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Archive for the ‘visual art’ Category


Cherry Blossoms (Elmar Wepper as Rudi Angermeier, and Aya Irizuki [de] as Yu)

“What I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past” (Janet Hulstrand)

The impermanence of life is at the core of Cherry Blossoms, an exquisite German film directed by Doris Dorrie (How to Cook Your Life). A wonderful sequence in the story takes place during the cherry blossom season at the beginning of spring in Japan. Hanami is celebrated for about ten days as families, friends, and visitors gather under trees while their pink and white flowers are in full bloom. The cherry blossom is seen as a symbol of beauty, awakening, and the transience of life … (Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat)

Dear friends and readers,

Summer is slowly turning into autumn, and I’ve written only once of this year’s summer reading and movies: David Nicholls’s Us, book & film, probably because I’ve only read and seen one I’d so characterize, and now as the days begin to shorten more quickly, I feel I’ve been remiss, partly because my spirits have been again rejuvenated by a movie and a book.


The audio book

First, the book, which will require my speaking first of David Downie as I encountered him in his earlier Paris to the Pyrenees last spring, and providing contexts with other books, and French movies. I took a course at Politics and Prose (the DC bookstore) called A Literary Tour of France, it was somewhat disappointing as the teacher refused to discuss any serious topics (!), and seemed to live in dread of offending people in the classroom, but she did offer two books, with real merit, the equivalent of Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon’s first and second Trip movies, the one where they drive around Derbyshire, into the Lake District ending at Bolton Abbey before returning to London, and the second a journey through Italy, from Rome past Pompeii to Naples.


Somewhere in the West Riding — an idyllic dream vision of what I remember of the rare walks Jim and I took out into the Yorkshire moors

Travel books encompass books about people making a home usually in what is to me a “foreign” country; they can be the encyclopedia type Trollope favored in Australia and New Zealand, the let’s analyze this country, his North America, or his jolly When the Mastiffs Went to Iceland (the nearest he got to popular travel books). I think the genre is invented in the 18th century where the idea of truly telling the truth of what you are seeing, of cultures being different, of trying to discover history this way began with Johnson and Bowell’s twin tours; a second variant is Susannah Moodie’s 30 Years in the Bush, a classic first Canadian book, about how she settled into the countryside to become Canadian.

Jeffrey Greene’s French Spirits: A House, A Village, and A Love Affair in Burgundy, was assigned first, and begins well, but David Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees sustains the type. Greene’s French Spirits is similarly replete with intelligent insight into places, objects, people. He and his partner are marrying and decide to buy and renovate as a place to live an ancient church: they have plenty of money, live upper class educated lives (whose values Greene never questions, the source of the money never told): Greene is trying to capture his sense of what life against history is, French culture in history, and uses these “odd people” in the countryside to bring this out. Greene’s book is light and half-way through falls off when he goes into these chapters (to me tasteless) on his wedding but it is picturesque and evocative of middle France. He and his wife renovated a presbytery to make it into a home: the history of the building and the real problems of trying to renovate such a structure are absorbing, teach one about buildings.

Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees is a sort of sceptic’s pilgrimage across that part France and down to the Pyrenees. He’s more somber in spirit, and the character he comes across made less eccentric at the same time more locally embodied. He has rejected much that Greene is content to accept: the materialism, hierarchies, fashion-laden admiration for what reeks of rank, monetary success. Downie is exploring his own mind (quietly, not that openly), his past, and the past of the countryside he and his wife are walking through. One needs courage and a partner to do what they are doing — — just walking following an old route and not sure whether they will find an inn in a given place, or the kind of food and drink they might require. They are doing their journey in an entirely non-commercial way.

Gradually his book turns into a more political polemic attached to French history (eons back) and the recent political events (1871 and the French occupation in WW2, Algeria, modern emergence of fascism). An emerging theme is how much is left across the French countryside of WW2. We saw that in Calais and Brittany. Downie describes so much left of the Resistance (and Nazis’ atrocities) and so criss–crosses for me A French Village (and Come What May). It’s a pilgrimage, in which the French landscape seems to contain almost no one, they have to find taverns and even once stay in someone’s home, take chances, depend on themselves and other people. It put me in mind of Anne Radcliffe’s gothics at their spiritual landscape best. Colleen’s Paris (a blog reviewer) captures the book very well, telling you the details of the story too. Downie’s book is more genuinely worked out than Greene’s.

Both are a long distance from VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival (Salmon Rushdie finds it too sad), but they move in this direction of deep meditation in a landscape about the history of the place through what’s physically left there and what we can know (and in Naipaul’s case) dream deeply and re-create to make of himself (to the person) embedded in this foreign landscape — through his memories too. For Naipaul it’s the landscape around Stonehenge, as a strong antidote to the culture he was born in and has rejected. Karen Langley in her Kaggsy’s Ramblings writes of a lighter gay variant, Hugo Charteris’s Marching with April (introduced beautifully by Frederic Raphael), the writer and his family determine to leave London and takes root in an ancient place, the Highlands (out of his background) and attempt to build a new life: this time the Highlands. It will come after Downie’s Paris Paris, is lower on onw my night-table’a pile.

To be honest, I’m only half-way through Paris, Paris but I’m just loving it. One problem with many travel books is they fail to convey a deep sense of what it feels like to be in the place — Downie has this ability. Each area of Paris the reader is taken to, is fitted into a larger coherent picture of the city, and then itself explored visually, physically, and mentally. The photographs are beautifully done (black-and-white) and epitomize a mood, the kinds of history that occurred in the place and/or what is there now, the people he sees. I’ve been to Paris three times now, once long ago for 6 weeks on my own in a cold winter, and twice with Jim and Izzy, 2 weeks around Christmas time and the New Year (2000), and the following summer. I am learning more, getting a better feel of the place than I’ve ever done and think if I could go back how much more I’d benefit. Each chapter is a little Eleanor Clarke, Rome and a Villa. Each one forms a walking tour; you are exploring with him. A shorter review by Kirkus. Janet Hulstrand says rightly there is so much here of history, literature, art, that it’s almost impossible to capture in a couple of paragraphs, but I believe she comes near and regales us with the details evocatively.

Downie himself, talking in France, about the book. He begins slowly, and has trouble getting into contact with the audience but as he goes on he’s extraordinary: the romanticism of Paris is the result of its negativity, that it make each visitor invisible, and conveys amid its austere life suffering, time past, darker passions contained.

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Hannelore Elsner as Nadja Uhi, with either one of the film’s younger actresses or perhaps the director? or costume maker?

I had confided in a friend how much I was again missing Jim this summer, and my friend recommended to me a 2008 German film, Cherry Blossoms, about an older man whose wife dies suddenly. I looked up the reviews and found most reviews to be vitriolically hostile or indifferent. For the record, I watched The Toyko Story and found it to be frozen, creepy, too long, too still, absurdly over-rated. The only parallels are the angry children and the deaths.

Cherry Blossoms opens with Nadja, the wife (a wonderful German actress, Hannelore Elsner) listening to doctor’s tell her that Rudi, her husband has not got long to live. She cries silently; they tell her to take him on a trip and she says he hates adventures. He follows the same narrow routine everyday of his life, including the sandwich she makes him for lunch. It would seem despite her staying home, being there for him all the time as he forges forth in the world, he stays within her sphere.

So no surprise when he follows her advice as she proposes a trip to visit their grown children in Berlin or some other German city (they live in a country town or suburb) and to the beach by a hotel. We see how much they do love one another, are dependent on one another, also glimpse the hostility to them of their grown children who slowly it’s revealed find their presence even so briefly an encumbrance, annoyance. Her favorite son lives far away in Tokyo — later we learn he moved there, that far to escape the domination of her quiet presence.

Quiet mood on a boardwalk; they move to the beach, by the shore, and suddenly she dies.

The film is half an hour in. The rest is Rudi’s very hard adjustment, then a chosen trip to Tokyo to see the son who fled them. At first he is bewildered and this son also hostile; they adjust to one another; he gets lost early on, but soon he is finding his way. Tokyo seemed to me as inhumane as I’ve thought it. The son says everyone works weekends, long days, all the time. They live in small boxes in high look-alike buildings, where everything looks the same. Their talk reveals that indeed the wife had always had this inexplicable desire to visit Japan, had wanted to be a Japanese stylized dancer. We have seen photos of her when young so dancing.

He has brought with him his wife’s clothes, at first he puts them on the bed beside him to sleep (what he started at home) but then he puts them on under his coat. He sees and then introduces himself to a street performer, Yu, an 18 year old girl who turns out to be homeless. She does a dance where she appears to get into contact with the dead; she says she is with her mother this way. She wears white make-up on her face — as the aborigine did in Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign he was willing to die, to let the whites murder him rather than flee them some more. He and she bond, form a friendship, she says she is an orphan and he suddenly cuts loose from this son (who has said he moved to Tokyo to get away from his mother who he loved so much but was overwhelming).

He takes the girl to Mount Fuji which his wife dreamed of going to. She dreamed of being a dancer, of going to Japan. He feels very badly that he stood in her way. We do see how middle class people in Japan take holidays: in a vast hotel-like structure where they live semi-communally — all eat in the same vast room. He and Yu are failing to see the Mount as each day it is so cloudy; and one morning he gets up very early and sees the mount: a vision. He hurries back, dresses in a Japanese dancing costume for a man that he has brought, and returns to the shore. As he dances, we see a hand reach his, and his wife is there, visible, similarly dressed. They dance intensely together. The camera moves away to Yu, just waking up. She discovers Rudi is gone, a couple of hours go by and he does not return. Now she too goes to the shore and finds him dead, laying by the shore. There follows a Japanese style funeral with his son and Yu presiding over his ashes in an urn, and then another funeral in Germany. The film ends quietly with the camera returning to the girl who has returned to the park to dance for money and to reach her mother. There is a dedication at the movie’s close, apparently by Dorrie remembering someone who perhaps died.

I use the phrase very moving so often, so let me say very very touching. Here is a review by Frederick and MaryAnn Brussat which begins to do the film justice. It’s beautifully tastefully filmed, written, the music just perfect, everything, tactful, controlled. I found it uplifting.

I do have one (many) regrets from my marriage: I never went to the shore or the beach with Jim enough. I knew how he burnt, and I’d get bored. Now I wish I had gone every summer with him — we’d go when we went to England to the Chitterings beach, once we went to Brighton. This summer I didn’t get to the shore at all. It is a three hour drive from my house to reach a public beach.

So these are the summer books and movies I have experienced this season of 2021; Nicolls at mid-summer and these at journey’s end.

