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bruara
Trollope and the other “mastiffs” (the people on the ship taking a tour to Iceland’s geysers) — by Mrs H. Blackburn

It was now about ten o’clock and it was of course broad daylight — Trollope at Reykjavik

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight Trollope’s last travel book, How the Mastiffs Went to Iceland (privately printed, 1878; available good edition by Arno Press, introd. Coral Lansbury), and a terrain aka library of books for exploring the political novel, a subject dear to the heart of those who read Trollope. The Mastiffs are not dogs. I thought that there were dogs aboard. No, this is his comical name for the people in the group. There was a faux naive (half-apologetic) query on Victoria (Patrick Leary’s listserv) on, did people think there was a political novel, the problem of defining it into existence which morphed into citations of novels and lists of secondary books/essays.

It’s not often I get to read a new Trollope text, one I’ve not read before — not that I’ve read them all. Two days ago I thought to myself while working on my paper centering on colonialism in Trollope I ought to read this one. So I played hookey for three hours. And how enjoyable it is — this little book is just filled with a deep sense of enjoyment and camaraderie.

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Holding hands ritual

There was an amateur woman artist, Mrs H. Blackburn, aboard and her drawings are part of the pleasure: in most she is sure to include a figure readily identified as Trollope — with a beard, glasses, tall, looking intransigent. There are also two photographs in which he is included. Alas I own a xerox of the Arno Press edition — I am not sure there is a Trollope Society edition — and my xeroxes of these photos came out dark so I share but one which I attempted to brighten — and a few of the drawings. If you click on it, it enlarges and you will make out Trollope leaning over on a heavy large horse, clearly intently listening to or watching something.

What is hard to capture is conveyed in Trollope’s poised tone of his prose, the slightly arch quality of his involvement; how he is half-pretending to join in, I sense a feel of a spirit entering into “the fun,” and yet keeping itself apart, distanced to evoke what he notices. This double-sort of spirit enables him to pull off sense of a magical time, that the people because this was a time apart, out of the norm, entered into some kind of special compact of mood for a time, which comfort dissolved when they returned on shore again (lest anyone try to continue what had been vouchsafed precisely because it was contained within the moment and put no liens on the future or past).

The trip proper began in the Scottish Hebrides, took its way through islands leading up to Iceland, then how they reached the famous geysers and returned.

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Map of trip

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The start: Castle Wemyss

Trollope tells of individuals on the ship, especially from the angle of their social roles (a la Chaucer then) and conveys as sense of the group as a whole, and then interacting with the people in the places they stop at, how life is lived in these different places, the places themselves, their landing, stay at Iceland’s capital city and slow ride to the Geysers. Trollope invents funny role names for each of the people, so this captain was their Providence (carried food and tea for them as they rode); another person, parliamentary man off duty, their Ancient Mariner; another friend, Our Australian Authority. He is “Our Chronicler.” He seems in unusually high spirits. He finds daylight at ten o’clock a marvel and how one has no desire to go to sleep until exhaustion suddenly hits.

He opens with a practical and specific description of their ship; early politics included Trollope standing up for a man’s right to smoke apart from women with other men (and having space given over to them for this habit)

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Beseiged

At the same time he is ever earnest and probably if they ever saw it, would have dismayed the first set of indigenous or emigrant islanders who the Mastiffs visited. At St Kilda he says of the people ought not to live there; it’s freezing, it depends on the charity of a very rich lord, they are endlessly vulnerable and in need, cut off from most other people. It’s not wise. He is no believer in Robinson Crusoe’s comforts. He inveighs against the small salary the pastor gets.

StKilda

As he goes from place to place he is the earnest anthropologist and sociologist, to say nothing of his mapping and geographical, geological descriptions. He finds (mysteriously if you took his political theses seriously) there has been much improvement in their lifestyle. Clean houses, warmed for winter. He meets Scots middling people. The Faroe islands, Thorshavn,

Thorshavn

its dependent relationship to Denmark, the post office is looked into. Since there is no night, he, Mr Trollope, continues his investigations until his body cannot hold out against sleep. He tells of the stories the Faroe Islanders invent about how they never sleep in summer. We get a careful presentation of the people’s cattle, farms, mines, water and light, salaries, the illness of the miners, where everyone gets his or her money from. The Mastiffs interact with the people there and (he feels) gets to know more about these islands than any of the patrons wanted us to know. Everyone but has her agenda.

I’ve seen Reykjavik from an airport terminal several times now and long to see Iceland outside those glass doors and walls. We learn about farming, cattle, socializing, birds in Iceland: Trollope is quietly poignant at how man’s practicalities break the heart of the mother bird he exploits:

The proprietor … took us out to show us his birds. One we found seated on her nest, made of her own feathers. The maternal victim plucks the down from her breast and makes her intended nursery. Then the down is taken away, and she does it again. A second time the robbery is committed, and she makes a third nest. Beyond that she will not go. If pillaged she abandons her intentions in despair. The third nest is therefore left, and the young birds are reared. But when she has taken out her young ones, there is a third crop to be garnered, as good as ever

Long sermons, bowing to royalty who have come to be bowed at. The festivities in the mastiff’s honor. But also how the people do what they can to make the largest profit they can at each turn of the trip and place they go to. Trollope is sluiced now and again for small items. The city itself. Then the trek away and to the geysers begins:

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Rest period

How the backpacks are overfilled, the servants and others over-dressed, with far too much luggage than they need. Including himself who needs more than a weak pony.

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The same rocks and faultline as today

There is a round funnel about eight feet broad, descending, as far as the eye can judge, into the very bowels of the earth; up this the boiling water is emitted. There is always a supply coming, for a certain amount of hot water is always running out on the two opposite sides of the pool. Here the” Mastiffs” amused themselves by dabbling with naked feet, scalding their toes when they were too near the pool, warming them comfortably at an increased distance. Excavations suitable for bathers there are none, — as there are so delightfully formed and so deliciously filled at the Geysers in New Zealand. At a little distance, in a ravine, there was a hole in which some of us endeavoured to sit and wash ourselves. Occasionally, perhaps once in every four hours, a large and violent supply of hot water is thrown up the funnel of the Great Geyser which has the effect of disturbing the basin and ejecting the hot water from it rapidly. This occurs with a noise, and is the indication given of a real eruption, when a real eruption is about to take place; but the indication too frequently comes without the eruption. This, when it does take place, consists of a fountain of boiling water thrown to the height of sixty, eighty, some have said 200 feet. During the twenty-four hours that we remained at the place there was no such eruption, — no fountain, although the noise was made and the basin was emptied four or five times.

About a furlong off from Geyser Primus, which is called the Great Geyser, is Geyser Secundus, to which has been given the name of Strokr, — or Stroker, as I may perhaps write it. Stroker is an ugly ill-conditioned, but still obedient Geyser. It has no basin of boiling water, but simply a funnel such as the other, about seven feet in diameter, at the edge of which the traveller can stand and look down into a cauldron boiling below. It is a muddy filthy cauldron, whereas the waters of the Great Geyser are pellucid and blue. This lesser Geyser will make eruptions when duly provoked by the supply of a certain amount of aliment. The custom is to drag to its edge about a cart load of turf and dirt, and then to shove it all in at one dose. Whether Stroker likes or dislikes the process of feeding is left In doubt. He bubbles about furiously with the food down. In his gullet for half an hour, and then rejects it all passionately, throwing the half-digested morsels sixty feet into the air with copious torrents of boiling muddy water.

