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Archive for the ‘US social life’ Category


Typical catalogue

Dear friends and readers,

Anyone who reads this or my other blogs regularly know for the past five to six years now I have been working as a volunteer teacher in two local Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning. Each spring and fall, and now most summers, I put my syllabus on this or my Austen reveries blog so the people in my class have an on-line document to refer to, which I can link into other sites, and also change as we go along. I decided to write an essay explaining what Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning are: their goal, their history, the development of such places thus far, who works there, takes courses, on what terms, and then discuss the pedagogy appropriate for such places for a person like myself teaching humanities or literature courses. Since I wrote it for an 18th century publication, The 18th Century Intelligencer, I concentrated on the 18th century courses I have taught, but the same pedagogy and closely similar kinds of experiences occur when I’ve taught Anthony Trollope’s novels, a course I call “19th century women of letters” (basically 19th century novels by women framed by a more or less feminist historical perspective), historical novels, Jane Austen, the gothic ….

So if you want to know what these syllabuses and the blogs I sometimes write coming out of my experiences with these people my age (many professional of all sorts) are the outward manifestation or signs of, you can read my paper now on academia.edu under the title: Teaching Eighteenth Century Texts in Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning Programs.


The building the OLLI at AU resides in

As I reread my text I want to stress more how alike both places are, and (lest I leave a wrong impression) that for me as a person teaching at these and as a person taking courses, I often find the courses at OLLI at Mason as, and often more academically satisfying, than the ones at OLLI at AU. It depends on who is teaching, what is the material the course covers, what’s the goal, and how long the term lasts. One great advantage the shorter terms in fall and spring at the OLLI at Mason allow are genuine winter terms (4 weeks) and summer terms (6 weeks), which are not found in the other. I enjoy myself very much in summer at the OLLI at Mason and I’ve had some wonderfully educational courses in their winter terms: one year Dante’s Purgatorio, and Early American Women Writers, another James Joyce’s Dubliners (these three given by lecturers and professors who came over from Mason itself, two of whom I sort of knew).


The fun thing about this course is it was taught a man who my daughter Izzy took a graduate course in Irish Literature with when she attended Mason at night — so she and I could talk about these courses together

Practical courses are important too. Personally important for me two winters ago, a genuinely basic course in how to fill out my taxes at the OLLI at Mason, with advice on going to the AARP who have volunteer teams to help you or fill out your taxes for you. I don’t know what I would have done without those people at the AARP this and last year, and am glad I understand something of these tax forms, even if it is only to see how I am unfairly fleeced proportionately to my widow’s annuity. At last now I know how the corrupt system is taking so much from me that they eat into my needs so that the hugely rich corporations and super-rich individuals (with all their lawyers and deductions and tax-havens) can keep egregiously more of their income than in a just society they would be allowed — all the while themselves drawing on tax-payer money to make themselves richer.


A picnic at OLLI at Mason June 2013

And finally such places are there to help create and enrich the social life of everyone who goes there. The importance of companionship in shared and congenial activities and in contributing to the community, being part of it actively for older people cannot be over-estimated. If I didn’t detail this part of my and others experience that much, well that was not the theme of my paper. My evolving pedagogy for teaching literature to older adults is the methodology I’m describing.  My topic is teaching the 18th century especially. And along the way I hope I convey what I am learning about teaching and how learning happens.

Ellen

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Tape Recorder used by Malcolm X. Wollensak Stereo-tape magnetic recorder, Model T-1515

Revolution is not a one-time event — Audre Lorde

Friends and readers,

People, if you’re in any doubt, go. It’s not only worth it, it is not as upsetting as you might imagine it will be, nor is it aggressively mournful, angry, or even celebratory. I think attempts have been made to make sure that an African-American coming to this museum, will leave with a sense of a strong determined identity confirmed in such a way as to make him or her feel proud and good.


Traditional European-style history painting of the Revolutionary war in the museum


The opening remarks of Barbara Jordan giving her keynote speech in 1976 is on the top floor, “Culture galleries”

Since my day at the African-American Museum, I have found myself having different and much more aware reactions to things I see and words I hear daily than I had had before I went; I filled out gaps in knowledge I didn’t know I didn’t have; I came away with explanations for phenomena I didn’t realize needed more explanation; I understand the source or origin for familiar images; I understand why Marcus Garvey said that African-Americans must build their own separate community or state on land outside white American society, that African-Americans remain a captive people.

I didn’t know that in the later part of the 19th century African-Americans did attempt to build their own communities, and these were destroyed by envious or resentful groups of whites. I didn’t know that just after World War I when African-Americans began to leave the south in droves, having had an experience of liberty, confirmed self-esteem, and education in an armed force, a new active lynching movement sprang up in the north and west, and there were riots against their new presence; I did not know that lynching was followed by mutilation of the person’s hanging corpse and then cutting off the head — every desecration that could be piled on. I saw this in the remarkably few photographs of lynching the museum displays. I found I am particularly ignorant of the history of African-Americans immediately after the civil war was over — the brief period where they were treated decently, began to vote, sat in representative assemblies; of their history again at the turn of the 20th century (devastating cruelty inflicted on them, in effect re-enslavement through laws forbidding them to leave the south, to leave a job where they owed money perpetually; the prison system; and again in the 1920s, and 1940s apart from the war.

I was impressed by the self-control and moderation of tone with which the history of African-Americans in the United States was presented. Inside the memorial for Emmett Till I began to cry.


Emmett Till’s casket when it was still in the old garage

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A corner of the corona building — with that delicate design work in iron seen in golden light

I finally made it a week ago Tuesday, and spent some 5 hours there. I left when I did because I felt my feet and legs had just enough strength to take me the trek back home. I had been wanting to go there since I saw Gwen Ifill’s first segment on it on PBS (and she’s been dead some years). Pondering the obstacles of early on getting tickets, and then when someone like me could, the distance (drive to train, train, walk it was said 15 minutes from a subway stop), so finding the place after having bought timed-tickets on a wekbsite and/or waiting outside on lines, I had begun to give up hope. Still I told myself if I could just plan a day, pull myself together, and go, I should probably manage it. Then at OLLI at Mason this January, a woman came from the museum to deliver a 2 hour lecture on the history, architecture, exhibits, doings of the place, and said you didn’t need any ticket at all ahead for this January and February. So now or never. Three weeks ago I was un-surprized to be thwarted because an inch of snow closed the place down, but two weeks ago all clear.

I found it by going to the Smithsonian stop (so glad I had wit enough to chose that one of the three cited on the website), and with the help of a man who works in the Metro. I had fallen and a man in the booth came over. I said I wanted to find the African-American museum. I told him there was no map on the website, and was seeking Constitution Avenue, he nodded and said that was not necessary. He said go up the escalator and turn left. I said, no that cannot be as that is the park. So he came up the escalator with me and walked into the Mall park and pointed to the building. It’s distinctive; it stands out. So I had to turn left in the park and walk in the direction of that building and it took about 7 minutes or so.

You first enter a grand concourse, all sparkling glamour with a bronze chariot hanging from the ceiling (“Swing low, sweet chariot … “). Like many recent museums, there is so much space wasted — super high ceilings, large desks with not much information, a cafeteria to the side, an auditorium for cultural events (Oprah Winfrey), and glass doors leading to different corridors. One takes you to a large elevator where you go down some three flights at least and then coming out walk through history set up as exhibits of all sorts in a large maze with inner rooms and outer, gradually rising to the concourse again. There were places you could sit and watch films. Places you could sit and read the plaques explaining what you were seeing. Like the American Museum of Natural History in NYC big glass cases set in walls with exhibits.

You begin with the period where the practice of enslavement of (eventually) thousands and thousands of people. I thought about the period where they were captured, manacles with horrifying hooks put about their necks, stripped to nakedness, and then forced aboard ships. What few remnants and relics survive are surrounded by modern pictures, explanations of the economics of this capture and deportations; the (to me) familiar mappings of these hellhole ships. Then the exhibit divides into four localities to show enslavement in Chesapeake area, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and up north. You look at decrees, see artifacts, read of the many rebellions, horrific loss of life, all dignity and comfort to those alive – and evidence also of people trying to hold onto their original beliefs, form family groups.