Ellen

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Father (in his sepulchal voice) There was this English butler out in India — one day he goes into the dining room and what’s he see under the table: a tiger. Not turning a hair, he goes to the drawing room– ‘Excuse me, m’lord’ — (gives imitation of slight cough)– and whispering so as not to upset the ladies: ‘I’m very sorry, m’lord, there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps his lordship will permit use of the twelve-bores?’ They go on drinking their tea and then there’s three gunshots. They don’t think nothing of it — this being India where they’re used to anything — and when the butler is back to refresh the teapots, he says, cool as a cucumber: ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time, m’lord, and I am pleased to say there will be no discernable traces left of the recent occurrence by that time’ (shooting script, third draft, scene 22).

Friends and readers,

This not very long novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), with its quiet main story, the happenings along a road Darlington Hall’s long-time butler, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), encounters as he drives in his master’s Daimler cross-country from southeast to southwest England — is as rich a masterpiece as any overlong super-respected 19th century novel, as richly interesting as the novel Ishiguro said he had in mind as its precursor, E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). The film adaptation by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (whose script is a not-very-much altered version of one by Harold Pinter, is repeatedly said to be one of their masterpieces. I just finished teaching the book to a lively intelligent group of retired adults, and wish I could better convey the tone and comments on our conversations online (via Zoom), which show how metaphorically connected to our lives is the outlines of the story, now the characters, especially Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) are versions of ourselves from whom we can learn. We talked warmly about things that are important to us, coming out of and returning to the book and its film.

There has been so much said about both books and sets of films (Howards End comes in two forms, the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala 1993 version, with again, and not just a coincidence, Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the key roles; and the 2015 HBO version scripted by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Hettie MacDonald, this time with, as alterego for Margaret Shlegel-Emma, Hayley Atwell, but a somewhat different type from Wilcox-Hopkins, Matthew MacFayden.) What can I add? Here goes.

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The Remains of the Day, the book, continually exists on at least two levels: Mr Stevens is both a realistic character and a symbolic one. On a psychological level, he is a super-sensitive man, afraid of life’s emotions and hard realities (like possibly even getting fired), status insecure, and hides under the habit of the archetypal butler. We gradually learn to feel for him, grieve for his unlived life (as he finally does at the end of novel and film); on a symbolic level, he stands for the person who opts out of responsibility, will facilitate the doing of the most horrible aims (Nazism, fascism, flourishing and extended out of Lord Darlington’s conferences), an instrument for evil to work with. In his interview online, Ishiguro says he chose an archetypal figure for his allegory, made a man who fears the arena of emotions, emotional engagement, who at the same time is us because we too are removed from real power, do a little job as best we can, without being able to control how our contribution will be used. In a democratic culture we don’t get to choose among the out of our control decisions that affect vast numbers of people. He is Us.


Here he is always under strain


Miss Kenton intruding on Mr Stevens’s refuge in sentimental romance (a self-reflexive scene, since what is this novel but a sentimental romance?)

Ishiguro wants Mr Stevens’s idea of dignity to be completely challenged by the end of the book. I saw saw Mr Stevens’s definition of preserving self-guarded control, an attempt at a veneer which would save him from mockery, ridicule, scorn (in the book when Lord Darlington’s rich powerful guests question Mr Stevens we see how easy it is to humiliate him nonetheless). The true servant is the man who gives good advice, trustworthily, tells the master what he or she (the mistress) needs to hear to do well — as Kent does in the first act of King Lear, for which the king, I admit, banishes him.

Miss Kenton is Everywoman in the guise of a type seen in traditional English novels: she is pro-active, strong, competent in housekeeping (no small task to run such a house), with perception, integrity, and prudent self-control. She will act according to her conscience, as when she is horrified that Mr Stevens goes along with Lord Darlington’s orders they fire two Jewish maids (thus threatening their lives, as without jobs, they might be returned to Germany), she wants to quit; but she stays because she needs this job to live, because she enjoys her status in this awesome house, is deeply pleased by its order, beauty, and diurnal routine peace. She is a sister to Elinor Dashwood, to Margaret Schegel; that’s why the same actress, Emma Thompson, is perfect for all three characters.


as Elinor Dashwood writing to her mother (1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, scripted by Thompson too)


as careful Margaret Shlegel (M-I, 1993)


Miss Kenton interviewed (presumably in book and film, spring 1922)

She defends herself against Mr Stevens’s frequent nervous hypercriticism (his father “incorrectly situated [the china] Chinamen”). She says of another maid when she choses to marry over staying on in such a celibate position, “she will be disappointed,” but it not long afterward he begins to date Mr Been (Timothy Piggot-Smith). She wants both: the career, the marriage and her sad ending choosing to stay with Mr Been, so she can be near a coming grandchild and live through it, is not atypical. The letter (over-voice) with which the film opens, is brought back at the end, to show us that she had longed to return to Darlington Hall and this butler for whom she had venerating respect. Her grief at loss of a dream of happiness (it does not seem that they could have been happy together) is unbearably moving as she waves goodbye as her bus pulls off. Their hands had touched, and she leaves him and us weeping too. How many of my woman readers recognize themselves in her life and this ending? He could not reach out to her, and ridiculed him in a petty revenge among her last scenes in the house together.

Looking to the large issues: the unsettling of the old order, with a new one struggling to be born (Gramsci) pathological symptoms emerge. This is an unobtrusive condition of England novel — there are auctions in the movies made from both novels. Young Mr Cardinal (Hugh Grant) belongs here: he knows what is happening, his father persuaded to work for Nazi fascists, and in his newspaper he will try to expose his uncle — to stop him. The scene where he (like Miss Kenton) prods Mr Stevens to let go, open up to the reality of what he is working so hard for and is rebuffed is one of the books’ several climaxes.


Grant pushing Mr Stevens to own (up) to what has been going on at Darlington Hall this 1936/37

And in a throwaway line, when Mr Stevens and Mrs Been discuss Lord Darlington’s estrangement from England after he was shamed by his own libel case (he did entertain Nazis), she says how perhaps his nephew prevented too profound a loneliness, only to be told oh he died in the war. The good man in potentia and actually thrown away.

I love that the book is a beautiful patterning of art in itself. The story (the woof) contains three time skeins, with indeterminate time in-between. We begin (this is the third letter of the book). 1922 when Miss Kenton is hired, 1923 their earliest struggles – over who will have more power demonstrably, over his father too old for the job, his father’s death (where his face is suffused with tears which he wants no one to notice), seems around that time to want to visit the town the school the new schoolmaster (me) he is. Then 1936/37 – the conferences and also when Miss Kenton begins to date, tries to approach Mr Stevens is rebuffed, –- when Darlington tells Mr Stevens to fill his nephew in on Facts of life (sexual facts or more sinister, real politick). 1956 – when the trip happens – 20 years later, the time it became apparent during the Suez Canal incident (why should Egypt allow Britain to use its natural resources) that England no longer the world power she thought she still was. Three theads)

The trip itself has wonderful incidents, and juxtapositions intermingled, juxtaposed to long skeins of Mr Stevens’s remembering the past (the warp of the tapestry), to wit:

There’s a prologue and six days. The prologue and first day contain Mr Stevens’ memories of being in groups of servants like himself in “the old days” (so pre-1922/23, a time when grat houses were flourishing and had extensive staff) discussing what makes a great butler, with Mr Stevens telling anecdotes of his father or Mr Graham, whom he so admired, enacting dignity – in the face of absurdities (a tiger under a table) and active derision in a car trip (something to do with a music hall routine I could not discover). In the present Mr Stevens’ invited to take this trip (“take my car, the gas on me”), and dressing himself in the suits of his Lordship, with a comical allusion to the old (delightful, filled with real photographs of the places and an imagined trip through them) county books (Vol III of Mrs Symons’s Wonders of England). This is the first trip Mr Stevens has ever let himself take, and from Mr Farraday’s banter in the book, drawn out by his longing to renew a relationship he has brooded on for twenty years with cherished memories of Miss Kenton.

By Day Two, “Morning Salisbury” (evoking the cathedral with its embodiments of time across centuries), as Mr Stevens truly gets going on his trip (woof), Mrs Been’s (poor Miss Kenton that was) letter yearning to return, for her youth, for finding some purpose in life; with over-voice of Emma Thompson (the first spoken material of the movie) set against the house, saved from being sold as cement. His memories (the warp) more or less start at the beginning of their relationship (1922, the interview) and climax at the end of Day Three, Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon, when Miss Kenton roused by seeing her protegee leave to marry, herself begins to date, and, with Mr Stevens refusing to show any anxiety and even when she tries to say their evening talks are getting in her way, swiftly (spitefully as she can be) bringing an end to them, over her protests. Then her acceptance of a marriage proposal from Mr Been, juxtaposed to Mr Cardinal trying to persuade Mr Stevens to admit what’s going on. Neither can crack his facade.

In Devon too, the evening, we get a climactic dialogue of Mr Stevens with a Mr Smith in the Taylor’s house, which seem to serve as a tavern, with the neighbors all around, and Mr Smith who reflects morally on the another meaning of dignity for all of us (equality), with the corollary what they fought for in WW2 was liberty, not to be slaves of others, the right to exercise one’s will and make a view felt. Alas this time Mr Stevens hurries off because he has presented himself falsely as a Lord who knew powerful people (we cannot too much criticize him as Mr Smith’s desire to speak to him comes from this misapprehension) and hurries away because a physician he fears might expose him has entered “the fray.” It is against this scene that the upper class people at Darlington Hall humiliating use of Mr Stevens’s lack of an educated man’s knowledge in special areas is juxtaposed: it supposedly shows how he is not capable of making serious decisions about his or anyone else’s life. The “lower” people were so respectful and kind and asking him to identify with them. We get Lord Darlington’s half-apologies to Mr Stevens, and discover (to our dismay) the next morning not only did Dr Carlisle guess Mr Stevens to be a servant, but despises, dismisses the conversation of Mr Smith.

In the movie the final scene between Mrs (now) Been and Mr Stevens in the hotel restaurant is in present time; in the book, there is again evasion and we are privy to the scene only through Mr Stevens remembering it afterwards. All thrown into the immediate past, including their last scene standing in the rain waiting for her bus. And then, at last present time), his sitting on the bench breaking into talk with another older retired man –- tears streaming down his face. The man feeling for him urges him to look forwards, the evening or our lives are the best, and as ever polite and self-erasing Mr Stevens agrees, and vows to himself to do better once again, perhaps try to learn what this bantering is all about.

