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Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield when we first see him, cavalierly, knowingly, giving an inadequate rendition of one of Hamlet’s speeches before his wife comes on stage

florence-foster-jenkins-meryl-streep
Meryl Streep as Florence singing ecstatically (2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Nicolas Martin)

Dear friends and readers,

Just as I began to give up hoping for a truly good absorbing film for cinemas this summer, along came three: in July Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words urging us to give over unreal ethnicities; in early August Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in rural impoverished worlds, and now the extraordinary Stephen Frears and Nicolas Turner’s Florence Foster Jenkins, with a little help from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep.

At first the film seems to be about an over-dressed, naively happy, fatuously absurd Florence, a wealthy woman kept apart from most other people by her somewhat younger, carefully preserved coolly impossibly husband: since she is a philanthropist most institutions are prepared to indulge her in whatever she wants in the way of concerts, no matter how corny, creaking or badly done. St Clair has hired a voice coach and we watch him hire Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) a piano-player musician to play and give her voice lessons. When Florence is not around, St Clair’s face goes hard and asks brief cynical questions about what we’ve seen him smile pleasantly and coo over. We begin to suspect a pervasive underlying studied hypocrisy when at night St Clair wishes Florence a good night’s rest, and himself goes to a Greenwich village or lower Manhattan slum block where he finds his mistress a young beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Fergusson) waiting for him. He lives another different life with this mistress: wild modern dancing, late night parties, strong drinking promiscuous sex going on around him. He is then just so sweetly affectionate to her, so controlled, hiding from her life’s unpleasant truths that it feels like a performance. Then we discover Florence cannot sing, her voice is reedy, awful, she can’t hold a tune.

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As the movie progresses we begin to see that this steely-performance of St Clair where he protects this wife of his from every adverse criticism made of her is not hollow. It cannot be as he gives over his whole being to it: he has to work very hard to prevent anyone who would laugh at or heckle her from coming to any of her performances. He does not have to do any of this to remain rich; she need not perform to be worshipped. Her singing lessons do keep the two of them busy, and her pre-occupied, seeing herself as endlessly working at something beautiful. To silence or get people to cooperate, he hand white envelopes stuffed with cash to people. Those who will not cooperate are excluded from performances and their drawing-room.

Their back story emerges as he, and then she, confide in McMoon: as a 19 year old she married a cad who had syphilus, the cad de-camped, died, and one day in an audience she spotted St Clair who she says had the kindest most generous smile she’d ever seen on a face. They abstained from sex lest he become diseased or she have a diseased child. There’s an intense pathos to the story as she tells it to Cosme whom she has visited on one of St Clair’s golf weekends (we know he has gone to the Hamptons with Kathleen). Cosme is continually on the edge of quitting lest he lose all respect as a serious musician, and when Florence comes up with the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall to thousands, balks; in response St Clair tells Cosme he must not obey the tyranny of ambition to be great, or respected as wonderful, or his art even understood — all egoistic delusions in probability: he found himself a failed stage actor when he met St Clair, and when she married him, he liberated himself from ambition to live this comfortable life.

But is it? is it comfortable? is he in a prison of performances to get his hands on her will (which she carries about her in a briefcase). The movie asks, how far is all life a performance? what are worthy goals?

If the mark of a summer movie is non-seriousness underlying the performance, Frears has never in all the films I’ve seen by him resorted to such obvious broad caricatures: the sexy blonde vulgar noisy young wife is just one. OTOH: when St Claire reads aloud to Florence Shakespeare’s cliched 116th sonnet (“Let me to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), the joke is Shakespeare was ironic (most readers seem not to know this), making fun. Anyhow Florence falls asleep before he’s finished the first eight lines. Late in the movie he reads aloud Keat’s “Bright Star” sonnet: same response from Florence, pathetically grateful but in actuality bored so falls asleep.

Streep and Grant deliver as exquisitely perfect performances as I remember Grant doing as a young man in Remains of the Day (where Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins were the pitch perfect people who missed out). Grant is underrated as an actor since he made his place in Hollywood films as a fine comic actor in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and in beloved costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility or Maurice. I first saw him and Bob Hoskins in a filmed version of Thomas Middleton’s brilliant Jacobean play, The Changeling. Grant was corrupt weakling duke who nonetheless becomes a relentless murder out of sexual jealousy; Hoskins the hired thug killer who himself lives out seething resentments. I felt Grant saw some of his own choices in his role. He left the serious stage for Hollywood and has not looked back.

Streep’s role was harder to play” as Grant melts into tenderness, opens his face up to recognize “Bunny’s” dependency on him to her, she has to seem mostly obtuse and yet capable of the finest feeling, at once ridiculous and courageous. She is our American version of the British grand-dame actresses (e.g., Lindsay Duncan, Emma Thompson).

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Reviews have been generous, noting the sentimentality at the close: far too forgiving and benign, sliding over after pointing to the cruelty of crowds, the stupidity of audience mob-like reactions, how no one really cares what this music is. The New York Times reminds us these were a real couple in the 1940s and that Helberg stole the show with his shock, distress, and at the end sparkling identification with his two bosses. We are left in two minds about the principals: how far was she fooled? she has a wise desperate look on her worn face as she lies dying in her closing moments. Did or how far did St Clair Bayfield love her and his life as her tender protector? he seems never to hurt her which is way beyond probable if it was just the money. The credits afterward included photos of the real original people. Cosme never became a great musician; his reached his heights in venues at Carnegie hall with Florence. St Claire late in life looks utterly non-pretentious; after that last performance and her illness killed her, he never remarried.

To return to my first paragraph: there is something delightful in all three, Kind Words, Wilderpeople, Florence, and we are badly in need of delight this August.

Ellen

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Norwegian Wood

Friends and readers,

I braved or endured a 7 hour trip (counting to and fro from my house in Alexandria, Va, on July 16th, to the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall) to enjoy the (as I discovered) privilege of listen to Saul Lilienstein for some 6 hours and 45 minutes. A tough travel experience (it was one of these supremely super-hot days in DC with humidity making the experience of difficulty breathing) amid crowds not decently serviced (not the fault of the Metro staff who actually drive and are on the stations of the Metro). See what goes unreported: mass prayer meeting in DC July 16th. But all this seemed no trouble at all in comparison to what this unusual man was able to say, convey, teach a small group of people willing to sit and learn.

He talked of the original and continuing British sources of Beatles’s music, its then immersion in American white and black music), accompanied by videos and sound tracks that moved me deeply for themselves and taught me generally how the Beatles came to have power over vast general audience, not only of young people.

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Lilienstein’s ostensible plot-design was not chronological and throughout he used tapes, videos, UTubes made since the 1990s technological revolution to exemplify themes. But there was an ever-inching forward in time across a life-story in time, which seems to be inevitable when one tries to account for works of signally high genius.

For the first half of the day, morning before lunch (at 12:30) he covered the sources of the Beatles’ deep early appeal, what was original and yet so utterly British and traditional in their music, and how they began to break away musically and thematically.

It’s easiest to tell something of their joint career. Music comes from 1957/68 when Lennon and MacCartney first met and started to play. They brought into their pair, Harrison at age 14 late in 1958. They played everywhere in Liverpool and back and forth in Hamburg. They had trouble finding a drummer once they wanted someone for a commercial style recording, and it was 1962 when Ringo Starr joined them

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Photo from early phase: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul MacCartney

For the first hour he showed us how the earliest Beatles music in Liverpool and Hamburg was rooted in Irish, Scottish and music hall English aesthetic traditions and ethical-class outlooks. This hour-long part of Lilienstein's talk was the least accompanied by vocal tapes, and visual videos and at the same time the most startling. The cheerful music of acceptance of one's lot in the mainstream working class culture of later 19th and early 20th century entertainment is conveyed, but also how one belonged to this milieu captured once for all by Richard Hoggart in his famous The Uses of Literacy. Lilienstein would play a rendition of familiar early Beatles hits (before they came to the US), then an Irish/Scottish ballad or musical hall song. Lilienstein pointed out that “It was 20 years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the bland to play”constitutes an innovative reprieve of the deeply male upper class suave dominated music of the the later half of the 20th and into the 21st century by working class, soft shoe (American black) and effeminate plangent elements.

Lilienstein put a large image of a poster of a circus coming to a local music hall pre-WW1 and showed us how lines of the song “For the benefit of Mr Kite” are all taken from this poster. “The Long winding road” is another startlingly innovative harking back. The tune of “It was 20 years ago today” is from an earlier time utterly re-orchestrated. If we would listen to the lyrics of their songs, these tell us these truths: “I read in the news today, oh boy ..” If you begin to trace these lines, you find a genuine radical critique of history. One song about 40,000 holes takes us back to WW1 and horizontally to the number of seats in the Royal Albert Music Hall. Lilienstein played an early parody by Paul of this kind of music in a song my notes tell me ran “She was just a working class girl from the north.” I cannot over-estimate how startling and unknown to me all this was.

