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Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien), Leila (Diana Damrau), climax of Les Pecheurs de Perles

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Tonio-Taddeo (Dimitri Platanias) has enabled Canio-Pagliaccio (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) to catch Nedda-Columbine (Carmne Giannasttasio) kissing promising to elope with Arlechino, crisis scene of Pagliacci

Friends and readers,

No I was not in London late last Sunday afternoon, but at a Fairfax independent movie-house, Cinema Art, and by myself with a sparse audience watched a passionately acted and sung Mascagni’s Cavalliera Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Il Pagliacci, a repeat HD screening of a live performance at Covent Garden this past fall. Nor was I in New York City at the Met today at 1 but at an Alexandria City chain movie-house, and with Izzy in a nearly full auditorium watched the live performance today of Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles. Both were superb, both were produced, acted, directed successfully to make them feel utterly contemporary.

What’s remarkable about Le Pecheurs is it was something of a flop in 1863, and now 100 years later it’s not only a stunning success, but had it been done say 20 years ago, the story would have seem absurdly unreal (as it did to Parisian critics). We have a female scapegoat, Leila, a sacrificial virgin whose life-in-death is meant to propitiate the sea-gods, and when she is caught making love with Nadir, the two are condemned to be burned to death. The Met production was aware that everyone in the audience has read in the last few years about the barbaric executions of women for sexual misconduct and of men for what is called treason in the totalitarian religiously-fanatic states of the middle east. Women are enslaved as a matter of course by ISIS, trafficked by everyone else, made utterly to submit or face severe punishment under Sharia law.

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No longer is there a problem believing this kind of what once would have felt mythic stuff. The program notes talked about Orientalism, but the setting, the shawls and scarves, the city glimpsed once or twice in the background was meant to conjure up the world of Mediterranean Africa and the Middle East.

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And even 25 years ago timidity, decorum, the practice of not acting while singing would have buried the startling core of this opera: the famous intensely yearning lyrical song pledging their faithfulness until death between Nadir and Zurga is deeply homoerotic; the two men are in love. As Polenzani (who projected extraordinary sensitivity, nervous distress too, and sang so well I thought of Pavarotti) said, Nadir is lying to Zurga during the whole of the song. Nadir means to find out Leila and be with her again; he has not given her up at all as he promises.

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We can’t say they are homosexual as they don’t act out the intense bonding they have experienced with one another, but all else is in place, for when Nadir is caught making love to Leila, Zurga’s seething fury is not against her but Nadir for betraying him. All the words of Leila’s intense begging of Surga to pardon Nadir in the second act, and Zurga’s desire above all to murder Nadir once he is told that Leila and Nadir love one another demonstrate this.

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Before they are caught

So too the ending. What was substituted for years erased Zurga’s sudden turn-round, his setting fire to the city and village, in order to allow Nadir and Leila time to escape the flames. The program notes said the text became “corrupt” and new unauthentic material was worked in; only in the 1970s was Bizet’s original score and the script restored; this was the basis for a critical edition in the 1990s and this Met opera. What happened in these muddled (really deliberately obscured) performances was that the villagers discover Zurga was the arson and he is burned at the stake, or stabbed in the back, and the final scene was a holocaust with yet another trio. In the opera today and as originally written, the ending is Zurga sinking to the ground in grief. He is the tragic figure of his play.

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How conscious was Bizet of this? French writers of the 19th century were not innocents. Eve Sedgwick wrote a remarkably insightful book on this disguised gay plot in her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire on this phenomenon. The configuration of the two men with the interface of the female between them is glimpsed in Carmen, with the baritone or Zurga role, the bull-fighter, Jose the tenor whose mortified jealousy drives him to murder Carmen, the sensitive tenor or Nadir, and Carmen a mezzo. Jose or the Nadir character is the tragic figure of Carmen, not the woman. Jim and I once saw an adaptation of Carmen where the opera was done from Jose’s perspective, and today’s performance of Les Pecheurs put me in mind of that sequel or post-text opera. But if Bizet may have known what he was doing, and others what they were watching, like movie critics today who complain when movies don’t fit an aggressive three-part action structure but follow a female pattern of cyclical movement, so the 19th century critics felt there was nothing happening in Les Pecheurs. It was “a fortissimo in three acts.”

Not today. Penny Woolcock (a British name to conjure with) was credited with the production; a Matthew Diamond (I can’t remember his name and it is not repeated anywhere after you see it on the scroll) directed it for live cinema. The sets were effective, moving from fisherman’s wooden platforms by the sea, to dream visions

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to a city that looked like Naples circa 1950, to Zurga’s office (where he has a computer, smokes, a TV, phone and paces) and back again, with a city in the background. The storm was conjured up by computer technology so we saw an ocean take over the stage; acrobats were seen swimming in the sea to stand for fisherman. A fisherman’s work is dangerous. Both men sang brilliantly. I found Danrau strident, not melodious, but she enacted the part with bravura and believability.

Izzy was much moved by the final quiet moment of Kwiecien on stage: her blog-review finds the setting to be more closely modeled on Sri Lanka and the rituals against climate change in this contemporary mix of the newly found great opera.

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Dimitri Platanias as Alfio (who will become the incensed jealous husband) in Cavalliera Rusticana

Before last Sunday I had seen Cav & Pag with Jim at least twice (with Pagliacci once done with another one act verismo opera) before I saw it again last year with Izzy in an HD Met performance, where an attempt was made to present Cavalliera as a feminist play, all sombre colors with the action directly contradicting the words and sometimes the music. The HD-Met Cavalliera Rusticana made no sense; their Pagliacci was done vividly, with excitement, but too grotesquely as a carnival comedy, it was a coarse performance even if effective.

One problem with seeing this pair is one arrives with the expectation of not being over-excited because it’s almost old hat. The real fun of this new Les Pecheurs de Perles was we didn’t know the story, the phases were a surprise, I had no idea it was homoerotic, and the ending especially broke stereotypes effectively. Yet I was moved by the old pair — as was a woman sitting me who remarked on it. She said she had not expected to be so stirred.

There is a thorough and detailed review of this production, especially musically online by Robert Hugill. What I’d like to add is how effective it was to treat Pagliacci from a feminist standpoint: Damiano Michelietto was remembering Fellini’s 1954 Italian film La Strada, where an itinerant street performer buys or marries, and beats and destroys his clown-mentally disabled wife. Giannasttasio-Nedda’s hair was made up to look like Gelsomina’s, Antonenko as Turrido in Cavalliera reminded me of Zampanò.

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Nedda is harassed by Tonio, terrified (rightly) of Canio, is in love with Taddeo, really in love with him and he with her. Here is a rightly favorable review.

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Santuzza (Anne Maria Westbroek) hoping Turiddo (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) will come back to her and leave off his affair with Alfio’s wife

Presenting Pagliacci in this light made Cavalliera more feminist too: rightly Anna Marie Westbroek as Santuzza is a victim. First the two productions were linked. The village was the same with the murder of Turiddo in Cavalliera occurring the morning, and the murder of Nedda in Pagliacci the afternoon. The same villagers were seen in both; a poster advertising the play within a play of Pagliacci is seen in Cavalliera. The two men doubled the parts of Turrido-Canio and Alfio-Taddeo. Only the lead sopranos were fittingly different: the parts opposed, the kind of soprana different.

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Mama Lucia (Elena Silio) as Turiddo’s mother

In this production, Santuzza attempts to make a friend of Turiddo’s mother and as in the script does not succeed. But during a lull in the action in Pagliacci, Santuzza is seen in the front area before the auditorium with Turiddo’s mother, now grief-striken. So the two operas are intertwined. The two women find comfort in one another; in this production Santuzza is pregnant with Turiddo’s child so the pair become a kind of Naomi and Ruth without (an erring) Boaz.

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For me it worked. The costumes were right, especially the picturesque melodamatic ones of the play within a play in Pagliacci, evoking 19th century melodrama and novel types.

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It made the contrast with reality more ironic and effective. The settings too struck a symbolic chord:

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Turrido found dead — this symbolic town by a movie-house matched the symbolic middle eastern city of Les Pecheurs

They did seem to cut scenes from Cavalliera, thus making it seem more like filler, a kind of framing for the afternoon ferocity. In the production Izzy and I saw last year, Cavalliera seemed much the inferior work, but I’ve seen productions where it was done so beautifully lyrically and pathetically and with real rage (on the part of Alfio) that it overshadowed Pagliacci.

