Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘US social life’ Category

Paratexts
From the paratexts of Plater’s Barchester Chronicles (1983)

BTPt2Ep6CathedralWandering
Donald Pleasence as Mr Harding wandering in Westminster (from Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater, the first two episodes being a dramatization of The Warden)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve decided to share my lecture and class discussion notes on Barchester Towers at the OLLI at Mason because we had such a good time over the book. I have already put onto the Net the postings a group of us on Trollope-l [Trollope and His Contemporaries] in 1999 posted to wherever our group was at that point (it’s been on four different sites), and am aware of how much has been said about this famous series of novels.

I am not sure I am adding anything new: my lectures are centrally indebted to William Cadbury (“Character and the Mock Heroic in Barchester Towers, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 5:4 [1964]509-519), James Kincaid’s blessedly old-fashioned close reading of Trollope in his Novels of AT, to say little of Tony Bareham’s Casebook on the Barsetshire novels. I did fast forward to the often unreadable D. A. Miller’s work (it was he who asked the question, “Why are there no police in Barsetshire?”), in this case readable repetitive few amusing points, some of which my 50 to 70+ year old students brought out without having worked their way through his prose (see way below). I came up with a few ideas — and screened some of Alan Plater’s Barchester Chronicles where Geralding McEwan, Alan Rickham and Donald Pleasence appeared to mesmerize them all.

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

TheInterview
The interview: of Mr Harding (Donald Pleasence) by Mr. Slope (Alan Rickman)

Cadbury (among others) tells us that Barchester Towers is both supremely like most of Trollope and supremely unlike. Many people who have read many of his novels plump for the unlike, but there’s no denying any particular passage, the themes, attitudes, use of narrators, characters could have been done by no one else. You read it and if you’d read Trollope before, you know it’s him.

First the like, obviously the book comes out of The Warden; the central ethical dilemma is repeated in the sense that we have a caste group who protect their positions; they are fighting over the spoils, th funds for charity are not being given to them in the way intended; and there runs through Barchester Towers a similar vein of feeling and thought dramatizing what is integrity. This clash can be seen as captured by one of the various oppositions; Mr Arabin (opening of Volume II) v Mr Slope (Chapter 4, “The Bishop’s Chaplain”). Arabin justifies his fight in the world as for understanding accurately what is the nature of our lives, what choices should we make of how to decide something, even what to decide,all to be rooted in a depth of true feeling (bonds, loyalty, what is due other people), not to be manipulated or twisted; Mr Slope is all manipulation, all performance; it’s suggested somewhere in him there once was some evangelical or low church fervor where the believer and his relationship with God is the center of religious belief, but all we see once he comes to Barchester is his manipulation of the outward manifestations of power relationships.

Skilton’s introduction in Penguin says how the novel fits into a Trollopian mode: the predicament of the church at this point in history: the book shows a deep reverence for the past (in the Thornes of Ullathorne), all the while an intense awareness of the present as ceaseless change – and the necessity of removing the obsolete and that includes people – us – -by rubbish cart. Someone’s conscience versus worldliness. As the book opens, what is happening?, an old man is dying? The bishop. Is this how it’s presented? Look at the heading: it’s presented as who will replace him. What is tearing Dr Grantly up in this chapter? The old man keeps lingering on. The doctors say he’s about to pop off any minute now, but he doesn’t. Why is it important that he pop off? A change of ministry and then Dr Grantly will not get the position. Those in are Tories (Gods) and those out are Whigs (Giants): he dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death? (p. 3) Obvious why that rivets us – or can. Whether we have been in Grantly’s situation or have seen someone looking at us wondering when we are going to die and hoping for it. Or have seen someone else. It’s sort of surprising when you contemplate this line and the passages about Grantly by the bedside of his father that this is the core opener of a comic book — only that’s what meant by supremely Trollopian (or so I think).

What is unlike many of the novels: several consistently-used distancing techniques. Trollope continually distances us; he approaches his material externally first: set pieces, portraits, epic similes, talking to us about the characters as characters, and only then does he go inward, sometimes for a moment deeply, but more often to show us the character thinking socially, about social life and situations. They can reveal a lot in their conversations: for Trollope social life is not an enigmatic closed mask: through the mask the person is exposing his or her private vulnerable self and motives if only you know how to read them.Trollope’s novels by and large ask us to view the action and themes in terms of the aims and goals of the characters (The Warden). Characters deeply seen and felt inwardly. We will have this in Dr Thorne. Trollope begins with two chapters from an impinging past from the point of view of a person, consciousness, character. He also there has a single narrator who forms a personality, often characterized as congenial and accepting of what he presents even if it’s when thought about a great evil. We are no allowed deep sustaining entry into the consciousness of the characters or narrator. This novel is often called Fieldingesque, after Fielding. What Trolliope wants us to see is this larger modern world, expose it for our delectation. Finally the bishop dies (apparently with little overt pain), and first thing for the son to do is send a telegram (Penguin, pp 5-6). But not by him but his father-in-law (Mr Harding), telling him, don’t put my name on it. The book is panoramic in the way of Fielding, but the narator is more modelled after the Thackerayan sceptical disillustioned narrator in Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond. We are not given a personality in this novel so much as a comic epic bard with a group of techniques which he uses to distance us from his characters. He does provide enough of the characters to make us feel and at times think a little deeply about them.

For example, the Signora Neroni. On the surface she’s a thoroughly shady woman with a very disreputable past who enjoys needling people. Hungry for male attention as there she can experience some power, however limited. A scene between her and Slope in Volume II shows her playing mercilessly with his libidinal helplessness before her. Mother of the last emperor. But as the portrait goes on, what do we feel about her more deeply?  Her pathos (Volume 1, Ch 9, p 65-69): when she talks of her father’s demise with her brother and sister, Charlotte and Bertie, she acquieses in the idea they don’t want him to die, because then they lose all his income and are burdened with debt. Very bad news for Bertie. She expresses more than real apprehension. From later in the book where they bring up this all important topic again (who will inherit and what when the man dies or will we be broke?),the three are talking of Eleanor Bold and should Bertie court and marry her, and her thick mourning comes up: Madeline speaks:

HampshireGenuineHurt

BTPt5CharlotteBertie
Susan Hampshire, Susan Edmonston and Peter Blythe as Madeline Neroni, and Bertie and Charlotte Stanhope

‘I hate such shallow pretenses. I’d let the world say what it pleased and show no grief [for a dead husband] if I felt none – perhaps not show it if I did,’ and (when they in effect say nothing) ‘you both know in what way husbands and wive generally live together.  You know what freedom a man claims for himself and what slavery he would exact from a wife and you know how wives generally obey. Marriage means tyranny on one side, and deceit on the other, and a man is a fool to sacrifice his interests to such a bargain.  The tragedy is a woman generally has no other way of living.’  This reminds me she is crippled, a cripple. Bertie and Charlotte laughingly anticipate their father’s death as a way of “getting something.” In this opening chapter Trollope says the one central characteristic of the family is heartlessness (Penguin, p 62); they’d give you the shirt off their backs today, so courteous, disarming, sympathetic, and yet heartless he says. Madeline replies sharply to the idea they’ll get something when Rev Stanhope dies: “I think we’ll inherit his debts as well.”  Bertie then chuckles and Neroni says she “I likes him … should be sorry to lose him.’

She’s not just intelligent but is in front of herself candid. She will do some noble things at the end of the novel – noble for human beings. Yet look at the chapter. We have these still portraits. Set-pieces. They remind me of Scott’s way of presenting characters in Ivanhoe. One after the other, put in front of us, rather like a stage presence and puppet who has not been set in movement. Each except Charlotte and the mother anathema morally to Victorians supposedly. Before you reject, Bertie Stanhope, you must recall that the Rev Stanhope is not big on the work ethic himself.  He collects large sums (from the church and thus the tax-payer) and does nothing

What keeps the text high-spirited and amusing is how Trollope presenst them as characters as well as people and not let us forget they are characters in a novel, and he’s not emphasizing internal realities here, nor that of his narrator. It’s a dance – with all the complexity suggested by the details and each encounter where we can understand a problem as a problem, we do not approach them from the inside but rather the outside. Chapter 2: particulars of what happened to the hospital (Penguin, pp 10-11). Old men certainly did not get anything. They have no vote, no representation in Parliament. Then chapters called subjects like “War.”  Balanced, symmetries everywhere. The detachment, the urbanity achieved is said by some to be him typically comes from not reading much more of Trollope than the Barsetshire and Palliser series, where the narrator opts for balance (leading to complacency), and this is liked. The achievement of this novel is the mastery in all the comic techniques repeatedly brought in to make us look at the world of Barsetshire as a world. In Dr Thorne Trollope demands a different level of sympathy, one where we bond intimately. We are not left alone to form a conception of the characters that could be painful – that darker level is by the way only glimpsed in the mini-series. It is there; myself I think that’s why people keep reading it. What do we care about church personages and church politics literally and a lot of people are literal readers.

All the characters except even Arabin (when he is confronted by the Signora) are made to feel or are ridiculous. Take baby worship. Eleanor is overreacting. We are told she grieved at her husband’s death, we are told the pregnancy was compensation, she keeps her mourning on, but there is a gap between the reality and the perfect ordinariness of the child. “The baby was really delightful; he took his food with a will, stuck out his toes merrily whenever his legs were uncovered, and did not have fits These are supposed to be the strongest points of baby perfection and in all these our baby excelled.” Our baby.