There are many juxtapositions that are “merely” suggestive: in Day two, Morning Salisbury, Mr Stevens swerves not to flatten a hen who just happens to be in the middle of the road and a farm girl comes out to thank him. It shows Mr Stevens’ good nature (perhaps in Ishiguro’s mind the cat that Charles Wilcox so carelessly “flattens”), and she tells him of a beautiful view nearby I worried she was thief, thinking Mr Stevens (like Lord Darlington) a naif, an amateur at life (as Mr Lewis says in the memories that come on the next day).

There are a number of reviews which do justice to the book, Laurence Graver of the New York Times; Peter Beech of The Guardian will have to do. Neither of them, though, dwell at the length they should on the characters of Miss Kenton and the young Mr Cardinal or Lord Darlington.

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Miss Kenton, unable to break through Mr Stevens’s carapace, tries to see what he reads privately — a sentimental romance (surely a self-reflexive joke)

The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie, whose script is close to Harold Pinter’s screenplay is rightly regarded as one of the team’s supreme achievements. For my part I attribute this to the brilliance of the book caught up through its most intensely aware (on the part of the implied author) scenes realized by a brilliant group of actors and director. In the book Miss Kenton is seen through the memories of Mr Stevens and so not viscerally there in the way she is in every scene of the movie. To my mind, very few of the reviews come near the rave one I would write were I a professional reviewer. Vincent Canby of the New York Times comes closest; Rita Kempley of The Washington Post; and some of the thematic kinds of publications: in Spirituality and Practice, ignore what Frederick and Mary Brussat say the film is about. I know I burst into tears the first time I saw the concluding scene of our thwarted lovers holding our their hands and not quite touching as her bus takes Mrs Been away from Mr Stevens forever. I took it as about the agony of self-reproach we feel as we look back at our unlived lives, our failures at not wasting our existence.

It is fair and accurate to remark that one of the people in the class remarked that Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton would have been very unhappy with one another had they married, and that often the scenes skirt a demented kind of comedy


Timothy Piggot-Smith as Mr Been kissing Miss Kenton after a couple of dates


They wait for Mrs Been’s bus together

In her review of Ishiguro’s first three books, Hermione Lee speaks of “the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate [I’d call it intensely tremblingly controlled) surface of the book. They’ve caught this in the movie as well as the stretches of absurd comedy, open anguish and daily ordinary life. James Ivory writes more than adequately and in detail about the scenes that matter so effectively in James Ivory in Conversation with Robert Emmet Long (pp 226-238).Ivory says he kept in mind a Satyajit Ray movie where an unfaithful husband and wife hesitantly reach out to one another and fail to make contact, also that it’s insufficiently appreciated how all the scenes upstairs are seen from the point of view of a servant passingly there and hardly take any of the screen time. I’d say as in the M-I movies set in southeastern England, do not underestimate the effect of the soul-gratifying orderly green landscapes (see the intelligent picture book, John Pym’s Merchant Ivory’s English Landscape: Rooms, Views and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes).

I’ll leave my reader to watch the film again and listen to Ishiguro talking of what he meant to do in his book and how he felt the movie related to it and should be approached.

Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in her surgery (Episode 2)


Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) listening to Jamie say they must part for a while and Murtagh join the regulators … (Episode 1)

Dear readers and friends,

This is the first of (I hope) four blogs intended to explain why and demonstrate how Season 5 of Outlander is a quiet miracle. I would like to suggest it is the best of all five seasons, except it’s so dependent on the previous four (parts of them so brilliant), and functions as a kind of coda or transition to a coming sixth — presumably, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and the American revolution. For this first, I write a structural comparison of book to other books and this 5th film series. The next two will be Episodes 1-5, then 6-11 of the5th  series, and a last on the extraordinary twelfth.


From “Never My Love” — Jamie (Sam Heughan) hugging Claire in her escape dream in the 20th century, with the cloak he originally put round her in the 1st episode of the 1st season (the song echoes throughout the dream part of the episode)

The Fiery Cross is a long tedious book, with little story: Gabaldon’s first two books, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, are propelled by two forces, the story momentum of the Scottish catastrophe at Culloden, and the falling into intense love of the principals, Claire and Jamie, with their attempt to stop it. It defeats them and a pregnant Claire must flee to the 20th century. For the third, Voyager, Gabaldon stretched out the aftermath of Culloden (20 years worth): the long time of Claire in Boston, with Jamie slowly rehabilitated into a printer-smuggler, the sleuthing for Claire to discover Jamie alive, her getting back, the uneasy new adjustment, and re-settling her.

Now what? it seems to me, sometime during the composition of Voyager, then announced in the prologue, and got going about about a quarter in, our narrator-author moves into the voyage across the Atlantic (hence the title and powerful theme of voyaging).  She brings from Ardsmuir, our secondary homosexual hero, Lord John Grey, to bring them all together, to North Carolina where a group or groups of Scots highlanders did settle, at the opening of a fourth book, Drums of Autumn. (The idea may have been gotten in part from Gabaldon’s extensive reading — see her bibliographies in her Outlandish Companions).  Now what? She invents a new villain, the gay psychopath Bonnet, has Brianna coming to warn the couple of a coming death (with the ghost of Frank cheering her on), Roger following her, a traumatic adjustment for them, throws in some Native Americans, Ian’s coerced but willing assimilation to the Mohawks, and yet a third time traveler (a young man also turned into Native American); the second was Geillis Duncan, the fanatic 20th century Jacobite). But we have come to stasis.


Roger and Brianna falling into one another’s arms — he is seen riding up on his horse form afar, she runs out to him ….

The story (such as it is) of Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross does not begin until well after Brianna and Roger’s wedding, which does not occur until near mid-point of the book. For the first half of the book one is put off, with delay after delay (over religion), anecdotal incident after anecdotal incident, conversation after conversation (between Claire and Brianna over breast-feeding! preventing another pregnancy). In the film series, the first hour (“The Fiery Cross”) is given over to a celebratory wedding between Brianna (Sophia Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin) and clan ritual where nothing goes wrong (very daring I think); then these anecdotes, so frustrating in the book becomes well-chosen brilliantly and slowly quietly developed episodes (some originally long, some short) to form the central matter and pivots of each hour, each self-contained. For example, Claire and Jamie come upon a Bluebeard situation where a very old man has abused and destroyed four wives and the fifth is now destroying him (Episode 3, “Free Will”). Or a young girl and boy have fallen in love, and secretly made love, become engaged, she is pregnant, and her father enraged (Episode 4, “The Company We Keep”).

What is astonishing and perfect is how quietly and slowly each sub-story is intelligently developed and woven in to the mood of the hole season, which is the quietude of Jamie and Claire’s certain fundamental love holding all together. It is tremendously daring to spend a full opening hour on an utterly predictable wedding, with our main entertainment being the bliss of three sets of lovers making love towards the end (beyond Claire/Jamie, Brianna/Richard, we have Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Murtagh, the camera switching from one to another lovingly. But this pace is the pace of the whole series, this kind of modulating psychologically slow subtle tone, the way the tones of the episodes work. Yes interwoven are other events, Claire re-invents pencillin, is teaching Marsali to become a doctor, a tonsillectomy; there is Jocasta’s wedding, Ulysses’s (Colin McFarlane) protection of her and flight, but basically one or at most two actions to an episode, each drawn out and developed lovingly


The next morning: Jocasta and Murtagh discussing what’s to come …

For a clothesline (as it were), a rope to hang everything on, the film-makers took Murtagh, Jamie’s beloved god-father, brother-friend, dead since Culloden (in Dragonfly in Amber in the books), kept alive or brought back (Drums of Autumn) and made him the linchpin or chief actuator of a plot design where takes us from his leaving after the wedding to the second episode through the fifth into sixth as now and again we glimpse Murtagh leading farm and working people, Americanized regulators in their struggle against the outrageous taxes and other injustices inflicted on them (they feel) from the the upper class British type establishment, whom Jamie is at the same time coerced into heading or at least aiding. This seems to come to an end at Episode 5 (“Perpetual Adoration”) when Jamie, suddenly and surprisingly strangles the officer, Knox, with whom he is playing chess (a cold-blooded calculated act complete with disguising the body, not like Jamie usually but repeated at the end of the series when he tells Fergus and Roger to execute the gang of men who beat, raped, humiliated Claire) in an effort to end the search for Murtagh since the Governor seems to have said except for Murtagh the war with the regulators is over.


It is when Jamie comes home after this murder, that he finds and brings home the kitten-looking Adso — a softening note

So now what? time out for another wedding, this time Jocasta’s at River Run to Duncan Innes, with the problem of locusts back at Frazer’s Ridge occupying our two young couples (Marsali [Lauren Lyle] and Fergus [Romann Berrux] are very much part of the season), and a reminder that Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) and his criminal smuggling friends are about (Episode 6, “Better to marry than to burn”). It emerges after all the war is not over, and we get a long arch with a difficult battle for all, where Roger (not meant for a warrior) comes near death unable to prevent himself from being mistakenly hanged (Episode 7, “The Ballad of Roger Mac”) to a spill-over of trauma and his slow recovery with young Ian’s return from the Mohawk (Episode 8, “Famous Last Words”).

Back to anecdote when Jamie’s leg comes near amputation from a snake bite (9, “Monsters and Heroes”). As we move through the series, each character is given due weight: from Lizzie, Brianna’s loyal maid, to the two young men Claire and Jamie manumit. Also the evil characters: the violent abusive male Browns. The story of Stephen Bonnet, his character, criminal side-kicks, kidnapping of Brianna (complete with Bonnet’s apparent merciless execution from drowning & Brianna shooting him in the head), the brief indication of a prostitute’s story, do not take the second half of the series (as it does the second part of the book) but rather just another in the series of self-contained anecdotes (Episode 10, “Mercy Shall Follow You”). Lastly two more: Roger and Brianna with their baby son, Jemmy, think to return to the 20th century as safer (11, “Journeycake”) and Claire is gang-raped, a horrifying sequence, prelude to a coming violent internecine set of wars (12, “Never My Love”).

Since Ulysses was driven to murder Forbes, the lawyer, attempting to smother Jocasta (for her money) he must hide out — we learn he was manumitted a long while ago, has been Jocasta’s lover (she has had several) and will go with Lord John Grey as his servant back to England; Jamie brings him Pamela to read

What’s the miracle? that this material set out this way does hold us. Why? the film-makers expect that we are and they themselves all become, write, act, rootedly invested in these characters. Unlike the second season of the series, where much effort was made to lure us to re-bond once again (the French sequence, Claire’s time at the hospital with Mother Hildegarde) the third and fourth less so, this fifth one just assumes we know who everyone is, though for the first time they use a long flashback (Boston, 1968, showing why Claire took Brianna to England to see where her father had grown up, and to Inverness, to show her Rev Wakefield’s house — unknown to her Roger’s step-father has died and they come upon a funeral). When we glimpse Marsali and Claire becoming mother and daughter, doctor and apprentice, friends, we are supposed on our own to remember Marsali hated Claire when they first met (as the woman who took her mother’s husband). They rely throughout on this investment of already built admiration and acceptance.