The second phase (another hour) was to trace the American roots of their songs. Americans had no trouble connecting with the Beatles as their songs imitated, were re-creations in a urban idiom of famous songs by Buddy Holly and his Crickets (whence the name Beatles), Little Richard, Chuck Berry. He would play an originally deeply American black song popular on black stations in the 1950s, then a semi-white rendition for a more widely-popular rendition on mainstream white radio, and then the Beatles, re-injecting black American words and rhythms. “Peggy Sue” became “P.S. I love You”. Mo-Town Smoky Robinson songs were re-injected into Beatles “This boy wants you back again.” They loved Chuck Berry, and combined his song with Blue Grass from white country music, giving it an urban edge either by imagery or quick pace. He played for us the Beatles’ rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Mr Postman.”

They had an ear to pick up the most remarkable of American songs: Barnett’s “Give me Money, that’s what I want,” adding to that their own personal intensities (Lennon screamed at a wild moment the lines about “give me money”), using darker chords. Wilbur Harrison trying to make some money re-made his “Kansas city,” rubbing out all black and Detroit references; the Beatles put these back in with lines about a “black beat” which referred to their imitation of music coming out of Detroit and Negro Spirituals. Lilienstein ended this section of his talk with “A Ticket to Ride” and “Day Tripper.”

Lilienstein’s talk was not just a matter of showing likeness and repetition of lyrics and tunes. He also showed transformation of blues structure quite early on in their music. 12 bars, each subdivided into 4, from C major into subdominant F and back to major C. They broke this up, turning to minor keys, bringing in sudden other unexpected chords (Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” became “You’re gonna lose that girl”). They never tried to hide what they were doing so you can use names and titles and lines to discover affinities and transformations. An early name for Lennon, MacCartney and Harrison was “Johnny and the Moondogs,” a term which has reference to performers of blues in the US. He discussed “She’s a woman” and “Help!” — for the first time I noticed the plangent nature of the words

Then a much shorter phase was “In a rebellious generation.” While towards the end Lilienstein played some of the music the Beatles recorded specifically against the Vietnam War, his subject was their rebellion against the musical forms they had been tinkering with, imitating, urbanizing. They began genuinely to expand what was meant by the term “rock’n’roll”. Norwegian Wood (which my daughter, Izzy, recorded a version of) was among these; also “Tomorrow never Knows” where they begin to bring in the drug culture through a psychedelic sound.

They imitate the sounds of technological machines, include lots of extraneous sounds, the point was to be haphazard. The song about the LSD experience was called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in order not to be too much in your face.

At this point Paul MacCartney began to pull back, and we see him returning to Western modes, and in Victorian stories like “She’s leaving home,” about grief and loss with the music leaving traditional cadences in a way expressive of descending sorrow. “All you need is love” is memorable because it’s rhythms are off-kilter. By contrast, experiment for John Lennon meant embodying his troubled spirit, his angst in quick moving rhythms, modern songs whose lyrics showed a deep critique of the society they were living in as in “Revolution.”

Asked whether “Revolution” was an anti-war song, Lennon replied all their songs are anti-war.
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In the first half, the long morning, Lilienstein brought in how their career as a group developed, telling of their first successes with a British audience, the coming to the US, the first TV appearances and concerts (Shea Stadium). The second half, he moved into showing us the inward musicians: the composition process as recorded on pirated tapes of sessions where we see them move from a first version of a song (mostly brought in either by Paul or John, sometimes as a lyric and sometimes as a song without words), and how they hammered at these to develop a full sound with all four playing, altered the lyrics and often the very character or mood they began with. This reminded me of how Jane Austen’s few ms’s show she often began with something very coarse and conventional (in her case burlesque) and gradually revising, turned the passage to something with an almost diametrically opposed mood and character, though some core in the original idea is brought out memorably.

It’s not true that they didn’t know musical notation; MacCartney and Lennon both studied music in college. Lilienstein showed them bringing in a line from Hal Arlen’s “Somewhere over the rainbow” in one of their songs, and how they began to softly linger at a song’s end. George Martin had taught them much: how to use a recording studio; he brought in discipline and “cleaned” up songs, but Lilienstein maintained that someone else could have contributed what Martin did, and by the end (1966-69) he was just standing there recording expertly.

In this hour and one half about process we listened to at least 3-4 versions of each song. A first and last, and two intermediary. “Get Back” started out (possibly dismayingly) as an anti-immigrant song with Pakistani people told to “get back to where they once belonged: we heard them free-wheeling with chords sounds, and that Jo-Jo was originally aimed at “Yoko Ono” whom John had begun to bring to recording sessions

At the same time, Lilienstein began to show us the distinct differences in the type of music each of the two major creators, Lennon and MacCartney did, and the growing conflicts and clashes of outlook, how they wanted the group to develop, attitudes towards life (Paul was the more upbeat person, adjusted to realities, imagining stories of families, while John projected anger and despair, and self-doubt). They were fighting over who would dominant, over “ownership” of themselves and the group. In the Abbey Road album we have a group breaking apart: they can make joyful music while they are at one another’s throats. Songs combine the wild despair with the story element as in “She came through the bathroom window.”

Some of their best work came out of this period of raucous interaction. Lennon had become increasingly dependent on drugs; at least he used them to the point he’d come in stoned; he protested against the bowing to commercial demands; MacCartney was more controlled and began to write astonishingly beautiful ballads: “Yesterday,” “All the Lonely People,” “Eleanor Rigby.” “You think she needs you” could be by Brahms. We listened to the evolution of “Let it Be” (one of my favorites) which began with the essential familiar lines but it took a long while for the three who had not made the lyric to accept it, and develop it into a kind of hymn. In their earlier phases.

Lilienstein said single were often the two opposing points of view: one one you had Paul’s “Penny Lane” on the one side (pictorial, surreal reality, memories of happiness as a child, nostalgia for the past, hopeful)

On the other John’s “Strawberry Fields” where he doesn’t want to get out of bed, where life is hopeless and to be avoided, nothing to get “hung about,” easy to live with eyes closed, “It doesn’t matter much to me,”as in his song “Nowhere:”

Sometimes an album would end with a song by Lennon and characteristic of his depression, to be contradicted by the first song on the other side by MacCartney. Lennon’s “I am The walrus” (see below) makes no literal sense, an ode to personal doubt and lack of identity, and is followed by MacCarthney’s “Yes no stop go goodbye hello,” making fun of Lennon as posturing. They were not only increasingly disenchanted with one another, but their careers. George Harrison had up until this point followed these two as a guitarist; as they withdrew he began to fill the gap with a few remarkably great songs (“My guitar gently weeps”). He began with ABA structures, but soon we hear unusual things brought in: Spanish or flamingo music (“I me mine”). He wrote much less than these two, but a couple are among the best songs of the 20th century, like “Something:”

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I am aware I may not have conveyed the excitement, and cannot begin to get down the passing remarks Lilienstein made about the music as we went along. Remarkably the four went from “I wanna hold your hand” and “Love love me do” to “Hey, Jude” and “Here comes the sun” in 7 short years. It’s about what happened during these 7 years in the music that Lilienstein accounted for, went into deeply. He has all sorts of tapes, among the more moving was a beautiful tape of “Love is all you need” as surreal; the song not one of those I’ve favored as until now all the renditions I’ve heard were so sentimentalized.

As literary and art so musical creation comes of the author’s lives — how could it be otherwise? Lilienstein told of how individual songs were events in these four people’s lives — he did discuss Ringo Starr less, saying Starr said of himself, he had been so lucky to come along for the ride because he was a very good drummer and worked well with the other three. He told mainly of Lennon and MacCartney’s personalities.

Here Lilienstein seemed to me to be too critical of Lennon’s outlook as if it were wrong but as he talked I realized for the first time that Lennon abused his first wife and other women. Lilienstein played a song, rarely heard, by Lennon about his male jealousy where he says remorselessly he’d rather murder the woman he is with than see her with another man, and he was (I had not known this) violent, ruthless towards people, and domineering over women until he met Yoko Ono. (This is not necessarily a tribute to her moral nature;she was part of the reason for the break-up of the quartet.) I saw Lilienstein meant to register that Lennon never fulfilled his gifts; he was still finding himself when he was gunned down (as so many are in the US). I was after all glad of the condemnation however brief.