The two characters seen most inwardly consistently are Harding and Mr Arabin – only with them does Trollope move into the close analysis of interior views. So let’s look at Chapter 12: Slope versus Harding: the quintessential modern hazing moment: the interview. The scene before us is performative and the point is to make us see an interview scene in this new world – this novel has been called the first academic satire, about jobs in the marketplace. In this interview scene he goes back and forth at length. He does go back and forth more in the later chapters: the Quiverfuls especially but their agon is treated comically. Trollope keeps ringing changes on the number 14. The name is allegorical.

Chapter 12: The ringing insult: It is “new men carrying out new measures:” “carting away the useless rubbish of centuries.” How did they feel reading that? This is a highly unusual comedy also in that most comedies side with the young. We rejoice when the young escape the clutches of the old and mean. We are with the younger generation fighting the older one; it might be said to be deeply conservative as it builds up immense sympathy for older vulnerable people. We are with the older people, or those who have withdrawn for a while – Mr Arabin, Bertie Stanhope who is treated with a kindly irony (he copes with each day as it comes – and makes wonderful mockery of the church’s pretensions about its offices and work. If you look at Bertie and Mr Harding, I think not – because of the subversive ironies which are continually urging us to vote against those who seek power at any cost, against competition, on behalf of retreat. To win in Trollope’s first two novel is to lose – it’s done indirectly of course. In this scene it is Mr Harding who keeps his dignity – the only positive moral act in this situation with drawal. The novel sees people as decent individually but once they get into social organizations they are dangerous, often silly and contemptible. Social groups are not as bad because as in Mrs Thorne’s fete champetre (a central normative place) the groups form and reform like clouds on a windy day

This is an upside down comedy which hides a bleak view of power

And it includes us – – we do this and we know we do it. Or some of us do. What Trollope does is blame a character for having too much of one quality or too little of it, and then turn around and imply we too lack that quality. Say charity. Mr Harding has too much; we have too little. Look at how Mr Harding reacts to the proposals of Eleanor marrying Slope (pp 15-51: charitable, egalitarian.

Distancing techniques. The allegorical names. Trollope uses semi-allegorical for his characters throughout his career. Campaign manages in Dr Thorne: NeartheWind, Closer Still. Lawyers in He Knew He Was Right: Slow and Bideawhile. He likes salacious ones. If you see a dity joke (so to speak) in a name, you’re right. In Miss Mackenzie: three men, Ball and Rub. Mr Glasscock. Doctors: Rerechild and Fillgrave. Trollope loved these and there’s a long tradition of them in literature going back to medieval times. The name stands for the central quality of the figure. They are semi- because they also realistic and sometimes ordinary English names: Proudies, very proud, Grantley, been granted great luck through life. Real places are in the map.

But it does distance us. What Trollope does is contrast the characters we have met with their places in the novels. He stops to discuss how he has presented them. Mrs Proudie presented as dislikable, a devil, but says he when she feels for Mrs Quiverufl: “there was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice.” She sits down, commiserates with Mrs Quiverful and her pity as well as desire to dominate and be the Bishop leads her to fight on against Slope’s wanting to put Harding in again. There’s a problem when you want to create real empathy for the Quiverfuls.  Stating the name gets in the way.

So it’s a novel on two planes. One highly conventional and subversive in that conventionality, the other not so. Chapter 10, p 73 brings together another kind of language we have seen in The Warden. The epic simile. What happens in the reception? How does Madeline arrive?

MadameNeroni
Susan Hampshire as the Signora Neroni carried into Mrs Proudie’s Converzatione, POV Bertie Stanhope

She makes herself a spectacle and at first is not recognized as Stanhope’s daughter. Bertie utterly irreverent – -this is a novel which satirizes religion too – which is disillusioned and sceptical about people’s self-delusions. It’s telling that Bertie who is never permitted to talk to Arabin. Mrs Proudie is Juno in the scene, her wrath beyond describing when her dress torn away. As Juno looked on Paris; she is Medea over her children left by Jason, she is Achilles thinking about her husband’s pillow (p 85) … Mock-heroic romance or epic. The tone of the apostrophes is not that of narrator as character but an implied impersonal presence from literature.

Dr and Mrs Proudie? Is the book misogynous? You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence? In reality women never could have such power, the laws gave the men property, all decent paying jobs, all education, right to beat your wife within limits, divorce was only if you could prove your life in danger if you were a woman. A man need only prove adultery. She uses sex and will make his life a misery continually if he doesn’t accede; there are people like this in marriages. Dr Proudie is a trimmer; he shows himself flexible – he will be on the group’s side to which he belongs. Such people are promoted and get ahead (p 18), even if mortifyingly hen-pecked. Proudie may be flattered into things, and is an ambitious man.

The Bishop’s Chaplain? Very class bound – Trollope is as egregiously anti-lower class people as the chapters about the old men in The Warden. Loves power, loves to exercise power above all, p 25 – not very wise of bishop to let him preach the first Sunday – we are to dislike him, mutual bond of hatred. Of those who watched the film what did you think of Rickman’s performance. He’s a handsome man, not red haired, greasy, sweaty. I thought he conveyed a tragic feel to the character coming out of his presence – he gives it gravitas – it was deliberate casting against the grain. People even in 1983 would not want an exoriation of an lower class manifestation.

The morning visit brilliantly. Of course it’s war after that — and the sermon against all Mr Harding stands for – which is outward beauty, even ritual for its own sake, but he is egalitarian – “all porters and stokers and guards and brakesman ought to be able to go to church” (p 33, i.e., have the day off.) The stopping of fun and travel on the one day a week Victorians had off a bete noire of most novelists.

At the party all of these characters are looked upon as presenting wonderful opportunities for revelling in laughter at them. Take the bishop feeling sorry for Madame Neroni, p 87: “he put on a look of ineffable distress and said he was aware of how God had afflicted her ….” Other writers of novels who are much respected have complained about this and it’s part of what makes Trollope’s reputation so dicey. He is not serious – -how can we take his vision of life seriously. Is he meaning to show us what life is like? I think so: the phony hypocrisies and cant – pretending to feel moral norms and spouting moral talk we don’t really believe or think at all. People at funerals.

Romance not ignored. There is no novel without love. Who are the widow’s suitors? (Chapter 15, Pp 117-118).  Does Eleanor survive this treatment? How? Each time we see her she does act with a certain integrity and sense of her identity, and pride. She will not bend the wrong way – she does not want to hate Mr Slope. Partly the novels cohere – they build on one another. You begin to see this especially in Framley Parsonage. She carries on being loyal to Mr Harding (Chapter 16, pp 137-38). So Mr Slope wants to give the hospital back to Mr Harding to please the widow — in the hope of money. But he will not lose one influential friend before he gains another (p 119). Human politics a tricky business. But of course we know Eleanor is not a pendulum and has no intention of marrying Mr Slope. The widow’s persecution: Eleanor gets caught up in a web of conflicting people as is her father. So we have all sorts of plot threads: who is beat out who? Mrs Proudie or Slope? Grantly or the Proudies? A far gone conclusion. Will Harding get the hospital job back? Who will if anyone Eleanor marry with a champion (Mr Arabin) waiting in the wings.

In usual Trollope novels central character vacillate from within, and it is Mr Slope who does (p 120). Mr Slope trying to figure out what to do. Here is where Alan Rickman was able to make something human (not reptile) from character (bottom of p. 120: remember Mr Slope not a bad man.)

What kind of person is our fourth or fifth male, Bertie Stanhope, her other suitor? No ambition, no desire for place, frivolous. He is not respected in the novel (pp. 123-4): Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. That’s him. He is liked for his unworldliness and kindness of disposition. Charlotte wants to know if he will go through with this project? Marry Eleanor for money. It’s here the moving speeches of Madeline occur (pp 126-12)7 Bertie summed up as a “tame cat” – he would have been an amiable but useless husband.

Cock of walk is Mrs Proudie or Slope. Like an animal fable Trollope reduces and mocks. Aesop’s fables are quintessential satire: they turn us into animals and then reduce the animal to a few less than admirable human characteristics (Ch 17, p 139). There are all the allusions to contemporary history, familiar classics, the ancient classics.

Close to end of Volume, a dialogue between Grantly and Mr Harding. The two talking, a quiet invitation to come to Plumstead. Sudden realistic feel. Last chapter one of great beauty, “Barchester by Moonlight.” First a debt must be hidden in the Stanhope residence – never far away from realities.  700 pounds owed — it will be brought back at the close of the novel.  Charlotte the manageress keeping the Stanhopes afloat manipulates so she is with Slope and places Bertie with Eleanor outside.

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

MrsQuiverfulcomingaway

The pathos of Mrs Quiverful Maggie Jones) coming away from reassurance by Mrs Prouide the position is her husband’s

Volumes 2 into 3:

So to return, we were at a crux of the novel. Unerringly Alan Plater the screenplay writers of the BBC Barchester Chronicles dramatizes the central scenes of the novel which engage deeply and complexly with its central themes. One such is the interview in Book One between Mr Arabin and Mr Harding we’ve looked at. Central figures who Trollope does delve inwardly and allows their thoughts to spread over pages.

The chapters following our most exemplary figure (Bk 2 , Chs 1) Mr Arabin and Ch 2, St Ewold’s Parsonage (where they talk of how to fix it), we get a longest pictorial chapter in the book: the Thornes of Ullathorne. It is an Elizabethan mansion, unspoiled. Trollope’s celebration of it makes it difficult to call this a subversive fiction. What is Trollope’s attitude towards them? Symbolic heart of the book. At first they are presented as hilarious, absurd, introduced with usual detachment, even contempt: but we find they stand for old hospitality, bonds, loyalty, and they do open their party to the whole countryside despite Mr Plomacy; they do allow Mrs Lookaloft and her daughters to sit where they want.