There is a risk here: sometimes the dialogues between the characters is too ideal; there is not enough conflict between the principals except perhaps Jamie and Roger, and there it’s that the two men are slowly learning to know, accept and like one another for what they are. That’s a central true plot-pattern for this series: it’s no happenstance that it opens with Jamie shaving Roger for the wedding because the shaving implements of the 18th century take some getting-used-to. The paratextual music has changed again to a slow haunting version of the Skye-boat tune in minor key.


The season was filmed in Scotland

Next up: Outlander Season 5, Episodes 1-5

Ellen (to be cont’d)

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Shots of different parts of the long cortege of a village near Arras, May 1940

A fine film very much worth watching just now. Christian Carion’s Come What May more or less uniformly condemned by reviewers is a beautiful intelligent anti-war film centering on an exodus across France, now forgotten, as villages fled the German invasion. The still below is one of the many black-and-white photographs that introduce, are scattered throughout the film, and conclude it. The film itself is in beautiful colors, accompanied by remarkable touching appropriate music by Ennio Morricone. Carion is telling a family story: he was born in this area; his mother had been part of this exodus; it is also crucial French history he feels. The film may be regarded as a coda to A French Village; there the people stayed put; here they went into flight. Our particular group turns round and heads back home. Interpersed is the story of three young men, Scottish (Matthew Rhys), German (August Diehl) and French (Laurent Gerra). A boy (Josioh Marion who stands for the thousands of children separated from parents), another Mayor, a cafe owner. Another bridge is blown up. And we have a goose who is really terrified of the sounds of the airplanes and passing tanks. A Review.

Friends and readers,

You owe this blog to my determination to tell whoever comes here that pace the reviewers of this film who disdained it, this is a very good film. They seem to have pushed it right out of the theaters with their obtuse disdain and distrust (I must call it) of any tender feeling, belief in some kind of responsibility in people, impatience at orchestra music. For all these characteristics, this is a fine film for our time. I urge my readers to watch it (streaming on Amazon prime, as a DVD from Netflix, as a good DVD with three feature to buy) and tell others. I find myself half-wondering if the reason it seems so hard to persuade people to act on their social instincts, to feel for others as themselves, is that a film like this is sneered at. As a result our entertainment is FX type fascist hard violence and Barbie doll strong genital sex; characters must be presented as mean, performative, competitive or we are supposed unable to believe in them.

I watched Come What May as a sort of short companion piece, a coda to A French Village (about which I have written three times, Scroll down and also click on the links).  In A French Village, mayor and people decided to stay put.  In Come What May, they tried to escape the power-hungry cruel Nazi and French collaborative regime. In type Carion liked the film to a western in genre: the landscape is a character with wanderers in its purview.

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For a third time, last night I was just immersed in Christian Carion’s Come What May (En Mai, Fais ce qu’il plait). The first night I watched I was touched by the story, involved with the actor-characters, just loved the music, the quiet lyricism of the whole treatment, and then was astonished to discover that the reviews hardly covered what happened (like wikipedia can barely be bothered), or outright condemned it! At RogerEbert.com Odie Henderson resented it as “feel good” schmaltz — how this can be when two of the major male characters are killed, with many other unnamed minor ones, when we see a village fleeing in terror of the German’s desire for revenge (for WW1) and then turn around to go back after they’ve been hit hard twice (airplane bombing, tanks) and realize they will only meet more of the same at the coast. Far from one dimensional, the characters are suggestive presences within a larger group.

Another more complained it was not violent enough; people not sufficiently ravaged, not really a war movie at all. This is probably true, as the extraordinary composer who wrote the original score (beautiful, evocative, and uneasy), Ennio Morriconne says (in one of three features on the DVD) he agreed to write the music because the film is not a “movie about war, it is a movie during the war,” not filled with violence, speed, terror, but about the people who are enduring war, their experience, about a journey, flight, hardship, people behaving under pressure.


The first encounter of two of our heroes, the Scottish captain, Percy (Matthew Rhys) and the German communist, Hans (August Diehl) — Percy on his way to Dunkirk


The teacher who adopts Hans’s son, Suzanne (Alice Isaaz) and the Mayor, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) emerge as leaders


Propaganda film-maker (Arriflex)

The second time was when I watched this feature about the music, the orchestra, then the feature The making of Come What May, where we learn how this is a family story for Carrion: he came from Arras, his mother experienced just this exodus when she was 8, and he was hurrying to make the film before she died. Carion said his parents wanted to reach Canada but they never left France at all. His father was a mayor of a village. One of the extras hired was an 80 year old woman who had been four in 1940 and been part of the exodus; he brought along a goose because his mother said his family had had a goose and the goose proved to be expressive, hiding with terror during the sequences of passing planes and tanks:


The goose’s eyes would just peep out

For him the film also realizes a moment of crucial French history, where the gov’t made the wrong choices (capitulation because the people were so exhausted still from the horrors of World War One). Far from “sentimental” (another review found it mawkish), what Carion is showing us incident by incident is bleak history of savage senseless destruction, with storekeepers on the way seeking to charge high prices for water and food, complete indifference in the Germans to whoever they come upon; with aimless throwing of high powered fire weapons, wreaking death. Yes our sensibilities are not allowed the close-up thrill, the super-shock of barbaric exultation. No over-excitement, incessant noise and distraction. One German dies quietly banging his head against his tank, asking the boy to help him die.

Carion’s conscious method is to epitomize history by anecdote (that’s true) so the opening tells through a single incident how at the opening of the war 300,000 Germans fled Germany (communists, Jews, homosexuals) and came to France as the land of liberty; they were rounded up, put in camps and after the “armistice” was signed, sent back to Germany, slaughtered on the way or at the camps when they got there. I then watched with the voice-over commentary where Carion talked of how difficult it was to film this in the northern countryside, to traipse about with a couple of hundred people, animals: horses (exhausted and frightened at the bombs and high startling noises now and again), pigs, cows, and young babies too.


Percy and Hans, with the third hero, the French peasant farmer, Albert (Laurent Gerra) who is simply carelessly shot to death by the film-makers in order to intimidate a group of African soldiers — it seems this kind of scene of camaraderie especially offended the reviewers

The third time, stubbornly (I felt) just the movie itself now that I had enough to appreciate what I was invited slowly to experience. Then I concentrated on the famous actors and was affected by the serendipity of what happened. The film and performances had much quiet humor, as life does. The story proper begins (like A French Village) in May 1940, where a village is more exercised by its wind-mill and water pump than the coming Nazis. We see the important townsman in the local central cafe; the teacher adopts the boy of the German man they have turned over to authorities (Hans).


Suzanne and Max (Joshio Marion)

After the imposition of rationing and terror tactics from the air, the town decides to leave and we see them packing up. In these transition momemts Morricone’s music is especially effective.

Morricone: “I will make the music for the people to decide to live and find another place to be safe. To fine liberty, to walk with self-possession.”

Prisons are opened up — and Hans escapes. Hans meets in the countryside Percy; they both stumble upon Albert. Carion says he wants to pay tribute to types of people in the way. The English held out. Core scenes are where the men learn to be friends, learn to lean on one another to succeed.


Deserted family home

Carion says he now saw himself as John Ford as he filmed the landscape as another character; the people are resisting sorrow, drinking and dancing companionably the second night, dancing to radios happening. The teacher encourages Max to leave notes on the blackboard in chalk for his father. Max cries, but he write them, cheerful notes to Papa. But as the walk goes on, the atmosphere darkens; we see bodies along the side of the road (some killed), colonies of people shot up. The mayor joins forces with the cafe owner as they become a lead couple. There are a series of scenes at a store, and in a deserted farmhouse. Soldiers frightened, shoot to kill. The pass a village, and the thee young men are now close behind.


The cafe owner, who also drives one of the trucks is Mado (Mathilde Seignier)

Now an attack by the airplanes (computer generated and tough to pull off as really there, making the right sounds too), and as the bombs fall, Max flees. The teacher is forced to leave him behind. Hans comes next and thinks his son among the young children buried. There are scenes of the group passing bridges, and in one case it is blown up behind them — bridges are ever being blown up in war films (wars too). They see from afar or pass by other groups of (it seems) pilgrims. On the road, Percy captured.

In a final set of scenes, the film-maker seems to persuade Percy to play his bagpipes freely for the film; in fact Percy had seen the film-maker murder Albert and when the camera is finished, Percy shoots the film-maker directly so irritated is he by this phonyness — a self-reflexive sequence. Alas Percy then shot to death in turn. In a fantasia sequence, Hans finds his son Max.

You can take it as a dream, but it is meant to be real, for eventually Suzanne catches up and joins Hans and Max. The village has decided to turn back, but she will forge ahead. They are on their way to the north shore, Calais, with an address given them by Percy.

The last image we see is that of the three people, a new family walking into the horizon.

At the opening, throughout and again with the credits there are photographs from the 1940s of this real history exodus or evacuation.


Burdened with children and the aged


Man smoking


Another monumental woman

Don’t miss this film. It enabled me to forget for a while the nightmare circus of an aspiring dictator (Trump) ruining an election, spouting fantastic lies and distortions, fomenting racial killings to justify sending into “democrat cities” brutal police — in an effort to turn all into criminality and lawlessness where he thinks he can thrive on fear and imprisonment. What the people in the film are fleeing is an earlier Hitlerian-Goebbels arrangement (only Trump has Barr, Wolf, Pompeo, McConnell …)

Ellen

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A gothic style heroine warily slides into Oscar Wilde’s parodic Canterville Ghost

I have carried on reading E. M. Forster. The classes I was to teach are cancelled because I was not up to teaching (?) online — anyway, among other things, I haven’t got a webcam or microphone in my PC and have been unable to figure out how to access and use my the (I am told) in-built webcam and microphone in my Macbook pro laptop. I’ve taken this enforced staying home as an opportunity to develop more fully the projects I was on, and read some books, watch some movies I’ve been longing to get to.

Well now as long as I don’t become ill, I can. One night I watched all of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet, the one where he omits not one word, including all of the slower ceremonial scenes, and it takes 4 and 1/2 hours to watch. The strong emotional affect of this production depends on sitting there continuously all that time. But before I embark on sharing just some of what I’m trying to lose myself in I thought some inspiriting writing that bears full scrutiny might be in order. What better then then Forster’s famous “What I Believe”?