A reproduction of a mural, “The Old Plantation” circa 1785-1795, watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia

In the middle sections — after the Revolutionary War and leading up to the civil war — you can try to observe how enslaved black people lived among white people who were by law backed up by guns and horrific punishments their owners or also all the other people all around them. How everyone accommodated movement. Their houses in the fields. Their working conditions. Tools. I remarked there were few whips — there was in this museum an attempt to downplay the misery of such an existence. A few people managed to buy themselves out of enslavement; a few learn to read, learn trades. We see the papers they were required to carry (and danger they could be snatched back into enslavement and their papers destroyed). For my taste there were too many statues of famous white American males. There was an ancient beat up square piece of stone about one foot high: an auction block. Much about resistance, about attempts at some semblance of life outside body-killing work and continual subjugation. Not nearly enough on the horrors women would have experienced (rape, pregnancy, exhibition, beating, babies and children taken from you &c) — the museum has what photos have lasted — mostly groups of African-Americans around shacks and in the fields.


Clara Brown — one of my favorite statues — her story is both sad and courageous

Born enslaved in Virginia, Clara Brown married at age 18, and had to endure all four children being taken from her and sold; after the Civil War she moved to Colorado and worked as a cook, laundress and midwife; she invested her money in mines and land, and used it to help support community organizations. All her life she searched for her four children. When very old she finally was united (the plaque said) with one daughter.

Much on the civil war — because more and more photos, artefacts, relics, documents and here occasionally books mentioned.

Very educational were the rooms for the turn of the 20th century because an attempt was made to show how African-Americans were building their own institutions, creating their own associations (NAACP), were developing a genuine middle class, with a small elite business community. I did know how these groups reached out to one another and to more isolated people to do what they could to educate one another, get decent jobs. Each time (I must add) there is a cruel push-back — no, they cannot get into unions (so the history of Pullman Porters); there seems to be always some group ready and able to re-impose isolation, poverty. But you see a black press, and very important the development of talented people in the arts, music, literature, and then doctors, lawyers, teachers. The early minstrel shows (with black face) have one wall. This section before and during the push for civil rights after World War Two (this began in the 1950s) had films of individuals, and was dependent to a large extent on African-American people supplying their own saved relics — like a parlor organ from 1911 (a room with books and rugs is built around it). Famous African-American people have separate glass cases, from Ida Wells and Booker T. Washington.

In the middle of the higher level is a Southern Railway train. Now what’s remarkable about this is the section reserved for “coloreds” is so much more comfortable, suggesting aspects of the treatment of colored people during this segregated era on trains much much better than passengers on planes in economy seats today.

I went in and saw the colored people’s chairs had armrests. What airplane gives a passenger a comfortable armrest? There was plenty of room in the aisles and people faced one another. The whites had bigger seats, bathrooms at both ends of the cars, more accommodation for food, but no one was treated (as far as the construction of the car lets you see) in the abusive manner airlines do today. You have room for your body to sleep, eat, be comfortable.

This was not the only place in the 20th century part of the history that I observed poorer and ordinary (not people part of some exclusive “club” where they pay extra) people today are treated as badly and worse than segregated African-Americans in public places they shared with whites. And see forms of enslavement today for millions of black men in prisons.

Once I moved into the 1960s, I was on familiar ground. There was a long cafeteria like counter with seats in front of which are perpetual films. Some of the more troubling things is that the Angola Prison exhibit is about a prison still going whose treatment of prisoners is still deeply inhumane. But also in these various modules of the 20th century an exhibit about the Hope School, a fine school for African-American children where those lucky enough to go there probably received a much better education than they did when they entered an integrated public school at first. There were uniforms worn by African-American nurses (at first black women couldn’t enter this profession) and a touching photo of an AFrican-American midwife taking care of a new born.

Again in the 1980s and 90s, no where near enough about the roles of the FBI in destroying the Black Panther movement. The frankest parts of the museum heritage galleries were the films and histories of events of the 1960s. There is a set of film clips ending on Johnson signing the civil rights act. As others have said before me, I was disappointed to see so little of Martin Luther King, to be told so little of other leaders who were most of them killed in their 30s (Medgar Evers comes to mind) – let us not forget (see Muhiyyidin D’baha, this past February, another potential black male leader shot dead in the streets).

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Upstairs

What one has also to remember is this is not a museum intended to show high cultural art; like other Smithsonian museums the core idea is to reflect the history of a culture.

The lower floor with its community galleries continues the story of how difficult it has been for African-American people to achieve fulfillment in the US. One exhibit called the “power of place” shows how important to people are the places they grow up in but also how these function to segregate people. You see slow hard climbs of individuals and how they are helped by black groups to become successful this way or that: including making beautiful hats (Mae Reeves’s Millinery shop, for church and then selling these more widely).

I know nothing about most sports and can’t get myself to care who wins prizes so I skipped a whole section of the middle floor. Another section of this floor was about military service and how African-American men (& women nowadays) fought in both wars (I and II), and how ambivalent the experience originally was, but how once integrated the armed services has been a place African-Americans can have and have had fulfilling success and gained respect and power.

Then the highest floor where you can look out to the park too: I had expected to be more amused by the movie and music industry part of the museum than I was. Here I do have a mild criticism: instead of letting the viewer watch say the whole of Barbara Jordan’s speech say one day and then Martin Luther King another, we have ten clips each lasting less than 5 minutes. Or we have clips from famous movies one after another lasting less than 5 minutes. Everything is there then as a sort of celebratory symbol; Chuck Berry’s 1950s Cadillac (with a spotlight) took a good deal of room. Several different groups singing and songs played all at once even if a few yards apart do not allow you to appreciate the music. Little attempt is made to show the slow progress of black people in films or TV. I was surprised to find how painful I found the comic routines of male African-American performers: several were making routines out of the ironies and miseries of their condition, out of the color of their skin, as a source of humor. I didn’t find it so but it does teach you what was acceptable to do to black people in the 1950s and early 60s. And as for today, too much celebrity glamour.

It also seemed to me the finest African-American women singers, actresses and other creative people were not there. No Lena Horne for example. Instead young black sexy icon-types, the huge money-makers, politicians, and silent videos with lots of neon. The most disappointing section was the arts. A truly tiny section of painting, sculpture. I have said that’s not the purpose of the museum. But the lack of interest was startling — again one can go to the other Smithsonian museums to see exhibits of fine African-American photographers. Perhaps the competition is too keen. But the truth while women were equally represented every where but sports and the military, famous women’s dresses are there (Rosa Parks) and typical working outfits for women as well as men’s and women were obviously organizers, active as volunteers and paid heads of organizations, and also part of the elite black world, when it came to the arts, individual good women artists (singers, young actresses, painters, sculptors, performers) were nowhere to be found.

I don’t want to end on a “down” or sour note. It took a very long time from the initial daring proposal (1916, black veterans from World War One) to actual plans, provisions (2003) and finally funding and hiring an architectural firm (2009, thank John Lewis among other people) to this magnificent place. It will be here a long time and there is (as I said) lots of empty space.

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Back on the concourse: the cafeteria specializes in soul food, southern black cookery and is expensive, but you can buy small plates of the food as side dishes and there is coffee, each day a different soup, and sodas and some decent juice. I got a small plate of spinach and a bottle of genuine orange juice.

Then I went into your usual museum shop: lots of jewelry, scarves, T-shirts, commemorative objects. I bought two good books, one a Vintage collection of African-American poetry, and an anthology of “slave narratives” edited by Henry Gates. The two people at the register were friendly and thanked me for supporting the museum. Entry is free. There were also serious books about African-American history and culture and individuals as well as your usual popular stuff, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming in many copies.

I’ll end on this highly intelligent capable woman who had some luck and has been able to live a good life with a man worth of her. Michelle Obama fits into the super-respect given to women politicians and the women who run organizations and are part of the black elite (Hilary Clinton is part of this in her white world and it was these black women who voted for her):


Read this thoughtful review by Isabel Wilkerson (NYTimes Book Review)


As a college student

What’s it like to be an outsider? How can a museum represent the inside world of a particular person? This one didn’t do that enough. It was about black people breaking into the inside of the white world, and about black people who formed their own inside black worlds.