Had this been a book written during the height of Trollope’s career, I’ve no doubt we’d have at least one full illustration. The Folio Society has a comic one of the quintaine but many of them are picturesque and touching. I had mentioned I spent a couple of months studying the illustrations through looking at magazine copies of installments at Library of congress and counted 445. The illustrations which accompanied the early publications of Trollope’s novels add to, interpret, and point to meanings in Trollope’s texts that he was unable to bring out forthrightly, or which can only be conveyed pictorially.

So compare what seems like a more minor character, Book 2, when Slope makes his second visit to Mr Quiverful and tells him after all he is not to have the position of warden and salary for the hospital. What is Mr Slope’s motive for wanting after all to see Mr Harding in the hospital? Book 2, Chapter 5 (“Mr Slope at Puddingdale”), pp 214 in my edition. “But Mr Harding had another friend fighting his battle for him … .”  Mr Quiverful is waiting for Mr Slope to come in the house (pp 215-16. Trollope asks us to be ourselves as we enter into  Mr Quiverful’s self-jusification? A little later: is not everyone in this world “so griping” of whatever they have? (Pp. 218-219). A powerful word there: gripin.

Plater simply transposes a lot of the words from Trollope’s text to make his dramatic scene here. We get a full empathetic view of Mr Quiverful. Why does Mr Quiverful give in? He thinks he can’t hold on to it, and he’ll end up worse if he fights – should take a note from the old men who at least fought but then ended up worse off. My husband used to say if you were powerless stand not too close to the powerful. You will become a substitute target.

Book 2 ends with Slope beginning to lose out – that’s important. At the end of book 2 Trollope has built up a lot of tension. Eleanor left the Grantley; her father upset.   Mrs Proudie has asserted her in that bedroom, Slope, knowing this, does not give up by a long shot – he is also contrasted to Mr Harding; he is like Dr Grantley only maybe cleverer, two political letters (pp 303-6), each masterly, but rhetoric will not do unless you have something to exchange – he asks for support without insisting on it – but he has nothing to offer in return is his problem  A new man conveniently dies: the dean – everyone waiting about. Poor Dr Trefoil (p 291)  Only the unmarried botanist daughter will suffer. Trollope is aware of this – but he mentions her botany as a joke. (The science allowed respectable women at the time was botany.)

Slope has the nerve to put himself forward; the establishment, Gwynne and company want Arabin. We get Tom Staple. Trollope uses Staple in a couple of ways. One is to introduce yet another attack on what Trollope regards as the unfair power of newspapers over people’s minds, people being sheep and apt to believe that what they are told is everyone’s opinion or way of life actually is. Trollope here stands for a value I have seen him stand for before: he suggests it is good for students to be allowed to get into debt. The struggles, agonies and hard lessons learned that way are part of education. This reminds me of many modern Americans’ way of talking about school: they seem to regard it primarily as a social training ground where the strong and tough get ahead, and others are somehow coerced into being stronger and tougher. Academics come secondarily — this is really Deweyism (educating the citizen not the mind). I want to come out on the side of the Jupiter. Not everyone grows stronger and tougher from troubles, and for some the troubles can become so bad they can take a long time to retrieve. (To put this in modern terms, I would not encourage my 21 year old daughter to get herself a credit card and start buying as this might teach her a lesson). In this scene we see Arabin holds firm to principles — that it’s implied however someone might not agree with them shows a deep level of scepticism in Trollope towards any particular religious doctrine too.

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

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-21h52m13s53
Mr Plomacy (Roger Booth) who has organized the party

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-21h53m12s131
The Ullathornes (Richard Leech and Ursula Howells) congratulating him and themselves

Book 3:

So we move on to Act III: book has three acts, the fete champetre has three acts, and at the end we have parallel chapters of “At home.” Act I occurs as everyone arrived, our hostess in some consternation, between Eleanor and Mr Harding (III:2 or Ch 36). While we find a meeting of the minds between our loving father and daughter (at long last), there is also much discomfort and at the close still some misunderstanding as well as a residual disappointment in Eleanor that her father should have misunderstood her. What’s interesting about the scene is how Eleanor overstates the case against Mr Slope and not Mr Harding. To Eleanor’s sudden insistence it would have been disgraceful for her to have even considered Mr Slope for a husband, and that somehow having been suspected of erotic feelings towards him somehow soils her and her relationship with her father, her father replies:

‘”I don’t know what you mean by suspicion, Eleanor. There would be nothing disgraceful, you know; nothing wrong in such a marriage … (Penguin BT, ed RGilmour, p. 348).

But before Mr Harding (generous, can see other points of view), can offer a common sense view of the case, she interrupts him with a fit of crying, an insistence it would have been ‘horrid’ (which sexually speaking to her it would have been), and intense relief for which Trollope uses the word grief. She cannot show these emotions, nor does he give expression to the ‘load off his heart’ all that has happened has occasioned him, but there is quiet ‘melodrama’ (p. 349) here. There is crass class-bias here:  throughout the depiction of Slope it’s there; the same techniques used to whip up anti-semitic feeling over Fagin in Dickens, Trollope’s Mr Emilius and Ferdinand Lopez in the Palliser books.  He identifies with Slope’s doctrines and even the outcast but only minimally in this book.

Entr’acte: three of our leading females converge, someone has breakfast while someone dies, and Lookalofts, Greenacres and De Courcys play musical chairs, with a little help from Mr Plomacy.

Act II: again, Trollope works to keep us at a distance by interjecting himself at intervals as narrator, e.g, ‘And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust…’ (p. 384). I thought his summary of his own fiction very funny: ‘At one moment she is romping with young Stanhope; then she is making eyes at Mr Arabin; anon she comes to fisty-cuffs with a third lover; and all before she is yet a widow of two years’ standing’ (Bk 3, ch 6, pp. 384-85). Yet Eleanor’s response inwardly is not funny: she is dismayed, for she has been ‘entirely wrong’. The man has been after her after all. Her pride is hurt: she thought she was so above him. I like this lesson Trollope gives her.

The absurd behavior of guests who come super-late, of Madeline Neroni inside with the men around her. The social stratification seems to be built into human communities, and certainly it’s visible at Ullathorne, with its four different places for feasting. There’s the indoor dining room and tent for the uppers, and the paddock and park for the lowers. It’s telling t the most generous act among the guests, and the man who voices the richest large sentiment is Farmer Greenacres. I have a feeling Trollope has done this deliberately. Farmer Greenacres is in fact the hero of this chapter, and we are told through the description of Mr Plomacy’s happiest hours that Farmer Greenacres is a lucky, happy man:

‘[Mr Plomacy’s] moments of truest happiness were spent in a huge armchair in the warmest corner of Mrs Greenacre’s beautifully clean front kitchen. ‘Twas there that the inner man dissolved itself, and poured out in streams of pleasant chat; ’twas there that he was respected and yet at his ease; ’twas there, and perhaps there only, that he could unburden himself from those ceremonies of life witout offending the dignity of those above him, or incurring the familiarity of those below’ (Bk 3, Ch 5 RGilmour, p. 378).

The paragraph is so lovely in tone because it testifies warmly to the idea that what counts is the inner soul expanding out to others (very wise words too). It’s also wise: points out why people cannot have this kind of contentment.

Time out for the quintain — it’s illustrated in the recent Folio Society edition, and Plater does it full justice, appropriately bringing in the empathetic Bertie.

MissUllathornesfavoriteBertieStanhope
Bertie and Miss Ullathorne’s favorite, brought down by the quintaine

Now we move out to the festivities: Slope unwisely attempted to put his arm around her waist and give her a kiss. Eleanor unthinkingly ” … sprang from him as she would have jumped from an adder, but she did not spring far; not indeed, beyond arm’s length; and then, quick as thought, she raised her little hand and dealt him such a box on the ear with such right good will, that it sounded among the trees like a miniature thunder-clap.” (p. 144) That reaction, at any rate, was conclusive. There was no way Mr. Slope could put a positive slant on Eleanor’s reaction. Eleanor ran away, and Mr. Slope furiously nursed his anger. He much wished he had her in a pew, and he was in the pulpit, “fulminat[ing] such denunciations as his spirit delighted in”. His spleen then directed itself at

… such a vanity fair as this now going on at Ullathorne … he began to feel a righteous disgust at the wickedness of the doings around him. He had been justly chastised for lending, by his presence, a sanction to such worldly lures. The gaiety of society, the mirth of banquets, the laughter of the young, and the eating and drinking of the elders were … without excuse in his sight. He had consorted with idolaters around the altars of Baal; and therefore a sore punishment had come upon him.”

He does not like to be hit by a woman Trollope says, feels shame.

No sooner does Eleanor flee Slope than she falls to Charlotte who takes her to Bertie who could teach us some lessons in humility – he is ejected at the close – Anyone feel for him? “They hey were troubled waters which Charlotte had to throw oil upon. The angry father was ready to find fault with his entire family; first Bertie’s incapacity to make his own way, then Madeline’s expensive taste in accoutrements. But Dr. Stanhope had Austen’s Mr. Bennet’s awareness that “if they were all bad, who had made them so? If they were unprincipled, selfish, and disreputable, who was to be blamed for the education which had had so injurious an effect?”

It’s very Trollopian to have this party end in vexation for our principle characters.

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

Post-fete champetre.