He then showed Lennon’s work was the more continually interesting and troubling. His description of “I am The Walrus” as filled with nonsense phrases, unreal words, and just sounds thrown in that Lennon heard as he was composing made the song into a kind of small Finnegan’s Wake:

Almost inevitably then MacCartney came in for the highest praise: he sustained himself, lived longer, as far as we know lived more ethically with regard to other people, kept writing and singing, and a few of his songs are among many people never tire of hearing: Lilienstein seemed to feel Hey Jude was a favorite for re-hearing for most people.

Lilienstein did not go into this but implicit in his talk was the idea the Beatles utterly transformed what rock-n-roll was thought to be, its potentials, its possibilities. At the time there were other highly original groups — who I’d say came out of the ferment of new ideas, radical, and liberating of the 60s: folk (Peter, Paul and Mary), more soft versions of rock-n-roll (Simon and Garfunckel), new kinds of country (Willie Nelson and the groups pf Austin, Texas), music coming from Nashville. So like Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater, they came out of and were part of a movement, but they were a leading force. Their records sold tremendously, they topped all charts continually. Popular music has not been the same since. The only successful parody I know is from Love Actually: Bill Nighy’s inimitable, irreverent, mock-on-the-sexism, “Christmas is All Around Us” (it’s telling the original YouTube was pulled and there is now a much tamer one, minus the electrifyingly stupifyingly-sexualized girls and salacious gestures of Nighy).

Left out by Lilienstein except at split second moments, was the band’s sexism. They’d never have a woman singing with them one of them said. It’s a strongly masculinist point of view; the stories of young girls fleeing parents are done from the parental point of view. What the girl might have been feeling in her escape beyond a desire to “have fun,” and how she would feel years later when she was thoroughly punished by her society there are no songs about. As I listen to these I feel such sorrow over what I was as a teenager at age 16. My parents had no idea how to help me, nor did I how to help myself.

Ellen

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Mooregoingonquest
Michael Moore sets out on his quest

Prologue:

BushGunTweet
Jeb Bush tweeted: [this is] America [and he’s proud to belong to a country epitomized by this image]

Donald Trump: he will cut billions in taxes from the wealthy, eliminate the Affordable Care Act; he is for privatizing everything possible, but he will not let anyone die in the streets; he seems not to understand the nuclear deterrent system of the US; he will re-institute systematic torture; he will gut the 4th and 8th amendment; he will limit free speech, control the internet; he will invade Iraq and take “the oil;” he would shoot Muslims with bullets covered with pig’s blood and require all Muslims to wear a sign identifying themselves as Muslim (if he cannot forbid them entry); he derides a disabled reporter, wants to punch in the face someone in the auditorium who has dissented from his views; he has the police throw out protesters; he sues anyone who exposes him …. here are the values and norms he will inculcate and follow if he becomes the United States president ….

Friends,

It’s uncanny how often Michael Moore’s films are spot on timely because he must plan them ahead. Maybe the public political scene in media does not move as fast as we assume it does. Or perhaps given a limited budget he pitches, writes, directs, and shoots his films in quick time.

The quest of Moore’s fictional adventures this time is: The Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon call Moore in to ask him to invade aany other country around the globe he wants in order to take from the people whatever they have of value to the US. We see him set forth in a boat with an American flag determined to visit countries we as US citizens have some knowledge of, share a linguistic base (we can pronounce the names) and enough common customs (like school lunches in elementary schools, family vacations), and less so but enough cultural assumptions to grasp analogies with our way of life and theirs. This is a ploy or allegory by which Moore delivers such a stinging critique of US norms and what our gov’t doesn’t do and does in the last fifty years that if he stood and made a sermon out of it, most people would walk out. He does point out or has his subjects point out how the idea they are now following, or the good lawyer they are using comes from the US. But it’s clear the idea has no purchase in the US today widely (or at all) and the lawyer rarely exercises his knowhow in the direction he is using say for Iceland in the US.

The story-line: Moore goes and talks to ordinary or significant people in European countries, mostly western and northern, a couple in Africa (Tunisia) who tell him how wonderful this or that set of customs, norms, laws the people enjoy as a matter of course — from decent vacation time, to wages high enough so no one need work more than one job, to health care, to humane prison sentences, programs for rehabilitation in prisons; we see disciplined policing contrasted to videos showing (many of these, so many) US policemen beating Americans as they assembly, as they protest, savagely destroying the bodies of black people, humiliating them, killing them. So many of these scenes — montages of them.

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A few quiet ones, like of the continual evictions of US people all over the US (engineered by banks, nothing whatever done to help these people: “Kicked out in America,” Jason DeParle’s review of Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, NYRB, March 10, 2016 issue). We see beautiful lunches served children in schools in France. Women in charge in Iceland. CEOs of banks sent to jail. One particular reality comes across repeatedly: high violence, especially of police towards blacks, but also towards any protester, and gun violence of US citizens. We see abysmal slums across the US, prisons into which refugees are placed.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’

The problem is the conversations Moore has with the people he has set up meetings with is not believable: they just go on in this exemplary way praising their own country as if it were just this pastoral paradise. Is it true that this rich French factory owner is glad that his workers are getting good incomes? We do hear from some union representatives who say if the unions were not strong and did not strike, they would not have this decent way of life but that’s not connected back to what we just heard. These are such simple minded dialogues, the watcher wonders if the people are just saying that for the sake of the cameras. It’s clear this is not the whole truth about their country. And it’s done in this jocular manner. A kind of goofus or faux naive stance. He would say “wow!” how can this be? How can your country afford this? Do people like this? I found it grating, and felt at first the whole movie was misconceived. He was leaving himself open for mockery and understandable dismissal. As with other of his movies, these scenes are all set up; they are not someone filming life as it goes on (Frederick Wiseman does this).

But as time (the film is two hours) went on 1) I began to see the audience was amused. Whether laughing at the conversations or Moore or I don’t know what. Myself I dislike people laughing at what is not funny in a movie audience, but if this important message he has to put before us, brings them in, all power to him. 2) the tone turned more somber and towards the end he had clearly mounted up a list of all sorts of needed things US people could do and need and do not (like have decent trains). He repeated and showed by tapes we used to honor these ideas and that some of what these foreign countries do we used to do.

A friend of mine, Diane Reynolds, summed the content up succinctly:

I also appreciated “Where to Invade Next,” a male-directed film but one that leaned heavily on women’s contributions in building more humane societies, especially in Tunisia and Iceland. As most probably know, Moore’s conceit is to “invade” countries that are doing social welfare well and take away their best ideas. His cornball antics can irritate, such as planting an American flag in countries he was “invading,” as can his distortions, but I very much resonated with his focus on the humane legislation and working conditions in other countries: ample vacation time in Italy, a law in Germany that forbids employers from e-mailing or calling employees when they are off, plus the civilized 36.5 hour work week which leaves people time to meet for coffee and enjoy leisure, the excellent education system in Finland, the chef cooked school lunches in France served on china, the extraordinarily humane prison system in Norway. We saw all these countries at their best–but their best is what s hould be celebrated and highlighted. I felt more dismayed than ever over what has happened here, especially the shots of prison and police brutality juxtaposed with talk from Portuguese police and Norwegian prison guards about no death penalty, humane treatment of prisoners, etc. I feel more impelled to get involved in prison reform, as it really is unutterably shameful here. Moore ended with noting what many of the people interviewed said: that their “best” ideas originally came from America. I hope this country get somehow gets back to normal … what I saw were countries that don’t loathe their own people and that are willing to spend a little extra money and time to make life better for people.

The question is, what happened? How did we get here? If we originally followed humane ideals or norms to some extent, where did they go? Moore doesn’t much say. He makes a couple of connections: at the time of the civil rights bill to extend voting rights to African Americans and all minorities, to stop systematic discrimination, the war on drugs began and with that the first mass incarceration of black men. No coincidence he says. In the 1990s the punitive system by the courts was set up. A sizable percentage of black men now can’t vote since in most states once declared a felon you lose your right to vote forever. He offers a map whereby if black men down south could vote more places would go liberal democrat.

Berllnwall

The film ends symbolically by the wall in Berlin today (interspersed with footage of it in the past and when it was crossed, the celebrations too). Moore is walking alongside the wall with a friend who was with Moore in Berlin in 1989 when the wall between East and West Berlin was broached, and the people around it stopped killing those who tried to cross. It is now a site for grafitti; a site de memoire, in places a crumbling hulk. The allegorical inference: at one time people said this wall would never come down. Well in a few days its power vanished. So maybe things can change back or again too. This is feeble as a solution. The ending feels so melancholy. Moore looks grim, unshaven, not in good health as he and his now aging friend walk together.