A Hogarth Press penny press edition, it seems to me Forster expresses the quintessential outlook of the Bloomsbury circle at its best; he chose it as the pivotal essay in his collection of his World War Two broadcasts to the British nation, Two Cheers for Democracy. The opening section, as he says, “‘The Second Darkness,’ concentrates on the war … subjects such as Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Liberty, the Censorship … the climate political … [with as a] conclusion … “though we cannot expect to love one another, we must learn to put up with one another. Otherwise we shall all of us perish.” The “climate” of the second section” is ethical and esthetic,” opening with “What I Believe,” and then going on for 3/4s of the on “the arts” as “an antiote against or present troubles and also as a support for our common humanity.” We move from “Anonymity” and general topics like “Not listening to music,” “Does culture matter?” to lots of specific works and authors, e.g., “our second greatest novel,’ “A whiff of D’Annunzio,” “Virginia Woolf,” “Forrest Reid” (a wonderful collector of beautiful 19th century illustrations, minor novelist), Mrs Miniver,” to finally “places” like “India again,” “Ferney,” “London is a muddle.”

So, what does he have to tell us since he “does not believe in belief”? The problem is this (the mid-20th century) is “an age of faith” (it still is in 2020), and “tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough,” they appear to be “a flower, battered beneath a military jack-boot.” So where does start, what’s the central core of what matters to him: “personal relationships” he says. He knows psychologically, there is no such thing as a firm single unchanging self, “we don’t even know what we are like (Alexander Pope said something like this in his “Characters of Man”), what we may be. But practically we can and do recognize ourselves, remember our past, can say love A, little as we may know him or her. Here it is not a matter of drawing up and sticking to a contract, but “a matter for the heart,” something more or more despised today.” You are deluding yourself, such feelings are middle class luxuries .He has been urged instead dedicate yourself to a “cause,” but he “hates the idea of a cause,” and here comes the most famous utterance of this book (wait for it)

if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

Who are in the lowest rungs of hell? Brutus and Cassius who betrayed their friend. Forster says “down with the state,” which he knows “means that the State would down me.”

Which brings him to Democracy, which he says is just “less hateful than other contemporary forms of government.” “It does start from the assumption that the individual is important,” and “all types are “needed to make a civilisation.” Says he

The people I most admire are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than anywhere else.

For democracy allows them liberty.

Democracy also allows “criticism.” What he loves about Parliament is “it is a talking shop.” It is a place where one can expose abuses, and “its chatter gets reported widely.”

There is a dilemma, though: all societies rely on Force, and while we are being “sensitive, advanced, affectionate and tolerant” (he sneaks in three more words, the first three), force comes along, knocks us on the head and can throw us in a “labor camp.” Now we get to the active crux of the matter: we must do all we can to contain, control, repress force, which appears to be violence on behalf of serving someone or some people’s appetites for prizes, or on behalf of getting the money that can buy things. Admittedly money and prizes are not brought up as words in this essay but elsewhere Forster says we must do all we can to get round money, to keep it from being an object. The aim — what he believes, how he lives — is to snatch our time, our life, what is meaningful to us in being alive, during the intervals when force is not in control. He admits that just then was “such a difficult moment to live in. Implicitly the reader (his listeners) know that violence, force, and as he says in the next paragraph “Great Men” are in control; hero-worship seeks them, and such an “unmanageable’ man “is an integral pat of the authoritarian stock-in-trade.”

At this point I thought of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, also Simon Weil’s translation of the Iliad a Poem of Force, and Uprootedness her commentary on it — both profoundly anti-war, profoundly against “the money motive,” “the vanity motive” (I am remembering Woolf), against cutting people off from their roots in local groups of people, recognizing humane obligations. Other of the writers of this era, socialist (Leonard Woolf, J. B. Priestley, Orwell), French and German existentialists, the Bloomsbury group (George C Moore, Maynard Keynes). But here Forster veers into his peculiar POV: he says he believes in an “aristocracy” not of power, based on rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.” They are found in all classes and everywhere, between whom “there is a secret understanding when they meet, representing the “true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.” Thousands “perish in obscurity” (think of Eliot’s Dorothea in Middlemarch). He names no one and prefers such a type “should not be an ascetic one.” You should not thwart your body but enjoy it; still he does not “insist on this:” “This is not a major point.” Authority seeing their value tries to use them, but they “slip through the Net and are gone.” “Their temple, as one of them remarked [Keats], is the Holiness of the Heart’s Affection.” Their kingdom “the wide open world.” He think as long as such people exist, the experiment of life “cannot be dismissed as a failure.” These “decencies” it does seem (a tragedy) cannot “be translated into public affairs,” for power makes people go “crooked,” “dotty.”

I am not keen on the last paragraphs where Forster talks of finding a “saviour of the future.” We don’t need a savior; there cannot be one. But at least he does not believe such people will be in charge permanently or while in charge without breaks; will ever get to “order” our inner lives (to order which, it seems, Love is a central value).. For him, for us, for me too, living is a crucial matter of gaining time now and again to explore “the universe” and “set” a mark in it “worthily,” say in odd moments when Force seems to be looking the other way, where your works may be seen as a “trivial by-product to be scrapped as soon as the drums beat and the bombers hum.”

So this is not a hopeful or future-oriented treatise. He suggests Christians think their creed will fix the world’s mess, but he thinks Christianity’s appeal today comes from “the money behind it, rather than its spiritual appeal.” His “faith” has a small f,and is saying what he thinks while speech is comparatively free; it may not be free much longer.” He ends with his context: “liberalism is crumbling all around him.” Writing this essay has helped him not to be ashamed, but see other people are “equally insecure. It’s this time under the shadow of “the dictator-hero” he is living, but as an individual as all are, and as such all slipping away from the Net as best they can. Each of us is born, each dies, separately, so there is limit to the power of Force.

In another blog, my political one I wrote of how to recognize COVID-19, what it is, how to try to do to avoid it, offered kindly words and song, but here I have offered a philosophy of life, debating central old basic questions, how to be yourself, how to be good. Wendy Moffat thinks the center of his novels is “the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.” What choices unlikely characters for heroes and heroines make.

So I’ve distracted myself and I hope you too, gentle readers. I had put in for a summer course, something I was going to call

The Bloomsbury Novel:

This course will examine a wide range of novels & art covered by the term Bloomsbury through three texts. We will read E.M. Forster’s Howards End, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. None are long, one very short. Bloomsbury novels are recognizable as written by people who belonged to this amorphous early 20th century creative group, or were printed at the Hogarth Press, or belonged to Roger Fry’s artistic groups. Closer to the time if classes are not canceled for the spring, I may substitute Maurice for Howards End. This subgenre is splendidly interesting, many thoughtful highly original texts of powerful art. There are three superlative movies for Howards End & All Passion Spent, (and if the substitute is made) one for Maurice from which we will view clips.


Roger Fry, Brantome — I know it exists in color, and in black-and-white loses its radiance; nonetheless I like shades of grey, white, black in this image

They are also recognizable as having Forster’s creed in some way, as re-inventing genres (Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography). I may not get to teach this one because I am not sure I am fit for on-line remote access what’s called teaching — we do not know when this pandemic will lose its clutch on us.

All is uncertainty, and now we must live with uncertainty, I offer E.M. Forster’s essay to keep in mind.

Ellen

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Inside the Culloden museum

As brevity is the soul of wit, I hope for once to please here that way. Over on my Austen reveries blog I told of my months of effort towards a paper on Culloden and the highland clearances as a crossroads of existence for so many: and that I finally focused on Naomi Mitchison’s masterpiece of a historical novel, The Bull Calves, written over 1941-47, set over two days in June, 1747, not far from Inverness, and the 1994 indie movie, Chasing the Deer, which adds a moving human story and the beauty of Scotland and another sophisticated interpretation of what was Jacobitism: well, I delivered said paper in a session on Jacobitism: Then and Now, at the recent EC/ASECS conference at Gettysburg, and have put the paper on my site at academia.edu.

Here it is: At this Crossroads of my Life: books & movies about Culloden and Its Aftermath.

Do read it, gentle reader, and if you have time or are so disposed, send comments, suggestions, thoughts for future reading and watching.


This is not a trailer advertisement, but a promotional reel made to attract funding for Chasing the Deer (first aired on Grampian TV)

Ellen

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Claire Randall looking longingly at a vase in a shop window (Outlander 1:1)

Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years.
Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase.
That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing.
And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own …

But I can still recall every detail of the day when I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.
Sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it.
Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy? Who can say? I do know this:
Even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I still would make the same choice.

Friends and readers,

So, after all, I am going to the 50th anniversary conference of ASECS (American Society for 18th century studies) in St Louis, Missouri (! — where?). About a week ago the male scholar-professor for whose panel I gave my paper on Winston Graham’s uses of documentary facts and silences in the last ASECS emailed me to ask me if I wanted to submit a proposal for his panel, which request pleased me (it means he respected my paper) and whose new proposal had puzzled me:

“I Refute It Thus”: Encounters with Eighteenth-Century Objects (Roundtable) [Northwest Society for Eighteenth Century Studies] …. Proposals invited on any aspect of encounters with eighteenth-century objects, then and now, whether personal, professional, or philosophical; whether in texts, or with texts, or without texts.

Like many — almost all — of the Calls For Papers this year I just couldn’t get it — most of them were filled with jargon beyond me; this (thought I) must came from “materiality” theory, which (to me) is a hodgepodge of gobbledygok most of the time. So I asked him (as he had emailed me) could he explain in commonly used (natural easy) — English — for I would like to join in another panel with him. After a couple of days he did.

What I was thinking for this round-table was a set of 10 minute presentations on personal encounters with 18th-century objects, in mini essay form, that captured what essays can do, and connects with specific research you might be doing. It could be as simple as encountering an 18th century text, or an object associated with an author (Jane Austen’s turquoise ring?), or even encounters with objects in fictional texts. The main linking element really would be the essay/roundtable form, which allows for having fun with a topic. Some round-tables invite discussion because of the ideational content. This one would invite more “show and tell” responses from the audience with other encounters, I’m thinking

Well, all right. Not only did I get it, I found myself enthusiastic. I am it’s not too much to say profoundly engaged by historical fiction and romance. A couple of summers ago I taught Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. The impetus or impulse for this book (so Sontag has said) was the collection of extraordinary objects and painting Sir Wm Hamilton gathered together, especially his vases.