Unerringly, Madeline Neroni early on had “read the secrets of his heart, and re-uttered to him the unwelcome bodings of his own soul”. She tried to inspirit him: ‘ Is not the blood in your veins as warm as his? does not your heart beat as fast? Has not God made you a man, and intended you to do a man’s work here, ay, and to take a man’s wages also? … The greatest mistake any man ever made is to suppose that the good things of the world are not worth the winning. And it is a mistake so opposed to the religion which you preach! Why does God permit his bishops one after another to have their five thousands and ten thousands a year if such wealth be bad and not worth having? Why are beautiful things given to us, and luxuries and pleasant enjoyments, if they be not intended to be used? … You try to despise these good things, but you only try; you don’t succeed.” (pp. 364-67)

Madeline found Mr. Arabin to be just as captivating as he did her. He did not gush flattery as most men did, and the signora was pleased by this. To show her pleasure, she inserted the needle even deeper:  ‘ Let us see. There is the widow Bold looking round at you from her chair this minute. What would you say to her as a companion for life? … Come, Mr. Arabin, confide in me, and if it is so, I’ll do all in my power to make up the match.’ ” Eleanor Bold, outside, more really the object of three men, two supposed for her money.

At length Dr. Stanhope was brought around by his skillful daughter to agree that Bertie must have the two hundred pounds, but he must leave the next day. But the entrance of this hopeless Romeo almost upset Charlotte’s careful plans.
Bertie is not unlike current youths who exasperate their long suffering parents with monosyllabic responses to their queries, and placid replies to their threats. “Where have you been this evening?” “Nowhere.” “Who was there?” “I dunno.” “You are really making me angry!” “So?” Dr. Stanhope’s anger too apparently left his son unmoved, and this only made his father more furious. Wouldn’t you be tiffed if, while you are attempting to give a richly deserved lecture to your wayward offspring, he would doodle on a handy memo pad? I could not help smiling at Bertie’s response to his father’s rant:

‘You have disgraced me, sir; you have disgraced yourself, and me, and your sisters.’
‘I am at least glad, sir, that I have not disgraced my mother,’ said Bertie. (pp. 201 – 202)

Dr. Stanhope’s fury escalated with the lack of response from his son, until Bertie narrowly avoided being completely cut off by the quick thinking intervention of his sister. ” ‘ Is he only to blame? Think of that. We have made our own bed, and, such as it is, we must lie on it.’ ” (p. 202) Stopping her brother from drawing also helped.Patient as she usually was with her inept brother, Charlotte was annoyed when she found out that not only had Eleanor refused him, but he had allowed the whole scheme for achieving monetary solvency, slip. It would have been for them all.

BishopandMrsProudie

Slopelastseen

As last seen — Slope ejected from his position by Bishop and Mrs Proudie (Clive Swift, Geraldine McEwan); Trollope says he did not do badly in London.  Some darker notes here.

Miss Ullathorne helps Arabin and Mrs Bold find some private space; and we have now gone over nearly the fate of everyone.

ArabinandElenor
Barchester Towers a Victorianization of The Warden so it’s fitting near the end we have stills of Arabin and Eleanor looking like illustrations we might see in a Victorian novel

Mr Harding rejects the offer of dean and gives it to Mr Arabin.  The hilarious dialogue over Mr Harding having no duties is given depth and feeling by Plater when Donald Pleasence tries to express why he doesn’t want the position: he is old, he has no idea what the (political) duties of a Dean need to be.  We end where we begun, Mr Harding and the misuse of charitable funds put aside, with a moving close on Mr Harding

BTPart2Ep8DebateScene

Archdeacon Grantley (Nigel Hawthorne) and Mr Harding facing off — a contrasting pair — this from an earlier part of the book.

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

Movingnearendblog
Resolved at last: the hospital to go to Mr and Mrs Quiverful, their 14 children (not to omit new old men, 12 old women and a woman to “supervise” them) (From a closing montage in Episode 7, Barchester Chronicles)

So, what are we to make of the novel? We have watched a man whose business it is to make novels and he has done this in front of us. He has taken us into his confidence, expressed the obstacles to his endeavour, preferred some of the characters to others, excuses many (as which of us would not).

It is a place that does not seem to need a police. One of my students said they are all kept busy closely monitoring each other. Miller thinks there are no police because the system all encompassing; if you do not get you want from one department, you apply to another. Women appear to submit more or less contentedly to the patriarchy – as long as they have their own space or patronage.

Dr Thorne we will see is very different in mood and stance: the first two chapters give us the first full description we have of Barsetshire and it’s filled out as we go until Framley Parsonage when it is set inside the larger England and we get a map. Deeply felt presences in complexities of life then and now.

Onhiscello

Mr Harding as we first see him: playing his cello in The Warden

Ellen

Read Full Post »

.selmacrowd

Dear friends and readers,

(Downton Abbey will have to wait.) This is to recommend going to see Selma and why.

Selma is a powerful re-enactment of some central costs of protest against what the powerful in a society and their brutal henchman and the parts of their constituencies filled with deep resentment, hatred, mindless meannes will inflict –bodily. The sequences that are telling are the marches and the attempts to integrate public places in the south. Pain is important — as a weapon. Death, its shadow, the fog it places around your mind and acts (these are from lines spoken by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King). We are made to see and feel close up what it is to be beaten and relentlessly hunted down and murdered. We see a white priest who came from Boston to join the protest beaten to death and we hear the blows. We see a young black man shot up close in a bar: the police chase him down, beat and then murder him in front of very one in the bar. We see older women, all sorts of people flee and hurt. Remember Voltaire: “pour encourager les autres?”

Footagefrom1960s
TV footage from the 1960s

It’s not all violence. We watch Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper fill out a voting registration form, go up to the courthouse, how hard to walk through that door, stand in front of a sneering man who says her boss will like to hear about this, listen to his questions, she can answer each hard one until he wants to know the names of the 67 men who were county executives in the last number of years. I find it to be a woman’s film by this emphasis, by the choice of intimately felt scenes throughout.

selma-movie-oprah-winfrey
Here she is in the first fall out from the scene just above

See Miss Izzy on the film as by a black woman director: “But perhaps the refusal to be nicer to the big famous white guy in the story illustrates why this film is important … ”

Although Fergusson occurred after the filming or late in during it, this incident and so many others across the US, is what this film is about. Historical films are ways of taking a usable past and speaking to audiences about that past in terms of the present. Not just Fergusson, and all the countless other racial protest marches and mass assemblies and demonstrations around the Us, and not just what happened to the Occupy movement now almost 3 years ago – but by metaphor when these public demonstrations and the beatings and state terror tactics that destroy them occur across the earth in all the places the US and its allies occupying forces beat down (not to omit Israel on the Palestinians, now ISIS, Boko Haram and the boss of that state who lets them do what they want). I say possibly because these other places and forces are there by analogy and the protests against them are quite different from the racial ones in the US which Selma is about (analogy works only so far).

set_ava_duvernay_selma
In the talk between the Kings we do hear references to the affairs he was accused of using vile language — and how these were communicated to his wife through phone, anonymous letters …

It is a kind of odd thrill (to me) to see re-enacted John Lewis (by Stephan James) when young, how he came to join King too. These are my heroes too. Other people are enacted (Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Reuben Santiago-Young as Bayard Rustin and almost not recognizable small parts well done: Alessandro Nivola as Johnson’s political operative trying to persuade King to cool it and protect himself, Tim Roth in the thankless role of the snake-sleaze Wallace) but the plaudits have to go to David Oyelowo who I’ve seen a number of times before: most notably in memory, Small Island. He made the daring intelligent choice not to do a virtuoso imitation but act the part from within himself; he is in physical type like King, round face, stocky body, and he did when delivering some of King’s speeches allow himself (so to speak) suddenly to begin to imitate King’s speech patterns, tones, body language — well it was terrifically successful and then I felt a strong wave of wishing King had lived and wishing he had been permitted to do something far more than he was able.

selma-david-oyelowo1

Those who were alive at the time (1960s) may remember King began to emerge as someone moving beyond racial issues. He began to argue eloquently against the vicious policies of the US abroad; and he began to become more widely popular, even with whites. That wouldn’t do and those who had the abilities and power to do so with impunity had him murdered.

It’s also good to go as a kind of political statement. At my local art house there was a considerable row of black people in the audience. It’s a movie house deep in Fairfax, hardly ever any black people. The audience was not full but they applauded afterwards as I’ve seen people do at political films and also when they want to express their approval intensely.

It has its problems. Overproduced, over melodramatic, glossy surface, too quick scenes. It’s getting so it’s hard to find a movie which doesn’t do these things and they ruin the experience, do not permit nuances. It’s not a very nuanced film — it reminded me of Lincoln, a pious parable. The worst thing is that the relationship between King and Johnson is apparently wrong. King did not have to force Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the legislation which made it for about 50 years very hard — impossible — to stop black people voting. (No more. The present reactionary Supreme Court has eviscerated it. It must be re-enacted now in a contemporary form and soon.) They worked together.

selma-tom-wilkinson-david-oyelowo
Tom Wilkinson who played Lord Mansfield in the film, Belle, seems to be this year’s idea of the benevolent well-meaning (but somewhat misguided) white patriarch (patriarchy not questioned in this film, or Belle, for that matter)

It would have been less dramatic to tell the truth. Still a historical film like this ought to have some conscience — and the real truth of how they worked together is probably of real interest instead of this heads-on melodrama. It would tell far more about human nature and how politics works, how such legislation came to be passed. There was no emphasis on the reporters except that they were there. None on lobbyists, there needed to be more intermediary people. Read Elizabeth Drew in the NYRB.