Where to Invade Next has a cumulative effect. Moore says to his audience, Look at these places where ordinary people live good lives, have good things of all sorts, where criminals are treated humanly and helped to rehabilitate when they can. He asks, What’s wrong with us? He says explicitly there is no reason we could not behave like these other countries. The wealth is here (if now kept in a few hands). The knowhow (if now mis-used). He has pictures of unsafe bridges and people protesting for good drinking water. Alas, there are very few longer reviews: Harry Barnes of The Guardian understands and praises it.

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Epilogue:

Trump
This recent photo of Donald Trump running for President is strongly reminiscent of Adolph Hitler rallying his fan-mobs — it fronts a periodical containing an article from the Southern Poverty Law Center “The Year in Hate and Extemism”

We are at a serious junction in US politics today: a fascistic, hate-mongering intolerate ignorant man who advocates violence, overthrowing the constitution in effect, may win the Republican nomination for president. (Read Roger Cohen’s Trump’s Il Duce Routine, the New York Times, Feb 29, 2016) Four score and seven years ago Lincoln said some 150 years ago can a nation so conceived — come together in this rational planned way, not something grown slowly over centuries — long endure? It seems to me we are again at a breaking point. The Republicans will not disqualify a man who openly says he will not obey law, will not obey his constitutional controls — while they are disobeying the constitution themselves: they will not allow Obama to exercise his constitutional power to appoint another member of the supreme court (they have abrogated and thwarted him for 7 years now). They want to destroy the gov’t; they don’t want it to work except for the 1% and themselves. They have come to power based on exploitation of bigotry (racism heavily) using hidden billionaires, and are beginning in various states to dismantle democracy altogether (see my Flint Redux, Snyder’s war on the public, Scalia’s enabling role and the Koch Dark Money). Read Juan Cole in Bill Moyers’ Journal.

Michael Moore does not make the argument that engineered poverty or imposed violence is leading to majorities of the Republican electorate voting for Trump. He insists we look at the values behind what we do. His insistence that American values lie behind some of the good things he sees in other countries seems to me a front which helps enable him make a superficially cheerful (and therefore possibly widely-seen) film. He is suggesting to us the actuating core of what’s happening in in the US come out of US values and norms. The countries he visits have alternative values and norms and he asks us, do we not want these? The grim heart of the film, never acknowledged, is maybe not. Moore does not say maybe we don’t want decent prisons which try to rehabilitate people. he avoids saying maybe this is a deeply religiously punitive, violent (see film on “aggravated assault and rape” in the US today) and racist society by not giving us history, by not making the connections of how we got here in 2016 (see Richard Steigman-Gall’s “It’s Not Just Trump”).

To turn to the timeliness of the film: Moore never mentions the current election: we could infer that majorities in the primary electorate of the Republican party vote for Trump because they share his values, norms, and aims and approve of violent punitive harsh religiously exclusionary, want racist institutionally-backed behavior.

Ellen

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offtowork
The best moments are the quiet ones: characters walking and talking, so here are Mr and Mrs Bates off to work (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggart)

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Mr Moseley in the village square self-reflexively selling tickets to come see ….

Mr Carson: “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?”
Answer: No, but most are not part of moribund mini-series.

Friends and remarkably patient readers,

Despite outbreaks physiological and psychological of intense distress, surely you’ve noticed we are on our way to as happily ever after as human beings ever know:

I take out my crystal ball developed out of not-so attentive watching (I would open a book and take bets only that I don’t understand betting):

crystalball

Our princess Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is going to marry the self-indulgent drone Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and run Downton Abbey efficiently as a cross between a tourist attraction and generous farm rental site; Barrow will become head butler and spend his declining years indulging all Lady Mary’s children; our secondary heroine Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) will marry Bertie Pelham (Henry Haddon-Patton, a double-moniker there) despite Lady Mary’s final spiteful attempt to use her knowledge that Marigold is an illegimate child. Pelham is not a prince in disguise, but he is not the total shit Lady Mary had hoped. Mr and Mrs Bates (the one truly aggressive man in the series and his very long-suffering wife) will have that baby, which will be healthy and retire to their property to become prosperous landlords. Lord Grantham will not die young because Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) is just too soothing and complacent a presence to allow an early death once Violet Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) despite her Methuselah-like great age settles down to supporting Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston)’s matching spite and Spratt’s stamp-collecting habits (Jeremy Swift).

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A single housekeeper, skeletal staff, and “day help” will replace “downstairs”

Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) will show yet more extraordinary patience as she endures married life with that self-indulged prig of the patriarchy, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) who is not capable of going to bed without looking to see if the sheet corners are expertly done nor eat if his dinner is not eternally hot and as exquisitely cooked as if he were a Shah of Saudi Arabia. Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) will marry Mr Mason (Paul Copley), bringing to his tenant farm her dowry of her property. Now married, a highly educated Daisy (Sophie McShea) and Andy (reading and writing too as the best of them, certainly no one knows pig theory better) will come to live with them.

Have I left anyone out? Tom Bransom (Allen Leech)’s fate is as yet obscure. Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) have been granted an intermediary in the person of an astonishingly kind prospective daughter-in-law (what I can’t figure out is how she can marry that vicious son of his?).

While I just know in the longer run Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) will marry Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who will become a teacher in a school (he takes a test next to Daisy in Episode 6), there is another bit of a twist and turn down the road as it seems after all she had some feelings for the crook who arranged his theft in such a way as she went to prison. Both such good souls, they will work it out.

How easy some of them have it now? Lady Edith’s interviews of prospective women employees are without tension? No rivalry whatsoever. How is it that this newspaper is so easy to run?

Interviewee (2)

Interviewee (1)
What a gentle time of it they all have

As to Talbot, are there no aggressive males left on the planet? When with Lady Mary, he behaves as if he were in school assembly.

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In Downton Abbey only servants are harshly treated …

So why are we carrying on? in this excruciating slow motion? (For recaps see Anibundel: 5, Who would have thought the old man had so much blood?, 6: Downton Abbey as Antiques Roadshow lacks information). Because the ratings were so high and potential audience and money from advertisers were too tempting.

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On Episode 5: I admit to being a viewer whose emotions have at times been deeply engaged with these characters, so when the hospital debate came a crisis with Violet’s coercing Neville Chamberlain himself to come to luncheon in the hope he will not permit the local hospital to be amalgamated to a county-wide organization and yet another of these tension-filled meals became too much for Lord Grantham — and his ulcers burst. What a comment upon 6 years of these dinners and luncheons, not to omit the occasional strained breakfast. I found myself distractedly distressed, tears running out of my eyes, to see this man coughing up huge goblets of blood.

Ulcerbursting
Lord Grantham’s ulcer bursts — he has clearly had enough (Hugh Bonneville enters fully into the role assigned every time, DA 6, Episode 5)

So the first time I watched, I was started into upset, and my emotions rose strongly; but if a movie has real depth in it and has earned belief, adherence, the second time through should be stronger as you notice more. Alas (almost), the second time through I felt indifference; the contrived nature of the scene once the shock wore off and especially since Fellowes had relied on this melodrama. I read somewhere that the genuine shock on Elizabeth McGovern’s face came from her gown, face and hands being spattered with the false blood from across the room. That was not supposed to happen and you can do only so many takes with such a scene. In the event, they did two takes only. I could see how it neatly ties up with the hospital debate in such a way as the Dowager must lose, but I felt that a sensitive fine actor (Bonneville) who let himself go into the part was exploited by this use of him.

MosleleyBaxter
Mr Moseley helps Miss Baxter put on her coat after she has learned her ex-lover has pled guilty thus sparing her a confession of her complicity on the stand

As to Miss Baxter’s continuing agon, with the ever compassionate sensible Mr Moseley (who can put things into perspective with the joke — do you want me to go back and see if he will plead “not guilty”). What saves this series is not the humor (which is often not funny) but that continually as an undercurrent and some times rising to the surface (in coughed up blood?) are tensions, strains, disappointment, conflicted desires beneath the tranquil surface of life for these privileged lucky characters.

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Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs HARRY HADDEN-PATON as Bertie Pelham
The people on line are beginning to think somehow one group waiting has been favored over another, and the staff is doing what they can to push out such thinking from their minds.

On Episode 6: One of my favorite PBS shows has long been the Antiques Road Show on PBS as done in Britain; there is an American version, but for me not as much fun as these visits to large country houses and estates. And I have come to expect as a matter of course, that detailed knowledge of the most obscure objects will be forthcoming.