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As Izzy and I left Les Pecheurs de Perles we said how nice to be surprised at an opera for a change. We remembered how Jim had looked up who was singing in a production of Don Giovanni as an HD-Met opera we saw now 4 years ago. Kwiecien was Giovanni and he had hurt himself on the Net (strained his back) and it was feared he would not make it. He did, if only to be in the filmed version (going out “to the world”). Jim would keep up as to what was happening in a cast; when we arrived he’d know the history of the previous opera productions. He would have enjoyed the Cav & Pag I saw last week. We thought he would have loved this Les Pecheurs de Perles. She and I both missed him this afternoon.

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Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann

Ellen

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Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand

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Helen Mirren as Victoria (1979 The Long Good Friday, directed by John Mackenzie, written by Barrie Keefe, produced by Barry Hansen)

Dear friends and readers,

No one can re-boot this.

I try not to use hyped terms but am driven to one to convey the experience of this film even today: astonishing; this is an astonishing film. Made in 1979, released Nov 1980, even before the Thatcher era got underway, a gangster film (it was felt) was the appropriate vehicle for capturing how Margaret Thatcher saw the UK, what she wanted to turn the UK into, her own aggressive menacing role. Shand is Thatcher too.

The Long Good Friday is as edgy as Breaking Bad; I’d call it all edge:

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Just before letting the assault weapons and bombs off

Its violence is as viscerally shocking

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Slaughtering by accident, Jeff (Derek Thompson) whom Shand loves like a son

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Shand orders all his franchise owners beaten up, hung like meat from hooks in a garage

Other older films that have transcended their time that come to mind: Robert Wise’s 1960 The Haunting. Both have perceptive voice-over commentary worth taking the time to listen. I mention this one because its means are so original and for the time the story. The Long Good Friday is utterly conventional in outline, including Mirren’s part as the gun-moll, mannered trophy wife.

What makes the experience on this level is Bob Hoskins. He transformed himself into this half-crazed deeply emotional man — a member of instance of the type Marlon Brando played. Also James Cagney who felt less controlled, more wild. Hoskins played with real subtlety or projecting power and also thought so that his face seemed to exude rage, anguish, retribution, indignation that he, this businessman, this patriot, he who was going to put Britain on the map was to be fleeced, cowed, forced to pay money to the IRA as a terrorist organization supporting itself by a protection racket. I have seen him as effective as Florio in the TV film made of Middleton’s Changeling.

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About to be told he has to knuckle under

The music for its time daring: it’s a rolling, whirling pop rock, hard, percussive, lots of horns, with a band whose teams included John Williams. Raucous fun. For fun these people like to drink, live luxuriously, have beautiful sex partners, and blow one another up in cars on the race track. We’ve grown used to these equations. The film’s open attitude towards sex was not seen until a decade after the 21st century: of those murdered one of most sympathized with is a homosexual man.

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the partner picking up an innocent (a young Kevin McNally) who will be murdered and carelessly thrown out of a car

What catapults the film into 2015, gives it a gravitas and political complexion is it turns out the “enemy” trying to destroy our protagonist-hero’s empire is the IRA here a terrorist Irish gang trying to extort large sums off this empire to fund itself. Our hero is usually successful in stamping out (literally) all opposition, but here he meets his match. He is told at one point, just give in, these people are “not interested in money, they are political” [whispered in a hysterical hushed kind of way), “fanatics” (equated, with a screech).

They are matched or behave just as the characters in the film who are members of the US gov’t, British politicians, other businessmen, Irish men too, all gangsters, all of them inside a competitive circle of violence. (As contrasted to Breaking Bad where the police are good guys.)

The role of women as mourning, weeping in graveyards, fiercely in white rages themselves, spitting at men’s faces so familiar from the Godfather begins here

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On first watching it last week, I suspected it was part fable, but no it was true that in the IRA funded itself by terror tactics. Here is Helen Mirren in an interview about the film on the occasion of the film’s 35th anniversary. My friend Fran remarked:

Glad you enjoyed the film, Ellen. It made a big impression on me at the time and not only because of the great, nuanced character acting by Bob Hoskins in particular and its intelligent, mulit-layered and sometimes darkly humorous script. As you say, it’s a very edgy, very atmospheric film.

Up till then I hadn’t been aware that one of the reasons the IRA was so resistant to peace talks was neither religious not political, but rather the fact that they were in on a lot of the local crime and protection rackets and didn’t want things to change and lose all that. I wasn’t sure how much was fact or fiction, so asked a client of mine at the time, a young, non-violent, Catholic separatist from Belfast and he said this aspect was very true. If you had a local business or pub and paid them off, for example, you were safe from attacks.

The background to the making of the film also fits in with a few recent threads we’ve had like censorship. Its release date was delayed because the man whose company financed it, Lew Grade, a commercial TV magnate, wanted it heavily censored, massively cut and Hoskins‘ Cockney accent dubbed over (!). After a lot of wrangling, the film rights were eventually bought back and the film was fortunately released in its intended form.

You mention Mirren’s role being conventional for the most part, but she had to fight every inch of the way for it to be developed and given more weight, which fits in with the piece Diane linked on the marginalisation of women in film.

I’m just now reading an excellent book on the history of British Television Drama by Lez Cooke, which goes far to explain how this kind of explosive, socially conscious and nuanced art emerged on British TV and films in the 1980s; an area also covered in depth using specific (other) films, in Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (the title of a powerful documentary), an anthology edited by Lester Friedman. There are 6 substantial essays on Thatcher-era and ideology films: most of them critical-evaluative of her.

The feature on the DVD — a full hour – is worth watching, a paratext in itself about how they made the film, the techniques. Macenkie said he had James Cagney in mind when he thought of the core character of the film: the conception of Harold Shand. A man whose inner self and world is attacked and how he will not bend, yield, thniks he can beat out the terrorist group, persuade the businessmen and politicians. He finds he is wrong on all counts. Helen Mirren is truthful that she did not change her role that much, and had to fight for what she got; but she is active in the film — yes as hostess, smoothing Shand’s way, enabling him to be middle class, but an extraordinary moment is probably one that was created while shooting: after Shand has (see the still above) traumatically for himself murdered by accident his young son-like partner (rather like Rafe Sadler to Cromwell inn Wolf Hall more than Jesse to Mr White), Shand is in such a rage he rushes out to kill another man, and she comes out of the car where she has driven up, stands before him, runs after, pulls at him and he drags her on the grounds, up she gets and inserts her body in the way of his killing another friend, and all four physically intensely with two men on either side.

It’s an unforgettable sequence which I snapped because I thought it showed another aspect of this film: the spontaneous free-floating use of the camera, the director’s confidence to let people act out, and its ensemble nature:

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She holds tight until he calms down

She vindicated herself in the role of the cop in Prime Suspect many years later. I don’t know what was her greatest role; she attempted so many parts, but I’d opt for her most memorable role as the abused beautiful wife in Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover, a shocking taboo-horror breaker.

In the feature Mackenzie makes it explicit the film is meant to embody Thatcher like ideas, especially in Shand, and they do go over the IRA part of the plot. A terrorist organization they say opposed to a capitalist thug. That’s the “two sides.” They don’t assert explicitly that the IRA was a protection racket was. Are content to imply this. I don’t have an idealization of the IRA but did not know they made money as thugs and gangsters. They do talk about the black humor of the action, motives of people, and desperate ending where Shand is driven off by an IRA assault-gun toting hit man. Pierce Brosnan who went on to have a commercially successful career remarks the ensemble nature of what they did: he didn’t have to learn any lines.