These are the two Great Geysers. Around are an infinite number of small hot springs, so frequent, and many of them so small, that it would be easy for an incautious stranger to step into them. All the ground sounds under one’s feet, seeming to be honey-combed and hollow, so that a heavy foot might not improbably go through. Some of these little springs are as clear as crystal. In some the appearance is of thick red chocolate, where red earth has been drawn into the vortex of the water. Sometimes there is a little springing fountain, rising a few inches or a foot. Had there been no other Geysers, no other little lakes of boiling water known in the world, those in Iceland would be very wonderful. When they were first visited and described such was perhaps the case. Since that the Geysers in New Zealand have become known; and now the Icelandic Geysers, — if a “Mastiff” may be allowed to use a slang phrase, — are only second-class Geysers.

What time we went to bed I do not remember. As we intended to remain at the Geysers all the next day, waiting for eruptions if they would come, and then to start on our back journey in the evening, we were not very particular as to hours. At some early morning hour, when we were in bed, J. B. arrived, having been riding all the night, and riding all the night in the rain. In Iceland they say it generally rains when it does not snow. This night’s bad weather was all that we had. What we should have done, had it been wet, with our tents, or,
worse again, sometimes without our tents, with ladies wet through, with everything foul, draggled, and dirty, no “Mastiff” can guess. Luckily not a drop fell except during those early morning hours through which poor J.B. was on his solitary ride.

On the next day there was more dabbling among the hot springs, and the ladies essayed to wash their stockings and handkerchiefs .. (pp. 39-40)

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Strokur

On the way back amid the joking (they sleep in a church one night, the ladies in the aisles, the gentleman near the alter), he returns to talking about the social burdens they see, their own bedraggled state. Also more strange and picturesque places eloquently caught in words — Trollope’s visual powers are rarely done justice to.

It was again in the evening that we stared on our last day’s ride, and I own I left Thingvalla with soft regrets, as I told myself that i should never again see that interesting spot. Thrice I had bathed in its rivers, and had roamed about it till I seemed to know all its nooks. It is a place full of nocks, because of those wonderful rifts, — and full of greenness. I had not cared much for the Geysers [!], but Thingvalla and the Bruara [see first drawing at head of blog] had been very charming to me. It was strange to me that there should be a place in Iceland so beautiful and so soft as Thingvalla with its lake.

One photo:

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You can make Trollope out, to the right of the middle, a heavy white horse, heavy over which Trollope’s heavy body leans, as he listens to and watches something intently. There’s his top hat. (Click to enlarge.)

The return to Wemyss Bay, with some last statistics, political observations on current events caught up with, their speed. The sadness of parting, and how quickly it happened, “each hurrying away to his or her home,” and a few last ironic comical depictions of behavior of fish, men and birds. He congratulates their Photographer (George Burns, a naturalist) who would wake “at five minutes’ notice” to take a photograph of them.

a little eating of cream and strawberries at castle Wemyss, a little attempt at ordinary shorte courtesies, a returning as it wee to the dull ways of life on shore. But we all felt this was to be done painfully, each by himself in solitude …

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Disraeli and Gladstone, “Rival Stars,” Punch 14 March 1868 — by Tenniel (from cover of Harvie’s book)

It feels almost inappropriate to add this dry list of books intended to shed light on this magical realm, but I was prompted to cite them on the Victoria listserv this morning when someone asked if there is a thing as a political novel (!) because he was wanting books to help him on Eliot’s Felix Holt. I have been reading about and works by Trollope for months now, beyond Barsetshire, Barsetshire and now, colonialist and travel writing. I wrote:

Yes there are novels where the focus is on overt politics in say parliament and elections as well seeing experience from a political angle — however varied your emphasis or definition may be. And there are a number of books (studies older and more recent) which gather such books together as a group and show how reading them as political novels illuminates them. Among the more famous are Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel, an older one by Munro Speare, The Political Novel, Michael Wilding’s Political Fictions. All of these mention Trollope (Speare at length); it’s telling the same novels are studied or authors again and again.

Two recent perceptive books enjoyable to read:

Christopher Harvie’s The Centre of Things: Political Fictions in Britain from Disraeli to the Present. Despite Disraeli’s name in the subtitle, Harvie sees Trollope’s books as central and transformative in the “mid-Victorian political novel.” He doesn’t stay just with the obvious Pallisers, but discusses Macdermots of Ballycloran and lesser known books. There is a longish discussion of George Eliot and Felix Holt is the book featured. A longish section just on Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career.

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Harriet Martineau – not included in Harman’s book as she wrote political books as travel writing (though Deerbrook may be considered medical politics whose hero is a doctor)

Barbara Leah Harman’s The Feminine Political Novel in Victorian England: while Eliot may be included in books which still study mostly books by men, this one illuminates women’s ways of writing political novels and what you find there. Harman includes Gaskell North and South (there is also Sylvia’s Lovers, a historical novel), Bronte’s Shirley and suffragette novels, viz. Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert. These last blend with “new woman” novels.

Some of the studies of historical novels of the Victorian period cross over to politics because the historical novel of the era was often seriously political (this goes back to Lukacs’s book on the historical novel out of Scott, an older Marxist study). So going for studies of the historical novel turns up interesting discussions on political novels; our own era, the mid- [the Poldarks and Paul Scott’s books fit here] to later 20th century shows a return to using history for political perspectives instead of the women’s romances or a boys’ adventure stories they devolved into at the beginning of the 20th century: A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, ed James F. English, has a good essay on this very late 20th century return to history as politics, especially post-colonial by Suzanne Keen (“The Historical Turn”). Film studies of historical costume drama take this into account too, from contemporary war (Danger UXB to medieval serials: see several essays in Leggott and Taddeo’s collection, Upstairs and Downstairs.

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Stills from 2011 Upstairs Downstairs where Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson), the chauffeur and Lady Percy (Claire Foy) join the black shirts, and a refugee Jewish maid has a heart attack, leaving her daughter a homeless orphan to the care of Amanjit Singh, another displaced person, the Indian servant of Lady Maud (Art Malik)

Last night re-watching the newer Upstairs Downstairs, the second episode where the upstairs family is getting involved with Nazis in gov’t, and the lower stairs family has a Jewish refugee fled from Germany (who dies), her child, the chauffeur joining the street bands of Nazi thugs is all about politics in the way a woman presents this (Heidi Thomas) and fits into both Harman’s and Leggott and Taddeo’s studies. Stevenson’s The Real History of Tom Jones finds richness in Tom Jones by pulling in and putting in all the political doings of the day which are in the novel. All political texts.

