to look when they get to the US, we and then Philomena discover what happened to her son and that he died some 20 years ago. Armed with his name, the names of the people who bought him and became his parents, and the names of those he worked with in the Republican administrations (and photos too), they slowly discover what was her son’s nature and how he lived (middle class life growing up, good school but the parents were hard on him and the girl who became his sister), his homosexuality (which funnily but believably Philomena suspects quickly upon seeing his photos). They and we visit his sister; then an ex-colleague now at the Folger Library; and after much struggle, they force their way into the house of his partner (who was in effect his spouse) and he shows them one of these montages of photos and films that funeral homes nowadays make up and put on DVDs as wellas websites for customers.

It was when the film became to play this montage I broke down. I began to sob uncontrollably. It was so like the montage the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home made of my husband Jim; opening with the same sentence telling the day the person was born; closing with a similar sentence recording the day he died, and more or less taking the viewer through the stages of the person’s life as he looked and changed. The relatives of this fictionalized montage and I and my daughter naturally chose the best pictures and the expertise of the funeral director puts them into coherent order. Soft music and interwoven photos of natural phenomenon (grass, birds, sky, flowers) do the rest. So the montage I paid for is common I learned.

After that the emotional moments in the rest of the film drew tears from my eyes. Judi Dench rightly receives high praise for her performance. I’ve seen her several times before perform this high-wire act (Cranford Chronicles, with Maggie Smith, Ladies in Lavender) where she conveys a depth of tender emotion just held in check so that a sentimental story is told prosaically; a underlying sternness of aspect in Dench’s face (Helen Mirren pulls off this kind of thing too) is part of what’s responsible for the effectiveness of Dench’s presence; as Philomena she conveys some self-irony (like Maggie Smith does in her enactments of this kind of role, say Bed Among Lentils) — even in a woman given to retelling with utter earnestness the silliest romance stories.

Dench is helped by being partnered with an acerbic comic actor: Steve Coogan played in a burlesque adaptation of Tristam Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story); as Ann Hornaday says he utters “mordant asides” “often having nothing to do with theology, or religion.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls them a divine couple.

One must not forget the contribution of Stephen Frears who while not seen has made many film masterpieces as disparate as My Beautiful Laundrette, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grifters, Mary Reilly, recently Cheri, Tamara Drewe. And scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It was Thanksgiving Day which is still kept by many Americans so few people were in the theater. Most were presumably at home with families or friends eating a turkey or other roast-bird meal. Or quietly allowing others to think they are. Some put photos on the Net to show they are participating, a propensity made fun of this week in the New Yorker (see The Ordeal of Holidays).

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A known secret is that Christmas Day is now passed by many by going to a movie — you do see people in groups — and the meal is sometimes eaten out in a restaurant (Asian ones have been open on Christmas Day for a long time, permitting the joke I passed the day in the Jewish way, movie and Chinese food out). Although Thanksgiving itself has not been commercialized beyond the buying of a bird and trimmings, those who don’t get to do this are made to feel bad so public media shows include statements by announcers expressing compassion for the presumed unhappiness of those who don’t get to experience such get-togethers for whatever reason. On Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifills’ PBS Reports, I saw the story of a poor black woman who since food stamp allowances were cut gets $63 worth of groceries per month for herself and her grandchild. This is not enough to buy a Thanksgiving feast. Well some charitable organization in Virginia was giving away grocery bags full of roast birds, vegetables, treats (cakes? pies?) and drinks; as a viewer I listened to her description of her life (she is the type who works at Wall-Mart’s) and how grateful (!) she was to the charity. Right.

The demanded behavior on Thanksgiving or Turkey day is an expression of thanks (read W. S. Merwin’s poem) — in origin it’s a religious ritual feast.

I’m not immune to this. Today was my birthday and I was relieved and rejoiced when my young friend, Thao, and her partner, Jeff, were able to make it to DC all the way from Toronto, Canada, where they live. It is common for people in the US to travel long distances to get back to some relative or friend for dinner. Thao and Jeff were here also to shop for an an engagement ring and see other friends (she attended GMU for her undergraduate degree). I am no cook, but together for the day after Turkey Day, Izzy and I managed to roast a chicken, heat up frozen pre-prepared zuchini (awful), cook spaghetti and a yummy pasta and cheese sauce I bought from Whole Foods; fresh bread, ginger ale for all but me (who drank cheap Riesling) and Port Salud cheese rounded out our feast. We talked, took photos.

If you should see the remarkably candid, intelligent and moving bio-pic Joan Rivers made about her life (A Piece of Work), you will find that on Thanksgiving day she makes a feast in her apartment and to fill the table’s chairs and do a good deed, she invites street-people known to her up to apartment each year to eat with her. A friend of mine whose grown children are divorced, live far away, know unemployment and other obstacles preventing all from getting-together, this friend invites three woman who have no families to dine with her and her husband and those of her children and grandchildren who do make it.

I have a double excuse for this weakness this year: my beloved husband died of cancer this year; the rightly dreaded disease allowed to continue to spread (President Obama just signed some bill easing the way for those who want to frack for huge profits), this disease killed him horribly inside 6 months.

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But I digress. I’ve forgotten Philomena. Don’t miss it. It’s funny. The background is modern day USA as experienced by the middle class in DC and modern day Ireland. We are able to remain calm and not get too indignant because the Catholic nunnery as presented in the film is an anomaly, a broken-down place no one in their right mind goes near. None of the sternness of the ending of Rabbit-Proof Fence: in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the perpetrator played by Kenneth Branagh remains as unreformed as the nuns in Philomena do, but the aborigine children who escaped back to the aborigine people are presented in their present poverty-stricken existences — probably dependent on charities the way the black grandmother seen on the Woodruff-Ifill show was yesterday. The modern-day Philomena lives with a kind patient professional daughter wisely underplayed by Anna Maxwell Martin (another wonderful actress who I hope decades from now is working on in the way Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all have). Mother and Daughter live in a decent house, do lunch in pubs.

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Ellen

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