An ancient vase found in Naples area

To teach the book and put this idea across I had bought a marvelous (expensive) art book on this collection published by the Sloane Museum, which owns a goodly part of Hamilton’s estate: Jane and Kim Sloan, edd. Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection. I passed it around to the class and we looked at a variety of real historical objects found in the catalogue and in Sontag’s book. With The Volcano Lover, I taught Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. The class’s subject matter was historical fiction set in the long 18th century: this book is set during and in the years just after the 17th century English civil war in Cornwall. It’s an unusual book for her because closer to historical fiction than most of hers; it is far more thoroughly researched than most of her books, based on papers and documents about a siege at Menabilly, which ended in attempting to burn the place down, a real general (a cruel ruthless man), indeed many of the Rashleigh and other Cornish family and military characters really existed. Its impetus too (I can’t remember where I came across this — probably Margaret Forster’s biography or one of DuMaurier’s memoirs) was an old wheelchair (ancient type) that she claims she once saw (I am not sure this is true) in an old building on the grounds of Menabilly. She also tells a ghostly tale about half-ruined objects found in a closed tower, suggesting someone hiding away or imprisoned for years on end — haunted things left over from the 17th century civil war.


Said to have been Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wheelchair — DuMaurier says the one she saw was pathetically feeble and looked uncomfortable


The famed (since DuMaurier’s Rebecca) Menabilly with DuMaurier and her children during her long time there as tenant

I said nothing of how the central propelling image in Ahdaf Soueif’s tale of Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Cairo, Map of Love, is from John Frederick Lewis’s oriental paintings, still in a Kensington museum, which I had just reread, attended a class on, and blogged and written about too.


John Frederick Lewis’s Cairo: Indoor Gossip

But I did talk of Paula Byrne’s brilliant biography of Jane Austen, a series of essays meditating and ferreting aspects Austen’s life through the small things she owned and we can look at still: A Life in Small Things. How successful (so suggestive) is Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: she too writes lives of Brontes, using relics, this time objects connected to them through death — some might find this morbid. I didn’t and don’t. And how I remembered Martha Bowden’s perceptive study of historical romance and fiction, Descendants of Waverley, romancing the 18th century, dedicated a whole part to how real historical objects put into fiction makes them come alive, validates them, are vivid focuses.

Bowden traces fascinatedly how these novelists mix true realities then and now (say time) with fictionalizing techniques (e.g., richly subjective world historical characters), especially those using allusion and intertextuality (to music, plays, once or still extant historical paintings and relics, memoirs) … Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge and Crossing the River (not covered by Bowden) include[s] a precious historical document, the scrap remnants of a past that have survived, and Phillips’s novels produce a take on this material that is sustaining and comforting today to those who today still suffer … where there is an intense desire on the part of a specific readership to go back and retrieve the past, to experience it intimately … there is a section on ekphrasis and the importance and uses of archeaology …

And so my proposal was accepted and then the panel also. So I’ve some delightful reading, re-reading, interesting thinking and dreaming and I hope effective writing ahead.

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Kenneth Branagh as Thomas Mendip, the discharged soldier who says he longs to die


Cherie Lunghi whom the town longs to burn as a witch — she escapes by fleeing …

I would say most of the time Winston Graham does not turn to material objects for inspiration or begin (say) with manuscripts. He is a sceptic and when he does have a written document will point out how problematic it is (Forgotten Story, Groves of Eagles, “Vive le Roi”). He does have pictures and the collecting of art objects as central to a number of his suspense books (his characters are artists, connoisseurs, insurance agents, thieves) and every once in a while (no where often enough for my taste) a real book, author, piece of music painting, but he rarely names any, most are fictional (cited plays in the Poldarks). He will use an alluring allusion to enrichen his meaning (again mostly in the suspense books): in one of his best I’ve discovered, The Tumbled House where a now deceased writer, John Marlowe’s reputation is defamed when John Shorn, a supposed younger friend, driven by envy and perhaps a betrayal, accuses him of plagiarism, and Don, the son and Berenice, the daughter experience much trauma suing the man for libel (a kind of nightmare haunting Graham himself — who had a son and daughter): the writer’s son’s wife, Joanna, is a TV actress playing the part of the witch in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning. This complex and Christianizing play preaches charity, tolerance, forgiveness — not that the wife whose adultery the novel suddenly swerves to focus on (to the detriment of the book) is at all to blame for what happens. Don and Joanna get back together at the end of the book in the same way as Ross and Demelza do at the close of Angry Tide,

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity … Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

and the final moral that here is all we have, all we can have, so we must cherish, make do is the burning center of all Graham’s disillusioned texts.

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive. We are. We are. The past is gone, over. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow. It’s only now that can ever be at one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Graham, The Angry Tide, last utterance


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark repeat in turn parts of the above passage with bits of sentimentalized love language thrown inm — done far too passionately, Debbie Horsfield, 5th season of her Poldark


The older series (script Jack Russell) had Angharad Rees say the lines softly, unchanged to Ross as what comfort could be found for death, and thus got closer to the book (1978 BBC Poldark 13:6)

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Still all historical texts romancing objects begin with a kind of enchantment with the past, haunted by imagined passionate caring for what the objects stand for in the past: these prompt the minds of the historical novelist.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death and his spirit is everywhere in this house in all the objects with me from our lives together. Here is Samuel Johnson on Sorrow: Rambler No. 47 

” The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment …  Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.”

Ellen

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The Upstairs set come out to greet the king and queen


The Downstairs set toast the king and queen (Downton Abbey, the film, 2019)

Friends and readers,

The old magic, the trick played on us by Julian Fellowes and his teams of people — for those susceptible to it — does not begin until at least one-third and maybe closer to half the way through. Anibundel over on NBC has argued that this cinema continuation carries on one important characteristic of the 5 year series at its best: nothing much or nothing overt happens to change anything in the visible life of these sets of people very much. I agree with her that the first season was particularly strong because more or less this formula was kept to. A crippled man arrives to become Lord Grantham’s butler (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates), and after much stigmatizing and complaints, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) keeps him on, because “it’s just not right” to fire him. An old suitor of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns up and asks her to go to a fair because at long last free he wants to propose marriage, and after much heart-wrenching, she decides to stay where she is. Lady Mary, the princess of the family, eldest lovely virgin daughter (Michelle Dockery) is (arguably) raped and the cad (Theo James who blackmailed the homosexual butler, Barrow, Robert James-Collier, to sneak him in as a surprise attack) dies during the fuck! But (awkwardly, with difficulty, comically) the corpse is carried back and there is no scandal at all!

But I want to qualify the implications here. The trick of the thing is to present a character in the throes of some inner crisis that matters to him or her and dramatize how some decision no one but the character and his or her closest intimates see, affects in some central way the rest of the emotional temperature or outlook of that character, the decisions he or she make afterwards, for the rest of their lives. This trick is most effective when it’s played out with the Downstairs people who are more vulnerable to deep hurt or an ejection (getting “sacked”) from the apparent social safety of the orderly household. Add to this what you find in many serial dramas, strong emotionalism, the stance that most people behave in warm and even caring ways to one another, at least emotionally. This does not distinguish Downton Abbey from other serial dramas, but Julian Fellowes is good at making this kind of thing believable. In life most people we meet behave anywhere from indifferently or with a hard edge. An adult might be extra benign to a child. I feel this sentimentalism is central to why people watch what are called realistic (naturalistic) domestic drama movies.

As everyone knows who has paid the slightest attention to the advertisements what happens at Downton is George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) invite themselves for a one-night stay at Downton while they are traveling through Yorkshire and this creates an nearly traumatic emotional reaction as everyone in the household gear up to present an appearance of high excellence and welcome. As late as one-third or later the way through it becomes apparent the exclusionary snobbish tactics of the royal household decree that its staff replace any local staff. It also sets up a confrontation between the queen’s lady-companion, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) who are related kin but have been estranged for years; it is rumored she is determined to leave her fortune elsewhere than Lord Grantham. Gradually this visit, these two social dramas ripple outward to affect the inner lives of a number of vulnerable characters and at least momentarily affect the self-esteem and comfort of everyone else.


Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw (a name from Trollope)

The problem the movie has is these things take time, and when you have say anywhere from 8 to 10 episodes (plus Christmas specials) you have the requisite time; so it’s in the third episode of the first season that Mr Bates throws away the torture instrument he has put on his leg to make his disability less apparent. We have learned to feel for him for two episodes before this. Plus since Julian Fellowes has been determined to present the world order as ultimately benign, the last we saw of everyone they were apparently set for life in good and fulfilling circumstances. This was not so to begin with, nor did the shape of the series emerge as benign providential patterning until the fourth season when the series began to have problems finding crucial traumas and had to introduce new characters and put old ones through twists and turns of misery (especially Mr Bates and Anna as his wife, aka Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart).

So, Fellowes strains to invent inner troubles that matter. He has a couple and adds some: Thomas Barrow is still a vulnerable homosexual man; Daisy (Sophie McShea) has not agreed to set a marriage date with a footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); Tom Bransome is still not trusted as an ex-chauffeur radical Irishman; and over the course of the couple of hours we discover Lady Maud is trying to leave her estate to her illegitimate daughter disguised as lady’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).


Anna and Mr Bates — brief scene showing her telling her idea to him and his loving her for it

What’s more: several favorite characters and a couple of new ones become powerful linchpins in securing respect and power for one another. It’s Anna Bates who seems to think up the plot that puts the royal staff out of commission (drugged, locked in rooms, hoaxed away) and recognizes the queen’s lady is a thief; Bransome saves the king’s life and falls in love with Lucy Smith; she likewise and they are last seen dancing a ballroom dance on the terrace in a lovely landscape (since she is not yet acceptable to the Upstairs people in the ballroom). Daisy leads Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) for once to kindly lie to the grocer and accept an order of food she thinks they will not need.


Allen Leech as Thomas Bransome (working with Lady Mary again)

It does not all work: You would think Bransome was trusted by this time and a few others seem a stretch: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still feeling undervalued and left alone; the rivalry of the Dowager and Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) has become tiresome; their quips no longer amuse. Lady Mary is still unsure she doesn’t want to disburden herself of Downton. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is still absurdly proud and wants to work as a butler; Moseley (Kevin Doyle) makes a fatuous worshipper of himself. But Fellowes does have a gift for endowing his characters with good feelings and kindliness towards one another, and those endangered in some way, yearning for some kind of companionship, security achieve this by film’s end.

I’m saying I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Those who like it are giving it slack — extra patience like you would an old friend.