On Trollope19thCStudies we have been reading Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, a historical-political Italian book (cross between Hugo, Tolstoy, Scott and Italian traditions) teaching much about Italy and the rigorismento in the first half of the 19th century (continuing to today). Trollope knew a lot about this world (see “The Last Austrian who left Venice”) from visits to his brother and mother and his own incessant reading and consuming interest in politics and history.

“like all good Trollopians, we secretly believe that Trollope did not write enough. Even after 47 novels, the short stories, the journalism and travel books, there is the lurking wish that somewhere there is another novel, another instance of that sane voice speaking to a less than rational world — Cora Lansbury.

When I was young and just started on Trollope I was so glad there were so many novels, I didn’t know there was enough to last a lifetime.

Ellen

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Ross and Demelza (Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson, 2015) — wordless

(From invented commentary/choral scenes) Francis (Kyle Soller): ‘Ross, surely you must see with such a wife, you cannot hope to have entry into any respectable gathering … You will cut yourself out of society, consign yourself to …’ Ross: ‘a life of peace and seclusion, I must try to bear it as best I can …’ //Margaret (Crystal Leaity), sitting down near Ross: ‘I never thought you the marrying kind … is she wealthy? He: ‘Not at all’ She: ‘Is she beautiful? He: ‘In a way’ She, puzzled: ‘So, you love her? He: we get on … //George Warleggan (Jack Farthing): ‘I’ve puzzled you out … Ross: ‘Was I so hard to fathom? George: ‘Well, I thought so, but your recent nuptials have made everything clear It delights you to thumb your nose at society because you consider yourself above the niceties by which it operates … ‘ Ross: ‘Not above, just indifferent … ‘ (all invented scenes and lines)

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Ross and Demelza (Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees, 1975) — also wordless

He (earlier in the scene): ‘Look at me … look at me’ (taking her head in his hands and making her face face his) ‘tell me the child is not yours and mine … tell me … ‘ She: ’tweren’t nuthin … it just happened … tweren’t made out of love … ‘ He: ‘It was made out of yours’ (sob from her) … ‘come’ … She: ‘Please Ross, let me go, ‘taint nothing to do with you, ‘taint nuthin you should think of … tomorrow it’ll be gone’ … He: ‘And you too.’ She: ‘take more than that to see me off, oh Ross, please … that’s the first time I called you Ross .. ‘taint nothing to do with you. ‘taint your fault ’tis mine’ (camera on his sympathetic face) ‘What would I do with a babe all alone?’ He (suddenly his voice loud and firm): ‘You won’t be alone .., we’ll be married.’ She shakes her head ‘No … no, you don’t want that … I will come back with you but not for that’ (she now caressing his hand). He: ‘The child’s mine too it’ll have a name my name … now there’ll be no more arguing … come … (lines from Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan as memory, though scene wholly invented)

Dear friends and readers,

I remarked when I first set out to compare the new Poldark mini-series (2012, of Ross Poldark and Demelza) with the older one (1975, first four of sixteen episodes also Ross Poldark and Demelza), and Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza, the two first Poldark novels (1946-47), my obstacle would be my deep emotional investment in the books. A film is a work of art in its own right, realizing the vision of its creators, what statement they want to make about the book (among many other things), and in most cases I have not judged a film by its literal faithfulness, and instead demonstrated countless times that films adaptations must be valued on how they speak to the issues of the time in which they are made, as well as commentaries on the original book (or books).

I can’t quite do that here. I found myself hit where I live to this day by the new Demelza and Ross’s first euphoric months of love in their marriage (so were mine with my husband), identifying, bonding with both, wishing Horsfield had dared to be more visionary in her depiction of the Pilchard harvesting by moonlight,

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wishing that more had been made of the difficulty Verity and Demelza had in overcoming the difference of their status, education, Verity’s deep loneliness and Demelza’s need of someone to boost her self-esteem, not just by teaching manners, but how to speak to people who are in class and type above you: we see them confide,

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dance and shop together a bit too quickly:

dancing

shopping

But I was gratified with the length of the depiction of that first Christmas, including Elizabeth on the harp, listened to in the book by Francis with exquisite appreciation and enjoyment, Demelza’s frightened luminous folk singing,

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singing

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and the walk back:

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It feels churlish to complain that in the book at Christmas Ross is deeply erotically attracted to Elizabeth, that she is no friend to Demelza, but jealous, and that far from drawing them together, the rich furnishings and historical paintings, the very heritage of the house for a time pulls Demelza and Ross apart again. Only when they return to Nampara and are within its grounds and walls does night and the “old peculiar silence” cease to make a barrier and “become [their] medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend” as Ross Poldark ends.

Horsfield’s rendition was in fact not thematically faithful to Graham’s Ross Poldark. Nowhere in Graham’s book is there this continual carping at Ross’s choice of a woman beneath his class.

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In no scene does Ross express any regret to any man about his decision to marry Demelza (as he does in this scene and to people beneath him in rank)

No one in Graham’s book threatens to withhold investment money, no one sneers; Ruth Teague is spiteful (and as in the 2015 film) gratingly mocks Demelza as our “reclusive” Ross’s “Friday,” but the way Horsfield continually voices the competitive (nowadays) and hierarchical (then) view that Ross has destroyed his future is anachronistic. Ross cannot lose his status as the son of an ancient family, and as long as Demelza can learn to parrot the manners of her “betters,” speak less demotically, dress right, with functional literacy, she could theoretically and does except for the abrasive sexual encounters she is subjected to because of her gender do very well.

The lines I quoted above are a product of Horsfield’s own buying into opportunistic careerism. The way up, the way to win wealth and position is through marriage, but as the younger son of an impoverished branch of a Cornish (marginalized exploited semi-colony within Britain), with no sympathy or desire to network or politick in his class, Ross was not likely to do better than Ruth Teague (in the book a fifth daughter of very much declining pseudo-gentry). I exulted in what I admit are the replies Horsfield dialogically supplied Ross with.

I had one insight important to me because Horsfield refused to qualify the love between Ross and Demelza during the sequence leading up to and concluding Christmas. Films can bring out graphically what is deeply appealing in a novel without discussing this explicitly: I have wondered why I love these books so. I saw in Horsfield’s fourth episode that what I love so is the relationship between Demelza and Ross Poldark: I identify utterly with her and find him intensely appealing through her eyes. Jim and my early relationship went utterly against norms: we married with no money at all, 2 pound 10 for a license, his parents took out out for dinner that night and left. He and I danced the night away in a pub and the next day went to work because we had 10 shillings between us. Those first months of my life with him were as euphoric as Ross and Demelza experience in the last part of Ross Poldark, from the pilchard sequence to when they are alone. Nothing could break out companionship we felt; everything outside was the junkyard of what did not matter. That’s how it was for us.

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satire
Demelza’s supposedly “saved” father and religious step-mother reveal their hypocrisies

Paradoxically the 1975 episode 4 with its grating and (to those who know the books and films) infamous departures from the story is often closer to the radically communitarian, anti-hierarchical, pastoral and pro-underdog atmosphere of the closing quarter of Ross Poldark. It is true that Graham’s book exposes the hypocrisies of fundamentalist religion (as does this and the fifth episode of the 1975 mini-series). But it’s ludicrous to make Demelza pregnant after one night’s sex — apparently to absolve her of becoming Ross’s partner for two months before the marriage as she does in the book. The 2015 film also compresses time so we will not observe this — apparently it’s still not acceptable in a mainstream TV film for a heroine who is not promiscuous to have sex freely with a man before marriage. The anachronistic depiction of Demelza actually saying that she is not sure who the father of her child aloud would be beyond belief for the 1950s; much less the 1780s, when such talk would land her in the streets of London as the lowest of abandoned prostitutes.