The title refers to the day the story takes place. Good Friday. Shand’s mother goes to church, and we see her there inbetween shots of the first two murders: the young man, the homosexual partner. London is beautifully filmed in color, without cliched icons. Mackenzie projects an opulence on the docks for Shand and his wife, and he says he looked forward to the coming buildup. The shots are some of them picturesque and glittering:

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The feature also tells the story of the cowardice of the BBC as well as the American attempt to utterly emasculate (wretched connotations, but what can one do) the text. Hoskins brought suit; it was Hoskins whose career was on the line — it was also sheer snobbery on the part of the BBC and American TV company who were embarrassed by his accent. Hoskins could have destroyed himself utterly by suing. Ronald Colman’s career never recovered when he sued, though it’s true the studios were all powerful in the 1940s. Hoskins just was found and discovered and became a know great actor sheerly on the strength of his talent — and of course social abilities too. Mirren came the trained upper middle crowd even if she likes to try to connect herself to gangsters … She wouldn’t had she really been part of such a family.

Here’s Roger Ebert:

Shand is an evil, cruel, sadistic man. But he’s a mass of contradictions, and there are times when we understand him so completely we almost feel affectionate. He’s such a character, such an overcompensating Cockney, sensitive to the slightest affront, able to strike fear in the hearts of killers, but a pushover when his mistress raises her voice to him … He’s an operator. He’s a con man who has muscled his way to the top by knowing exactly how things work and what buttons to push, and now here he is, impotent before this faceless enemy. “The Long Good Friday” tells his story in a rather indirect way, opening with a montage of seemingly unrelated events, held together by a hypnotic music theme.

And Screen Online

For while Hoskins’ Harold Shand’s gangland empire is recognisably in the mould of the notorious Kray brothers’ 1960s reign, his brand of ruthless, thrusting capitalism makes him an archetype, albeit an exaggerated one, for the Thatcher government’s enthusiastic sponsorship of individual enterprise (in a bid for legitimacy, Shand calls his domain the Corporation). This parallel is reinforced by Harold’s choice of London’s then still largely derelict Docklands area for his ambitious business project – anticipating the massive investment that transformed that region during the 1980s.

Like Berg’s Lulu, this is contemporary art, speaking to us today. What then was the difference? Mackenzie and Keefe’s film has a felt moral perspective; the characters display affection, loyalty, tenderness towards those they are bonded with (admittedly only a few); so too Breaking Bad. And neither is misogynistic.

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The famous ending of White Heat (1951) where cornered at last, Cagney sets fire to an explosive tank and goes out crying “Top of the world, Ma!”

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While his fierce mother’s view of him is a driving force within the character, the most memorable gendered moments are the menacing tensed fights between Cagney and his wife-moll, Virginia Mayo, who seeks to escape him when in his downfall his behavior terrifies her

Ellen

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Opening scenario to Berg’s Lulu (designed by William Kendrick, directors Luc De Wit & Matthew Diamond

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing about this opera for a few days in order to hear what others who saw or heard it might say, to read reviews and find out about its sources because I had such a mixed reaction to it. First the story, which should be told (because it’s meant to be) crude/ly:

Lulu is a highly paid prostitute, actress, dancer, model kept by Dr Schon a physician who also supports a painter painting her continually. In comes Schigolch, her once abusive beggar father and she gives him money. She is aggressively “in love” with Dr Schon who says he wants to marry a rich socialite.

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Lulu (Marlis Petersen) and Dr Schon (Johan Reuter who also plays Jack the Ripper)

Alwa, the physician’s son enters, enthralled by Lulu, who in the next scene has married the painter who kills himself when told of her past.

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Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

In the next act, in a ballet Lulu has danced in off-stage, she has exposed her relationship to Dr Schon to his fiancée; and faute de mieux he marries her. A boy scout or schoolboy (who I feared for) comes in admiring them all. An older countess-patroness Geschwitz, a lesbian, also loves Lulu who exploits her. Quarrels ensue, Dr Schon wants Lulu to kill herself so he will be rid of her, and in a fight, she shoots him several times. Son, countess, beggar father, boy scout try to cover up, but she goes to prison. She emerges shattered, thin, in a catatonic state. Son loses all his money in a scene with a crooked banker and investors. She ends up a ragged street prostitute in her efforts to support them all:

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Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

She brings men in and out, haggling with them for money; one attacks and kills the son, Alwa, but another turns out to be Jack the Ripper who (after she argues with him for more money) offstage murders her. Ripper returns to knife to death the despairing countess who cries out for Lulu.

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The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)

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As it began, I disliked it because of the grotesqueries, and repellent imagery of a woman’s private parts garishly drawn on allegorical costumes and in flashing shows of light across the stage:

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Lulu as we first see her costumed

But as the whole experience sunk in, or by the third act, while I continued to be distressed by the images of women’s private parts and breasts, I was shaken by the what was happening to the characters especially after the murder of the doctor as a farcical tragedy about the restless misery of personality-less individuals caught up in some maddened nightmare. I could find little to like in the music, hardly any melody, continual noise like hip-hop spoken rock, only the voices were singing and deeply resonant, plangent.

In this desperate crass bleak environment now and again a few yearn for happiness, peace, seem even to have an inkling of what this is: the painter who kills himself; Schigolch, the beggar dependent on Lulu for money sung here by Franz Grundheber; Alwa, Schon’s son; a naive schoolboy; the lesbian Countess. Most spend their hours vaunting themselves, behaving arrogantly or guardedly, coolly, seeking to marry or have sex with the richest most powerful person in the room, mocking other people, lying, cheating: Lulu; Dr Schon also tellingly the serial killer, Jack the Ripper; also an Animal Tamer, an Acrobat, an African Prince, a crooked banker, nameless investors and party-goers, not to omit two allegorical characters, a creepy man and sullen woman dressed in elegant evening clothes:

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By the world’s chances (the play was begun just before and during the early Nazi period when the mark had lost most of its value) and their own venal stupidity in following a Banker who is a stock market crook, they become destitute, whereupon they grimly hang on to anyone who will prostitute herself, in this case, Lulu. The norm throughout is sadomasochistic sex.

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Lulu with a male who is after her — the norm is sadomasochistic sex

Sometimes one person was the bully and the other abject, and then they’d change places. No one ever looked content; cheerfulness is out of the question: dark, intent, intense.

It may be the designers did not have the courage to flash up male private parts (as more shocking and less acceptable than female?), but if this omission was cowardice, the effect was sexist and eerily women-body-hating. But by the time the opera was over I was persuaded the wild use of lights, computer pictures in black and white of anguished, naked, violent, raging figures, sexism, and screens all over the stage, over-the-top theatrical imagery was justified effective expressionist projection of passions kept hidden, coming out only subtly but what drive the world’s overriding social structures.

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The stage

My friend, Fran, supplies the sources, background, artistic milieu: “It is based on, Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind later conflated both works to the five act tragedy Lulu, which I have seen performed and which once seen is not easily forgotten. Apparently it was his original intention to write a single play all along, but his publisher initially got cold feet.

Wedekind was a German who grew up in what was the equivalent of Victorian England, and he would satirize and attack bourgeois capitalism, pseudo-morality, artistic philistinism, prudery and double standards etc. Stylistically he was influenced by Georg Büchner and was, like him, very much ahead of his time, being a precursor of the Expressionism you mention, but also the Theatre of the Absurd and Brecht’s epic theatre, for example. The latter cited both Büchner and Wedekind as direct inspirations and wrote the latter a laudatory obituary when he died in 1918. (Berg’s other famous opera happens to be Wozzeck, originally a Büchner play itself.)

Berg himself first became acquainted with Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box when he saw a private performance of it in Vienna in 1905. Wedekind himself played Jack the Ripper and his later wife Tilly Newes was Lulu. Only closed, private performances were allowed by the censors Wedekind’s work was always falling foul of. There is an available picture of Wedekind playing Dr Schön to Tilly’s Lulu in performances of the Earth Spirit. Berg has a singer doubling the roles in his opera, too.

Berg started writing his own piece in 1927. It was originally to have been performed under Erich Kleiber at the Berlin opera, but shortly after an orchestral piece culled from the existing parts of the opera had been performed there in 1934, the Nazis forced Kleiber to resign and Berg postponed finishing the opera in favour of a violin concerto. His death in 1935 meant the opera remained unfinished until Berg’s music publisher commissioned the Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha to use Berg’s surviving notes to complete the third act in the 1960s. This version wasn’t presented to the public until 1977 and thus 2 yearsafter Berg’s widow’s death, since she had always opposed the procedure. This three act version had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez.”

Izzy, my daughter who came with me, said there are few atonal operas; atonal music was written in the middle 20th century, admired by academics, but never gained a wide audience.