When I look at Michelle Obama at Harvard, and read about the family life she knew, the communities she was part of, and listen to her quoted, I feel she doesn’t know any more for real what it is, though she carries on trying to help those (as they say) “less fortunate.”  I don’t begrudge her her luck, and am glad for her that she has not been excluded because she is an African-American. In Michelle Obama’s case, being a woman hurt her possibilities much more. After all she did not become president, though out of school and into a job, she was Barack’s mentor.

Oprah Winfrey can make huge amounts of money appealing to whites too and build an auditorium; a extraordinarily good older woman actress, she can help Barack Obama centrally by declaring “he black!”, but she knows better than to run for president.

Ellen

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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Friends,

The OLLI at Mason winter term has started, and I’ve had two remarkable classes in two days. For tonight I can offer to you, a two hour plus movie on the art and life of Dorothea Lange, made by PBS, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the American Masters series. All of these I ever saw were of uniform excellence at the same time as differing considerably from one another: each program took its shape from the artist it was about, and the creative film art-biography a shaping spirit in response made. Do take the time:

[A bit of a warning: the full-size screen movie can be seen only on PBS websites that carry; below is this movie, only for reasons I don’t understand the picture takes up only about a quarter of the left hand bottom side of the screen. The voice is intact, the photos shown, the narrative, but on the right side and just above the “movie” space you have to endure a black background with flickering stars]

I could for once leave this at that and for once have a genuinely brief blog (on my part) but I would like to tempt your appetite lest you have said to yourself I’ll come back later, and of course never do. After a prelude where she speaks of her core ideas on how to extract life from all around her into a camera shot, and we are shown her famous iconic picture, “Migrant Mother,”

One could say this picture is the Mona Lisa of American art: in the movie you learn who this woman was, her circumstances and how she felt about the photos taken of her later in life. Neither she nor Lange ever made the money from these they would have had they been controlled by a contemporary studio.


She posed many women and children, some with the children on the mother’s lap, some with their heads and bodies wrapped around the mother

You will move on to a narrative that combines her life story with the stages of her developing art, and at each point where she created some soaring set of hundreds of negatives and then photos, you are told the circumstances of how she came to make this set of pictures (who funded by, when, what the circumstances of the people). Many are shown you with intelligent insightful commentary on the narrator’s part.

Her life story begins with her childhood, how she wanted to become a photographer, how she was trained as a photographer at Columbia University by Clarence H White, how she moved to San Francisco, and there made her way to a job in a shop developing photos people brought to it. She managed while there and photographing San Francisco herself to met crucially innovative photographers running studios, exhibiting one another’s work, and sustained relationships. The film concentrates on her two husbands, both encouraged her: the first a noted western painter, Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children; and 10 years later, after her marriage became strained and she fell in love with Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at Berkeley, deeply socialist, who had himself been married, so was now divorced. At one point she was caring for two of her own children, and three step-children; at times, she put them in foster homes to give herself time to practice her art. There is much emphasis on the ambiguous and difficult but brave relationship of her and Dixon, and then the long loving companion with Taylor.


This might be a still from the movie Grapes of Wrath

She began photographing the elite in fashionable ways for money, but when the depression emerged, turned her camera to the real people of the US suffering from the devastation of this catastrophe. We see them in monumental individuality and invulnerable moments, standing there, their struggle t survive. What they value enough to take cross country. And their despair too.

She was enabled by FDR’s agencies: Farm Security, Resettlement. The Oakies were among her subjects, and her pictures are reflected in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A second set of photos are of a large community destroyed by a project to build a dam: this was seen as progress, and it did deliver water across a vast region and gradually improved the lives of those living around the dam, but it drowned, displaced worlds of people.


Pea Harvest, 1937

She also photographs immigrant workers in the fields of California, the hard work and small pay, the dismal housing, how they wrenched improvement for themselves and a better life for the children from such jobs; she does not neglect, average people and the land and natural world of the US. Another third set of photos are of the Japanese Internment Camps, where she had to fight censorship to show the individuals in these prisons.


A family awaiting a bus

These were impounded by the US gov’t and not shown for years. One of her themes is the effect of ripping whole families from their homes, their things, their very identity. You will see other smaller projects: she photographs how poorer people coped with the criminal justice system, courts. Her husband was a social activist and later in life she was taking photos by his side as he went about doing research, working with the UN to improve people’s lives around the earth where they could.


A group of women at a meeting

Her vision was partly the result of her experience as girl, wife, mother and her ability to identify with those who had no voice, including the environment, plants and animals. Her father had abandoned the family when she was very young; she and her siblings went to live with a grandmother; she also contracted polio at twelve: it left her with a weak leg and a limp. I found one of the most moving pictures one of a terrified horse, fleeing the opening thunderous waters of a dam.


Terrified Horse: Lake Berryessa

This is framed by a second story: the 1964 exhibition of her art at the Museum of Modern Art: after the opening prelude, you see her very old (and by this time sick with esophageal cancer) planning with the director and curator of the museum a magnificent exhibition. We keep coming back to this to hear her talk of her pictures, what this set or that mean to her, the beauty of a negative and so on. The movie ends with her death just before the exhibit was opened.

What’s left from the exhibit; the wikipedia article includes a list of good books, and the notes are filled with contemporary article and essays about Dorothea. There are more modern “theoretic” ones like The Politics of Seeing (a John Berger-type pictorial essay).


Dorothea around the time of the exhibit

It is particularly important as a film today where the impoverished, black people, and immigrants such people are being demonized, deprived of the agencies set up for the last 60 years to help them live good lives and protect them from exploitation; they are being put into prison, separated from their children. Budgets are being imposed on us all to make the super-rich in this country even richer and the rest of us (90%) lose much that enables us to live decent lives without debt and with opportunity to fulfill our talents and enjoy ourselves — the National Endowment for the Humanities has been smashed. Four women who left water for some protesting Native Americans were arrested the other day, put on trial. Federal workers expected to work without pay, as the judiciary is now controlled by reactionary judges (what about the 13th amendment). Heads of unions of federal workers try to demonstrate and they are arrested — a powerful group of ruthless reactionaries are intent on destroying the US gov’t as still constituted (though it had taken many hits for some 40 years) when Obama left office

I have over the years done a blog pictorial essays on the lives and art of women artists:  Dorothea Lange was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The film itself reminded me of the work of Frederick Wiseman for its social critiques and visual forms of analysis. The film is by her step-daughter, Dyanna Taylor and you see her children now grown speaking of her.


This of Florence Owens Thompson is iconic

The other three women photographers are Annie Lebovitz, Sally Mann, and Vivian Maier (three further films too).  My second remarkable class is on American poetry, and I hope to share some of what I learn and take away on Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop on this blog too.

Ellen

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Again Mabuza and Bokkie in a soft version of the orange-red light of the play’s first act

I want to make rock flowers …
They have eyes, but they do not see us. – Nukain Mabuza

Friends,

This is to urge all those within reaching distance to hurry over to the Alexandria City theater, MetroStage to see the startlingly powerful Athol Fugard play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. It tells the core experience of life of a real artist, Nukain Mabuza, who painted rocks across farmland he was paid a pittance to take care of.

There are two contrasting parts: in the first act, set in 1981, the era of apartheid, we watch and listen to a very old “Kaffir,” Mabuza (played by Doug Brown) suddenly moved by the presence of his perpetual companion, a little boy, Bokkie (Jeremiah Hasty) whom Mabuza treats with real love and concern, to have the boy under his direction paint a symbolic depiction. It is intended to project how Mabuza has been excluded from all that could have enabled him to live a life with enough money to live independently, with decent clothes (he has none), education (he has had none), shelter (he lives in a hut with no amenities), true peers — he lives dependent on the meager charity of the land’s owner, the white Afrikaner, Elmarie Kleynhans (Marni Penning). When he has finished his soliloquy and the boy the piece, she comes on stage to give a bowl of food to the child. At first she pretends friendship and concern, but when she sees that this picture unlike the others is not simply of flowers in circles, rather a coded representation of humiliated oppression, she turns nasty, insisting Mabuza erase it and replace it with flowers. When the boy defends the picture, she becomes incensed with his “disrespect” and insists the old man whip him. The old man grieves intensely when she leaves the stage.