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Demelza’s absurd nonchalance

To do what Pullman did is to erase what is beautiful about Ross’s choice to marry Demelza: Ross marries Demelza voluntarily even though he is still in love with Elizabeth at that point, because it is the right thing to do for her as a human being needing him (as she has nowhere else to turn to and nowhere else to go), and because he likes her very much, enjoys her company: in the book she has grown to be part of his life, his very being (as he realizes at the close of dawn after the pilchard harvest). It is an act of rebellion against his class’s norms, fostered by his anger at his peer’s throwing away of Jim Carter (whom he Ross identified with); he is not just indifferent to “society’s niceties” (since when is marriage a nicety?), but wants to be seen to scoff successfully at them. Which he does. In the 1970s Pullman and his team made the Poldark film engage in the contemporary debate on abortion: when Demelza takes the one coin she gets from Ross and crosses the heath to find a laywoman abortionist she is risking her life. There were abortionists in the 18th century but it was rare to attempt this once quickening (regarded as when life began) started which the film pictures Rees as into.

Yet in the book Ross does love Elizabeth and erotically and intensely and there is a scene in the Christmas sequence where he admits this. Without acknowledging this and Elizabeth’s materialism, Elizabeth’s hypocrisy in trying to use Ross as a rope to escape from Francis’s gambling, drinking and inability to please her culturally — how will Horsfield later account for Ross raping Elizabeth. She has made Elizabeth so pious, exemplary and without rancour towards Demelza that I am almost glad that Horsfield changes Francis’s character so at least he is naggingly jealous (and registers that there is love between Ross and Elizabeth). In the 1975 film Francis is rather hurt, unable to reach his wife because of his own lack of self-esteem (this is closer to the book and more in line with Francis’s sense of himself as the heir to the estate, an aristocrat with a lineage):

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Clive Francis as Francis appealing to a cold Jill Townsend as Elizabeth

In the film unlike the book Elizabeth wants to leave Francis and anachronistically offers to go and live with Ross elsewhere (again a reflection of 1970s norms), and he agrees; but Elizabeth’s shock and horror (equally not in the book) when she comes the next day intending to make plans to come and live with Ross, only to discover he means to marry Demelza because he is pregnant does convey Graham’s Elizabeth’s resentment, anger, alienation, and Ross’s defense of Demelza as “no trollope” but the girl she ever was, prepares the way for Ross’s rage at Elizabeth’s entrenched snobbery and her later (as he sees it) betrayal of him and the resulting rape.

Elizabeth (2)

Elizabeth (1)

Pullman also conveys what is in the book: Demelza’s knowledge that Ross loves Elizabeth at least as much as he does her, something Horsfield omits. As directed and filmed, Townsend in that huge dress with her high hair is a physical obstacle as well as an intangible one to a fulfilled marriage for Ross and Demelza.

Confrontation

In fact this confrontation is central to the next seven books. For seven books Demelza will have to live with the reality that Ross loves Elizabeth as much as if differently than the way she loves her. By dramatizing this at the point of the marriage, Pullman and his director bring this out.

More to the point of filmic art, the theatricality of the clashes between Demelza and Ross over her pregnancy, Ross and Elizabeth three different times, Demelza and Elizabeth’s face-to-face silent confrontation and most of all Ross’s ride after Demelza across the wasteland, wrestling her down, and sudden tenderness and care for her in bringing her home is among the most memorable and effective sequences of both the 2015 and 1975 mini-series — and the language given them from the book voices the deepest of promises and obligation more forcefully than the 2015 lyrical use of montage however deeply pleasing

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In effect the feelings are the same in 1975 and Graham’s book: by the end of the novel Demelza is aware Ross still loves Elizabeth intensely, or at least wants her as much as she, Demelza; she has been faced with the heritage and elegance of his house and family. There is much for them as a couple to overcome, and that is true to the book and true to life.

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I have omitted the death of Charles Poldark. In spirit the 1975 film is quieter, it is more pious (Graham mocks the pretense and hypocrisy of the neighborhood grievers). I found the graveyard scene with the “man that is born of woman” speech moving. Francis behaves in a dignified manner at Trenwith just after; we see the desolation of Verity and how the self-centered Elizabeth cannot understand that her frustration is analogous to meaningless life (except for caring for Geoffrey Charles who in the 1975 film Elizabeth is seen as neglecting) she and her father-in-law and husband have imposed on Verity.

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Horsfield builds up the death scene itself much more considerably. Nowhere in the book does Charles hand the responsibility for his family to Ross over his son. Horsfield uses it to convey her Francis’s bitterness: he is relieved his father is dead as there is no one around to denigrate, mortify and insult him (as we have seen Charles continually do). Horsfield’s really mean and sordid-minded Charles is as much responsible for Horsfield’s Francis’s wounded psyche as any demands on him that are outside his ability:

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I find it interesting that in 2015 less piety surrounds the dead and there the film can return to more of the feel of the mid-century book.

In both episodes the desperately needed copper is found, and in both it has been voiced that this will only save the community if Ross and his partners can get a decent price for it. In 1975 Ross thinks he has staved off the Warleggan monopoly, that all his partners are keeping secret from Warleggan who are the members of the Carnemore Copper Company. In 2015 George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) has begun to break down the company because Dr Choake (depicted as a nasty evil-tending man — a child-like use of a character) has agreed to sell his shares to George. There are many things I respect about the book and both mini-series, but the most important is the attempt at a serious depiction of economic relationships and structures as the center of daily life.

Ellen

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Mary, Lady Mason deep in thought (Orley Farm): “There was less of beauty, less of charm, less of softness; but in spite of all that she had gone through there was more of strength, — more of the power to resist all that this world could do to her.”

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Crosbie encounters Mr Harding and listens to him (vignette in Small House at Allington)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been re-immersed in Trollope’s fiction and reading contemporary writing about him these past couple of years, and this term I re-read Phineas Finn for an umpteenth time. As people say of great writers, this time through I discovered elements, patterns, thematic apprehensions in Trollope’s Phineas Finn I hadn’t noticed before, or hadn’t connected up to the rest of his fiction.

There is a real problem in Phineas Finn, one which needs explanation, a feature at its close which doesn’t make quite enough sense in terms of all that has happened before. In Chapters 55-56 of a 76 chapter book Phineas does a reverse turn-around. Phineas suddenly buys into as a firm adherent Irish tenant rights, declares he must give up his official position as a salaried employee since he disagrees with the gov’t, and pleads with Mary Flood Jones to marry him. The last proposal (marrying Mary) might be called a driving in the nail on the coffin of a career he has worked so hard and cost such money to sustain over hundreds of pages.