JohnsonKing

You see the film showed those marches in an entirely different spirit from the way they were framed in the early 1960s. The film tried to suggest that in the 1960s the marches were fairly shown on TV.

selma-bridge
The Selma bridge that was filmed (CGI) to look like the original bridge

Not so. The depictions on TV were appalled but often very hostile. I was like many people moved by the outpouring of (in effect) protest and standing together on behalf of liberty and against barbarity (though we saw the French police practice murderering too, full-scale shoot-outs of the type that happen frequently in the US). The film does have a reference to Fergusson near its end, in the themed underscore music, but in the US we don’t frame marches that way — in the US after the horrors of Fergusson we did have marches, people did come out to protest, to defy, to stand for all people (blacks included especially) mattering, but what it televised that way? Was it framed that way? not at all. The same holds true for our Occupy Movement three years ago now. (The French don’t murder each other daily the way US people do. It’s no use talking about the NRA — how did they get to be so powerful; they must have backers among the US population wide enough). So it was more than the marches which passed the legislation. Again the film didn’t want to go there — that’s why it remained unfortunately a child-like parable.

Sometimes I wonder why I study films. Well, because it is the medium in which our world communicates to one another. I liked that rap song that rightly won the Golden Globes last night: Stop and listen.

The director used a combination of means. There were realistic scenes, iconic emblematic large scenes, scenes where the actors spoke to one another in effect allegorically, all against a backdrop of recreated sixties-looking cities and towns and landscapes. The scenes were punctuated — across them appeared suddenly typed letters in white — the recordings of the FBI and other watchdogs onto machines keeping track of where the people under surveillance were and what they were doing. This too has resonance in 2014 — the methods were much cruder then; the people monitoring those acting could not capture their very conversations through digital technology.

Towards the end of the film you get footage and when the last huge march to the Alabama courthouse happened and the marchers had many whites among them and star black people — you will see a young Harry Belafonte marching, Sammy Davis Junior over to the side apparently not wanting to call attention to himself, but there.

March
Note the little girl

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Vote for it. Go.

w-selmamarch-10415
Martin Luther King day is soon — he gave up his life

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Dear friends,

It’s said they recorded this in 1971 when the war in Vietnam was not over: the US gov’t was bombing hospitals in Vietnam; they thought, What could they do about it? they decided to sing and record a song in which they pretended “the war is over:”

A hundred and ten years ago, this short French film, “The Christmas Angel” was made, and thanks to a friend on one of my listservs I watched it last night and can share it here:

An early film adaptation.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

photo-6
The actual day dress and hat worn by Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey — rich heavy cloth

Described, who funds it, how the Duponts grew so (obscenely may I use the word) rich — gunpowder. The gardens, the exhibits, dwelling of course on Downton Abbey, the fetish dresses. How it functions as a social facility faute de mieux.

Dear friends and readers,

As my header and picture tell immediately, I have been to Winterthur Museum: this past Thursday afternoon and evening. I have decidedly mixed feelings about such places: I asked more questions of our guide than anyone else (note: she was grateful and wanted questions she could answer to fill out the time allotted to each of several rooms in the central house she showed us), especially who owned this house originally (the Duponts — they owned everything worth having at one time in Delaware), who’s funding it now: there’s an endowment by the Duponts substantially added to by philanthropists, selling memberships to local people for activities like lectures, evening receptions, tours. Winterthur Museum is one secular local social and cultural center; the university is the other. At each stop of this tour I noticed how the particular Dupont she was often talking of (a male born in the early 20th century who became a collector, connoisseur, sportsman, lover of art, builder of museum rooms and garden) spent enormously on each whim however art-oriented he might have: move whole ceilings, change contours to accommodate every detail of an 18th century wallpaper handed scenes around a room from China, have opera music piped in from miles away to where he was golfing. The guide picked up on my perspective (drift?) and became just a trifle defensive, regaling us with the two schools of art and conservation supported at the Winterthur (by fellowships? she didn’t say? or students loans?), to one of which she had been and gotten a degree in fine arts and is paid now for working there.

The gardens are beautiful and extensive; there are treasures of pottery, sculpture, home furnishings of all sorts, musical instruments, specific objects owned by this famous person and that; an indoor garden all bewindows; we were invited to look at the rooms the family once used and those originally built to be shown to the public. There is a research library — for American artefacts and architecture. I regret I didn’t buy at the gift shop a pair of exquisitely filligreed earrings in the Downton Abbey style, and a light weight woven jackets, lovely dark blue threads woven into this light lacey cloth, again a Downton Abbey style. Had Jim been alive, I probably would have, but don’t have the urge to treat myself the way I once did (indeed it feels somehow downright wrong), and told myself he’d have said I couldn’t wear it, as it was too delicate so I was getting a bogus relic. But when I noticed a colleague and friend had gotten herself an exquisitely embroidered scarf, Downton Abbey mode, I wished I had (they sell for $30 and up).

I had the same response which Jim and I shared when we were taken through a castle-like house, now a full-fledged week-long-trip place at Asheville, North Carolina, where a similarly super-gargantuan rich family filled a huge building and made a garden, Biltmore (a bus takes you) that ordinary people are invited to visit. The unexamined adulation of such places supports the present oligarchy and its past — and forgets that but for a brief time (1930s to 60s) there was in the US an attempt to make life more decent and share the goods, fulfilling occupations, enjoyment, and security with the average person. We did not have to be grateful for the crumbs off the table of the 1%.

What I enjoyed most of the museum itself was the most foolish thing probably: the rooms given over to the actual costumes worn by the actors and actresses of Downton Abbey. I felt my heart-strings tug as I heard the familiar strains of the music coming from the corridor as I climbed the marble stairwell. The museum knows the draw of this place and it is advertised everywhere in the museum. The information about what we were seeing was accurate: the Grantham family dresses and some of the suits are a mix of style then with style today. The staff had rebuilt the bell system — that is the sort of thing that grates. Are we to celebrate this? Here and there perpetual films were going of this or that episode where a costume we were viewing could be seen. Of course this was a tiny percentage of the stock the program costumer and her assistants have made but it was sufficiently wide that you could see each of the main characters’ sort of dress (two each for each of the daughters for example, a couple each for each of the older upper class family women). Unfortunately, I was taking photos with my cell phone and even with a real camera I am not exactly competent so while I tried to get some of the hats, I seem only to have captured two (the above and this one below):

photo-5
Summer dress and hat worn by Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley — light cotton (muslin?)

I had predicted and indeed found the “creations” for the married Lady of the house (Cora) stood out for the work, material, expense, lavishness over all the other females.

photo-8
One of Cora’s evening dresses: my photo doesn’t capture the heavy and delicate working of the embroidery up and down the front of Cora’s dress — the varied textile dress is expensive

I have favorite characters so I am glad I managed to photograph Mr Bates’s working clothes as worn by Brendan Coyle and his bench, even if smudged:

Bates

I like Joanne Froggart as Anne Smith but must agree with her (as she’s hinted) that her outfits are so dull (and there is but one of Sophia McShera as Daisy’s and one of Leslie Nicol’s as Mrs Patmore), and in this exhibit none from the time of her being a lady’s maid — to tell the truth I have better photos to share from the books I’ve bought. Who makes a fetish of a servant’s outfit?

Gwen
Remember Rose Leslie as Gwen, the housemaid, whom the Winterthur people are aware was a popular favorite once —

I note that the choice of fetish items show a class perspective and emphasis at work — minimal for the servants and several for the family each time. There is the one typical housemaid outfit we first see her in, one for Siobhan Finneran as Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid; here is but one the glitter and richness of Phyllis Logan’s layered dress as housekeeper: an expensive set of sewn varied textiles and chains:

PhyllisLoganHousekeeper

In the physical place, you can see the stiffness of Rob James-Collier’s outfit as a footman:

footman

The costumes did seem to be almost all from the first season. Winterthur did not go to this expense for more than one and the beginning of another (to get in Shirley MacLaine’s garments doubtless). All of them looked remarkably comfortable as styles (they simple hang on the body)

PostWW2coathat
Post World War One coat and hat – this kind of semi-sexy outfit was there, the fur expensive, rich velvet gold cloth

— as long as you didn’t remember the women wore corsets underneath to provide the form of body that the dress was to wrap round and cling to.

It was an exhibit of textiles the rich could use as imagined by the ITV costume workshop. it might have been interesting to see information about the dress designer, materials, who made the dresses (how much paid?). There were also objects the Grantleys used (beyond the re-built bell system):

gloves
Gloves worn by the actresses — kid is the slang

teaset
Crockery used — the same kind as Jim and I used to see at Landmark Trust houses

I did go into other parts of the museum — found an 18th century sack dress and noticed that a couple of the later 19th century ones did resemble aspects of the Downton Abbey costumes.

sack

Of course if this man and his family of Duponts had not wanted to spend their money this way, we the public could not have this functioning funded social facility and pretty space. But it testifies to the continued domination of private property and huge fortunes as the controlling factors in US society that we owe such places to private foundations: of course the discourses they will support will not be those that undermine their positions; we see everything from a limited perspective of the privileged. The guide mentioned in passing that the basis of the Dupont money was gunpowder. All that slaughter and destruction of the Civil War enriched the Duponts, modern uses of chemistry in industry (and one of its results the spread of cancer) are the bedrock of this dream place.

Ladymarychristmasball
Michelle Dockery’s silk layers Christmas ball dress from the first season; this is next to Dan Steevens’s tux (rather like a needed Ken doll) behind which is played over and over his proposal on bended knees to her in the snow

The museum several years ago allowed EC/ASECS to have its banquet in the museum (I’m not sure where); this year we were allowed to use a beautiful area for a reception for snacks, sweets and drinks and enjoyable talk, and then for another hour to wax exhilarated reading 18th century poetry and verse playlets aloud to one another. Peter Staffel, our master of ceremonies, chose to end these on Gray’s brilliant “Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” which for me nowadays especially evokes an ambivalent response too to conclude the festivities.