Mabuza putting the painted images on the large rock into words for Bokkie

The young boy actor is not quite up to the wrenching emotionalism of the role, but the older one left me (and the rest of the small audience there) numb with pity and admiration for the deprived nature of his existence and his eloquence and nobility of soul. The character reminded me of Sam in Fugard’s very great Master Harold and the Boys, the only play by Fugard I’ve been lucky enough to see live (twice), only in this case the great-souled character dies a few days later and the listener flees.


Jonathan Sejake putting into words what his experience has been to Elmarie in a stage lit with alternatively white and dark light

A place of disgrace, of humiliation. – Jonathan Sejake

The concluding contrasting act, 2003, post-Mandela, comes onto the stage a young black man dressed in a suit, determined to restore the now nearly faded rock back to what it was so vividly many years before. He is Jonathan Sejake (played by Jeremy Keith Hunter), speaking a long painful soliloquy with even greater (if possible) searing eloquence about what his life has been since he fled.  Sejake is Bokkie grown up.  He went to Zimbabwe and was treated with true decency, educated, given a chance to take on a fulfulling useful job. He speaks to us and to Elmarie who now carries a loaded revolver and responds in turn for most of the act with open hatred and anger of how the revolting blacks are murdering her people, taking “their” land. He talked piercingly about a life of humiliation inflicted on Mabuza (whom she still refers to by a childish nickname). As someone who was an  invisible adjunct for decades and lives in a house once referred to as “painfully modest” in a local newspaper article about ex-President Ford’s house nearby, I identified utterly.  She “owns” the rock and refuses to give permission, but at last near the act’s end is brought to acknowledge the hurt and destruction she wreaked on Mabuza (whom she calls a childish nickname) and tried to inflict Sejake when a boy. Far more explicitly than in Master Harold and the Boys, the speech persuades a hitherto powerful white (the ambiguously shamed teenage Harold in the first play) into a change of mind or heart.

I was just stunned with the energy and masterful domination of the whole stage Hunter displayed. He gave this role his all and held me (and the audience) mesmerized. He was of course enacting a protest, ethical, upright, with an appeal so obvious to any but the most obdurate closed mind, an enactment of what is happening in the US today; alas, the problem is these closed minds are often (I have met such people) inoculated against any information or moral truth. I went to an end-of-summer picnic two Sundays ago and when I was telling of the documentable facts Mueller has been able to prove Paul Manafort’s corruption with, I was greeted with faces filled with derision, and voices which told me everything in the New York Times or whatever newspaper I read this in is all lies. The white people around this table grinned at me with glittering eyes, and I knew there was no use even talking with them, so filled with resentment and scorn were they. None of them would sit through this play; indeed they’ve never go.

All the reviews I have found describe the performance with as strong favorable words as I have: E. A. Aymer, Anonymous, Debbie Minter Jackson. The writers speak of how this is probably Fugard’s last play; he is in his eighties; as with the one other play I’ve seen, the playwright imagines the beginning of reconciliation. In previous iterations, the praise for the play is as strong.

There is little overt action in this play. The setting is bare stage with rocks with small paintings on them all around and the one big rock off center right.


The actors are posed in parallel ways in the two acts

At the back of the stage a veiled screen shows images of South Africa, we see a city, we see boys and men walking, a woman at one point, and at a moment of high emotion (as Sejake tells Elmarie how well he was treated in Zimbabwe, which she has described as a violent corrupt society) a film of Mandela as he was when he first emerged from prison and became the leader of the country. I felt choked up with emotion when I saw his image. The audience is thus shown that miracles can occur, even if (as the young man concedes) that hope that was has turned into disappointment. Life then seemed incomparably better for black people from what it was, and they had hope it would improve more.


Athol Fugard

Metrostage apparently opened in 1987 with a production of Fugard’s Blood Knot, and has staged other Fugard plays over these long years of mostly deterioration in US arrangements — with occasional successful attempts by those governing during the Clinton and Obama administrations to put in place laws, customs, agencies to help the majority of people whose interests the government is supposed to represent. Still it would be a shame worth crying about if this play is not seen by more people than I saw in the theater this past Saturday afternoon I was there (13, 2 black, 11 white). Go and tell others you know about it when you come home.

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

I wish I could say that the play could have some positive effect today on the minority Trump electorate: wealthy powerful people, with their hangers-on who understand that Trump and his regime are further destroying the economic existence of the deluded white working class willing to trade the promise of a better practical existence centrist democrats held out and never delivered on for pride in their race and revenge on other vulnerable people they have been taught to blame for their plight. They represent 27% of the population gerrymandered into a fake majority by an oligarchical constitution. I don’t believe this can happen before an election which brings to power the progressive left wing of the democratic party in sufficient numbers who are honestly willing to pass effective legislation to improve the well-being and self-esteem of huge numbers of impoverished and declining groups of people all over the US. Only thus can you reform the modes of thought that have led to an intolerable situation with a lying tyrant male given almost limitless power by those willing to exploit fear, and gaps in the US government arrangements which allow undermining of all social good they can.

In the 1990s I used to assign Master Harold and the Boys to undergraduate classes and had a tape of a performance (in the form of a video casette) I would show on a TV.


A key scene in the 1982 film I used to screen: Danny Glover as Harold, Zakes Mokae as Sam (Master Harold and the Boys)

More than two decades later I am just now again adding my mite to bring some understanding to the history of the present clash of values by teaching a course to retired adults in the long 18th century I called The Enlightenment: At Risk.

Ellen

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John Malkovich as the Le Baron du Charlus and Vincent Perez as Morel (Time Regained,1999)

Friends and readers,

For the last day I thought I would tell of Jim’s books, his favorites and those (insofar as I can tell) that influenced him as a boy, had an impact on his memory and outlook and that he kept reading.

As a boy, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (above all, as he’d quote from it,” there’s nothing better than messing about in boats,” or words to this effect; one summer afternoon in London we went to Alan Bennett’s play from it). Surtee’s Jorrocks Jaunts and Jollities (I have a 19th century copy with illustrations), P.G. Wodehouse (yes, he was amused when a teenage boy and called the set we have gay male books). He’d graduated to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by his 5th or 6th form– I bought him a beautiful 5 volume set as my first present to him shortly after we married.

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

As a man: he loved poetry Empson, Graves, Larkin, Auden, e.e. cummings; Basil Bunting (he’d quote snatches of poems from these writers), Cavafy, Anthony Hecht, Clive James. Individual authors he never tired of and had a lot of their books, Bernard Shaw, the plays and theater criticism, Oscar Wilde, all of Proust (he had gotten up to the fifth book, starting in French but switching to English; his favorite movie was Time Regained), Anthony Powell (how much he would have enjoyed Perry Anderson’s long review in praise of Powell in the latest LRB, comparing him to Proust), and some 18th century favorites like Samuel Johnson.


Bernard Shaw

Very fat tomes of history early medieval, archeaology books (JHawkes), philosophical books on war. He would insist he didn’t like the novel that much and preferred novels of the French school, books like the one where there is no “e” (The Void; I remember him reading Life: A User’s Manual, from “l’OULIPO” writers.


Signature Theater production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (Sondheim was Jim’s favorite composer of musicals — I bought him the 2 songbooks 2 Christmases in a row, Finishing the Hat, Look I made Hat)

Favorite movies: by Eric Rohmer and Bergman


In the early 1970s Jim and I went to the Thalia to see Bergman’s Magic Flute — I cried for joy and pain – he loved opera too

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

A thrush in the syringa sings

Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things
fear, hunger, lust.