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Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

Fran sent along URLs to two excellent essays: “danger and desire” in the Huffington Post; “modernism in Lulu” from Yale.

I found a couple of favorable and sympathetic reviews of this production: “desperadoes” in the New Yorker; and “the question that stops the opera” in the New York Times.

The talk in the intermissions was not as stupid or hyped as usual which was interesting in itself; Grundheber was intelligent about the opera; others spoke of the difficulty singing it; others were uncomfortable about their characters (Susan Graham). But the question Deborah Voigt (following a script) posed and the New York Times repeats was misleading though it’s what the audience is thought to be left asking: is Lulu victim or victimized? Suggesting some of the actor-singers did not see any larger picture, but instinctively wanted to defend themselves against the idea the opera is unfair to women: Reuter (Dr Schon and then Jack the Ripper) pointed out in reply how Dr Schon was a bad man, guilty and was punished (!).

This makes us look at the female to find punishment or rewards, so erases one of the opera’s strengths: here is no Traviata, no Wagnerian self-sacrificing utterly devoted woman who dies for her men, or seethingly evil femme fatale or witch. Our heroine who began as mechanically aggressive and cold becomes mechanically withdrawn.

Asprositutewithson

Rather all the characters are remnants of a terrible world outside the claustrophobic spaces we see them in, thrown out of some whirlpool of imbecility just outside the door. They come in staggering. Were it not for the screens, the acted areas would be small dark bare places. The one scene where we see the crowd, at the close of Act 2 in this production, is when the investors follow the banker about; just like the investors of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, they are greedy, indifferent to what their money was put in, ignorant of the workings of money and deluded. The opera is important: produced on such a scale for prestigious place says something: the content that is here pointed to is the extraordinary frankness with which sexuality is dramatized, how this prefigures other relationships. If you have not had anything like these experiences as a viewer you might be put off. What was implied about sex was the most troubling aspect of this production.

Finally, it’s remarkable to realize how modern we think this opera is and yet it’s 80 years old. That suggests modernity hasn’t penetrated the mainstream arts very much. Among the women in the class at American University I teach, two women said they had gone to the opera: one (like Izzy) left after the first act, and (like Izzy) thought the production misogynistic: the woman pointed out that we saw Lulu jump on the doctor, Lulu wrap herself around him, Lulu as animal and not the doctor. The second woman in my class left after the second act, and complained (like me) of the drawings of woman’s private parts thrown up on the screens as “repellent,” and said she did ask herself, why there were no men’s private parts? When Izzy left, I got up to sit elsewhere as a couple behind me had been quarreling with someone else over their seats. Three women behind me asked if I was leaving like my daughter. I said no, just moving away from the quarreling people. They looked relieved and asked me what I thought of it. I said, well I want to stay to the end to see how Lulu is treated when a prostitute. One of these women then said she found it compelling; the second said it was relief not to have these self-sacrificing virtuous heroine; another (echoing my silent thought) that she was tired of Traviatas. On face-book when I briefly described the opera, one woman said it “sounds pretty dreadful.” Another that she was glad she would have no chance whatsoever to see it.

The one male I did talk to about it commented: “A shame nobody does Jeffers’ version of Medea anymore. He turns Medea into a hero.” He was referring to the great American poet, Robinson Jeffers. A woman poet friend just said she liked the opera.

So, did I enjoy it? no. Would I go again? no. But I’ll remember it. When I’ve read Euripides’ Medea, I’m with her until she insanely kills her children.

Ellen

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Sonya Yoncheva (as Desdemona, she played the scene as a woman facing death)

Dear friend and readers,

This was my first opera for this HD Metropolitan opera season, and on the whole I was glad I went. I learned that Otello is not a popular opera when it has not got spectacular stars: all around me seats were empty; the auditorium was less than half full.

It was a revelatory experience in an important way too. For the first time of any production of Otello I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) the key singer-actors were directed to act out the meaning of the words of their songs. I had never before realized how different is Verdi’s inward conception of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s: Verdi’s heroine is not an odd (improbable) combination of sophisticated teasing Venetian lady who rouses Othello’s jealousy with her playful ways and yet a poignantly puzzled innocent when called a whore; this Desdemona’s soliloquies in the third and fourth act are that of a woman who knows she holds a high place and is being abused by a man crazed with hatred for her; violent and murderous. In the last two songs, her song and then the final wild erotic disaster she expects death, she is waiting for it, facing it. Yoncheva was brilliant in this part of the opera. She sang beautifully too. I was very moved by the willow song and final acting out of death, grief, anguish (which words were in English subtitles).

Aleksandro Antonenko is however not a subtle actor and it was a great loss choosing a white Italian man instead of a black non-Italian so that central themes and happenings are unexplained (beyond the jealousy, why Cassio is chosen over him and he is recalled). People doing this opera must make it their business to find a black male singer for the part; look about for non-stars if their are no stars available. Perhaps you’ll find someone new and great. Or don’t do it. Blackface on a white man is an insult to black people when they are thus excluded from a part dependent on the whole penumbra he must endure as a black and old man (Othello is much older than Desdemona). But someone had instructed Antonenko to enact the meaning of his lines. There was no dignity, but there was no ludicrousness; he was scary: this was an exploration of male sexual insecurity and murderous violation.

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Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

Both he and Zeljko Lucie were acting out ruthless misogyny together, and in 2015 the allusion was to honor-killing and its milder varieties of female destruction in non-Muslim countries. The sense of Iago as this site of malignant evil, all envy, resentment did not come out, nor did anything homoerotic between them.

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Zeljko Lucie as a man in a leather coat against glass boxes

It was two men in sheer destructive wrath — with a woman as their joint target. So this was another of these 21st century interpretations of an opera at the Met as about violence against women. This became and is an opera about a version of honor-killing. “It is the cause.”

Otello

When the men duel, women standing nearby are hurt by their daggers and the women gather about the wounded woman.

The rest of the experience was disconnected. Antony Tomassin (New York Times) explained this as a function of the odd sets, flat lack of activity, a lack of any original thought in the physical directing of the actor-singers; and David Salazar (Latin Post) wrote the problem came from how the actors were let to wander about, stand in crowds or mostly avoid one another. I’d add Roderigo was not acted out; he was a dull nothing, not a thug, not low class, just there; Dimitri Pittas as Cassio looked the part (gay, elegant) but he was given hardly anything to do. Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano)had a moment where she is abused (hit) by Iago when he snatches the handkerchief and will not return it; she is loyal and loving to Desdemona but beyond that and her beautiful dark blue outfit and lovely sonorous voice, she too was a cypher. Ditto with all the Venetians.

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The sets were explained during the intermission by Es Devlin (set designer): in Boito’s letters he told Verdi that Otello was a prison in a glass-house. I’m not sure what Boito meant by that: easily shattered? an egoistic nightmare of his own making? But Devlin determined to have glass houses sliding on and off the stage against a dark stormy sky, red blood universe (matched by one of Desdemona’s 19th century style flouncy stiff dresses). I’m not sure they added anything; indeed they seemed to distract attention when the characters slinked about. Perhaps a bare stage with indications of tempest and then a few pieces of symbolic furniture would have been as effective.

I was on my own as I have now been for several of these operas. Since the audience was so sparse and people near by unfriendly. This is increasingly true in these movie-houses with HD operas or plays as the newness of the experience wears off; people have ceased applauding for the most part too. I was free to feel Jim’s absence — the silence around me — and experience Yoncheva’s scene about facing death and enduring it as what he did and what I will do in turn when my time comes.

I grieved too. Jim died with my arms around him, loving him, I will die alone. Recently I’ve had strains in my chest and my right arm grows weaker and weaker. I sometimes find a coffee cup heavy to pick up. I will not let the hospital and medical people attack me with their surgeries and then treat me with an indifference which depends on shaming me into compliance. Instead like him once he saw what the surgery was and recognized this medical establishment’s small behavior, he brought death on, faced it on his own terms. In Verdi Desdemona does not beg for life, for another moment more the way Shakespeare’s Desdemona does.

I thought had the opera just had the opening dark blue sky with its wisps of cloud (computer generated) all around that bed the scene would have scenically more meaningful. This version of Verdi’s opera when it’s most alive is about love as death. The last part is about facing and doing death.