’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
  The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
  Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
  The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
  She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
  The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
  With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
  What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
  Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
  She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
  Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
  A Favourite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
  And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
  Nor all that glisters, gold.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

HankRemembering5
As Hank (Dean Norris) looks over Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and sees Gale Boetticler’s signature, suddenly he conjures up a half-forgotten memory-image of

Gotme
Walt (Bryan Cranston) looking insinuatingly, fiercely at him, teasing “You’ve got me” (with his hands comically up)

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose —Sung by Janis Joplin

Dear readers and friends,

I’d like to emphasize that I realized the one character I had not done an extended sketch of in my blogs on this remarkable mini-series was Walter White and had decided I would focus on my remarks on the fifth season by surveying the development of White’s character — before I knew that Bryan Cranston had won Emmys for portraying Walter White as the best actor in a TV drama series a remarkable number of 4 times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014). Oscars and Emmys are not just awarded to an actor for a great performance, but because the voting audience feels deeply compelled by the character, and by the story he is caught up in. Walter White, the shat-upon invisibly caged man, a few paychecks or gov’t action away from bankruptcy is today’s American male. When we survey the ordinariness of violent men of our society at home and abroad, we should remember Walter White — and his Javier, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). If Walt seems an unlikely Jean Valjean (too upper middle, he gives no free bread away, not an underdog socially), let me allow Jesse to have that role as inflected by a modern take on that ultimate lost boy, Peter Pan. Skylar as Wendy? well, she did scold Peter frequently.

As I watched the first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad in tandem with Season 2:1-13 (last week I watched the fourth season in tandem with the first to give myself perspective), I realized how cruel, harmful psychologically as well as practically, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had become. How different he was from the Walter White of the second season, where with Jesse he stood without weapons in a junk yard and shuddered, revulsed before the psychopathic bully-distributor Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) proceeding to beat to death his own body guard. In the first 8 episodes of the fifth season, now a mass murderer Walt hires a team to men to murder Mike’s team in prison after and commits a series of sickening manipulations of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to hide that he, Walt, engineered the near death by poisoning of Jesse’s near-adopted son, Brock (with Andrea, Emily Rios, Brock forms Jesse’s “instant family”). With Jesse, Walt stages a search for and finds (!) ricinn poison in a rhomba vaccuum cleaner. Walt then allows Jesse to weep with guilt over his near-murder of Walt (his “one friend”) when he thought it was Walt who poisoned Brock (it was).

JessesGriefWaltfalsecommiseration
Jesse’s grief over all the deaths they’ve caused, with Walt’s comforting arms and hands on Jesse’s shoulders …” Walt will later need Jesse to believe that he, Walt, didn’t kill Mike, that Mike is still not dead ….

Worst of all by insinuating the danger of Jesse’s companionship with Andrea (to Andrea and Brock), Walt persuades Jesse to break off his relationship with Andrea. I was most struck by how when later Jesse mentions to Walt that he is no longer living with Andrea and Brock, Walt seems not to hear, and registers this new arrangement as unimportant. Walt deprived Jesse of a girl he was genuinely compatible with, who understood him (Jane) as perhaps Andrea cannot. He wants Jesse for himself (like a devil taking over someone) and become enraged when Jesse wants out of the business because he, Jesse, is now revulsed.

Andrea3 (2)
Andrea (Emily Rios) coming in with her boy, Brock, bringing food for supper

Andrea3 (1)
Andrea smiling an invitation at Walt in which Jesse joins in — they don’t have too many guests

What does Walt care for Jesse’s now profoundly lonely purposeless existence? He risks Jesse’s life by refusing to stop siphoning in meth from their great train robbery when Mike says to stop and Jesse miraculously (perils of Pauline here) escapes horrific death from a racing train by laying within the two tracks. In Season 2 he was led by Jesse who organized distribution. He deprives Jesse of the 5 million Jesse is owed to attempt to force Jesse to continue in this murdering-drug creation-selling business. With friends like these, who needs enemies as they say). He ceaselessly lies. Jesse realizes Mike must be dead since no one is coming after Walt’s team for murdering them, and Walt says Mike is not dead and he “needs Jesse to believe that.” Jesse says nothing but maybe he needs himself to believe that or not contradict it.

Walt’s come a long way. Tellingly as Walt genuinely becomes an evil man, Vince Gilligan in his commentary in the DVD features at long last concedes a nuanced development, a slow-moving justification over a period of intense pressure and need, and says more than once that Walt was “a badly damaged man” when we first saw Walt in the first season. That what he has slowly become is the result of shedding that bullied deeply frustrated existence once in the first season he was told he had inoperable cancer and statistically had probably no more than 2 years at most to live. That his manhood had been undermined badly and the twisted self coming out was intent on revenge and proving himself. Gilligan did not go so far as openly in his words to connect this to our society’s norms, inequalities, obsession with money, but we are invited to. The series in second season had also shown us how little choice of a self-respecting career Jesse has had, and how dismissed Walt is as a high school chemistry teacher. The fifth season shows the viewer how gutted is the 1st, 4th and 8th amendment: the gov’t agencies need not even get a grand jury indictment: they freeze all the assets of suspected people, thus bankrupting them and their families, break in for evidence without a warrant (unless the person asserts him or herself with a hired lawyer). The DEA and others agencies have easy access to surveillance. The medical treatment which is so expensive is also available as records for any agency to explore.

Re-watching the second season alongside the 5th, I noted how what might be called Walt’s second self, Heisenberg as Walt’s Mr Hyde, comes forth at moments where his pride as a male is especially seared. At the party Skylar throws for what seems to me Walt’s first improvement from the crushingly expensive chemotherapy treatments, when Hank basks in the admiration of over Walt’s son, Junior (RJMitte), drinking beer with him in this ever-so-masculine way, Walt suddenly tops this by insisting Junior really keep up with them, ending by making the boy puke in sickness. Spite without sufficient target continues to peer out of his eyes as he continues subject to the will of others. Another character he is reminiscent of in season 5 is Macbeth with his growing will to power and linking himself up with (he thinks as an equal) Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). No lie is beyond him now — and he’s good at using truth for his own purposes as when he tells the disquieted Marie (Betsy Brandt) that Skylar tried to kill herself out of guilt over Skylar’s affair with Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins)

The comparison of 2nd and 5th brought out aspects of Jesse, Walt’s real son by now: when Jesse so swiftly sheds Andrea, we see he had learned early on not to take seriously enough emotional bonds. It’s significant how often Jesse is seen alone. In the feature to the 5th season Gilligan also begins to speak more openly of his conception of Jesse: he is the lost boy, and young man we do not know what to do with. When in the 2nd season Jesse’s parents throw him out of his aunt’s house, his motorbike is stolen from him, and he ends up covered in urine, he rescues himself through turning to the the skills Mr White alone is willing to teach him. We see inherent in him too a will to ruthless power, an enjoyment of building an empire over others, of bullying others. We see eventually that he draws a line at murder, especially identifying with young boys, and gentle people, that he suffers enormously from the hidden injuries of class, allowing White to take advantage of him. Syklar despises Jesse upon laying eyes upon him: he’s clearly not college material, not “suit” destined; he’s not someone she’d invite to her house. Marie would be more shocked at seeing Jesse at Skylar’s dinner table than any other thing she’s seen thus far. He learns to care for Mike, the mass killer, because Mike treats him with respect and does not manipulate him emotionally. Tells him the truth about “Walter” and advises him to get out of the business. “Take care of yourself, kid.” Aaron Paul has been nominated several times, and was touchingly openly ecstatic by his win — his character recognized.

Skylar: In season 2 he tried and failed to bugger Skylar after he succeeds in turning Hank off his and Jesse’s tracks. She is telling Walt that he is not to take out his anger and hurt on her:

vlcsnap-2014-04-16-23h20m10s76
Anna Gunn as Skylar indignant with green cream on her face:

Now he smoothly takes over Skylar’s body from behind without (pun intended) a hitch.

Skylar’s obdurate obnoxiousness is now newly contextualized as fear for her children. Another aspect of her character that emerges is her stupidity. She really does not seem to understand she and her children are safe from Walt, if not from his enemies. He has invested his ego and identity in himself as her protector-husband and cannot bear to lose her as an object. At one point in Season 2 Walt says “I am not Vito Corleone;” in Season 5 his behavior reminds me of Al Pacino’s towards Diane Keaton as Corleone’s wife in Godfather II. When he grows angry at her for succeeding in removing “my” children from my house to Hank and Marie’s, he loses a central part of this masculine myth he is now successfully enacting. Skylar now recognizes what she held to as family certainties as so much cant and Marie’s nattering drives her into frantic “shut up, shut up, shut up Maries.”

Emmywinner

Having won an Emmy for best supporting actress, Gunn may feel vindicated now.

Hankmorecontrolled
Hank is as hard and suspicious in interrogating someone (here Mike) as ever, but more controlled, more thoughtful

Last but never least (if Hank has anything to say about this), the development of Hank by the fifth season is a study in the American macho male very sympathetically seen. by the 5th season He no longer is simply the dense insulting bully of the 2nd season, who enjoys grilling and cowing those street people he can drag into his office (as he did Jesse in the second season): he enacted a parallel to Tuco when he beat Jesse senseless, landing Jesse in hospital; his rage not much different from Gus’s only he uses fists, not a knife. In Season 2 we see him enact his first physical revulsion to his own shooting down of the psychopathic killer Tuco; upon discovering the inscription in Gale Boetticher’s present of Leaves of Grass to Walt, seeing the same handwriting, recognizing “the other W.W.” a phrase he saw in the papers found in Gale’s apartment when he also saw Gus’s fingerprints, he realizes that Walt is the powerful drug manufacturer, agent, and murderer, he has been seeking these past months. He sways, the ground beneath him seems to move. He has been humanized over the several seasons by having him come near to death: we’ve seen his courage in bringing back his leg power. He is too much forgiven, and the immediate murderous rage he projects in the first episode of the sixth or finale season (I’ve watched) it shows the shallowness of his emotional attachments; how quickly they may be changed. His sudden use of the word “monster” and definition of Walt as a “monster” also serves the programs’ refusal explicitly to recognize in Walter everyman and how much he has been driven to do what he does. Hank’s is a black and white world, and he enacts the ferocity of our egregiously inhumane punitive justice system.