Taken as a gentle satire on the usual display of conjectured (they are careful to say it’s conjectured) information with prices that make the sellers unexpectedly happy, Episode 6 was worth a watch. There was a mild pleasure to be had in seeing how people really don’t know the facts wanted (or bogusly invented). Lady Edith couldn’t say who was in the picture; Cora, Lady Grantham did not know why one set of imitation shields over a fireplace had not been carved with any letters but over there was a bona fide Reynolds.

Doesntknow
She never thought to ask why the shields are not carved — the false importance such tours give to brick-a-bracks, making them numinous because “gazed at” in this ritual way is felt

Robert: “What on Earth can we show them to make it worth their money? Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?”

The dialogue where a tourist boy stumbles into Lord Grantham’s room to ask why he doesn’t get somewhere much more comfortable to live a bit heavy-handed but not all that improbable — if you think children are not alive to class and how rich people live differently. Mine and I knew by kindergarten.

Granthamandboy
Lord Grantham will soon tell the boy he lives this way because that’s what he is used to

What was registered was Fellowes’s looking askance at those people who come to gawk; and his quiet sneer that to keep such places going you have to let people in who envy a style of life they have misapprehended as exciting but who are really endlessly thinking of whether their egos have been assuaged.

Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs MAGGIE SMITH as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Miss Dencker comes near to be fired for too much loyalty. When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) defected, she accosted him. He writes a letter of complaint to the dowager. So we see whose feelings count. Whose life matters. The Dowager’s response is not gratitude. What? did Dencker think she had a right to be loyal. to have any feelings at all? On the spot, the Dowager will fire her. The way Dencker holds on is to threaten to tell the Dowaer that Spratt hid his crook-nephew, so Spratt must go upstairs and ask for her reinstatement. When Spratt succeeds (so quickly it’s probable the Dowager did not want to sack Dencker), far from promising never to threaten again, Dencker says she will use short blackmail whenever she has to.

ThomasContemplatesuicide
Thomas Barrow contemplates suicide as his utterly selfless teaching of Andrew Parker is sleazily misread (Rob James-Collier and Michael Fox, DA 6, Episode 6

Thomas is beginning to have had it. After all these years of faithful service and self-control on his part, he is still not trusted enough so that if he strikes up a friendship with a footman the first thought all have is he’s buggering him. And he is continually nagged to find a job where he might have something useful to do. Had this been imitative of life either he or Andy would have said he was teaching Andy to read.

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Strolling
Lady Edith and her suitor stroll through St James Park — or is it Kensington Gardens we are to suppose we are entering into (Episode 5)

So what have we gained from Episodes 5 & 6: And they all headed to live happily ever after despite the occasional strong strains

I did remember this poem while watching some of the quietly strained moments amid the engineered systematic indifference of most to most between characters who pass through much splendor and have who at times have something to me:

Musee de Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
— W. H. Auden

MrsCrawleysfaceregisteringfearofsuchamarriage
Mrs Crawley facing Lord Merton’s persistence registers on her prudent face fear of what her marrying Lord Merton might cause them to experience

Ellen

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DowagertoIsobel
Dowager Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith) to Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), POV

Violet, Dowager Lady Crawley: “Dear old Lady Darnley. Always liked to stuff the place with royalty. She was addicted to curtseying! How we laughed. It’s sad to think about it. — Ah, Spratt (Jeremy Swift). Could we have some tea?”
Spratt: ” – Your Ladyship.”
Denker (Sue Johnston): “It seemed a little chilly, m’lady, so I’ve brought you a shawl.”
Dowager: ” – Oh, you are a wonder, Dencker.”
Dencker: ” – Thank you.”
Dowager: ” – I shall miss you.”
Dencker: ” – M’lady?”
Dowager: “Oh, I’m sorry. No, forget I said that. After all, nothing is settled.”
Dencker: “What’s not settled? I don’t understand.”
Dowager: “I thought you told Spratt about the staff being cut back here and at the Abbey.”
Dencker: “Well, I may have mentioned it.”
Dowager “Oh, well … As I said, nothing’s decided.”
Dencker: “But Your Ladyship couldn’t manage without a maid.”
Dowager: “Mrs Crawley does. Don’t you? ”
Isobel Crawley: “Indeed I do, but I don’t wish to upset poor Dencker.”
Dencker: ” But Mrs Crawley also manages without a butler, m’lady.”
Dowager: “That is true, but I don’t think I could break with tradition to quite that degree.
Shall we have some tea?”
Dencker: “Your Ladyship” [distressed, leaving the room]
Dowager: [Calling] “Miss Dencker? – (CLOSES DOOR) – [Louder now] Don’t worry, Miss Dencker. I’ve got a copy of The Lady upstairs.”
Isobel Crawley: “You don’t really mean to manage without a lady’s maid, do you?”
Dowager: “(SCOFFS) Certainly not!”
Isobel: ” – Then why did you — ?”
Dowager: ” – Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.”

DowagertoIsobelFarshot
Far shot of Dencker unnerved, tottering off, Spratt, the butler, Spratt, supposed gratified)

Dear friends and readers,

The Sixth Season’s 1st & 2nd episodes make a telling parallel with Sherlock’s Third Season’s last episode: in both the originating material and ideas having been long exhausted, what emerges is raw actuating core: for Moffat and Gatiss a clever (modern, ever-so self-reflexive) gay subversion of a favorite hero series; for Julian Fellowes, a reactionary push-back by a male Mrs Miniver. I’m one of those who feels the first season was Fellowes at his (dreadful word) charming best: what more characteristic of the man than that flower show (a direct borrowing from Joyce Anstruther’s Mrs Miniver columns as well as the 1941 movie) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and her old suitor at the fair where she ever-so-delicately tells him no; and its analogy in a pig show and Mrs Hughes and her present suitor (Mr Carson aka Jim Carter) where she ever-so-delicately tells him (though an intermediary), well yes, but for once on her own terms:

NotaServant

“I just don’t want to be a servant on my wedding day.”

What is making this happen? ratings, advertisements, money. You don’t cancel or allow to go off-stage a cash cow. Which mini-series have been re-booted with great fanfare forty years on? The hits of the 70s.

For recaps I will be referring the reader to Anibundel (full disclosure, my daughter): The last days of Downton; March of the Pigs. For previous blogs over the 3rd, 4th, 5th seasons; the 1st through 3rd and miscellany and 4th, from my website.

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Jinxed (2)

JinxedLadyMary
Miss Rita Bevan (Nicola Burley) from on high jinxes Lady Mary

Downton Abbey has the advantage over Sherlock in that its mode is naturalistic (the term TV critics use for TV realism) so one need only follow the rhythms of how night follows day, probable consequence from action, and voila, you have your story’s structure. The difference between this year’s 1st and 2nd episode is that in the first it did seem as if Fellowes preening over his success (seen in a recent interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS reports which now acts as an advertising vendor for PBS programs); and having been grated on when it came to doing yet another — he decided for an in-your-face program. Stories circulate that he wanted out after the fourth season, as witness how he was at his wit’s end for matter in the fifth, resorting to repeated scenes of excruciation of our true heroine, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart). This is alluded to by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) with a solemnity that hides the ludicrous narrow perspective: “Anna, no woman living has been put through more of an emotional wringer than you.” As an hour it had all the spite of Violet Dowager Lady Crawley (aka Maggie Smith)’s insouciant threat of a dismissal to Dencker, who has replaced the misogynistic role of resident female bitch hitherto Miss OBrien’s. How Fellowes must’ve hated lady’s maids in his male childhood (little master’s thoughts: “giving themselves airs, who do they think they are?”).

In the first episode Fellowes incessantly punished all the servants. I do just hate how Fellowes punishes these people with continual humiliation and has them all so grateful for not being humiliated and punished yet worse. Not much comfort in Mr Carson’s “Nobody’s going to be flung into the road, I can assure you,” to Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) worried he will be fired since he has not been trained for anything but “service.” There was an increase in humanity in the second, in that a kindly solution seems in sight for Anna and Bates (Brendan Coyle) at last: now fully exonerated by the simple expedient of the murderer of Mr Green coming forward to confess (telling enough, one of his victims), our true heroine’s latest theme for self-hated and immiseration: she has an incompetent cervix (it’s almost comical). On the other hand, the solution for Daisy (Sophie McShea) having precipitated the new owner of her Mr Mason (Paul Copley), her father-in-law’s farm (Mr Henderson) into irrevocably throwing him out, because she dared, dared, to speak up against the systemic injustice of the private property system is to push out the Mr Drewes (the ever-patient all-heart Andrew Scarborough) with Mrs Drewes’s (Emma Lowdnes) happiness (!) as Lord Grantham’s rationalization and Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) surfacing plan to replace them with Mr Mason.