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Susan Herbert, a salutary woman’s mockery on the nonetheless deadly Othello

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There was something beyond the opera worth going to see: one of the intermission films for the first time (finally) explained the role of the man whose name has appeared as HD director for every HD Met opera I’ve seen and never heard mentioned at all: Gary Halvorson. The film was presented as “celebrating” (the mode on these broadcasts is over-speak) ten years of HD broadcast: well according to him, he marshals all the cameras and computer controllers together to photograph or film the opera from the most effective angles possible; it takes weeks of synchronizing themselves and their equipment with the slightest changes of beat, or movement or sound, several people working at once with several screens going at once. Each time a live broadcast is actually done, he begins work at 6:30 am with some of his crew there already and as the day progresses with this or that different group, during the broadcast alert at every second with the others round this tables of computer until the moment the HD broadcast ceases. The implication was that this movie-director is just an overlay; the opera itself has not been plotted so as to be cinema-shaped. I doubt that, but I don’t doubt that this is what the man literally does, what I doubt is the lack of cooperation from the “real” director implied.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND, director Gary Halvorson, on set, 1999. (c)Columbia Pictures
Gary Halvorson, previously a TV film director — very much a promotional shot

It was a cold day in Alexandria today, the first real cold this fall. I had bought myself a new soft light blue wool sweater and a woolly yet light weight jacket-coat, high neck, long sleeves. I needed them both and pulled them tight against me. I wore a light purple scarf wrapped around my head with its ends twirled about my neck, and my usual thin violet gloves. I got into my car, started it and turned on Simon Vance reading aloud Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In the silence.
Now again.
Typing this.
Clarycat
sharing my chair.

Ellen

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Innocent partner of my peaceful home,
Whom ten long years’ experience of my care
Has made at last familiar, she has lost
Much of her vigilant instinctive dread,
Not needful here, beneath a roof like mine …
I have gained thy confidence, have pledged
All that is human in me to protect
Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love
— William Cowper, to his hareThe Task

If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go
D’ye think I’d wallop him? no, no, no!
But gentle means I’d try, d’ye see,
Because I hate all cruelty;
If all had been like me, in fact,
There’d have been no occasion for Martin’s Act,
Dumb animals to prevent being crack’d
On the head
— Musical hall song after the 1822 passage of the Martin’s bill protecting animal rights

Dear friends and readers,

A few weeks ago on C18-l, a listserv dedicated to the 18th century, a thread on when and how people began to treat dogs as satisfying companions, produced several book titles, among them Ingrid Tague’s Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in 18th century Britain and Kathryn Shevelow’s For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement. The latter much more in my budget range and with a deeply appealing picture of a dog rather than its human friend on its cover, suggesting a focus I wanted. I bought and have read it. As I sit with one of my beloved cats on my lap tonight and the other not far away, I feel more people reading it might do some good.

It’s not just another academic history, but belongs to a sub-genre: books by women on animals they lived among, cared and worked for, and become a good friend to, whose rights they passionately proselytize for. Women are willing to put aside ego, pride, a sense of superiority and power too to live with animals as equals in order to study them. I’d align Shevelow with Jane Goodall, Diane Fosse, Birute Galdikas, Sy Montgomery and Temple Grandin and others I used to read with students in Writing about the natural Sciences and Tech classes. Books on specific species seem most often to be by women, of course especially cats (until very recently not valued partly because of this connection): Doris Lessing, Olivia Manning, Tanquil Le Clerc; hard to classify cultural books like Jenny Diski’s What I Don’t Know About Animals, not to omit specialty painters, e.g., George Stubbs and Henrietta Ronner (and books thereon, viz, Caroline Bugler’s 3500 Years of the Cat in Art)
Inhumanelyimprisoned

The subject is a serious one; you just need to watch Frederick Wiseman’s Primates or read any of Goodall’s recent exposures of the cruelty of researchers to animals they keep prisoners in solitary confinement ready for the next “experiment.”

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Shevelow’s book opens with a woman! The first women writer fully on record writing out of a principle on animal equality is Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, a great poet. Many will know her poem The Hunting of the Hare, but may not know she also wrote against against cruel experiments in her essays — another reason for calling her mad and ridiculous.

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Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

Margaret’s arguments provide a jumping off point for Shevelow’s detailing how animals were commonly regarded in print from medieval to later 17th century times. What has been used against them from the beginning of writing is they don’t talk (“dumb animals”). Thus it was easy to assert theologically they have no souls, are not rational, despite manifesting many emotions like humans they were said not to feel these for real. The world was by God (or the Gods) made for people and we should use what comes to us just as we please. (The same justification was used for slavery; hierarchy for exploiting lower class people, women too.) Shevelow summarizes several treatises: Aquinas allowed that animals feel pain (good of him), OTOH, Descartes was especially mean. Some Jewish traditions from the Hebrew Bible exhorted humane behavior.

Her second chapter is the densest in the book about showing the way people tortured animals for enjoyment. It reminded me of Lessing’s first chapter on how people have for centuries shot and killed cats carelessly and on sprees. The most common enjoyment was to force animals to fight to the death; to terrify one with packs of others attacking it and then rejoice in the traumatized hysteria and crazed antics of the animal. Late in the book Shevelow has witnesses in the 19th century finally testifying to how bears just before bear-baiting sessions were to come (they knew) would moan, groan, quiver and cry, would try to escape, hang back until whipped into it. One incident well-documented later was of a dog and monkey driven to bite each others lower jaws off. “Blood sports” were especially prevalent in the UK.

In case you assume all people today find these sports abhorrent or are unwilling to admit they regard them complacently, think again: listen to the tone of Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre; I finished a book last week on Chardin by a respectable woman art historian who quoted a chief of police and inspector in France in the early 19th century who found blood sports much amusing as an authority whose taste in buying prints she took respectfully and seriously into account. What can one say of human beings who set up killing fields, coerce slave-labor and run rape academies justified by their “religion.”

As might be predicted Shevelow argues (and demonstrates) that enlightenment thought first spread the feeling among a minority of people (but there) that animals should be treated humanely. Her thesis, though, is that while increasing numbers of people were willing to countenance and say generally as a principle that animals should be protected from the cruelty and violence of people, what really spread active change in the condition of the lives of animals (I almost said unfortunate enough to be) in contact with people was the real spread of keeping animals as companions — pets. She says that when an animal becomes our companion, when we start to see say Clarycat (to mention my cat)’s feelings working with our own, when we notice their individual patterns of behavior, when we what’s called anthropomorphize them (Goodall argues a loaded falsifying term), then the individual doing that is going to treat the animal decently. As more and more people did that, then there was a genuine building up of identification, bonding, love.

GeorgeMorland
George Morland (1763?-1804): The Artist’s Cat Drinking

Shevelow’s book falls off for a time because after she has shown the barbarity of animal treatment in the 18th century, her way of “proving” that it was the spread of people really having relationships with animals as companions is through entertaining anecdotes. The problem is not that they are many of them designedly funny, but the humor comes from our and Shevelow’s perception of incongruity. The problem may be how do you demonstrate such an argument? Johnson loved animals and had several cats but Boswell quotes him as saying: “a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs.” Then she produces equivocal arguments, e.g., people regarded animals as people because animals could be accused of murder or heinous crimes and then treated as heinously as people. I had a student who had been assigned to write about Thomas More’s Utopia and casting about to look like a feminist and find feminism in this treatise came up with idea women could be enslaved too, beaten for adultery as severely as men. Gee thanks. Shevelow cites the way people regarded birth deformities as showing we recognize animal connections with ourselves as animal imagery and analogies were produced. But it equally be that the use of the animal term shows just how debased this “freak” deformity was regarded.

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A 20th century photo of family life among chimpanzees

I was surprised that Shevelow did not bring up how easier travel brought people into contact with chimpanzees and orangutans (she did cite Lord Monboddo’s work) and there people acknowledged cousinship, reluctantly but it was seen. It’s seen in novels, in memoirs, Anne Boleyn refused to keep a money because it appalled her as being too like. In Graham’s last novel, Bella, he uses the shipping of orangutans to Europe because they have white irises in their eyes and flat nails and their standing posture made people call the men. She brings up zoos as putting people on contract with exotic animals but this too is so far from her companion thesis. Circuses are places where people have practiced real cruelty to animals. She appeared to have lost her way.