If we are not going to be shown the two men readjusting their understanding of one another in terms of their years together, an intriguing question we can ask of Walt and Hank’s long relationship is, Did Walt want to be found out? So careful as he has been all along: in season 2 when he pretends to amnesia, he remembers a cardboard box of money with a gun he had left in a bedroom, and manages to escape the hospital, race home in a car, hide it behind the kitchen sink, and take himself back. He devises elaborate schemes to destroy evidence. At some level is this the final confrontation he wanted, with the man who so casually mocked him for years?

It has been said again and again that what makes readers love novels is when the characters in them are beloved, respected, taken into our imagined selves as we go through life and perform compensatory functions. The slow development of the single parallel story line (Walter and Jesse no matter if sometimes they are circling one another at a distance) and the brilliance of the many intimate scenes are central to the series also winning for the best TV drama series twice. In this fifth season I found myself intensely shaken by action-adventure episodes well done, e.g., the train episode; the remarkable prologues continued to make their effect. To their credit the film-makers defy the nonsense about spoilers in this and the next season. The opening of this season shows us Walt as drawn, pale, thin, looking ill, with a full head of hair again, and beard; he seems to be living alone in New Hampshire (far from Albuquerque) and buys himself a machine gun and rounds and rounds of ammunition. A worn fugitive getting a meal at Denny’s is at least one aspect or phase of his coming future.

NewHampshireFugitive

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

MagicinthemoonlightEmmaStoneColinFirth
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)

wonderfullife
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.

istewaj001p1
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).

its-a-wonderful-life-1946-james-stewart-uncle
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.

angelreadigntomsawyer
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.

DonnaReedinit
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

ItsAWondrflLifeRescued

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.

Its-A-Wonderful-Lifetouchingface
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.

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

Simon-McBurney-Eileen-Atkins-Colin-Firth-in-Magic-in-the-Moonlight
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:

Driving

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.

sauntering
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

Whatyouprefer

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.

DSCF9488.RAF
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

Read Full Post »

BagsintheRiver1

BagsintheRiver2
“Bag’s in the River” (1:3): Walt (Bryan Cranston) returns home to Skylar (Anna Gunn) after being out all night disposing of what’s left of two bodies put in a bag, thrown in a river

Dear friends and readers,

Having gotten for myself two books filled with detailed analyses, commentaries, summaries, lists of bullet points of and from Breaking Bad: David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry (it takes the mini-series through Seasons 1-4), and Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz (Seasons 1-5, complete series), I was prompted to re-watch the episodes of the first season (all 7) alternatively with what I had left of Season 4 (5-13, or 8 episodes). The new perspectives provided by the books and the early phase of the series (with its ironic foreshadowings only seen on a re-watch from the perspective of at least 3 seasons later) has made me change my mind about Skylar as well as come to a better understanding of this famed HBO macho soap opera.

Wasthisyou1

WasthisYou2
“Face Off” (5:13): Skylar asks, “Was this you?” and by way of reply, Walt replies: “I won”

I had thought of Skylar as a woman who was basically indifferent to her husband as an individual apart from her, non-loving or without real respect for him, an unethical bully (she withholds sex from him to pressure him into buying super-expensive chemotherapy treatments) who deserts to save herself when cornered (in Season 1 she rejects her sister, Marie [Betsy Brandt], is jeeringly spiteful (her boasted-of affair with Ted Benecke [Christopher Cousins]), but even if it is possible to extend this list of qualities I find alienating, I was wrong to sum her up as hateful, enacting, as the actress who plays Jesse Pinkman’s mother seems to, so much relational wrong to those around her. Rather she is a figure of pathos, pathetic in the older meaning of the world.

In the long view of four years, we can see that nothing she ever did made the slightest change in the ultimate fate of herself and the characters she holds dear. From about half-way through Season 4 the naivete we see in Season 1 (as when she threatens to expose Pinkman [Aaron Paul] for smoking pot to her “brother-in-law, a DEA man!” [Dean Norris]), her belief in some controlling morality in people, some rules somewhere which she can trust to as long as she seems to be moral herself and obey the law, and most of all her essential powerlessness leads to a set of behaviors and stances parallel to those we see in the first and second season. She thinks she can give Benecke money to pay his taxes and he will pay them (thus protecting her as his bookkeeper from scrutiny by the IRS); she believes buying and operating a car wash will control the money situation she finds herself in (she and Walt have far more than they can account for). Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shyster lawyer is not simply laughing at her; he realizes her instincts as formed by her society make for decisions against her interests (such as, back to Season 1, her childlike worship of the oncologist). 

Most of all, she has not all along begun to understand what other human beings (Giancarlo Esposito as Gus is not alone in his monstrousness) are capable of, including Walt — who in the fourth season wins over Gus by poisoning Jesse’s beloved semi-adopted son, Brock and persuading Jesse it was Gus who did this, thus winning Jesse back to work with him (not hard as Jesse does know how much frightening evil Gus and his henchmen can do) and tell him where is Gus’s weak point as Jesse has come close to Gus several times, and then lived in close proximity to Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks, Gus’s hired thug-killer): Jesse finally thinks of Hector Salamanca, the nearly paralyzed dying Hispanic man who early in Gus’s career humiliated Gus and murdered a close associate and who all these years later Gus enjoys tormenting by telling of how he kills now this male relative and now that.

Skylar erects what Anna Gunn kept calling “all her boundaries” to shut this world and Hank’s and Marie’s out. In Season 1 when amid the teachers she hears the janitor blamed for stolen equipment to make meths, she nods in agreement and allows herself to be diverted by Walt. Walt might worry whether she’ll realize it’s his lab. He need not have. She does not put that kind of two-and-two together. (Nor does Hank. They trust their friends to be what they seem.)  In Season 3, she learned she might need to protect her family against its protector: Walt, who has told her, he is the danger. In Season 4, Benecke turns out to be a petty cheat; baby in carrier, she goes to a central point in a four state area to see where she can flee and finds there is no where she belongs, can exist but where she has found herself at 40. All she has are Walt, Walt Jr, Holly, Marie and Hank.  She returns home. Skylar does not seeth, but she writhes to no avail. I pity and feel for her.

JesseOutcast

An early still of Jesse as he walks into his parents’ dining room to set the table

Theydiscussifheisgettingenoughfromteacher

Jesse’s parents want to know from the valued son whether he is getting out of his teacher what success requires

A second watch showed me how angry Jesse is — else how does he get involved? A rage and a fury. Why else does he continually spit out his words in slightly broken half fury? Rejected by parents, who prefer the hypocritical cold son, ambitious, a liar. He is offered this shit-ass job disguised as a bird selling junk on the street.  We see immediately how clever he is, how quickly perceptive his judgments, but he is utterly uneducated: all school is for is to get a job wearing a suit. As he hardens, he keeps his heart partly because he has been so hurt. He has artistic ability Jane appreciates, and she reads his yearning to be a hero through the cartoons he draws.  But hero in the US is defined by Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus — and Hank (Dean Norris). Jane (Krysten Ritter) did begin to offer him another vision (the trip to Georgia O’Keefe paintings is part of this), but she was sickened by her culture too, desperate to escape its pressures and demands that she be guarded, cool. A kind of Hansel and Gretel with heroin as the witch. You see this kind of thing only by re-watching. Many people learn to lie low: I suspect that will be the final lesson of Jesse’s career with Walt.

Hank emerges more interestingly too — once you know how he emerges later as the half-lamed man, a sleuth. To this Sam Spade has come down. He begins as a coarse, crude, loud-mouth condescending macho type, so sure of himself, mocking his brother-in-law as not manly, but his pity for his shoplifting wife and feeling for the disabled nephew, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) shows he has camaradarie impulses. Fatherly, kindly to those he does not “other.”  Maybe only he or his type of person could love and support the dense yet intuitively alert Marie.  Murdering people point-blank even when they are trying to kill him (in the Second Season) leaves him emotionally shattered (as it will Jesse in the third Season).

Waltshouldsowhathewants

In the pillow interrogation where Skylar wants all of them to help her force Walt to go for treatment, after Marie breaks ranks to say chemotherapy is miserable and maybe Walt should spend his last months differently, Hank says Walt should do what he wants …

At the baby shower, though, once he spots the expensive diamond and ivory baby tiara Marie has supposedly bought for the coming baby, he needs a stronger drink to endure staying there and pretending all is fine in his house. And in the first season there are many ironies surrounding his talk, showing how little he gets about the meth trade when he thinks he understands so much.