Some will say this is not what draws people to this series. It’s the super-rich glamour of the house, the grounds, the gorgeous clothes, the leisured existences, the evocative music, the nostalgic escape into a world that never was — the servants were not treated in the way this series dramatizes; it omits 9/10s of the population of England. On top of that, the whole idea this order was a non-violent one is ludicrous. I can’t deny that might be why many people watched the TV series year after year and are making the Downton matter once again a big box-office money-maker. Who does not enjoy seeing a ball? I do. I love the beautiful photographed landscapes. There is the reiterated idea that these super-rich privileged people lead troubled lives themselves — so let’s not envy Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) as she tries to have a life with some emotional satisfaction with a cold mean man. (As if this were anything like the desperate needs and anguished conditions of ordinary people everywhere.)


Princess Mary (Kate Phillips who most of the time ends up dead or otherwise pulverized — as in Davies’ War and Peace …)

To that I can only say, I am not fooled, this kind of supposed comfort (?) is not for me. The thought we are offered at the end that the building, Downton Abbey, and this way of life will last another 100 years and more does not make me happy. It’s sad to think that so many will remain without and desperate so that the money may be gathered by this privileged class to live this way. I suggest that there are many like myself — since this trick so in evidence (for at least three years of TV time) is at the core of the plot-design once again. I know I would be an utter outsider and long ago (say the 2nd season) been ejected as unfit, perhaps scapegoated as a seduced woman. I don’t belong in this series anywhere — the closest I come is to Anna as she was presented in the first couple of seasons. Even then she is such a “good” girl, so filled with respect for the order that keeps her at work long hours most of her life — this is wholly anathema to my finding something to live for in my hours of existence as I recall them.

Yet I found tears coming to my eyes when a character is once again rescued from the possible exposure and punishment — Barrow is lured into going to a homosexual club, something very new, taken in to jail by a police raid but then released on the say-so of one of the king’s footmen, himself homosexual. I wish there had been more of the inner life of Anna and Bates (my favorites) but it’s clear their lives are all content, comfortable, good — as are those of Mrs Hughes (now Elsie to Mr Carson) and Mr Carson (Charlie to her) and others. I am fond enough of them all to feel good seeing them surviving still — like Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) still waiting to marry Moseley.


Moseley and Baxter — behind the scenes (promotional) hsppy moment

I am not dead or broke yet myself. The magic is the trick of involving you, getting you to believe and identify.


Thomas finds a friend and ally, the king’s footman, Richard Ellis (Max Brown)

If you can respond to these carefully studied characters presented with tact and mostly compassion, and most of all, if you watched and liked the TV series for that first and second (occurring during WW1) seasons, here it is back again, trying to repeat what it managed in the first season especially. There is something for everyone, some qualification to enable us to identify. I agree with Anibundel the sweetest story is of that Barrow at long last finding a world forming he can join, and that the charm the wanting to hold onto this world is it feels like a blessed escape.  Quiet lives. So if you want a happy ending, yes, that’s there, but if you are into quiet melancholy, it’s here too.


Lady Mary at the opening of the film, tough lady left in charge at the end

And, for those who would find some satisfaction in thinking this meretricious stuff will go away for good after this, in the last scene Violet tells Lady Mary that she has been diagnosed with a mortal illness and will be gone from from the scene before long. It is a moving moment as she turns the Abbey over to Lady Mary as her replacement. One thing I liked across the series (and think it’s what makes it so appealing to women) is that we have strong women characters through out; it’s the woman’s anguish and loss and power that is often focused most upon. And so it is in this installment.

Ellen

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Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

From my house in Alexandria (just outside Old Town) it takes an hour and one half to get to the Phillips Collection in Northwest Washington (a block away from Dupont Circle). My little mildly difficult trek (there is no Metro train stop at King Street, my “natural station” so either I take two buses and walk or a cab — guess which I chose?) was a comfortable secure instant compared to the journeys I witnessed records in all sorts of forms of many different emigrations, migrations by bodies of people and individuals from one part of the earth to another. Do not miss The Warmth of Other Suns — it will make you think of any journeys towards a new identity you have taken yourself. Here are two of mine:

On September 6, 1969 I traveled back to the UK from NYC to join Jim after I had gone home a month before, thinking I might never see him again. I came by car, plane, train, traveling from 9 one evening to 6 the following evening. I had telegrammed him once, we had spoken on the phone once (calling long distance was not easy to Leeds); we had forgotten to make a plan how or where to meet.  And yet there he was, at that train station, on the platform, waiting for me. He had in hand a document signed by his parents giving us permission to marry before October 3rd, for that was his 21st birthday. We set the bans the next day and were married a month later, October 6, 1969, at Leeds Registry Office at 1:30 in the afternoon. It took 5 minutes. I had a VISA whose validity was fast vanishing because it was a student Visa only good to the end of that September. So I was an illegal immigrant for more than a week. I became legal by the simple expedient (at the time) of marrying him; several weeks after the ceremony I had to go to the Leeds Police Station to be finger-printed, passport in hand, and was given temporary papers to stay and to work; and a couple of months after that, I got a document saying “all restrictions were lifted” and I was a British subject. I wonder what would happen to me today? I am white (in case you didn’t know), a native-born American citizen, was at the time nearly 23, with my divorce papers in hand (I had been divorced April 1967 in Spanish at a Juarez, Mexico court). Come to think of it both of us needed documents to do what we wanted to do.

A year and one half later I made the same trip in the other direction, with Jim this time, & after he had secured a green card & full permission to live as a resident in the USA. I had worked as a secretary, personal assistant for John Waddington (game and toy and package manufacturing company). For this green card, we needed more documents, and had taken at least two trips from Leeds to London, coped with much mail & document filling out; & my father had written a six-page document outlining his assets to assure the US gov’t Jim would not be a ward on the state. We had several suitcases, one vacuum cleaner, and the trip took two days: train from Leeds on day one, train to London airport, plane, car to my parents’ apartment on day two. I had thought I would stay in England, become English, but Jim could make 9 times as much in NYC, and the cost of living was nowhere near 9 times as much, and I had a place in a graduate school in NYC to do a Ph.D. in English literature. My parents had rented a one-room apartment for us, with a bed in the wall (not far from them). But we did not stay, and moved to Manhattan soon after. Chelsea.


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

I was much moved by the exhibit – kept going back and forth between parts.  It was not as painful as the permanent history exhibit at the African-American exhibit where towards the end I began to cry (while I was in the tragic Emmet Till memorial), but I felt just indescribably upset as I went. I watched movies (two longish ones, several short), looked at paintings, drawings, sculptures of all sorts, installations, photographs (many many photographs), sculptures of all sorts, drawings using different media from oil or watercolor paintings (also there), documents too. The museum says 75 artists are represented; there is an emphasis on the most recent groups of victimized migrants on the US-Mexican border. The long film, by Chantal Ackerman (among many others), De l’autre cote (From the other side) is filmed all along the US-Mexican border, night-time, day time, rural and city. The conceit is she is interviewing the other side:

a elderly couple (in their 70s) whose son and grandson were killed in Las Vegas and were obviously very poor, still crying; a Mexican fourteen year old who had “crossed” more than once, one time trafficked, who said he wants to cross again to join his parents in New York in order to make more money and build a big house. Another girl said she wanted to cross to eat more, eat better. At the end of the film we hear the voice of a hispanic young man who has migrated legally and is now seeking his mother, a summary of his non-findings and her wanderings through jobs, places, rooms. The wall is filmed with the people on the both sides — it is made of different materials in different places. We also hear from a sheriff (appalled at the deliberate crisis and huge crowds created by Trump’s policies), two people who live on a farm, deeply anti-immigrant, a white man who owns a cafe near the border, watch a heavily armed ICE person or guard with flashlight seeking people on dark meadow — the other side.

It is not just about recent immigration, refuges, but goes back and forth in time. I found “myself” early on: a half a wall of photos of immigrants arriving in 1905-10 at Ellis Island. All four of my grandparents from Eastern Europe came in that way


Refectory

There were artefacts from the Trail of Tears: the horrific 1830 expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren places to start life again.


Trail of Tears

Dorothy Lange and other WFA photographs on the migrants and farm-workers of the US in the 1930s, underpaid in order to force them to keep moving to find more work; African-Americans trekking from the south to the north for decades (Jacob Lawrence’s art); Vietnamese escaping in boats; people from Africa and the Middle East walking, attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean; also photos of The Jungle (denigratingly called), a huge immigrant camp that sprung up in Calais.


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

The second long film, Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (and many others), took you back to eternal time: three screens often filled with the rushing sea, ocean, walls of ice (and expeditions). You were taught how strong, indifferent and dangerous is this medium for travel. Two of the screens at any time were showing fish and animals in large flocks, some surviving, some just living, others in bad shape; or individuals gunned down (I felt so for a polar bear with a man relentlessly pursuing him), dead and trussed up; one huge whale people were crawling around knifing, stripping. The third screen usually had people: Africans transported in terrible conditions,

thrown over board, stories told by narrators of a baby thrown overboard for irritating a sailor, from famous novels (Moby Dick), diaries, poems. Often one person (actor or actress dressed in upper class 18th to 20th century garb) standing out or sitting looking at the sea. Furniture thrown helter-skelter near the sea.

The exhibit fills up one of the two Phillips buildings. The overall impression is of a desperate struggle for survival (one floor is filled with abandoned clothing), a long ordeal of endurance and loss, much rightly to fear, where for the most part the attitudes of those inside the land mass the migrant is declared a foreigner to, where he or she or they have no relative, or friend, or prepared place or job to turn to, and no legal right to be there, ranged from indifference to hostility. You see early in the 20th century officials behaving with minimal decency, but this seems rare. Short films tell of this or that person’s acute misery in say a hotel that is like a prison, grief. Poverty, war as a cause of the flight, fleeing for safety, was most common. Much social and neo-realism, where we see stalwart families holding up, individuals looking out at us proudly or with thoughtful eyes, some famous 19th century engravings (one by Honore Daumier, The Uprising).

Admittedly the exhibit might be accused of being one-sided. In the US there have been periods where those seeking asylum have not been treated cruelly; individuals and families have gone with more belongings, documents and thrive: they quote Richard Wright: I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom (1945)

But the emphasis rightly is intended urgently to bring home to the attendee the new level of depravity the US present gov’t is inflicting on the vulnerable, and include a history of ruthless enslavement and settler colonial destruction against a tragic song of the earth and sea’s rhythms and animals and people displacement and death. You are prompted to re-think and see this general phenomenon in constructive — and generous — ways. Also historical, rational: a nation-state is an invention, it’s a group of people governing a place, often tyrannically; how has it come to be a religion so that borders become sancro-sanct and everyone outside is an “other?”  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refuge Policy in a Changing World is one of several books that are left on a table in a room at the end of the exhibit where you can “reflect” on what you’ve seen.