TurnedOut
The Drewes, finally tenants turned out

Granthamsremorse
Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)’s remorse — the last stills of the 2nd episode; in the first season Grantham’s remorse led him to keep Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), not now

It’s remarkable how these phrases all coming down to the same idea, echo and repeat with variations throughout both episodes: the break-up of the old hierarchy was unflinchingly destructive of all.

The key word being surviving (Lady Mary)

You sound like a governess in fear of dismissal … (Dowager to Isobel Crawley)

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy): At least you know you won’t be asked to leave until you’ve got somewhere to go.
Barrow: I don’t know anything of the sort.

Interviewer: – Why are you leaving now? –
Thomas: It seems like the right time for a move.
Interviewer: Does it? Does it, indeed?

That’s from the work interview in the second episode, which Fellowes knows as much as anyone else is a form of suppliancy at best, hazing being not uncommon, where Thomas submits to sneers, mortification. What are the duties of an “assistant butler?’ he can ask; he cannot ask for how much on the first go-round. (The first.)

I mean who wants to work in Woolworth’s? Certainly not the Dowager who in the first season couldn’t get over Gwen wanting to go out of “service” to become a typist. Well, in real life my mother-in-law: she traded in a 7 day a week, 11 hour a day job (half day off every other week) for miniscule literal money as a lower governess in a great house for a 5 and 1/2 day week, with a wage that she could just about pay for a flat and her own food on in Woolworth’s. It was much more liberty and money, her own space to live in.

We must give them time to gnash their teeth alone (about the change in power structure of the hospital).

One servant to another: – Did you drink at luncheon? – No, I did not.
Reply: One wrong move and snap, you’re out on your ear.

Consider how Mr Mason grieves when he sees a box he contributed to for some wedding (where he contributed a small sum, so expensive was this box, that took him weeks to save from his income) now on auction. I will be told that I am to read this paradigm and all these utterances ironically, e.g., this is ironic:

Lady Mary: Don’t worry, Carson, your reception will be in the great hall if it’s the last thing I do.
Mr Carson: How reassuring, My Lady.
Edith (Laura Carmichael): How very reassuring .. (Edith was given a few good ripostes)

It’s impossible in context: in the first episode the continuous thread juxtaposed through (until we have our culmination in the auction) is the story of a seemingly smug, remarkably nasty, sneering financially aggressive female hotel servant who lies to intrude herself on Downton Abbey, in order to harass Lady Mary for money because she knows Lady Mary went to bed with the present married Lord Gillingham and can shame Lady Mary in the newspapers. No understanding is given this woman whatsoever. She is like some mean witch a glance at whom leads Lady Mary to fall off her horse. She is as weak though against Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) as — let us recall — an exactly analogous intrusive aggressive female was in the opening episode of the fourth season. Has anyone forgotten the sexually voracious Lady Ansthruther (Anna Chanceller, previously Miss Bingley, her name a perhaps unconscious allusion to Mrs Miniver) who sought to make Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) a kept man. In this former story an startlingly old (and some might hope) forgotten stereotype about the sexual appetites of thwarted (i.e., single) women came out.

The most scintillatingly alive moment of the second episode, the most pungently delivered line occurs when the Dowager Lady Grantham revels in a yet another moment of spite: yes her excuse is she is getting back at Denker for telling all the other servants they may be let go (Dencker has replaced Miss Obrien for resident female bitch) by carelessly letting her know she may be fired at any moment.

Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear, Maggie quivers with a spurt of glee. That says it all. Gives the game of inequality away: the 1% enjoy their power. It’s not enough to be rich, you have to be above others and how can you experience this?

But as to costumes, Maggie Smith won hands down.

Indoors
Indoors – the dark red suits her very well

LightBluesandGreys
Light blues and greys were favored for her coloring

It seems to me a great effort was made to dress in her a series of exquisitely flattering dresses and place her in angle that favored the outlines of her face, her coloring, caught her body gestures and face. She had so many changes and so many lovely hats, it’s hard to pick. As in previous seasons, Fellowes’s control led to the camera making love to McGovern, so here our aging princess of great actresses. From her career and what I know of her life, Maggie Smith is stuff of the finest spirit.

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servantsentrance (2)
Barrow walking into the new intimidating place (don’t miss those lions)

servantsentrance (1)
He of course goes into the servant’s entrance

Scene
Interviewee not making eye contact

Fullgaze
The employer’s unashamed full gaze

So wherein was the 2nd episode superior to the 1st? It returned to the rhythms of the first season. The quiet diurnal feel of every day life. Yes in both of these latest hour concoctions, as he does everywhere, Fellowes slides over the deeper disquiet one should have over any number of incidents in both episodes. The man has an uncanny ability to put his finger on suppurating wounds in relationships and systems and then pull away to safety. It’s safe to dwell on Mrs Hughes’s shyness in marrying Mr Carson who loves her tenderly. Edith’s story and desire to go live in London is told blandly; I’d love to know what Rosamund (Samantha Bond) really does in London. We never do, only that she goes out to plays only when she has friends visiting.

Moments
Lady Edith emerging from her manager’s office where she has lost a round, Lady Rosamund Painswick waiting outside — Lady Mary says she and Anna have had so many moments together, so too Lady Rosamund and Edith (over Marigold) but they are kept superficial where we most want to know

In the first episode Fellowes uses the juiced-up faux crisis in thread after thread become so common in film stories (often disguised by having them linked up to some mystery-thriller conclusion). In the second he does not. There is no juiced-up crisis moment in the interview scene of Thomas Barrow. In both he depends on us caring for the characters and I do for a few: Anna and Mr Bates, Daisy and Mr Mason, Miss Baxter and Mr Molseley, and yes even Thomas, so that another of his gift’s — for plangent dialogue and aphorism were effective.

Anna
Anna and Mr Bates — camera on her

Some might say he overdoes this in the concluding incident of the Drewes — but then we are made to feel a real wrong is done them when from the car, clutching the child, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) smoothly agree ever so quickly with the removal of the Drewes: “it’s for the best.”

One of my commentators recently wrote in response to a couple of my blog remarks: “he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics”; “fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity“)

Comment; He exposes the weaknesses of his storytelling. I thought the first series of Downton Abbey was brilliant, but I have been progressively more disappointed by subsequent series. As I continued to watch the show, I repeatedly saw him squander enormous potential for emotionally-resonant storytelling.

This emotionally resonant story-telling (thrown away or perverted in the final message or not) was given more play in the second episode. We saw some of it towards the end of the first when Lord and Lady Grantham go down to the kitchen and talk about the food they find in the new refrigerator. The scene quietly epitomizes the theme of changing times: I do not remember either hitherto coming down to the kitchen to grab a snack. Nothing was juiced-up here. After they ate, to bed upstair they retired. In the second episode Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) acquiring test exams for Daisy to practice with. For all its slithering cruelty, the way the Dowager handles Dencker is done without juicing the turns. Lady Mary’s reciprocating decent behavior helping Anna to bring a pregnancy to full term.

(Using my crystal ball I predict the birth of a child in the Christmas episode, one who like Lady Mary and Sybil’s child is legitimate with a loving father and mother and assured future.)

The development of the fight over who will control the hospital. Mrs Hughes’s stubborn resistance of a take-over of “her day” by the hegemonic order she has lived in all her life. Not that she escapes it much: I foresee the wedding will be in the schoolhouse (like everything else, as the Dowager would doubtless tell us, standing on the extensive property of Lord Grantham) during this moment of (for her) liminal transition.

The two continuous threads of the second episode concern the question of where the latest wedding (in the series) is to be held and the question of the hospital. I found the dialogues over the hospital improved as the characters (the way they do in soap opera structures) recurred and re-formulated their positions over and over, bringing in new aspects as they went. And will end on two of these from the second episode:

The first intertwined with the thwarted marriage of Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith):

Walkingandtalking
Walking and talking

Isobel: ” – Do you post your own letters?”
Merton: ” – Ha! It was vital it went off today and I’m never very good at delegating. As a matter of fact, I’m glad to see you. I’d value your advice. I’ve had a letter from the Royal Yorkshire Hospital, asking if I’d head the new Board of Charitable Donors. We’d be working alongside.”
Isobel: “Well, that’s if I stay the almoner, once we’ve amalgamated.”
Merton: “Well, of course you would.”
Isobel: “When we combine, we’ll avoid duplicating our efforts. The whole thing would work a lot more efficiently than it does now.”
Merton: “So you don’t disagree with the plan? Well, don’t you see what it could mean? How old is our X-ray machine? Does Clarkson really know how to use it? What advanced surgery do we offer? None.
If a family at the Abbey has a cut finger, they go to London, – but what about everyone else? – I bet you’d go to London too. – (CHUCKLES) I probably would, but I shouldn’t have to. And what about people who don’t have that option? So the battle lines are drawn and now we must fight it out.”