I missed the mood or kind of gothic this story is: horror is one word for it, as all sorts of body taboos are sliced off: from the opening blood, the color red, from raspberry to bright scarlet, to blue and venal streams across the TV screen’s firmament. Ghastly comedy in season 1, ghastly terror in season 4: in one of the features for Episodes 4:11-13, Vince Gilligan explains how the crew spent months talking about how they could make Gus’s death adequate to the evil of his life and then planning and executing the bomb scene and destruction of half Gus’s face (face off) and part of his body. The moment is all the more electric as at first we startled to see him escape apparently unscathed, and fix his tie: a key to his character is he is a black man determined to enact an upper class, super-polite ceremonial lifestyle, the benevolent philanthropist the powerful in his society turn to. But the nurses running over shudder, cover their faces, and we get a barely watchable (I kept averting my eyes) series of close-ups, which I reproduce only one of:

Faceoff

The series does not rely on these horrible shocking moments; they are part of sequences of agonized high anxiety (to allude to Mel Brooks, appropriately parodic) which punctuate story arcs and character development. Intriguing suggestive life-histories are given most of the tertiary characters whose names we learn; we can fill out their pasts. The strength of the series is character exploration in scenes of virtuoso acting, but I hadn’t noticed how much change the characters seem to undergo at the same time as in their beginning (Season 1) is their end (Season 4 foreshadows what is to be). So while the mood of Season 1 replicates at moments that of the Three Stooges (which Jesse watches on TV), or clowns; the two chief males form the love-hate, teacher-pupil, chemist-assistant team they keep up throughout several permutations, with Jesse sometimes taking the lead, doing what Walt can’t, seeing what Walt doesn’t, by its end Walt does show an insidious delight in enacting all that is forbidden, anticipating his later manipulative ruthlessness while Jesse remains on just this side of decency. Walt contemplates suicide in Season 4, diverted by suddenly seeing seeds on he side of the pool he can use to poison Brock

LilyofhteValley:

but Jesse feels emotional hurt from betrayed ties (in Season 1, his family, later Jane, and now Andrea [Emily Rios] and Brock) that he will not cast aside. In season 4 Walt refuses to work unless Jesse is with him, Jesse refuses to cooperate in the business of meth at all if Gus has Walt killed.

The last two thirds of season 4 (for episodes 1-4 see A Killing Way of Life) are highly theatrical stagings of suspense. I couldn’t stop watching them — got caught up in the intensity of it all and began to long to see Gus as a figure of ultimate evil done away with. By the end I was shaking from the whole experience, with its final twists and turns moving from engineering the near death of a child to persuading an old man to blow himself up suicidally in order to take Gus out too. There is a weird parodic feel here — because in a soap opera you have just these twists and turns. I haven’t got so caught up in anything since watching Lagaan a few years ago where I so rooted for the Indians against the Brits — only here more so. I had wanted to watch some earlier episodes but could not get myself to stop until I saw Gus die. And it was horrific — the make up of him as this ghastly skeleton. When Walt returns to the Meth lab and manages to kill the murderous bullying bodyguard who has handcuffed Jesse to a pipe (Jesse is often in the role of the vulnerable Pauline heroine), and they set fire to, destoying the lab, it is like destroying the vampire’s lair. It was where they were enslaved and watched by a surveillance camera. Here action adventure high violence was meaningful.

Here and there images evoked the real world of America inside its border and out. At one point in a desert Mike throws Walt on the ground to kneel before Gus with a black bag over his head; he has been badly beaten up: it is the image of torture we see done to Arab prisoners by US interrogators. 

Frankenstein (2)

Frankenstein (1)

Gus is saying if Walt interferes with Gus’s killing Hank, “I will kill your wife, I will kill your son, I will kill your infant daughter” — this is precisely what Frankenstein’s monster does to Frankenstein’s family after Frankenstein destroys the bride the monster had asked for

There are memorable slow quiet moments. After Walt miscalculates and allows his hot-blooded temper to get the better of him because he finds Jesse is lying to him, and has seen Gus up close but not tried to administer a powerful poison (ricin) and rushes to Jesse’s house to accuse him, and they have this brutal fierce fight where Jesse gets the better of the older man, Walt collapses in his flat. It has been Walter Jr’s birthday and Walt missed it. Skylar had insisted on returning the super-expensive glamorous speed car Walt had bought for his son, what Walt Jr really wanted, and gotten him the sensible relatively inexpensive compact hybrid, and little as Walt Jr is thrilled, he drives it to his father’s flat to be congratulated. Walt is in a shattered confused state, and breaks down in front of Walt Jr, weeping: “I made a mistake.”

brithday2 (2)

brithday2 (1)

birthday31

The son physically helps the father to bed, much moved by his father’s reality with him. He hears his father address him as “Jesse” and say “I’m sorry.” He sleeps on the couch not far from his father. That morning, Walt awakes and tries to erase the image he had left; he attempts dignity, tells his son that his grandfather died of Huntington’s disease; we see him coughing — a foreshadowing of death to come.  

Mike and Jesse also manage their unarticulated moments of mutual shared danger, mutual help and respect — and Jesse is distraught when he must leave the internally bleeding and shot-up Mike behind in Mexico: he will die unless someone gives him blood, staunches the bleeding, tends to his wound; the minimal sophisticatedly-equipped hospital staff paid by Gus are just ignoring Mike to save Gus. They tell Jesse it’s Gus who pays them.

Mike

There is peculiar comedy mixed with anguish: Jesse hugging Andrea and bothering the hospital staff with his attempts to wait with Andrea and her mother inside the operation when as not-family the insurance company decrees he should not be there (so they say). Each time Jesse has to say that Brock was poisoned to someone, he breaks down: here he’s telling Walt in the hospital waiting room.

Poisoned

Hank pressures Walt to take him to Hermanos to see the fried chicken operation Gus runs as Hank’s study of evidence from the murdered Gale Boetticher’s (Dale Costabile) flat leads Hank to suspect Gus is the linchpin leader of a meth gang. Walt is terrified at the coming consequences. As they drive up and Hank instructs Walt to set up a bug on Gus’s car, Walt sees Mike drive up and sit alongside them. Mike winks.

What I enjoyed most was to see parallels in Season 1, similar scenes. I had not noticed the Prologues were already used in atemporally symbolic ways. We see a very young Walt explaining a chemical formula to his then girlfriend, a very young Gretchen, later Schwartz (Jessica Hecht) who married the man who made a fortune from Walt’s discovery. The punning titles for the episodes, many ironic, begin immediately. Also to see Marie and Skylar in characteristic alike sister formations: sometimes talking in the kitchen, sometimes hugging, and then again Marie refusing to admit she shoplifts:

Marie

staringdown

A No Rough-Stuff Type Deal (Season 1:7): Skylar tries to stare the truth out of Marie

I wonder what they will think up for a fifth season. They have killed off a number of major characters. Will they have more of the same yet worse: yet more diabolical people in the Meth trade; I read that Jesse will become enslaved to Todd, a new Meth associate. I hope the next season brings genuine new content and insight as Downton Abbey manages to each year. I suspect this must be done by working further on the fates and personalities of the closely-knit central characters. I know that Hank will die — something foreshadowed in the second season when Marie declared him indestructible.

vlcsnap-2014-08-17-00h15m20s213

End Times: (Season 4:12): Hank suggesting his need to have Walt drive him to the laundry (where the Meth lab is a dungeon below)

 I hope Jesse will end up with Andrea but somehow doubt it.

vlcsnap-2014-08-17-00h17m12s49

Saul Goodman delivering weekly money to Andrea until Goodman persuades Jesse to go in himself

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

The two books:

Marie_Shraderfacingdeath

Marie towards bitter end: facing death

Breaking Bad and Philosophy reminds me of an undergraduate text I had for a Philosophy course. Heidegger is applied; superman theory (the will to power — an insightful one about the psychological trajectory Walt follows); authenticity is explained.  One essay on the decision to have the expensive chemotherapy is knowing about the very bad chances aggressive treatment has and comes near to saying, don’t fall for it. Fun ones too: finding happiness in a black hat, the last man left standing; hurtling towards death picks up how dark this mini-series really is. There’s a long essay in the Unofficial Companion about the uses of houses, what kinds and space in the series which in its limits really explains what symbolism is intended. Even if an official connection is denied, the Companion could not have been done without the cooperation and input from the film-makers. Just the right quotations are cited as central to each episodes; tidbits of information and connections set up; photographs of the actors, some of shooting during rehearsal; background information on content in the show or about the production design.

Hat

Walt’s hat when first put on — it looks dark blue, not quite black as yet

The Companion, however, is not critical in any larger reflective sense; Breaking Bad and Philosophy only gingerly and then in the most general terms mentions how the series reflects American values and norms and conflicts (still the essays do bring up materialism, violence, mindless ambition). Neither book talks of racism:  Gus and the doctor who fleeces the Whites over his stupendous chemotherapy are black and this is never mentioned in the mini-series; that most of the lesser crooks we meet are hispanic is never mentioned. These things probably work to deny racism in the US. The only overt political essays I’ve found thus far is are attacks on those on the Net who are said to talk of Skylar with intense hatred — which enables the writers in both volumes to say see how women hate women to have or seek power, so the essays function as misogyny sine why women blame other women is not gone into beyond implying women want other women to submit. The Companion especially uses Foucault’s logic of scandal and badness the way the film-makers do in the feature: simply parrot without further context how evil it is to sell meths, how destructive the drug. Stories and characters in both volumes are authorized by assumed feelings of moralized indignation; scandal fosters what it is supposed to suppress (and this series could foster violence and apparently reinforces misogyny among some viewers), and its existence is never (or barely) explained.

The Companion talks about Walt in a condemning moralistic way from the first chapter on — the writers never once take into account, what was the man to do: just die or go into terrific debt?  Was he to let Emilio and Crazy 8 kill him and Jesse? They say in passing how we root for Walt, describe the acts or episodes ably, but not a word of larger justifying explanation. In that sense the Philosophical book, jejeune as it sometimes is, is better; one cannot have socialism, but existential is the acceptable justifier — or Foucault. Still however unexplained or wrongly framed, BB does reflect US life more than any TV program I’ve seen. 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 222 other followers