How to account for Phineas’s withdrawal? It’s just not the same as say Mr Harding’s and Lily Dale’s which have been prepared for all their novels long. Mr Harding has grown sick with distress at finding himself castigated in public for taking such a huge sum for the little effort it takes him to live with 12 paupers while they get a pittance (partly the product of a couple of hundred years of inflation and partly the church making sure its one members get well paid). Lily Dale has been humiliated by Adolphus Crosbie, and like the “Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne,” if she accepts him now on his terms, he will treat her with disrespect, painfully; she has discovered Johnny unable to be faithful and a boy-man she cannot rely on. It’s not the same as Lady Mason as all her novel long she has been fighting to win a case where she forged a document to win her son a property and the wherewithal to act the part of gentleman with; Mary Lady Mason is pronounced not guilty but has been so publicly shamed (and knows she is guilty) she is exclude herself from social life.

Trollope sees his difficulty: he has made Phineas into someone after the main chance continually, in politics, in love life (he chases four women over the course of PF), everywhere, and with obtusely seen motivation: it’s one of the irritants of the novel we are told so little about Irish Tenant Rights and then in so derisory a tone, you’d think Trollope was against it. Phineas hardly discusses it; Monk gives us its signficance while deprecating its possibility. So what is Phineas’s conscience burning about? it will be said from Chapter 1 on Phineas mentioned his conscience, and this mention disgusted Barrington Erle but Phineas never acted on it, to the point of duelling with Chiltern.

Therefore Trollope in the concluding chapters of his book produces a plethora of explanations. If this were an academic paper, I’d now proceed to describe and quote from scenes and analyse words but I’ll spare everyone and keep this blog reasonably sized and just cite the inferences from scene after scene starting with “What the people of Marlebone thought about it:” Phineas discovers these people, voters don’t give a damn about an issue enough to understand it for real, and if you ask them their opinion on an issue they spout ill-informed egotistic nonsense (about Canada). Phineas feels deeply suddenly he has been phony through and though (in an agon in front of Lady Laura — which makes him look bad before his own eyes). Suddenly he feels and sees his insecurity (Lord Brentford shows him this, and then the boroughs are eliminated). He is acutely aware he has no money and is draining his father. When he works at his job which he shows a real propensity for (not oration alone, but really trying to set up railways say), then there’s his delight in debate and how he enjoys arguing for what he believes (alas again we are not told these beliefs); more deeply we feel an impulse in him to self-destruct. This recalls Josiah Crawley but the problem again is Crawley regularly sabotages himself, Phineas does not.

At the close Millais’s portrait of Phineas accepting the derisory and ironic job (you care about Irish tenants, all right then, be a poor house inspector)

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“‘Oh Phineas; surely a thousand a-year will be very nice'”, Phineas Finn

resembles George Housman’s depicton of Josiah Crawley and his wife poring over Archdeacon Grantley’s humilitating way offering a needed position to Crawley

Psychiatrists say rightly in this instance when a person starts to invent reasons for what he wants to do, and comes up with many, they are rationalizations for something deeper. Phineas doth protest too much.

Raven saw this problem and made Mary pregnant; thus Phineas’s withdrawal does not need to be explained. He must not leave Mary to be publicly shamed (along with himself in Ireland). Did anyone ever read a more painful scene than Chapter 72 where Madame max repeatedly offers herself to Phineas – It’s an extraordinary chapter, 72, p 311 in my book, second volume, where Madame Max hinting continually she is on offer (she is not gauche like Mr Kennedy but ends up doing the same sort of thing) and having to move step-by-step to offer herself. Phineas longs to reach out for this woman who understands, who would give him the right setting, be all adoration and not get in the way (European icon from Brideshead let’s recall, Stephan Audan, Lord Marchmain’s mistress), Phineas turns her down! In the 1974 Pallisers, it’s made obvious: he must return to marry the pregnant Mary; by doing this Raven spares us all of the above, but also loses Trollope.

Trollope does not offer a reason which convinces. Why does he do this continually, have his most sympathetic characters perform an escape maneuver, sometimes while winning, act out a reluctant withdrawal? We’ve see in An Eye for an Eye, Fred Neville sabotaging himself, even returning to Ireland to be toppled over a cliff; and powerfully and convincingly in “The Parson’s Daughter.

I connect this pattern to two others in Trollope: I call these the self-flagellation and the person under “joint attack.” Everyone around the characters agrees to browbeat, bully, tempt and otherwise insist our hero or heroine act out what the world admires and wants (marry the lord not the tailor in Lady Anna), no matter what the personal cost or gyrations this demands.

The self-flagellation is seen most plangently in “The Spotted Dog,” where a gifted man has sabotaged his life and now that he must find some employments, presents himself openly as a shameful creature no one in their right mind would interview, much less hire to deal with fragile paper indexes and scholarship. Julius Mackenzie unable to cope ends up drunk rolling in the streets, his talents utterly thrown away. For myself one of the most moving pieces of prose in a novel I’ve ever read is the letter he writes for the interview. When he says he does not expect an interview, it bowls me over. The only competition is Josiah Crawley’s letter accepting a job offered him on humiliating terms because he must. Phineas at the close is offered a derisory job with courteous words, but it’s a derisory job, a kind of ironic laugh: you wanted to help tenants, well now go and inspect the houses the gov’t sets up for the poor. In “Fred Pickering” We get this writer who is forced to admit he must write the tripe or indexes or whatever it is that sells that the public wants, and the story shows the central character punished hard to be taught this. The adventures of Fred Pickering, provides George Bertram with a lesson in theological controversy and how a spirit of integrity can lead to suicide in The Bertrams. Mary Gresley destroys her manuscript. George Bertram’s learns hard lessons about attacking the Bible – even discussing it in The Bertrams where this is another realistic visit to Palestine.

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When we first meet Madame Max in Phineas Finn and the Palliser films, she is snubbed (Volume 4, Episode 7, the first reception of Lady Glen) — she is just beginning her career fight

On one level Trollope is at once teaching himself he is doing the right thing to compromise and living out vicariously the act of integrity and the escape. His characters who are punished often make their strongest arguments on the side of utter integrity, of refusal, they get to walk away and display courage doing it. It’s the others’ joint attacks which speak the world’s cant wisdom, prudence and the like. Mr Harding is not supposed to be a saint, but has the courage to walk away. The greatness of William Styron is he does have as heroic acts men who walk away. Plantangenet Palliser as Duke of Omnium and Prime Minister is in constant agons over his desire to walk away and not deal. Not that Mr Trollope wanted to do that, but he is releasing something within him he needs to get out of his system again and again and again … On Trollope19thCStudies @hyahoo.com, a fellow reader agreed with me: “both in terms of Phineas and Trollope. Anyone who is successful must also feel the same way – that they have succeeded in exchange for not in some sense being true to themselves.”