Upon Lady Grantham visiting the hospital (she is leaning towards giving control to a larger authority): part of the context is Isobel and the Dowager’s on-going vexed relationship

Dowager: “I don’t want Cousin Cora to feel outnumbered.”
Isobel: “It isn’t friendly, you know, to stir her up into opposition.”
Dowager: “It’s not very friendly to squash her into submission either.”
Cora: “Excuse me, but I don’t need to be stirred or squashed.”
– The facts speak for themselves.
– Your facts or mine? – What’s the difference? – Mine are the true facts.
Dr Clarkson (David Robb): Shall we continue this in my office?
Dowager: “I wish we could persuade you to help us stem the tide of change.
cora: “I’m just not convinced it’s the right way forward, to go backward.”
Dowager: “I do not understand you, my dear. – Are you saying Dr Clarkson is a bad doctor?
Cora: ” – Certainly not.”
Dowager: “And the other doctors that use our hospital — are they no good either?”
Cora: “I’m sure everyone does their very best, but there are new methods now, new treatments, new machines. Great advances have been made since the war. – Can’t we share in them?”
Isobel: ” – Hear, hear.”
Dr Clarkson: “Of course. I intend that we should.”
Isobel: “- We haven’t got the money.”
Cora: “- I see I’m not needed to lend you strength.”
Dowager: “You’re fully in command of the argument. Have you no pride in what we have achieved with our hospital?
Isobel: “I don’t think pride comes into it.”
Dowager: “Well, I warn you, Dr Clarkson and I will fight to the last ditch.”

And so the Dowager will. So did the aristocrats as a group, including those who lost much property. But these super-rich people, they keep making a come-back. It’s a big deal when they come down to breakfast:

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Cora putting together her own meal:

Ellen

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Bryan Cranston as Trumbo — who did write in a tub, while drinking alcohol and smoking …

Dear friends and readers,

I recommend not missing this film. Whatever the flaws, this is a strong film I wish everyone in the US would see. Alas, it’s a film for our Trump time.

To begin with, qua film it’s better than Truth (a story of the destruction of Mary Mapes’s career upon her attempting to expose Bush Jr’s lies about his military career), which never ceases to be presented in a hyped melodramatic fashion that prevents the viewer from having any sense of the real character of Mapes, though it does project the (today important) political message that news organizations have been hijacked and corrupted by political organizations and the profit motive. See “Why TV News must die:”: Bad tv news outlets cheer on horrendous candidates in sickly parodies of journalism, and those monstrous campaigns make money for the tv outlets.” It’s also dangerous for they promote bad people to office.

This is due largely to Cranston’s persuasive enactment of the man through a script that does trace his private as well as outward political and screenplay-writing life over a thirty-year period. Jordan Mintzer of Hollywood Reporter:

Cranston, who sheds the mimicry and pontificating of earlier scenes to turn Trumbo into a wry, self-deprecating and somewhat cheeky older man, even if he continued to stand up for what was right

Ty Burr of The Boston Globe:

Cranston’s performance is the motor that runs Trumbo, and that motor never idles, never flags in momentum or magnetism or idealistic scorn.

The pace of the film is also much slower than Truth, Trumbo boasts scenes longer than the usual of popular-style movies nowadays. Jay Roach was the director, probably appropriately the person to give credit to here is the writer, John McNamara. I say appropriately for an important phase of Trumbo’s career was his work was his writing for The Screen Writer where for years he was (rightly) scathing about the film industry’s bathetic scripts, crude commercialism, and significantly reactionary politics. The first subject is dear to my heart as anyone who reads my blog will know: I wrote a paper last spring on “The Importance of Screenplays” as a central instrument to making and understanding a fine film.

Trumbo also does not succumb to the mystery-suspense thriller plot-design increasingly ubiquitous to the extent it forms the spine of the recent Suffragette, a third political film for this season. (A fourth is Bridge of Spies, which apparently boasts a remarkable performance by Mark Rylance as the British spy working for Russians.)

Instead it harks back to the very 1940s style films Trumbo himself wrote: an “inspirational struggle of our Horatio Alger hero against the forces of darkness” (I quote from Bruce Biskind’s review in Cineaste). Incessant hard work, earnest caring about his fellow human beings, controlled courage when humiliated (in a powerful prison scene Trumbo is stripped naked and forced to display his private body parts to a heavily-armed guard on the other side of bars), over-worked in prison (and jeered at, insulted by an ironic black man who “hates” communists because they don’t “love this country” which has done so much for him), a strong talent which he manages to sell to D-film-makers carries our hero through to breaking the blacklist (we are told). And at the close of the film we get the final rousing speech, in this film moving delivered in a film clip of Trumbo himself in an interview he gave after it was revealed he had written Spartacus. The film harked back to 1930s and 40s films I’ve seen where Ronald Colman (Talk of the Town) and Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) take this role and it can still be seen in the still watched Jimmy Stewart telling us It’s a Wonderful Life!.

Beyond Cranston’s performance (and the actors playing with him, especially Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird), the film interweaves the present film with documentary film from the 1950s through 70s. These are startlingly revealing and make the analogous points the film-makers surely meant: HUAC insists in these documents cuts on its right to invade the privacy of US citizens “to protect the nation” from “enemies;” the first amendment is laughed at. We see a young ever so plausible Ronald Reagan. We see John Wayne haranguing people. I went with a friend who said substitute the word “Muslim” for communist and we could be in 2015. We glimpse the murder of the Rosenbergs. Some of the actors are dressed successfully to look close to, and act like the original people. Towards the end of the film when Cranston is an aging Trumbo he looks like him. These give needed ballast to the central threads.

I say needed because there is a great deal here that is gratingly untrue or evaded. The impression is given Trumbo just about single-handedly undermined and destroyed the blacklist by writing so many money-making screeplays and at least two academy award winners. He did support himself by writing scripts that sold movies under a pseudonym and at least three of these were nominated or given prestigious awards, but the blacklist had begun to deteriorate slowly with the advent of TV. He did nothing single-handedly which I’ve a hunch he’d have been the first to say.

One thing Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid shows is that the production code as much as political censorship was responsible for the inanities of popular films until the middle 1950s, and films like those made by Kazan (On the Waterfront no matter how rightist and Streetcar Named Desire), as importantly, The Pawnbroker (1964) ended vigilant vigilance, preparing the way for a more adult presentation of political ideas. The full truth would have to take into account the effect of British and other European films of the 1980s (My Beautiful Laundrette); only recently have films like Trumbo become common once again. it is untrue that Edward G. Robinson named names; he testified three times and called himself “a dupe of the communists” but he never named anyone.

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Helen Mirren as the vicious Hedda Hopper (she was)

Evaded also is Trumbo’s long career as a eloquent polemicist: he was himself targeted, a scapegoat on the basis of his own fierce hostility to the preponderance of terrible films in The Hollywood Spectator. He made enemies. Roach’s films shows Trumbo standing up for the rights of production crews to strike for higher wages. But Trumbo attacked the inflated incomes of the movie owners: he was a pre-2015 attacker of egregious inequality (see Tim Palmer, “Side of the Angels: Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Trade Press and the Blacklist,” Cinema Journal 14:4 (2005):57-74). I would be surprised the movie didn’t bring this out to make more analogies, but have read it’s based on Bruce Cook’s biography where fundamental research into other aspects of Trumbo’s career does not appear to have been done, or if so, used. There is no serious examination of the 1950: Trumbo’s great work is the tract, The Time of the Toad, comparable to Lilian Hellman’s Soundrel Time. The experiential emphasis of the film is on the trajectory of Trumbo’s admirable endurance of prison, years of incessant demeaning effort, ostracism, and (made into a comedy) final break-through when his apparently mindless bosses throw the persecutors out using a large heavy stick.

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Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird

Still as a political statement and viscerally moving story, Trumbo is as good as Suffragette, and like Suffragette better than most films I’ve seen all year — especially if you consider its theme. It shows the destruction of many lives; it reminds me of Kenneth Johnson’s Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1970s in conveying how little it takes to rob someone of a decent place to live, to ruin someone’s private relationships, make sure they never fulfill their talents or are useful to society.

This is where the story of Arlen Hird comes in: the movie shows everyone continually smoking, and this man develops cancer. The disease goes into remission but he finds himself unable to produce shlock under a false name rapidly and the stress and misery of his existence (his wife leaves him) leads to an early death. You see how easily hatred and fear is whipped up among people. The film ends on the real Trumbo talking in an interview with a powerful statement that now he has gotten back his name.