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With “Nature’s Cry” Shevelow got back into on track, in powerful gear and the book became excellent again thereafter: Shevelow is strongest when she is producing arguments for animal rights and describing the politics surrounding this, and (paradoxically, conversely) showing the wanton (to use the 19th century term that had purchase) cruelty and horrible fun and rage people could and did inflict on animals.

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A sculpture of Hogarth’s dog — he was another man who loved animals

First, Shevelow carefully examines the most powerful of Hogarth’s allegories: the four stages of cruelty, where he shows the progress of a hero from torturing animals to killing a servant girl and along the way the four sketches have many analogous images of cruelty to animals, each showing how this behavior is pervasive in the society, usually coming back to horrific treatment of animals. Often they are small ones; cats, smaller dogs, roosters, rabbits. The point of the four is to show how cruelty to animals is part of and leads to the overall violence of people to one another. The moral lesson is one must teach children when they are young that animals have the right be treated the way a child might want to be treated. It is the first time I’d heard of this. She believes they had an effect.

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The third stage

She then returns to philosophers, artists, scientists, treatises and writing of all sorts showing a growing acceptance of the idea that animals have rights. Part I included ideas I assume my reader knows, Locke’s naturalistic view of the species, found also in his Thoughts Concerning Education. In Part II she moves on to writers who forthrightly produced powerful original indictments, e.g., Humphry Primate’s A dissertation on the duty of mercy and and the sin of cruelty to Brute Animals. Primate was the son of a clergyman and his became a central text of the animal protection movement, still cited today. Primate argued argued animals have the right to happiness (!) and enjoyment (companionship) just like human beings and it’s our limitation that makes us deny them this.

Those who know about 18th century medicine and psychiatry know the importance of the work of George Cheyne. He was an enormously fat man before he launched his career as a reformer and one of the thing he gave up was eating animals. Shevelow has a long chapter on his work, influence and protests. Thomas Young, another clergyman wrote an essay that achieved some readership: An Essay on Humanity to Animals; he conceded the uncomfortable truth that vegetarianism can come from not wanting to kill or hurt animals but this movement unfortunately ammunition to those who want to deny animals rights to say you are going overboard. OTOH, at the close of the 18th century and into the 19th the vivisection movement had begun and as a propaganda tool, it was effective — these experiments horrified some of those who saw them, and the feel of unnaturalness made the anti-vivisection pro-animal feeling spread.

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The last part of Shevelow’s book covers parliamentary debates and teases out underlying values by tracing the kind of examples that in such debates often become electrifying litmus tests.

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19th century print of bull-baiting

The first bill she says (in the history of mankind) to protect animals was introduced on April 2, 1800 by Sir William Pulteney, restrained, cautious wealthy property-developer: it was a bill to end the “savage custom of Bull-baiting.” In the debate that followed some classic arguments we hear today over gov’t’s reach, what is the function of law, can you legislate morality. I remember in the 1950s when conservative Republicans objected to social legislation on behalf of the poor as “meddling.” Never hear that now. Sheridan spoke eloquently but Shevelow shows how the emphasis was on stopping people from brutalizing themselves, and was not in sympathy with the dogs. It was too limited in scope and its focus not animals as such. It went down to defeat because the opposition was there and strong (Evangelicals are killjoys — Wilberforce was for the bill) of Wm Windham who brought out the Jacobin analogy – they are too radical against “so-called oppression.”

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Sir Edwin Landseer, Attachment — Foxey guarding her master’s body

One of the stories which hit sore spots and became a focus of the debates (visualized by Landseer above) was of a dog who mourned a dying master and the question arose whether the dog tried to eat the master. The idea of the opponents of the bill was to show animals are not “gentle” and not worth protecting” to attack the dog was central as this domestic animal had more constituency than any others.

Shevelow briefly covers the poetry and prose of the period which encourages sympathy with others in distress, for animals, Burns’s use of the mouse, Blake, Cowper and his hares; protests poems against vivisection. Children’s books encouraged children to be kind to pets (Anna Barbauld, Sarah Hare). Blake:

A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human Blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.

And it was brought out by Jeremy Bentham and others that people treated their slaves as animals. She does not begin to have enough room for all the varied material she could have. The other day I read Dickens’s preface to Barnaby Rudge, which has touching portraits of two ravens somewhat comically described in human terms. I think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice refusing to eat a piece of meat once they are introduced.

A big boost was the passage of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and Sir William Erskine steps onto the stage. He was known as a great lover of animals, over dinner one night he even introduced his guests to his pet leeches who had saved his life. A strong successful attorney who saved the lives of several people prosecuted in the 1970s; he was gregarious, a keen wit, intelligent, and he defended one of the early whistleblower cases where a gov’t (the English gov’t) tried to put the person who revealed corruption and secrets and incompetence in jail.

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1900: photo of horse left to die in a NYC slum road

On May 5, 1809 Erskine introduced “an Act to prevent malicious and wanton Cruelty to animals.” It was immediately prompted by an incident in the streets where he saw a deeply crippled, suffering starving horse being further beaten. He bought that horse, but it was just the one, In slaughterhouses it was common for horses to start eating one another out of trauma and distress and hunger. What distinguished his bill was it was not about humans but about preventing cruelty to animals. He did not seek to teach human beings to be better or end any particular practice but stop “malicious and wanton cruelty” and he maintained magistrates would recognize that when they saw it. His focus was on working animals, especially horses (treated very badly as race horses Southey maintained).

The quality of people’s petty minds against him is caught up by this doggerel:

For dogs and hares
And bulls and bears
Let Pulteney still make laws,
For sure I be
That none but he
So well can plead their cause.
Of all the house,
Of man and mouse,
No one stands him before,
To represent in Parliament
The brutes, for he’s a boar [bore]

Now the debate engaged the issues involved directly Erskine tried to make prosecutions fall on masters and owners of working places. Erskine won in the house, but went down to defeat in the Lords and the opposition was once again led by Windham who had modified his stance somewhat: he acknowledged the suffering of animals was terrible, but the particular incidents fought over show that the people arguing were talking about the human beings involved and did not take seriously the idea that an infliction of an injury on an animal should be called a criminal offense.

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A blind cat taken care of in an animal shelter

On the Net recently a veterinarian (great fool) photographed herself killing a cat (for pleasure, including the cat’s terror); she has been prosecuted. I fear the man who killed the lion was not. I believe all hunting of animals should be outlawed. That all places manufacturing meat for humans to eat should be monitored carefully.

Pamphlets were written that circulated widely (by John Lamb a countering the idea this kind of bill was “a dangerous precedent”) and in Liverpool the first society for the prevention of cruelty to animals was started, had noble aims but disappeared (no money, not enough people getting involved). Erskine went back to being the people’s champion, Windham died, now known as the man who protected bull baiting.

The stage is set for Richard Humanity Dick Martin. It was after Erskin’s bill failed to pass that Richard Martin becomes individually pro-active.

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Colonel Richard — Humanity Dick Martin
(1754-1834, Irish politician-reformer

The most effective man most responsible for getting people to support animal rights at the time was Richard Martin, a very rich Anglo-Irish man. He comes into public record first when he fought a duel with someone who had murdered a dog owned by a member of his family – to get back at the member. I’ve seen too many times in the historical record and have come across cases in my life where I’m told someone deliberately hurt (not killed) an animal to get back at its owner. The man George Fitzgerald was a violent bully, would provoke others with a cudgel, and enjoyed shooting dogs. (Boswell tells us about one of Johnson’s associates who enjoyed shooting and killing cats; Lessing opens her book on cats on such people in South Africa when she was a girl.

Martin was known for his love of animals, including oxen (working animals); he was a domineering landowner in Connemarra – thought he knew what was good for others; his father, Robert instilled in him a deep sense of the injustice inflicted on Ireland by the English; the father not only wanted liberty and equal rights for Irish Catholics but to get rid of the crippling tariffs on Ireland, the whole range of behaviors, laws and customs that made it into an exploited miserable country. He said smuggling was the result of these. He sent Richard to Harrow where he came under the influence of Samuel Parr, a “jacobinical parson;” someone with radical and romantic sympathies.