O gay thrush! — Bunting (who said he would not travel outside Manhattan until he had thoroughly done Central Park and after decades he was no where near … , a favored poem from a book I bought for Jim for another Christmas )

Ellen remembering on his behalf

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Friends,

Carrying on the topic of Internet experiences, specifically worlds of words and digital images, I report on a talk I heard at the Library of Congress at a meeting of the Washington Area Print Group (members of Sharp, a book history society), taken from a coming book by James Farman, “Waiting for the Word: How Message Delays Have Shaped Love, History, Technology and Everything We Know.” Farman’s previous books include the The Mobile Story and he is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prof Farman studies the history of message exchange in (or across) time. Usually I report on talks like these on my Sylvia blog (see Harlequin Romance in Turkey), but I thought this topic had such general and immediate significance for everyone who writes on the Internet, who communicates a lot in cyberspace today. It’s really an aspect of a yet broader topic, the anthropology of social media (“why we post”) be it through digital or post office or smoke signal means.

Prof Farman began by suggesting if the time of anticipation is significant, this will transform the experience of the message once it is delivered. Waiting is the interpretive moment made up of fear, anxiety, longing, hoping, boredom. From the earliest of historical records we find people have been trying to gather knowledge of one another from a distance. Also to authenticate the message came from whom it declares it is from. Very early modern Europe sees the first development of the seal. The first and on-going continuing success or letters arriving at their destination has come through the institution of a post office. The first reliable service in Britain begins in the later 18th century; the first non-corrupt (no bribes, no opening letters for most people) begins in the middle of the 19th. That late. Literary Victorians are famous for the volumes of letters they wrote and preserved (or burnt). The first rapid communication is the pneumatic system of cylinders underground in the US. The telegram, the telegraphic (these are not intimate exchanges), and lastly the telephone (this is or can be) reigned supreme for speed until the arrival of gmail.

A good deal of Prof Farman’s talk was about his adventures doing extensive research in British archives of all kinds to find out how the early modern world’s powerful people sent messages down to the ordinary person on the Internet today. He was allowed to research into the High Court Admiralty in London, a treasure trove of thousands of messages never sent. Thwarted communications. How did you authenticate the message as really coming from you? From well before pre-early modern monarch, Henry VII, seals were used. How do you mark something with your identity? What does a face show except you are still alive, you exist. A king might send a letter and expect it will get there but there is no other sure-proof way except a faithful paid messenger. The changing of the post office to regard letters as private sacrosanct communications between particular people took 250 years. Censorship and reading of the mails only very gradually ceased. In the later 18th century, members of Parliament had a seal to frank a letter with, showing their considerable know-how — and power over others. What people want is certainty, speed, privacy. They also want a response and to be able to respond and to know they are heard.

Authentication is repeatedly the basic concern: passwords were invented on the net to authenticate who you are. Somehow seals have taken precedent over signatures, and Farman said he had done a lot of research into different seals. In early modern times a letter could have several seals attached to it, showing through whose hands it had gone. He shows us pictures of these. In later times a person who had power could frank a letter. Now all of us can buy a stamp. We begin in history where only one numinous person has a seal; nowadays in Japan most people carry seals to authenticate themselves.

Farman suggested human instinctive reality has not been totally able to accept bodily absence. Face-to-face is what’s wanted by most people still. Skype won’t do either — unless you knew the person before in the flesh, in physical actuality. People seem to have a need to be with another person; they believe they know you only after they’ve seen you. It’s true a lot of information is left out from letters and email communications, from photos (which are set up), but there is something else going on here. Farman sees this demand as coming out of that need to authenticate. Uncertainties of geography, rank, social network leaves the known and unknowable existence unauthenticated. People continue to create modes of linking our bodies to messages too — through photographs, emoticons. People try to personalize their messages. But the power of the document, of the extant document over time, in court, as a record, can become more or seem more important or make human viscerally physical contact seem irrelevant (marginalize it, especially if you are a good writer or maker of videos) so we live with and thrive upon texting and emailing.


A cat playing with an ipad

Yet there is nothing like a human hug. Or the cat on your lap.

It was at this point he moved on to waiting time — the person producing the response has the time to choose when he or she will respond — that his talk fascinated his audience most. When it’s a case of a letter or card sent through the post office, I expect if I’m lucky, I may have an answer or reciprocal card in a month. On the Internet, that week, before 6 days are gone. Electronic cards invite the receiver to respond immediately. A good deal of the talk in the audience afterwards and questions were about power relationships through withholding response. One’s relationship with someone is changed, when one is made to wait. Time is not distributed evenly; more powerful people more respected people are given more time. Who gets to define temporality (how much time a person has) is the more powerful person most of the time. Sometimes someone can prefer to wait in the hope of a better response or prefers not to know. There is software which tells someone whether the person receiving your message has read it so the person cannot pretend not to have gotten the message.


Emily Trevelyan reading a letter to which she will respond (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

As the man spoke and people asked questions, I found myself thinking about Anthony Trollope’s depiction of letters in his novels, his building up of epistolarity. As a postman or once postman he is preternaturally aware of how long it takes for a letter to get to someone, its path, how power can lead a person to get his or her letters quicker (a servant can carry it to the city) or leave someone suffering for a response (often a woman) in days of anxious misery. Trollope makes comedy out of this; irony over when a letter arrives. He may be unique in how often this kind of thing plays out in a story. He also uses forgery and shows us characters insincerely performing through their letters. The character who accepts what is written at face-value is at risk.

We know (or we ought to) everything we write here is under surveillance. In the Victorian and more recent periods if you are writing something seditious and it is found out and spreads and influences others it can cause you to be arrested. If a prospective or present employer/institutional affiliation finds out you have been writing what he or she does not approve of, you can lose a job or position or prospect of one. Prof Farman had researched into letters sent during wars, systems of communication among the powerful, in newspapers. Communications can decide whether a battle is fought, whether a war is carried on. Spies are all about discovering communications meant to be secret. Prof Farman suggested one could call this part of the study media archeaology.


Alec Guiness as George Smiley (master spy)

Ellen

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Gentle reader,

I am sure you are aware there is such a thing as an Internet Style. If you know this, I am even surer you have gone beyond the kind of academic or plain-talking, writing style I fancy I practice here (rather than the mandarin demanded by peer-edited journals) and the meditative, autobiographical, which I also practice. I imagine many readers revel in (get a great kick out of) or endure (as need dictates) that “in-group of savvy, sardonic media consumers” known as recap and commentary content-providers. Over the last couple of evenings, I’ve come across essays in traditional publications (from MLA solemnity to the venerable TLS and then the brilliant coterie left-leaning LRB), all of which seek to imitate and define that style, and amuse us by explaining the outlook of today’s popular Internet Writing.

Tom Rachman’s “Like. Whatever” is the most fun (TLS, January 19, 2018). Reviewing Emmy J. Favella’s A World without Whom: The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age, and Harold Evans’s Do I make Myself Clear: Why writing well matters, Rachman is. Just. Hilarious. Not behind a pay wall. Embracing this new way of writing does not mean writing incorrectly or sloppily; the point is to be entertaining and avoid (Heaven Forbid) the pedantic. First abolish Whom. No semi-colons allowed. Talk your words, and stay cool, unfazed. Figure out how to write sarcastically without offending the reader. When to use the asterick. Which “in” abbreviations (jk, Imfao). Rachman quotes Favilla deliciously: she declares the emoji “the most evolved form of punctuation we have at our disposal.”

I mean, what a time to be alive, seriously.

Evans is your gentleman from the Times, growling, irascible, the man with the impressive resume. Edited thousands of writers, the “complex thought processes” of such as Kissinger (mass murderers who consider themselves realistic, respectable, need complexity). Evans remembers typewriters and when “there was no meandering in cyberspace.” Evans does think the public is I mean seriously in trouble, confused. Someone is for health care but against the policy providing it. Induced bewilderment comes from the scuttling of credibility as a criteria altogether. Buzzfeed apparently has exposed important frauds amidst its attention-getting games.