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I was led to go because I’m just now reading towards a paper I’m going to give at a coming 18th century conference on Culloden and the highland clearances (as this Scottish diaspora and ethnic “cleansing” is called). A few words on my reading and watching (movies matter) thus far and then I’ll have done:

In general, Culloden literature (as I call it) resembles other literatures emerging from other diasporas. Most of the fiction tells an upbeat story (!): the community somehow moves as a group, or ends up sticking together through re-constitution and individuals finding their way back to “their friends.” The person who suffers badly is the person who falls out, does not obey all the norms & fit into the praised culture the others practice. It becomes hard to find a story of an individual at the crossroads of an existence where the ending and shape of the whole narrative is traumatic. This holds true for Hogg’s Perils of Women (often jocular –eeek!) and the truly tragic story (often a woman ostracized for pregnancy, and gang-rape), the calamity is an interlude got over; Naomi Mitchison’s Bull Calves, even Alistair MacLeod’s contemplative melancholy-lyric No Great Mischief.

You must go to the more thoughtful, less popular memoir, the raw found diary or journal, and good serious non-fiction. The outstanding best book I’ve ever read in emigration, refuges, diaporas is Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth Century History.

Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited. He shows that “ordinary people’s safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them.

Communities don’t survive almost intact; they don’t reconstitute themselves as a mirror image of what was — as we watch the Outlander characters do in North Caroline in Drums of Autumn — I grant she more includes more intermittent tales of desperate tragedies, calamities, cruelty than many such books; tellingly, most of these associated with enslaved people and low status gang-raped women. But what she’s not having is your identity changes and so does everyone else’s under the impress of need and a different world geographically and socially.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in front of their tent – they will soon with Ian’s (John Bell) help build a magnificent log cabin (Outlander, Season 4)

For Culloden and the highland clearances, the recent best is T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Clearances: it’s been praised as showing that John Peeble’s powerful detailed Culloden and indignant Highland Clearances are wrong, unbalanced, far too hysterical, too tragic; in fact Devine ends up telling a similar story, only nuanced and occurring over generations and with many more bad and mixed actors. And I must say, if a literary masterpiece (especially endurable you are not reading but listening to it read aloud by the brilliant David Rintoul (who knew he is Scots?), Walter Scott’s Waverley is as distorted & misleading a book as you can find.

A friend is sending me a copy of Chasing the Deer (1994, much influenced by Peter Watkins’s masterpiece docudrama, Culloden (1965), and said to be a credible depiction of Culloden, with Brian Blessed and Iain Cuthbertson in lead roles.

As these films are mostly all men — male experience –, I’ll end on one of a beautiful cycle of poems on an emigrant’s life experience in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s re-creation of Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush in her brilliant poetic The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently
shaped ears

thought I tried to adapt

(he girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeers at me for my burnt bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. The forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder;
the branches quivered

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen

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The four principals of the film: JRR Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Q Gilson, Christopher Wiseman — at leisure, sports and war

Friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a brief review of the biopic film about Tolkien’s life that is just now leaving most movie theaters after a fairly successful run. The reviews have been mixed, and most resembling John Tuttle’s: he likes the art and filmic aspects of the film, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, moving story, but he complains not so much that what is presented is all that wrong, but that the emphases are inadequate: he wants more about Tolkien’s religion, more about all the sources of his creativity, a more accurate account of this or that aspect of his earlier and later life: it seems that in later life Tolkien again bonded with a small group of like-minded men of similar attitudes and class. Tuttle doesn’t mind that the film made much of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, only says it was presented as suspenseful when it wasn’t. “Everyone” (that is all interested in Tolkien) knows he married her. A similar stance (with different particulars perhaps) is found in Sheila O’Malley’s at RogerEbert.com; David Appleby at Rolling Stone was bored: it was so convoluted and yet did not bring our miraculous author to life. Tellingly, what they all agree on is how grating and excessive are the scenes of war, “oh bother” says Appleby. I could quote others to the same effect.

What no one seems to say is that the this is a film not much interested in Tolkien’s inner creative life: the imagery from his dreams, from his early anguish at the death of his father, mother, fear of being neglected and poor with his brother), and then, as shared with the love of his life, Edith fantasy operas and books, and finally World War One are all in effect decorations; extras piled on to give the film heightened apocalyptic fantasy ominous (exciting?) imagery. The plot-design of this movie is that of the common popular genre, the nostalgic boys’ public school, interlaced with a feminist-inflected romance with strong critiques against class snobbery.

As the film begins, Tolkien is orphaned. His father dies and then his self-sacrificing mother (played to the hilt by Laura Donnelly, familiar to some as Jenny Murray of Outlander), and he and his brother are left stranded. They are taken to live in a boarding house run by a cold snobbish woman (Pam Ferris) by the Catholic priest who has been made their guardian. What saves Tolkien is he is so intelligent, he is taken into the British private aka public school system and there nurtured by deep friendship, and high academic standards that force him to study hard. The public school is presented positively: while there are grossly unfair tutors (one wants to eject Tolkien on the basis he hasn’t got sufficient drive), others (Derek Jacobi) because they are not part of a structured system can eccentrically take him in.


The young man and his professor

The story of Edith is there as part of the usual matter of heritage films.


Courting — the upper class (if orphaned) boy courting the female boarder

It’s worth it to point out the limitations of the heritage tropes: as in so many of them, class is supposedly attacked or critiqued, when we find it is also upheld; in this film, this is done together with religion. Tolkien was a believing Catholic in life; this was his heritage (perhaps from the mother) but also a result of making a priest his guardian. In the film this priest refuses to support Tolkien if he carries on with his courtship of Edith. Tolkien protests, thinks of rebelling but then caves in. We are to feel that he does this out of respect for the guardian as well as concern for his career, but there is a feeling that he recognizes that Edith is indeed not of his class.

As the film moves on, and Tolkien overcomes the prejudices of the people at Oxford, and the war begins, he again meets Edith. Edith is as genteel looking as Celia Johnson in any 1940s film (Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, Happy Days) and now engaged, and it’s made plain she has done so to support herself. It takes only a few minutes of film time for Tolkien to say he still loves her, for her to reciprocate and (presumably) break the engagement. Later in the film the priest admits he was wrong, and sometime after that Tolkien and Edith are married. This may follow Tolkien’s actual behavior, but we can see that class and obedience to religious and parental authorities are upheld.

The second part of the film is the fulfillment of the first, the war story essential to this genre. It is the final proving ground. Instead of showing us that the values that lead to war are the real basis of public school experience, bullying, competition, physical prowess, daring, separation from one’s family (part of the training that teaches you to be part of an upper class negotiating environment), we are repeatedly shown the great joy, manners, bonding that the young men learn from these exclusive groups within an intellectual demanding environment, which in this case included high intellectual camaraderie, and of course also fierce “healthy” competition in games (we are shown the four young men playing rough sports again and again) . Of course war is horrific, and two of them die, a third maimed for life. No heritage film today is openly militaristic, but the scenes that are individualized show our heroes performing utter self-sacrifice for one another. A small subplot includes Tolkien’s batman, of course named Sam, risking his life to save Tolkien from death, and bring him tea too.


Here is Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien searching for his friend (dead elsewhere several days before)

It’s important to bring this central design of the film out because this elite experience is 1) misrepresented and 2) lies at the core of not just militarism and war, but leads to and shapes colonialism and is behind the mindset promoting Brexit, nationalism, arrogance (the boy becomes privileged, and is kept separate from and encouraged to think he know better than the “lower orders. Joanna Scutts lays out the connection in The New Republic: Britain’s Boarding School problem. The war itself is presented as part of the dream life that led to the exciting adventures, violence, monsters of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve seen so many films of this type: Harry Potter feeds into it; Andrew Davies got his start with the multi-episode To Serve Them All My Days (based on Delderfield’s sentimental depiction of the life of a schoolmaster). I do not say I haven’t enjoyed such films. I enjoy heritage films, I loved the romance, and felt for Edith presented as at the time given no opportunity to have a career of her own, but given the times we are living in, when I read several reviews passing by the central explanatory idea of this film, and seemed even unaware of it. I felt something ought to be said.

I’ll add another corrective here too: nowadays upper class and elite girls are sent to such schools regularly too, and then elite universities. Kate Middleton’s great “rise” came from her having gone to the right private boarding school which got her to St Andrews where she met William, the heir. As Scutts points out, huge fees are extracted (such schools are apparently tax-exempt!, like our churches). As a side note I recall now how startled I was at Vicinus’s account of girls’ private boarding schools in her Independent Women: Work and community for Single Women, 1850-1930, because she didn’t seem to care at all and even was for the psychological manipulation of the girls’ friendship patterns and girls-and-female mentors because it trains girls (who thrived in this) to know how to get and keep and use power. As today parents of boys who suffer badly from bullying, and are emotionally twisted or scarred take that as the price of getting them the right connections and “toughening” them, so Vicinus was for allowing girls to emotionally over-wrought, blackmailed, made miserable by girls’ exclusionary coteries as the price of making girls into women who are embedded in power arrangements and understand how they come about.


Tolkien late in life (photo)

As for Tolkien’s actual and later life: the other male group consisted of deeply reactionary Christianizing critics like C.S. Lewis who also wrote an epic of fantasy wars, Narnia, sheltered dons and learned poets like himself. Dorothy Sayers was a hanger-on, for at the time when a young woman finished university there would be no place for her in university. Think of her Lord Peter Wimsey with his batman turned valet, Bunter. Bob Dixon has analysed the fascist vision of life behind Narnia and (dare I say) and other fantasy epics by over-praised writers like Ursula Le Guin. See also Empire Follows the Flag. Tolkien’s later career as a writer included studies and defenses of Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval English and Chaucer, translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl — delicate lovely poetry with subtle ethical ideas.

I was again startled when I first began to watch the Peter Jackson film of The Fellowship. I had read the books in the 1960s when the illustrations were still taken from romance, fairy books, and looked like feminine depictions Arthurian romance. How had it become a boys’ action-adventure story, filled with violence and Dante-like apocalyptic visions? I have since read that the earliest illustrations were delicate fanciful landscapes done by a woman friend of Tolkien. I dare say a film genuinely interested in his creative life and reading, might help rescue his books from being used or packaged the way they are today. I am told that a five part series, Looking for the Hobbit (on Amazon Prime) does justice to other ignored sources, but I wouldn’t count on it.


Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien deeply engaged with his books

Ellen

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