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The interview as a manipulative hazing experience (in Barchester Towers, the book, and again in Barchester Chronicles, the mini-series): Alan Rickman as an inimitable Slope and Donald Pleasence as Mr Harding

The courage to walk away is underrated terrifically in US society. You are to go out for the team if everyone else does even if it means permanent brain damage. If someone bullies you, you are to take it, take that punishment and whatever the psychic cost in later life triumph – in public. Look upon cruel self-shattering forms of training as “boot camp,” a word which puzzlingly is used as a honorific. Then take pills when no one is looking. Maybe die of an overdose? Never mind the psychic penalties that warp your personality, break up your marriage. The loss of integrity, an authentic existence? you end up not knowing what are the true instincts of your nature.

Phineas has the courage to walk away, and the ending chapters of his novel are made up of attacks. Several times groups of characters attack him. End of chapter 67, Mrs Finn joins Bunce and Low as choral voice: now she is against him giving up his job, “Fiddlesticks!” she says about his conscience. Dr Finn suspects how hard it will be for Phineas to be allowed to begin again. Ever give up a promotion and others know it – do they respect you? They are suspicious. Why are you doing this? By the way same attitudes can be found towards people who take volunteer unpaid jobs. Note the words Trollope uses for Mary Lady Mason: all that the world could do to her would not make her give in. In Lady Anna, she is under ferocious pressure and she holds out for her beloved childhood sweetheart, though he is a tailor.

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In the first phase of their relationship in the Pallisers and in Phineas Finn, Lady Glenn and Madame Max are rival (Volume 5, Episode 10)

Which by contrast (Lady Anna Lovel aka Anna Murray and Mary Flood Jones are not interested in power or influence or individual lives at all) takes me to the second pattern I noticed in Phineas Finn: a depiction of a woman’s career when not invested in or though a marriage or as a mother (Lady Lufton of Framley Parsonage). Trollope sees that such a career takes a very different shape from a man’s; even more rare is that in PF he presents such a career with empathy. He is usually intensely hostile and presents such a woman as a dominating vixen (e.g., Mrs Proudie).

I’m talking of Madame Max Goesler as we first meet her in Trollope’s novel — imaged by the 19747 Pallisers well after she is introduced:

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Time is pressing us all very hard, Mr Finn, says Madame Max, pushing him out as she’s expecting the Duke of Omnium (Volume 5, Episode 9)

It’s a truism that women’s careers look different from men’s — as writers, as mid-level professionals, as elite types. The criteria and things you judge a man’s success by won’t do as women often don’t have big monetary success on their own, rarely hold high public office, don’t have a forward trajectory in the same way. One of the strengths of Phineas Finn, not repeated in Phineas Redux is to show us a woman having a career not based on a man’s job — though a man’s money: Madame Max Goesler. We see her tempted — I reread “Madame Max’s generosity” (in the chapter in PF where she offers herself to Phineas), not as a tempter but as the one tempted to opt out because forsooth she’s lonely.

The explanation for her offer to Phineas is that she is intensely lonely and has a heart (not common in the world by the bye) — the narrator has told us three times that she is lonely, she has no intimate friend, and by that in a way what’s meant is a woman friend. She becomes intimate with Lady Glen sometime during Eustace Diamonds (it happens offstage in the novel while Raven puts the development of their friendship on-stage). Madame Max recognizes in Phineas a fellow-outsider, a person on the make, but also a person who wants to have integrity and act on it, he’s handsome (how often do we have to be told this); they are just gut-level congenial.

In Madame Max in PF Trollope shows us the cost of such a career to a woman: she must be intensely and continually performative, keep no one close to her. To enjoy life and be free she is of the demi-monde, but then no woman of high respectability will visit her easily and she must endure the Mrs Bonteens. Finally Lady Glen does visit Madame Max, but that is to stop the Duke from getting too close to Madame Max in an intimate dinner party, to prevent a marriage. Trollope does present Lady Glen attempting a career in The Prime Minister but as a wife, with a family to fall back into, and in a real sense Lady Glen fails (over Ferdinand Lopez among other bad choices) and is taught a harsh lesson against doing all she did. At the same time Trollope recognizes that women do this kind of thing in politics — elite women do.

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Lady Glen trying to influence an election by buying expensive shoes (Volume 10, Episode 21)

It is important to recognize this saloniere business (whether respectably married or on her own) is a conservative approach to a woman’s career as she upholds the patriarchal order by complying with the demand she work, facilitate and do all sorts of things without an office or salary or without any real means of independence. Marie has independence. For a man to look at the price and say walk away is radical, not supporting “progress” as Trollope sees this. He cannot bring himself to reveal that his male hero wants to walk away, that it takes courage to do this because he knows the average reader does not like that. The average reader has sold him or herself or believes in the cant of fighting on, doing what others do, boot camp. He can show the woman opting out — for Trollope is for marriage.

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In Phineas Finn, Phineas is nagged to quit and become a lawyer by the Lows and Mr Bunce; but the real contrasts to him are on the one side, Chiltern who will not be bought but has no place in the world, and Laurence Fitzgibbon who has no character to uphold; and on the other, Barrington Erle who has no soul and Mr Slide who does not understand how corrupt he is

Millais’s drawings of Lady Mason was so great for Trollope because (he said) of the psychology of the drawing; it’s the pattern of her holding out against the world he is riveted to, her emotional distress and strain. And yet once he got into Ireland and broke out of his depression, he fought and fought and was coopted — and knew the stress of that selling of his talent, renting it, too.

A personal note: I admire Phineas and Mr Harding because I know the emotional distress of such a choice and in a way that’s one of the draws of Trollope’s texts for me: he dramatizes that distress again and again. Mr Harding’s long day in London (a favorite chapter with me) shows the distress Mr Harding experiences in having been attacked, in realizing he was doing wrong from a standpoint of integrity, and in holding out under great stress to be coopted (from Archdeacon Grantly) or be destroyed. Some of Trollope’s characters give in to the world and are destroyed … or partly succeed (Lady Glen gave up the instincts of her heart and Burgo Fitzgerald and tries the saloniere out and remains safe too).

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I know of one academic essay which discusses this withdrawal pattern, not in terms of Trollope’s life, his career, and not as a pattern across the fiction, but as opting for failure not quite as a noble choice (that gets us to Henry James whose uses this theme again and again), but as the better part of valour: Sarah Gilead, ‘Trollope’s Orphans and the “Power of Adequate Performance”‘, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 27 (1985): 86-105 (she brings together Mr Harding, Lily Dale and Mary, Lady Mason). Nowadays there are numerous on the depiction of the career in Trollope’s fiction but not the ambivalence with which he present this. To see the pattern as a reluctant withdrawal and relate it to Trollope’s own awkwardnesses in social life, his carapace and refusals to play along in company is to see deeply into his fiction’s fuel. To see the rarity in Trollope of a depiction of a woman’s career when not married in a patriarchy, and its accuracy is to assess his acute perception of social life and his limitations.

Ellen

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Kevin Kline as Matthias Gold and Maggie Smith, Matilde Girard (no she is not his mother after all) in My Old Lady 2014)

Have you ever listened
to the steps of your mother
walking around the whole house
during the night

    without putting the lights on,
    knowing her way in the dark by heart,
    quite quietly,
    step by step,
    as drop by drop
    from a leaking roof?