Rachman does catch Favilla easily enough writing gibberish, gobbledygok. Citing Orwell’s irreplaceable “Politics and the English Language,” Rachman tells us Orwell was warning us against manipulative language, which Internet style is a new form of. What’s wrong with “It is what it is” or “whatever?”:  cynicism and passivity oozed together. Rachman says we must not hum loudly until the opposition has left the room. The better fairer writer will seem to take into account the other side of whatever it is. And there are still writers writing in the way Evans once did, especially for the better TV programming and films. Much of this writing is about TV and for fan communities lured by franchise-worlds of evolving film characters and story events.

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


Susan Herbert’s Dietrich: Cool cat

What I liked about Christine Photinos in her “After Cliffs: The new Literature Study Guide and the Rhetoric of the Recap,” in Modern Language Studies: Beatrice, 47:2 (Winter 2018):64-73 (probably not available online or behind a wall of some sort) is Photinos explains the attitude of mind behind the Recap style and genre, the posturing wry or snark-filled blog. What these writers are doing is creating the experience of being a member of an “in-community.” The point of all the many allusions left unexplained to the latest meme, slang, fashionable shows and characters or actors is to pull the reader into a shared discourse where he or she will feel in a crowd where everyone knows everyone else, or assumes such easy contact.

To characterize that community’s discourse, Photinos close-reads their tones, terms, conventions, and she finds at core the idea that valuing the material at hand, taking seriously whatever judgements are going on, is dismissed. The stance of arch mockery implies indifference to what is being peddled; summing up what is presented as obviously and all the time a cliche and nothing more turns serious thought or protest into something futile and childish (“take that”), or non-existent, a pretense.

A very few examples out of many cited by Photinos: Silas Marner is basically dismissed in the phrase “Time for a Montage!” For War and Peace, we read “Prince Bolkonsky has him sitting with the family as some kind of lesson about all people being equal. Or something”. “Ma Joad throws a hissy fit” sums up a chapter in Grapes of Wrath. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof summary: “[We] discover Big Daddy has been sick, however, and that he and his wife, who is known as Big Mamma (we’re not making this up), have been … ” It’s a trivializing: “Get ready for some excitement: next, Thoreau describes how he planted and cultivated his bean-field. Wow” (Walden). Lots of “in” terms from film and media art (“cut,” “pan,” “close-up”) are part of a shorthand that performs a chiding of anyone for sensitive emotion. We are not supposed to lose control, never ask for or feel sympathy. “Blanche starts rambling maniacally” (Streetcar); “Chill out, Jimmy” (Lord Jim). Lots of reassuring hedge language (“kind of”). Much of this is dressed-up cliffnotes in burlesque.

We need to attend to this insulation of the reader from vulnerability.

Photinos says this is also a an assumed male-male discourse (references to “bro” abound) presented as gender free. The recap discourages commitment to the material, any sustained inquiry into the ideologies at play that “critical reading would call into question.” So there is a pretense of evaluation. Not all recaps or commentaries are like this but enough are. She includes a list of other articles on the new writing. I recommend the whole of this issue of Modern Language Notes. Beautiful illustrations of Dante and other Beatrices, and good poems scattered across the issue.

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Jennifer Howard brings up the important issue of pay: the gig economy underlying much of this content production “doesn’t pay the rent.”: Again for TLS, this time March 23, 2018, is a review of a book about online culture and practices: Houman Barkat, Robert Barry and David Warner, edd. The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (see many articles by her). Howard begins 15 years ago when she wrote for Book World, a stand-alone pull-out review section of the Washington Post,and admits that many of the litbloggers who replaced her kind have morphed into “familiar bylines with publishing deals to match their strong opinion.” In the early years of writing on the Net, an appealing worthy writer could become “known to people of power and influence” who opened doors for him, so he could skip the MFA and slogging through different underling jobs.

But there is now “an spirally galaxy;” the old hierarchies have replicated themselves on the Net but a “snappy Twitter feed, a good pitch and some connections” can help a writer to progress to the head of the line. One problem is the demand for perpetual content: how can you provide seven good posts a day or even week? Superabundance accompanied by “quick takes” preclude genuine critical thinking. When Howard turns to writing as “pay-by-exposure,” (the payment you get is the exposure your writing attracts), she is writing about writers without a steady income. Not all causes paid in the days of sheer newspapers, and still don’t. You will have to work your way up through lesser genres to the editing desktop.

Howard ends on an essay from Digital Connection where Will Self laments the loss of solitude, isolation, loneliness, and the time to compose “long-form” fiction and essays. People online are surrounded by endless input/output, making it “hard to have the quality time alone with writing as writing.” Howard’s last remarks remind me of what I used to say to students as writing teacher: “we write alone but to pursue a career as a writer you become a social animal.”

Writing I would say is a social act. So there is a deep contradiction between what goes into the act of writing and how it has to function in the worlds of others. I like her hope that “perhaps counter-intuitively, the ties enabled (by online interaction), social media, web-based publication have a reach or tenacity that match or exceed what came before.” You are after all easily in more contact.

One online writer, Esposito writes that “so many of my primary literary relationships occur primarily by screens,” and the contacts in his case have been “durable.” Still, there is the qualification,that “who pays and who reads remain open questions” (I think) much more for someone online than someone off.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader.


Cat circa 1904-8 by Gwen John (1876-1939) Purchased 1940 by the Tate

Ellen

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Dear friends,

It’s not quite been like a UHaul, but it has taken a couple of weeks since I needed instruction and help and the actual transition was done by a remarkably generous digital expert at groups.io. I have been busy this last few days moving three lists from the continually deteriorating Yahoo groups social platform, to groups.io. In the last three years and accelerating when Verizon bought Yahoo, all the software on the social platform of yahoo groups has been debased and then increasingly ignored so that outages, glitches and endless individual problems go unfixed. Sometimes the whole group site vanishes for a time. And not even a boilerplate message explaining what has happened and if anything is being done. There is nowhere to ask a question or for a live individual to help. As the demise of net neutrality sinks in and brings changes based on commercial considerations of the largest profit, at any time Verizon could leave the yahoo groups vanished.

So rather than wait when it will be too late to retrieve archives, like others with communities at Yahoo who care about one another and their shared experiences, we’ve moved to groups.io. This is a new social platform run by Mark Fletcher, who invented the original ONElist, morphed it into egroups, sold it to Yahoo, come back to rescue this specific kind of experience. Among the astonishing attractions of groups.io is you can have its basic services for free, and they transferred the archives, all postings, all photos, all files (essays and whatever). A group’s identity is centered in its memory, which means its history. This the new site preserves.

Email groups are not obsolete. They still offer a kind of closed community interaction, which allows for longer messages, and encourages replies and relationships among the people posting much more frequent and much stronger than is found on blogs, face-book and other large anonymously-directed venues.

So very satisfied by what has happened, as I gather are many other Yahoo groups who moved there (I don’t have firm statistics for how many), this evening I thought I’d tell all the readers of this blog who are interested in Trollope and (a liberally defined) Nineteenth Century (1815-1914); Long Eighteenth Century studies, which I now expanded from just the terrain of the Enlightenment itself to historical fiction, romance and film (1660-1815); and women writers, artists of all kinds in all countries, all ages, and women’s issues; that the three lists I moderate have moved to this new version of the original site and have slightly new titles.

for Trollope and His Contemporaries, which now has the nifty abbreviation (I didn’t think of it) Trollope&Peers

https://groups.io/g/TrollopeAndHisContemporaries


New Banner: George Hicks, At the Post Office

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Mascot or Gravatar:


Donald Pleasence as Mr Harding playing his violoncello (1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

for WomenWriters:

https://groups.io/g/WomenWriters


New Banner: a collage of several paintings by Maud Lewis

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Anonymous depiction of Christine de Pizan writing

for 18thCWorlds


Antonio Canaletto, Northumberland House

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark, singing as she brings a basket of food to the coal mine owned and run by her husband

The first two have retained the same goal as they’ve had.