If only it were as easy to get rid of those who can put people into prison for political beliefs and activities as John Goodman as Frank King manages:

It’s a condescending easy quip making fun to call it “a B-movie about an A-list screenwriter”. Like Suffragette because of the way it’s made it will reach a large audience and appeal to their sympathies, to what they admire, what they would like to believe is true, that an individual can “win against the system.” We need more of this kind of didacticism if that’s what it takes to teach or reach people. Peter DeBruge of Variety:

Trumbo may be clumsy and overly simplistic at times, but it’s still an important reminder of how democracy can fail (that is, when a fervent majority turns on those with different and potentially threatening values), and the strength of character it takes to fight the system

Earlier this year I strongly recommended Diane Johnson’s biography of Dashiell Hammett: A life and I reiterate that. Johnson demonstrates that in the immediate post WW2 period: very quickly persecutions began, quickly committees formed to “root” out communism (really FDRism), a number of laws passed which parallel Hitler’s early years (outlawing the communist party — freedom of speech means no outlawing parties).  Making the world safe for the fascism to bloom we’ve seen since; the McCarthy era was this brought to a high pitch of terror. He was eventually helplessly ill, destroyed by thugs, a poignant story.

Having watched the film I found myself taking down from my shelves Trumbo’s The Time of the Toad, subtitled (by the way) A Study of Inquisition in America and putting it on my TRB pile as necessary to recall and blog about in this world where Donald Trump is said to be a front-runner in Republican polls for the President of the US and has advocated shutting down or severe controls on who can use the Internet.

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Toad as in toadies

Ellen

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Truth
The team (Elizabeth Moss, Topher Grace to the left) intensely anxious as they watch their TV journalism play out (2015 Truth, scripted, directed James Vanderbilt, out of Mapes’s memoir)

Dear friends and readers,

The climax of James Vanderbilt’s Truth (directed and scripted by him) is a conversation Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) have on a terrace in New York City. Very glamorous setting. Rather has decided to retire to protect himself; he is telling Mary she must knock under to pressure because she’s too young to give up the investigative journalist career ahead of her. Mapes had just delivered a documented story of the horrors at the Abu Graib prison tortures by Americans — and seemed to have such potential.

But Rather does not argue that. Instead he goes off on a tangent which relates to his own career. He tells Mary stories of early news shows, of how he was among the first to start up Sixty Minutes, and how Sixty Minutes showed a TV channel could make money on the news. The irony here is rich. The reason for the existence of new shows had been to satisfy the FCC demands that all “sides” have equal time. But now they could turn a profit. Redford as Rather looks intensely wry. His next words imply what happened was the profit motive took over other news-shows, so they all now are the product of their advertiser’s advertisements galore and exist in a universe where other news-shows have become forms of entertainment and no serious investigative reporting is done. It’s not wanted.

This movie is not getting the attention it should get nor the positive reviews for its content. It has flaws, but they are of the artistic kind (too much melodrama, too much hype), but it’s retelling of the story puts the emphasis on the right place: the rot in news shows themselves. At its center is a courageous woman.

Truth is about the rot within that we see the full results of in 2015 on not only Fox and CNN but new shows that are still respectable. We see how one reason Mary Mapes rushed her story was it was necessary to keep the ratings of Sixty Minutes high. We see how her high-powered pressuring methods were a product of this system and worked successfully within it as long as she didn’t expose the wrong group of people. It indicts the news-papers that repeated the ploy and method of the Bush administration at the time to attack the story that would have exposed Bush’s lack of any military experience just as Kerry was smeared by distorted stories of his experience of the realities of actual military life.

Thus the strongly qualified praise meted out to exploration of what investigative journalism via a TV medium has become, which is what Vanderbilt’s film, Truth, tries to dramatize unbiasedly, is disquieting. The New York Times appears to want to uphold the establishment’s judgement that these reporters at a minimum exercised bad judgement (she is “not exonerated” — from what, pray tell?), and suggests the movie is a detective story as propaganda out of political bias. In the film Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) avers that for her she was bringing out the truth, but it undermines her too: for ambition; as family bread-winner. Read also Roger Ebert’s Brian Tallerico half-dismissal; Tim Robery in the Telegraph (the actors focused on); Peter Travers strange short Rolling Stone review. David Edelstein for the Vulture at lease explains the situation, what is said to have happened, and the result : not Bush exposed, but Rather’s departure from CBS and Mary Mapes unable to work in journalism for a long time afterward — recalling Nina Tottenberg who was fired after in the 1980s she bravely exposed lies about marijuana.

I recommend seeing it though I have mixed feelings about the film. The continual hectic pace and hyped-up melodrama is at times over the top (not that TV producers don’t need to make a deadline), the message speech (true enough) shouted by Mike Smith, about to be dismissed to homelessness once again (Topher Grace as Mary’s aide), that Viacom profits are protected here is intended as deep background. But it does come across as hysteria, and the dialectic gives the man firing Mike the opportunity to call him a fool for thinking all the people in the office are evil. Mike was not saying that.

The film was also marred by its closing scenes, which included an insistent upbeat presentation of Redford as Dan Rather walking away surrounded by admiring loving compassionate faces. Those who fired Mary and were working to push Dan out, were represented as remorseful (!), and as having acted only because they had to, as nearly (the film makers did draw back) overcome with guilt because they feel for their ex-friends and associates. Right. As with a protest novel, a protest film needs at a minimum to reach the wider audience and such sentimentality is one crowd-pleaser.

I was moved at its penultimate scenes. The performances were very good: Stacey Keach as the opaque whistleblower Bill Burkett and Noni Hazlehurst as his wife.

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Hazlehurst lights into Mapes for pretending to care about her husband’s health with the implication they have used and are now discarding him for no good reason. Some watching the film may come away believing her perspective, holding to it.

In the film’s scenes nuances get nowhere. Still I can be manipulated. I was touched as the film-maker intended me to be when Mary leaned on her husband (Conor Burke), and agreed to go out for walk with him now: she’ll have plenty of time to recuperate. Vanderbilt and Mapes (as it’s her book) are presenting material much less socially acceptable than the coming film (I want to see badly) Suffragette. Who is against the rights of women to fight wars? A general political witch-hunt has been dramatized too in the story of Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston, no less) “coming soon.”

Perhaps Mapes’s caustic memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power does suggest that she became an aggressive reporter after facts and documents because her father had physically abused her, and she was standing up to him. That she worshipped Rather as a father substitute in the form of a mentor.
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Real Mary Mapes — as I looked at the photo I remembered this moment of distress, harassment, shock, sheer tiredness registered on her face

The film needed to provide a usable past for understanding the new shows’ behavior towards their journalists, and the scapegoating (witch-hunt) of these journalists as their framework. It did come close. It’s not a propaganda but a political film and the reason it may not fully convince is its melodramatic mode, not its content.

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Redford, Vanderbilt and Keach on set — Redford has done strong political films in his life

The full context of 2004 was the Iraq war, its falseness, and we do see in the film Tony Blair saying how much he wants peace (two weeks ago we read his memorandum to Bush a year before the war that Blair would support attacking Iraq), early footage from the Iraq war. The film could have emphasized this context more as when I watched it this afternoon in November 2015 I couldn’t forget the refugee crisis in Europe, the massacres in Syria, the raw violence of Afghanistan, ISIS; the Bush presidency as another step in the direction of chaos in the colonized lands, and the impoverishment blight engineered across Europe and the western hemisphere. Its topic was spot on: the origin and develpoment of “news” shows like Fox (liars), CNN & MSNBC (compromised), which are influential.

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This image is seen in the movie — it was shown by Mapes as the photo of one of the people tortured at Abu Graib, a human being suffering horribly standing as he is humiliated, de-humanized and then laughed at by that outfit

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For me the worst thing about the film had nothing to do with its news and war politics or art: it is Cate Blanchett’s new rubbery mask-face, which her inner experience of intense drama managed to project through:

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Also Mary at worship of Dan

Poor woman (I mean Blanchett), she’s had some kind of cosmetic surgery or face-lift or used some kind of wax on her face: her face can’t do subtlety any more the way it could. In this film’s scenes nuances get nowhere anyway, but she might want to do great stage plays again. I also felt her American accent as disconcerting because together with the new false flesh mask fitted around what used to be the old facial structure, the actress I’m familiar with him seemed hidden away. Surely she did not have to do this to keep getting good roles.

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Cate Blanchett when she still had her real face: 2013, Blue Jasmine

Ellen

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