Hogarth’s insight that the desire to treat animals as having equal rights with people goes with a deep sense of justice and rights for all people is vindicated in Martin’s story politicking in the early 19th century to speak for animals. Martin traveled to Jamaica and identified with the subaltern people; he came back to Parliament and became active, married Elizabeth Vesey who he is said to have neglected (as well as his property) and she became Wolfe Tone’s mistress (the children’s tutor at the time). He inherited a large beautiful estate but was no good as a businessman; none of his schemes (he tried for a copper mine) ever succeeded and he was continually in debt, having to find creditors and patronage. He was known for his great benevolence as a friend and master. He was sympathetic to the Irish Catholics especially during the attempt to throw off the English in 1798 and somehow managed not to be himself accused of treason; he went for compromise as did other Irish people since famous (Daniel O’Connell for example) and was for the union, and when he got to London to the parliament and saw how corrupt it was, he was taken aback, and regrouped to enlist people to help him.

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Julien Dupre — a painting of a cow at pasture in a poor farm

Now Martin shepherded yet a third bill, May 24, 1822 introduced to the parliamentary floor against “the Ill Treatment of Cattle.” The arguments against this are those we hear today (though muted). Still, what was happening was a gradual change in sentiment so if you saw a man deliberately shoot out the eyes of a horse, you were horrified and tried to save the horse by killing it outright. Tellingly during debates it usually seemed as if the animal rights people were in a real minority, but when it came to a vote, again and again surprisingly more and more people would vote for this legislation. It was finally killed and again the Lords — the great obstruction for all sorts of decent social legislation.

And again there is a good insight; Shevelow now adds to her insight that the development of real companionship between people and animals heralds the first real work for improvement for animals’ lives; the second wasthe spread of cities, of people living in close proximity: like TV in the US where we watched in the 1960s cops whipping and hosing black people, beating them up, and again recently spray painting them with some terrible stuff and now simply murdering them viciously, enough people have better instincts and a sense of their own safety to protest.

Shevelow gives examples of the kind of thing seen in streets and reported during parliamentary debates. For example, a man shooting the eyes of a horse would not have been seen by many before cities; mulitiply such incidents even daily on working animals and you have another pressure not to give animals equal rights, but at least stop this kind of horrific behavior which human beings (we and they knew) are capable of doing to one another.

When Richard Martin got up to defend and argue for his bill, he described in detail particular instances of wanton cruelty — as I read these I can hardly repeat them. One concerned a monkey and dog driven to bite each other’s lower jaw off. Another was an early first description by someone with some decency of how a bull acted and felt before baiting. The person said the bull recognized signs it was about to happen and would moan and groan and shiver and look afraid. The bull dreaded this and didn’t want to do this at all in a intense way. As Martin told his stories, many members of parliament laughed. He impugned them for laughing but they laughed all the harder and no one stopped them.

And yet finally the bill was passed on July 22nd by a substantial margin. Many members sitting quietly when the mockery of Martin was going forward nonetheless voted with him. The Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act, the world’s first protective legislation for animals became a reality.

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A comic print of Martin bringing a man to trial for savagely beating his donkey

Now of course one had to enforce it. She has a sort of gift for humor — she needs it, and ends on Martin’s almost single-handed crusade to get the laws enforced. He went about the streets and wherever he had wind of a cruel event and had the person indicted. Martin would pay part of people’s fines because not too would hurt working class people unfairly. Martin hated how the upper classes said he was hurting the entertianment of the lower orders when they attended the same events and were just as cruel during their own.

Now an obstacle to indictment was the law was just about cattle and judges while seeing horrific cruelty to dogs say could do nothing. But if you said you wanted to extend the protection to other species, you’d get mocking rejoinder, next thing he’ll want to protect cats. Until recently cats have not been seen as worthy as dogs since they neither protect nor can they be guide cats for say blind people. The ploy to stop legislation continued to be to say in reply something absolutist so that the small step you wanted would be thrown out.

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At this point Shevelow’s book suddenly draws to a close in a kind of huddled ending. The fight goes on. There is a final coda on the origins and early development of the SPCA and ASPCA. Temple Grandin and Jane Goodall get a look in as people who had done unusual good for working animals and those we eat and fighting the horrific abuse that goes on in experimentation — it’s easier to pass protective legislation for pets and animals in zoos. She reprints important parts of the text of Martin’s Act, there are extensive notes and a good bibliography.

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Detail from George Stubbs’s Bay Horse and White Dogs (18th century)

Progress is slow. One night walking in Old Town a few years ago Jim pointed out to me a dog who looked terrified of his master, who quivered before that man and said we could do nothing for the poor creature. When a teenager, I saw a teenage boy drop a cat from a roof. My daughter, Caroline, rescued two cats who had been abused (one would gnaw part of her stomach). There’s also plain neglect.

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Philippe Mercier, Girl holding a cat (1745)

For the last couple of years of Jim’s life we made a habit when we would go to an art exhibit of seeking out depictions of cats in the paintings — or any other animal seen as a companion-pet we could glimpse.

In the streets of the cities I’ve lived in and read about nothing like the daily infliction of pain and miserable treatment once meted out to animals goes on. The new problem is a lot of cruelty to animals is not visible, and some agricultural industries have gotten legislation passed forbidding the taking of photos at their mass farms. They label animal rights’ activists terrorists and some of these people have been imprisoned for exposing wanton cruelty at factory farms and butcheries. At the close of her book Shevelow reprints the text of Martin’s act and offers addresses for important animal rights organizations if one wants to contribute or go over to work for them. I’ve written this blog so people will know about her book.

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The statue of Johnson’s cat, Hodge, in Gouge Square in front of “Dr Johnson’s house”

The progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase — Samuel Johnson.

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Sleeping kitten

Ellen

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PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und NINA KUNZENDORF .Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intentität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und RONALD ZEHRFELD.Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intensität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung
Nelly (Nina Hoss) having returned to where she once lived finds a precious relic while Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) looks on

Dear friends and readers,

I hasten to write about this film to recommend it lest it leave movie-houses quickly. It seemed in no danger of this after its second week of screening at my local semi-art film theater (calls itself Cinema Arts Theater) as in the later afternoon on a weekday there were still some 20+ people in the auditorium; but as this theater has a substantial percentage of Jewish customers and it’s been billed as a holocaust film, a first intense interest is understandable. The title in English and one of its sources (1965 film, Return from the Ashes) offers a clearer idea of its slightly fantastic story content and theme.

Phoenix caught my attention because it stars Nina Hoss who starred in the powerful film adaptation by Max Faberbock of Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (about gang and individual ceaseless rapes in war); it is a another startling movie focusing on a woman that works like a fable and thus reminded me of another German film, The Wall (Marien Haushofen’s novel adapted by Julian Polsler). I do tell what I understand of the ending and a couple of central acts in order to give the feel of makes this movie valuable as an experience.

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How she looks soon after the surgery

The first act is Nelly (Nina Hoss), is brought out of a concentration camp with her face just about totally ruined (smashed cheek bones, nose, horrible behind bandages) by Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) who works on the humanitarian tasks of “bringing” back into society the devastated human remnants of these camps. We are to believe an operation restores her just about wholly, that she cannot resist hunting for her long-lost husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), and readily finds him in a Berlin nightclub. No one could be so restored as she is by the end.

Another holocaust story you might still say, or about German guilt but that does not capture its inner life. The characters are haunting, haunted people, and the way it’s filmed (in a bomb-devastated impoverished Berlin) suggests how intense is the human emotion to recapture one’s identity if it has been taken away, to take back and resume a past that seems to have been wiped out, utterly undermined forever. It is about Nelly’s refusal to give up a love and set of beliefs in the value of humanity because not only the person you loved but everyone else around you betrayed you.

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Crossing the border

Nelly persists. After the initial getting past the check-point (some danger for the brutal soldiery only let Lene pass when she shows them Nelly’s damaged face), Nelly’s surgery and first recovery, she begins to wander the wasteland streets, and bars and clubs open all night. We see women dragged out of these places and beat up by men in the wastelands behind the taverns; some of them enact super-sexy numbers on stage (parodies of Marlene Dietrich), and we fear for Nelly. Johnny is one of the poorly paid waiters.