Trollope and His Contemporaries — a group of people who behave as friends and read and discuss Anthony Trollope, any 19th texts by other authors and 20th century one relevant to Trollope, by authors as supremely good as he is as a writer People are invited to discuss other books they are reading at the same time, and any movies or art seen and music heard …

Women Writers — a community of women readers. We discuss issues of interest to women as well as their art, writing, music, crafts and lives. We are much more a literary than political list, but it is assumed you are a feminist and progressive in outlook … Men are welcome but we stay with art by or (in the case of film) made with women in mind. We do sometimes have group readings and discussions

I’ve changed the last to encourage people reading historical fiction, romance and watching historical films (and adaptations) to join us and hope to start group reading and discussion of contemporary favorites. The older version only went for texts written in the 18th century (Boswell & Johnson, Fanny Burney, novels, poetry, educational treatises):

18th Century Worlds — for people who are interested in all things in the long 18th century (1660-1830): politics, history, literature, arts, music, society and culture. I also welcome readers and viewers of historical fiction and romance and films set in the 18th century … Books written in the 19th through 21st centuries about or set in the 18th century, or time-traveling tales are part of our terrain.


Sylvia Plath

Ellen

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Sophie Marceau as Anna, typical odd angle, very close up shot (1997 written, directed, produced by Bernard Rose)


Jacqueline Bisset as as a passive Anna submitting to Christopher Reeve as a conventional cad Vronsky (1985, script James Goldman, directed by Simon Langton)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been participating in another group read and discussion of Anna Karenina! This time on the GoodReads site. And I’ve gone on to watch two more notable film adaptations, the 1985 Anna Karenina (made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) and the 1997 Anna Karenina (an independent film, made in Russia, an even more extraordinary cast, with Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina as Levin, Sean Bean as Vronsky, James Fox as Karenin, Phyllida Law as Vronsky’s mother, and Fiona Shaw as Lydia).


Matthew Macfayden as Stiva meeting Keira Knightley as Anna at the train. well-known opening of book and film, resembles book illustrations (from 2012 Wright/Stoppard)

It may be this is hard to believe, having watched watched three other Anna Karenina films and read essays and chapters in books, yet I feel I learned yet more, and was made to see more insights into the human condition when under pressure from this particular story and character elements.

The 1997 film, dismissed as “shallow, bloodless, having lost track of characters, by re-arranging the order and then stripping from the story almost all the larger social scenes, to focus on key linchpin memorable one-on-one intense encounters lays bare the trembling core of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

The 1985, less interesting philosophically is moving because it updates, make feelingfully contemporary the same trajectory as the book the 1935 Gretta Garbo AK (she is what is remembered) and 1977-78 BBC faithful and liberal-minded Donald Wilson of-Forsyte-Saga-fame AK (remembered for Porter, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and only after that Nicola Paget).

Scofield and Marceau in their different films enable us to reach a new understanding. Both films ought to be better known; they are absorbing.

I refer my reader back to my blog on Tolstoy’s novel for the story, and AK at the movies I for the 1935 and 1948 (remembered for Vivian Leigh’s performance near suicide and Ralph Richardson as the steele-knife Karenin), and Stoppard and Joe Wright’s 2012 brilliant theatrical rendition

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Bernard Rose’s 1995 Anna Karenina, an independent film:


Alfred Molina as Levin (1997, opens and closed film, given narrative overvoice)

I was astonished when Rose’s film was over. It startled me by opening on the ice-skating scene between Kitty (Mia Kirshner) and Levin; his point of view, seemingly reasonable, trying to find some rationale for what is happening, some comforting lesson or sense runs across the movie, linking the scenes. While Kitty is there and in quick moments, has the familiar turning points of dance, snubbing, sickness, rescue by Levin, baby, there at Levin’s brother’s death with brother’s prostitute-mistress by her side, hers is a minor role. The major woman after Anna is Madame Vronsky and Phyllida Law captures the banal hypocritical ways of this woman with her hard insinuating glances perfectly, so her presence at the first train encounter, and at the close of the movie as who Vronsky flees to makes her point of view that one that destroys Vronsky and Anna.


Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

Also made into a major presence is Fiona Shaw as Lydia. Rather than a mere religious fanatic clinging to, squatting all over Karenin, she is a forceful political actor (goes to political rallies).


Shaw as Lydia, while Karenin’s own austere idealism and role as a cuckold has ruined his career

Karenina is kept as an outer ring character; stern and sensitive he is the first of the Karenin enactments to move to rape when he brings Anna home after the race, and the carriage scene, which are (as in all social scenes of the movie) kept to a minimum. The point is to have the confrontation where Karenin’s sense of himself is rocked: his anger is not over social appearances and if she did agree to a veneer, we are to feel he wouldn’t keep to it.

Rose took all the famous strong passionate scenes and rewrote them so they become intense interactions where private emotions takeover; he rearranges them some, strings them together. All the rest of the story, the social world, hum drum life left out. Danny Huston’s draining of his wife, Dolly, bankrupting them, bland complacency is choral; we hardly see Dolly as she is a figure who brings in the troubles and compromises of the social and economic worlds of the novel; Huston’s role is to listen to Levin,go hunting with him, attempt to persuade Karenin to give Anna a divorce. He seems so weak against Fiona Shaw whose scene with the child where she tells Seriozha his mother is dead is chilling, scary. Somehow Levin working hard in the fields becomes another private moment of self-discovery which just happens to occur in a (lovely) public field. Childbirth is a screaming painful bloody affair that occurs twice (Anna and then Kitty). Another departure is Rose presents Sean Bean Vronsky more positively than any of the films:


This promotional still of Bean in uniform as Vronsky must be the only time in the film he seems involved in his regiment: the look of puzzle is more common.

Bean is driven to anger and distraction between Anna, his mother, Karenin refusing to cooperate. Anna’s baby by him dies or is stillborn in this production (we see her nursing an old broken plastic doll). When he screams at her, there is no sense from the film that she has deprived him of a career he wanted, or even a place. Just that it’s the done thing to be married so he can be an accepted landlord. The film’s tragic scene focuseson his scream and frantic mad behavior pulling himself away from the officers as we hear Anne go under the train.


Bean is that movement under blue cloth

It’s a stripping of Tolstoy to bare bones and then putting back in psychologically distraught moments. Sophie Morceau carries the film, moving from cheerful and strong by stages into utter self-abjection, loss of identity, a kind of stupor as she only half-heartedly tries to follow Vronsky. A each scene is flung at us background music passionate romantic opera or equivalent link — there’s a heavy use of music and at times pantomime. The last 8 minutes of Anna last walk towards death is all music. The houses and rooms are opulent. Trains continually brought in and function. Dialogue is extraordinary, things brought out frankly in physical interactions. No words of continuity, just juxtaposition. Are these the core power of Tolstoy, Rose seems to be asking.

Rose makes the book into a kind of wild romance. Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard made the book theatrical too but they kept the outer social world as a shaping force and the story line and dialogue had strong intellectual ironies. This film made me see Anna Karenina more as about how the personal and sincere have no chance to thrive. Vronsky’s mother’s objection, that of Betsy (Justine Wadell), and the astonishment of everyone else seems to be Anna and Vronsky’s attempt to live by some shared mutual soul within them. And this inner self can’t take this kind of leaning. Babies die. People don’t cooperate. Things don’t make sense.

The movie ends with Vronsky on a train going to Siberia. He has lost all meaning. Levin is narrator and then he returns us to his life with Kitty, and his book, asserting one can find meaning in life by turning to religion. It’s not very convincing.


Near closing shot of film, after this we see the writing of his diary (lines from Tolstoy)

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The 1985 Anna Karenina, written by David Goldman, directed and produced by Simon Langton (filmed in Hungary)


Paul Scofield brilliant as Karenin (1985 TV film) — this film returns us to Karenin as the powerful central male

This is another remarkable production. The cast includes some remarkable actors, and in the minor parts too: including Anna Massey as Betsy, Joanna David as Dolly. It opens using a sort of browned framed set of stills, to set up an antique feeling — although the attitudes of mind are recognizably those of the mid- to later 20th century imagined TV audience


Joanna David as Dolly: she is the suburban wife who is persuaded to forgive the erring husband

Simon Langton, who directed and produced the 1995 Andrew Daves P&P directs and produces; Goldman has written other fine screenplays (e.g., The Lion in Winter). It seems to have been produced by some combination of companies, filmed in Hungary and then put on TV, though its length (2 hours and 15 minutes) and feel makes it seem as if it were meant for movie-houses. It’s the only one I watched straight through and it’s exhausting. Its one weakness as a film is Christopher Reeve’s inability to act, his woodenness is a real flaw. He was considered super-beautiful (yet he was given the usual mustache). That he too is made into a positive figure enables him to carry the complex role more easily. It does have something peculiar at first: it seems as if the voices were dubbed in after for the first hour so the actors seem oddly distanced.