How she runs her fingers on the walls,
to make out the features
of her past life,
turned into a house.
Blaga Dimitrova, trans. Ludmilla Popova-Wightman, from poems to her mother, Scars

Dear friends and readers,

I went to see this film because after having been told by one of the three students left in my gothic class “don’t miss it, Ellen, I loved it,” and noticing it was play in only one theater in all my area, and that the theater which specializes in good unusual films because there is no parking around it, except maybe weekday mornings (Shirlington); after noticing all this, I say, I saw the author, director, and part producer is Israel Horovitz. Well Jim and I used to know him: Israel was enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center while I was there. I remember Jim talking to him, then telling me “we must see The Line” (we never did, nor Indian Joe wants the Bronx). I knew Israel was a gifted dramatist. As the film came to its close, I thought to myself, Jim would have said, “it’s okay, a win.” He’d have liked the movie as a whole.

It’s the story of Matthias, a sad man just over 57 who has nothing, no money, no friends, no career, but whose father has left him a large old beautiful house and garden in one of the more exquisitely preserved neighborhoods of Paris — part of the pleasure of the film is these streets, the bridges, the waters, the houses, furniture, all we see. Twice Jim rented an apartment for us and Izzy in just such a courtyard in Paris.

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Matthias arrives from NYC to find his father’s aging mistress, Mathilde Girard, living there with the right to stay until she dies and to be paid 2400 Euros a month by the house’s owner (by French law). She has living with her, a daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, an English teacher, who we gradually come to see is as lost as to any joy in her life, or hope for something she finds sustaining to do, as he is. She is more than irritated by Matthias’s presence and the threat he represents (he wants to sell the place to a developer); she is angry

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It was originally a stage play, and the characters emerge through their talk, with the sets (albeit real places) used symbolically,

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A cultured boathouse (filled with books) on the Seine

The gradually compelling interest is the unfolding of these three characters’ pasts, especially that of aging old woman, Matilde, who puts on quite a performance as a woman of the world, all savoir faire, adjusted to all the hard truths of life, as she spends her last years in a civilized pattern of dining, drinking, reading, teaching too (young French adults to read English. specifically James Joyce), all equability. Maggie does not break down quite as far as both Kline and Thomas (I feel impelled to use their real names somehow) as they all slowly make out the features of their painful shared pasts to one another — Matthias’s mother killed herself after years of living marginalized while her husband was the faithful lover and companion of Matilde; Chloe could be the daughter of Matthias’s father and not her mother’s husband who lived not far from the house most discreetly (and mostly broke). Matilde insists her long life with Mattias’s father was a deeply happy and fulfilled one, that he was a kind, generous, tactful, loving man. Well not to me, declares Matthias. Matilde would prefer him to believe his miserable state at this point is all his fault (for being an egoistic depressive you see). Confronted with Chloe’s suddenly open feelings of how her legitimate father hated her (discreetly of course), and how Chloe has given up her life to her mother by living with her (I never asked you to, replies Matilde), Matilde has nothing to offer as compensation — except life itself. That she says is enough.

As I watched I felt that Horovitz was examining and releasing his own self-doubt, rage, hurt, and using the desperate attempts of Matthias to re-establish himself (he visits antique shops with furniture taken from the house to sell it) as part of a quiet reflection of the middle years of his life — Matthias it emerges is a failed American playright, has endured divorces too many. Chloe is reactive (during the course of the film she breaks off a long standing affair she had been having with a married man with two children and a grandchild to boot). Each of them finds old photos and brings them out to show the others. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, taking down his bundle to open and going over the things in it. There is something “old Woody-Allenish” about this film; Horovitz in this first film (he’s 75) is much influenced by Woody Allen.

Kline has the most lines, Thomas the strong sudden movements, but Smith has more presence than either. At one point she forces herself up the stairs (the first time in years it seems) to find and comfort her daughter, to take back something she has said, the walk itself bringing to mind her journey. She ends up dominating the film. We feel for her as she holds on to her cherished memories, with more effort we begin to see than she’s showing (a quiet moment shows her reading in bed, tiring, and as she falls asleep to the side, Thomas coming in and taking off her glasses, covering her). Yes, she says, she lies (a lot). Her dignity is a daily act that keeps her going.

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It does fall off at the close, a “pat denouement” Glenn Kenny calls it. Of course Mattias and Chloe turn to one another, become lovers and we are in a romance; when it seems possibly they are half-brother-sister, Matilde is still unperturbed: what’s the harm (both past breeding), if you find happiness …, the film punts, and we are shown Kline collecting some DNA results from Matilde’s doctor to show Chloe is after all not his half-sister: her legitimate was her biological father. Happily this part of the film is short. The point is everyone’s better instincts are brought forth, and Mattias decides not to sell, and to stay, Chloe to cooperate, and all may build a life here among the flower beds near the Seine — where people sing songs from Mozart’s Don Giovanni as they walk.

The good and genuinely moral message of the film is give of yourself, forgive others, keep with them if they will have you and are themselves good people (not destroyers) and stay alive. The real problem may be seen by contrasting it with Allen’s better films. My Old Lady needed to be funnier. There is not enough self-irony, not enough distance nor reaching out to the audience. Delpy did that in her imitation of Allen set in Paris: reached out. Horovitz is too guarded.

The reviews have not been generous. Not enough insight into themselves is brought out; this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Burton, Taylor, Sondra Dee tearing themselves and one another truly apart). It’s gentle, like the effective background music. (One person near me stayed through all the credits, not to see the surprise comic last scenes interpersed, but learn who sung which songs.)

As a light comic play taking a deep plunge below the surface of what has been now and again turned into a grave movie, My Old Lady will yield some analogies and parallels, like the one I find in the poetry of Dimitrova characterizing her mother. This room here had some splendid parties, that there we ate and read in, over there we played the piano … such are some of the lines Matilde murmurs and speaks aloud now and again

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Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understood the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use. Total contrast.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater, which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas. (
For myself I love the PBS costume drama format and disagree fundamentally with Metcalf: these have been influential for good art. What is the problem is Metcalf speaks for the male viewer without awareness of this.)

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The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

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This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

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Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

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Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

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Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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Anna Gunn about to fall to her knees on the ground as Skyler crying after her baby is taken from her by Walt

if you cut them [man’s laws] down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then … Yes I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake — Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

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But see this pinned up photo of Andrea (Emily Rios), among the world’s targets: who cares what happens to her: anyone may and does shoot her in the head

Dear friends and readers,

I finished what I’m calling a first viewing of the extraordinary 42 hour Breaking Bad to the bitter end last night. Even to try to take it in would require several viewings. Each of the last shots of the principles epitomizes some final statement about what each has become and how they related to the story’s themes and action. In the last feature as well as a parody, “Alternate Ending,” Vince Gilligan offered his view of the two men’s last moments.