In conception it’s a redo and updating of the previous three I’d seen (1935, 1948, 1977) in the sense that Langton (director) and Goldman (writer) adapted the same arrangement, story line, emphases. Yes Levin and Kitty are just about eliminated but that was the tendency before. But otherwise the characters are simply modernized. Tellingly there is a softening of attitudes towards adultery and at the same time towards both Oblonsky and Vronsky. Oblonsky is merely weak, poor guy means well, and there is a repeated Americanization of both going on. Vronsky never meant to mislead Kitty; and it is presented as perfectly understandable he wants to get on with his career. There is no Lydia, so no disquieting aspects to religion (American audiences might not like that). Betsy is not a bad woman either: she understands that Anna is not the kind of woman who can live a disguised life.


Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

Unexpectedly (but this seems to me very much in line with today’s attitudes) Karenin is himself a man who lived solely for his work and Anna, and she was enough for him; why is he not enough for her. Anna only grovels at the very end of the film. Strikingly it opens with Karenin and Anna and the son, and they seem a contented enough family. He has just had a big success, and they talk about whether they should say goodnight to their child and go into the bedroom. It’s a very 1960s family scene. It’s from this position of an adjusted family that the film departs and presents Anna’s seduction by Vronksky as a sort of sickness. Anna herself is without friends except for Betsy even before she loses her reputation.

Scofield’s characteristic quiet apparent reasonableness is to the fore; when he does become fiercely enraged at Anna’s behavior at the races and her telling him in the carriage she is Vronsky’s mistress, loves Vronsky, is pregnant, it’s no loss of social appearance that drives him wild. His image of himself as a man, his choice in life to make her the center and have no other friend (he says this) morphs immediately to near rape: this is her duty. It’s that she personally betrayed him, with marriage as a one-on-one relationship. There is real sympathy for Kareinin. He decides to get back towards the end by refusing to divorce her even after she agrees to give up her son. Anna is passive sexually (so a good woman), waits to be taken. She is firm and angry with Karenin after the childbirth collapse; she wants out of this bed and only one man at a time. I admit this film made cry more at the close because I bonded in small ways with this Anna as I had not with any of the previous: this heroine is no longer a 19th century character. I felt yet more for Karenina. If I may make the comparison, the couple reminded me of the characterization of Winston Graham’s Ross and Demelza Poldark in the recent film adaptation by Debbie Horsfield.


Anna with her maid did not want to take a ball dress with her; she was not particularly ambitious; their friendliness reminded me of Lady Mary and Anna in Downton Abbey

Some viewers might like this one best. Modern readers are often bored with Kitty and Levin, and they are hardly there. The directors and actors are allowed to present the sexual scenes between Vronsky and Anna far more candidly. While not as many as the 1997 film, it does eliminate a lot of the exterior events — especially the closing scenes between Dolly and Stiva and the Levins in the country estate. Especially interesting is this re-conception of Karenin: here he is not driven by religion or even his political position, he says he has no friends, and Anna has been everything to him, he has been satisfied with her as his friend and companion. He seems to go on for politics as a principled business as an aristocrat but find no personal meaning in it. He is not ambitious as Ralph Richardson, Eric Porter and then Jude Law all are.


One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

Four hinge point scenes are revealed as what one must have: the race scene, Karenina taking Anna away in the carriage after Vronsky falls, has to kill his horse (done intimately) and her abjection in the carriage. In their talk afterward Karenin is the most sensible of all the husbands: he is warning her of what will happen: she will be lost, Vronksky will tire of her; it’s almost done kindly. Scofield’s behavior and words reminded me of how he played Thomas More. She does get pregnant, have the baby, in this one wants to die — there is a death wish throughout. There is the forgiveness scene but then (as in the other movies but one and the book) she cannot stand Karenin again and flees. When she comes for the divorce, they are like a 1960s couple agreeing on how they will treat the child; she promises to give him up, and in return he will divorce her.


Scofield in pain but controlling himself


Anna giving up her son

Reeve was mechanical in feel early on, he did much better when it was a matter of sexual interaction and in the last part when he rejects her: as in the 1936 film he grows irritated, tired of her, threatens to leave. At first they seem to be adjusted: a visit from Dolly and Stiva make the four look like American in-laws during an afternoon.

But it’s not enough. In this one Betsy does not betray Anna as the norms behind it are not really high society Russia. Anna just becomes more clinging and nervous, and he does irritation and restlessness very well. The scene of her return to the house when they return to Moscow is powerful, at first centered on the husband. Her love of her boy and her boy’s for her is touching. In this the film harks back to the 1935 Anna Karenina where the strongest scenes in the whole film are Garbo and the son.


There’s real pathos as Anne bends her head; Reeve’s stiffness as Vronsky works well here

The last part of her chasing after Vronsky gone to his mother and her choice for his wife remembers the 1948 with Vivien Leigh. Bisset is going mad with nothing to do, no one to be with. She wears a dress that looks like a prisoner’s outfit, all stripes. She too is haunted by bad dreams and sees a figure of a man. But she berates herself in practical 20th century American terms: she has destroyed two men, one boy, and she does not love her daughter. In this film we feel why she does not love the daughter: the daughter stands for this new life Anna claimed she loved (I don’t need society) but found herself cracking up under. In this film she does not go to the opera; she obeys Vronsky and still she and he quarrel. He wants to escape her altogether. The last moment shows her by the train and then we switch to where Vronsky has become aware she has come after him from Annuska and turns horrified at what he sees. End of film.

I suggest that the 1985 film has the most modern feel because of the depiction of Karenin is not based on religion or status and of Anna as the most inward, inner directed people might say. I wondered if the elimination of many of the social scenes gave Rose the idea for his re-conception.

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One of the older Penguins

Returning to Tolstoy’s book too, I am just reading a book by Joan Hardwick about Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife, whose father was not her mother’s husband. Hardwick paints a picture of the aristocracy in Europe at this time as often adulterous, with differently sired children in one family. Karenin is then as unusual as Anna, but they live in a world of egregious hypocrisy. Oblonsky represents the norm. That makes the outlook many middle class 20th and 21st century readers and viewers have had on Anna anachronistic; it was not her adultery that was so unacceptable; it’s the way she went about it with passionate integrity. In that she resembles Levin. And the movie adaptations that come closest to this are the 1948 and 1977.

We might say now in our 21st century political and corporate culture what the filthy rich do today esembles the parasitical aristocrats of Tolstoy’s day, so it may be the 1% as a culture (which are where Tolstoy’s characters fit in) are not so far from these corrupt aristocrats as we like to imagine. Levin and Anna are our figures of integrity — Kitty is simply another utterly conventional young woman, believable yes. These hollow pretenses have provided the way Karenina, along with rank, and wealth and status, has risen so high. A real jack-ass con-man whom of course Oblonsky gets along perfectly with wins an election in Vronsky’s area; Levin can’t figure out how he did it. Like Levin, Anna doesn’t fit in; she will not play the social games with all their hollow pretenses.


From a two act production in the Abbey Theater by Irish playwright Marina Carr, directed by Wayne Jordan

The book was written by a man and all these movies made by men. What matters in male-centered, male-written, male-made movies is adultery, the man has been betrayed. What matters to women is the custody of their children. Anna Karenina shows these outlines too.

Next up for Anna Karenina will be an account of a few other of the Anna Karenina films as found in Tolstoy on Screen, edd Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael Denner. The list of movies is NOT endless. You don’t have to watch them chronologically. I am slowly discovering more about Tolstoy’s book by watching these

Ellen

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Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)


Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)

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Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).

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A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.


As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait

Ellen

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