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The series’ last shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

White, he suggests, is “spiritually broken, his hopes for revenge pipe dreams; he’s too sick,” the last episode “an elegy, a bit of a goodbye — he goes out on his own terms, the cancer does not kill him, he is killed saving Jesse, there’s almost a perverse feeling of victory to it for me, at least.” Walt’s life up to the time he began to cook meths was a long mortification, failure as most in his society saw it, mocked by the bully brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in a video replayed briefly made during Holly’s baby shower. He tells Skyler he did it “for me. I liked it. And I was good at it. I was alive.” Look at that look of bliss on the man’s face as Walt enters the darkness from which we all come, for him the release of oblivion. His life as Walter White ended when he was told he had terminal inoperable cancer; now the love he depended upon is gone from his family, he has done for them what he could monetarily, and he now dies on his own terms, blithe to go.

I’m not as persuaded by Gilligan’s view of Jesse. He’d “like to think Jesse escapes,” that there is “some hope of a life ahead.” Look at that face whose every nerve is suffused with moral pain and despair:

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Last shot of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Jesse crashes in a junk car at full throttle through an iron fence from the last lair of murderous crooks with which he and Mr White have had to deal and Walt destroyed. Realistically, he’s nowhere to hide: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has vanished (“it’s over”) and with him his mechanisms for creating new identities for his clients. Jesse will end up seeking out his two feeble friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, and die on the streets if not jailed: he has been called “the moral compass” of the series;” it’s more true to say he has bneen its bleak victim, the one beat up continually, targeted again and again for killing, enslaved with chains, at the close yes knowing he made a killing choice to join Walter White and Jesse is no killer. Each time he shot or killed someone it was after an intense effort to force himself: only the strangulation of Todd (well deserved after Todd coolly shoots Andrea in the head) came naturally.

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The alternate ending has Cranston as Hal, a comic emasculated character with Lois, his formidable wife (Jane Kaczmarek, from a once TV popular series, the two of them starred in, 2006 Malcolm in the Middle) waking in the night, trembling from the “scariest” dream you can imagine: told he had cancer (!), he took to cooking meths, making bombs, killing people (!), alongside a “lost waif, a man child who looked like he was always wearing his older brother’s clothes and he would always say things like “b…” [he stops embarrassed and worried his wife won’t approve], the b word he would use the b word a lot he would say (shouting) “yo B word” and “yah science b word …” In “Felina” we see Jesse when young lovingly carpentering a wooden box, his drawings of himself as a boy hero were recognized by Jane (Krysten Ritter), one of his two loves, as the work of a comically self-deprecating artist. Despised and rejected, with no Mr White to save him, Jesse zooms into the darkness too.

In this dream Hal tells Lois, as his actual wife (much TV self-reflexivity here) that he, Hal, was married to this “tall beautiful blonde woman” — Lois the wife semi-jeers, incredulous of course. When Skyler is last seen she is continually smoking, chain-smoking. She sits and smokes. She is terrorized twice in this season, both through her baby. After a terrific scene after Walt has produced another set of lies to account for his absence and where Hank could be, she sees a fancy knife in a knife set on the table we have seen many times. She grabs it and lunges at him, screaming, “leave us alone, just leave us alone.” Walt defends himself and they fall to the fall, rolling, tussling; he manages to wrench the knife back but not before she has slashed his hand. Horrified, Walt junior becomes hysterical as he watches this.

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Flynnhorrified (1)

To this they have descended. Well he gets back; before she can rise and adjust herself, he has taken the baby in its carrier, run to his car and is driving off. She rushes out after them frantic, asking for her baby back, and falls on her knees to the ground as he drives away. A stunning moment. She begins at long last to cry. Walt does care for Holly and leaves her with the firemen, where we presume Skyler can pick her up safe and sound.

Again another moment in this last season, late at night, she hears a sound from the baby’s room and finds herself by the crib with three men who surround it. They are masked and the dangerous Todd is one of them. They say she has been talking to the police and if she tells about who Lydia is or anything she knows they will return — implication and kill this baby. She mouths obedience.

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Last shot of Anna Gunn as the show’s princess Skyler White seeing how bad Walt looks

Anna Gunn interprets her character inadequately throughout. She says Skyler is a shell, nothing in her. But for her life is not pointless as yet: she has her children, but like Jesse, they make her intensely vulnerable to those who want to get at Walt or any of his associates. Unlike Jesse, once her court case is done, if she does not go to prison (and a plea bargain seems probable), she must (like Saul) move, and if not get a new identity, keep out of harm’s way. Her beauty is of no help for what she cares about — though perhaps it attracted Walter White in the first place, made him dump Gretchen Schwartz. The characters in the series invite these kinds of speculations: we learn enough about them suggestively over the slow-moving 6 year series. I imagine she will eventually stop the heavy smoking — though she will never be the complacent woman she once was. She will remember a world of terror that she joined in on (to the extent of telling Walt to have Jesse killed when Walt balks at this), that still exists but which she now wants no part of.

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The very last shot of the series: the men with big guns in the scientific lab (as Fortinbras has the last word in Hamlet)

There is a bleak inference to be garnered at this end: at each and every turn of their career, the two men came up against people who had become inured to murder by dint of murdering other people lest they be murdered or found out, bullied into confessions, and then tortured by penal servitude for decades to come. Each set of murderers were worse than the ones before: from Krazy-8 (seemingly sane) to Tuco Salamanca (who commits acts of wild crazed violence), replaced by the frighteningly homocidal Gus Esposito and his ruthless hitman, Mike Ermantraut, replaced in this last season by the vicious Nazi crew run by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen), with perhaps the scariest pair of them all, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodart-Quayle (Laura Fraser). Hank tells Walt he is a dead man ten minutes ago when Walt is still so foolish as to try to bargain with Jack for Hank’s life based on reasoning:

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Near last shot of Dean Norris as Hank: to Walt “you were the smartest guy I ever knew, but you are too stupid to know it was over ten minutes ago.”

The mini-series presents law as providing a modicum of safety for those who do not break it: those administering (inflicting?) and obeying it do not fear one another and however personally awful, mean, demeaning of others, have a vested interest in not breaking it. So some control is exerted over people, some order set up (however morally cruel or wrong) whose rules most of the time can be depended upon — at least by white middle class people.

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Marie (Betsy Brandt) left alone, widowed in her impeccable kitchen — having learned nothing, her lips tight as she spews out unfocused anger

At least you know where you are with the DEA, the medical establishment, the schools, family rituals. There are levels of barbarity such people most of the time do not stoop to. Not everyone is inside this net — those on drugs, alcoholics, non-whites, the poor, women who are driven to prostitution, for whom there is no pity, no understanding. The show does not include GLBT people who presumably are not inside the Net if they reveal themselves.

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Walt’s last view of Walter Junior (RJMitte) who he has tried to provide money for funneled through the Schwartzes

I would not want to be a disabled person, a child, someone who does not conform in the surface way the well-rewarded Schwartzes have.

A bad dream? Says Mr White to Hank (who soon after ends up buried in sand), if you do not know what this has been about (“who I am”), tread lightly:

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Treadlightly (1)

The remark is not to limited to Heisenberg as Hyde but the whole complex of life we’ve experienced.

Have I mentioned how effective are the inconsequential shots of the series: as Walter White is taken away to hide in the granite state, a stray dog crosses the road

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Final shot of Oxymandias (13:6)

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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