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We are afraid of Johnny when she meets him, he is rough and domineering. Lene gets Nelly a gun and says if she can’t use it, just pulling it out might help. So it’s about the abuse of women in part, and the violence of men — the SS guards at the checkpoints are frightening, ready to kill or maim; to call the men in the film patriarchal doesn’t capture the steely feel of them.

There is an muted but intense grief suffused throughout the movie whose active dynamic comes from Nelly’s ceaseless quest (she says she cannot resist it) first to get her original face back through plastic surgery and then to find her husband. The first direct loss in the action of the film itself is Lene’s: Lene has brought her out; Lene has found a place for them to live they can afford, has arranged for the surgery, and now plants a new life for Nelly in Israel, but Nelly protests she is not a religious or even secular Jew — she was a German and is a German woman. Lene is not disinterested: the mannish way she dresses and her affection for Nelly suggests that Lene is a lesbian, and loves Nelly intensely. She feel after all she has done for Nelly, Nelly is not reciprocating in the way Lene has planned for her. Moreover, Nelly’s behavior suggests she forgives her husband, will allow herself to be used and dominated again. Lene asks, Are there not some acts that are unforgivable?

Lene tells Nelly after Nelly finds Johnny that Johnny betrayed her. He told the gestapo where she was. Nelly’s sense is that Johnny did this out of fear for himself, he was not active in it. Lene then tells Nelly that Johnny did get in touch with her to see if he could inherit the money she had from her years as a cabaret singer and from her family (there’s a fine mansion in his family now half-ruined). All this does is galvanize Nelly to pretend to be Esther, someone else who offers to imitate Nelly for Johnny, offers to enact the role so he can claim she is alive after all and both of them take the money. She puts on the clothes he buys for her and her old shoes which (miraculously?) fit her.

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She seems to feel revulsion at her act of redressing as herself here

We see while he is willing to be courteous and on the surface kind to Nelly-Esther, he is also willing to do anything to Esther to make her look like Nelly, and as Esther gradually begins to look like Nelly he becomes confused and troubled but his emotions are not enough to deter him say from asking her to re-carve numbers on her arm so that she will look like she’s been in a concentration camp.

PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und RONALD ZEHRFELD.Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intentität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung PHOENIX  ein Film von CHRISTIAN PETZOLD mit  NINA HOSS und RONALD ZEHRFELD.Die Geschichte einer Holocaust Ueberlebenden die mit neuer Intensität herausfinden will ob ihr Mann sie verraten hat. Story on a woman who has survived the Holocaust. Presumedly dead, she returns home under a new identity to find out if her husband betrayed her Phoenix. Il racontera l'histoire, après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, d'une femme qui a survécu à l'Holocauste. Tout le monde la croit morte. Elle revient chez elle sous une nouvelle identité et découvre que son mari l'a trahie... ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur fuer redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung ueber diesen Film und mit Urheber-Nennung

The movie comes to a first climax when Nelly comes home for her usual reports to Lene (she does not desert Lene) and finds Lene has shot and killed herself. Lene is that desolated at Nelly’s behavior, made that desperate at Nelly’s abjection. Her last act just before was to leave Nelly documents: those which show Johnny actively betrayed her and a set of divorce papers where he divorced himself from her in order to have no ties or responsibility towards her. The suicide and these papers have a strong effect on Nelly; she seems almost to give up her project of pleasing Johnny, but she does not. She persists.

The culminating thing Johnny needs for Nelly-Esther (how he sees her) to do is get on a train and meet the members of their old community and friends; they must recognize her without him pointing her out. He tells Nelly who they are and what to say to them and what they will automatically say in response — their cant. They utter that cant. They all look like they are rejoicing, she hugs Johnny and all go to a room in the mansion. He sits at the piano for her to sing as a final proof. She begins awkwardly by the end she is singing Cole Porter’s Night and Day (a song played on and off through the movie) as melodiously and hauntingly as she once did. He looks at her and finally seems to recognize she is really Nelly and look remorseful or at her as a person. At this she stops singing, she looks around at these phony superficial people and slips out the door.

What has happened? it’s left ambiguously. In life Nelly was a singer, wife, chatelaine — it’s like she is no longer in life anymore even if she has her appearance back — and when Nelly has fooled everyone and it seems that Johnny will get the inherited money, she looks about her and walks away from them all. It’s as if this song is a final blow. But on whom?

Will she walk away? or stay around the corner for another turn of events and just live with these memories. If the emphasis is on how this is the return of ashes, then she will at least escape from these people, refuse to pretend to trust them and that all is the same. But if the emphasis is on persistence and the need for an identity, she will stay as she has no other choice she can stand. She did not want to make herself into a Jew she never was; she does not want a false identity.

The film comes to no conclusion what she should do. In a way it relates to all the movies of devastated worlds, people floating about anonymously, identifies destroyed, but it is more like Mr Holmes and I’ll Dream of You in that there is a community to return to, belong to — sort of. The difference is this community Nelly re-finds, betrayed her before: all of the people were willing to give her up to the Nazis as she was born a Jew lest they get in any kind of trouble. We are to ask what would this community do if the world turned upside down again and they had to give her up again. Would they hesitate?

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From late in the movie when Johnny and Nelly take a photo together in front of her ex-mansion — the photo makes him look as vulnerable as she

Ellen

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‘What the deuce is it to me?”‘ he interrupted impatiently: ‘you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

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Dear friends and readers,

Mr Holmes has a couple of obstacles or problems to wide-spread acclaim. It is melancholy. Its themes include how to cope with aging and its losses, death, stigmatized class status (a no-no). For those brought up on the action-adventure of Robert Downey, Jude Law, Michael Strong and Rachel McAdams, it will not answer your expectations; for those still wedded to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (to say too little of the justified paranoia of WW2), it will make fun of the 1943 fanatical adherence to the deerstalker hunting cap and pipe (Holmes goes to a black-and-white simulacrum of such a movie and just cannot sit through it); it lacks the giddy pace and surrealism of the first 2 seasons of the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman Sherlock concoctions; but to say it’s not Holmesian (as the New Yorker guru critic in residence, Anthony Lane means to insinuate) is just not so.

I concede fully that the perspective is post-modern (conventional thought and cant, especially about death and grief be damned), that there is something deliciously Jamesian (Henry) about it. Characters have deeply traumatic encounters on park benches while wearing impeccable hats.

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Close-up of hat

They fail to understand one another, cannot bear one another’s emotions. It moves slowly, with shots that capture a poetry of stillness and costume drama in its green landscapes, seascapes, the sina qua non steam train rushing serpentine and noisily through. More than twice, though in one climactic instance it matters as someone is (reminding me of a Trollope scene in The Prime Minister) voluntarily smashed to smithereens.

But that it’s not Holmesian is unfair. Once you try to drill down to what could be the psychological or thematic or even political motive or moral explanation of at least two of its flashback and front story plots, you end up with ideas that will not bear any scrutiny. Convention defeats me here: I do not claim to be writing a consistently post-modern blog so allow me to explicate and show at least miminal story consistency.

There are three time frames: the present, 1947, Mr Holmes, aged 93, losing the last vestiges of memory from the past, living on the south coast of England, cared for by a housekeeper (natch) Mrs Munroe (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker) who turns to Mr Holmes as father figure because his own father died in WW2: a bitter moment of memory has Linney as Mrs Munroe remembering how, like herself, her husband, was corroded by the stigmas of lower class status, and for his efforts to become a pilot in WW2, was blown to bits immediately (his mates, content to be menial mechanics all survived the war).

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Miloparker

A story from thirty years ago is painstakingly put together (& dramatized as flashbacks) by Mr Holmes about Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who had two miscarriages or stillborn children, cannot accept this and whose grief is only moderated by lessons she eventually finds for the glass harp (Frances la Tour, the crook teacher), whose intensity bothers her husband to the point he cuts off her money-supply and refuses to set up stone monuments for the never-developed nor born children. It is not giving away the story to say she plots to kill her husband.

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Holmes (McKellen) remembering (a difficult feat in the this story) Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan)

It’s not true though that there is no sense to this story. The moral is the husband was wrong; he should have allowed his wife to be deluded by the crook teacher — this reminded me of Woody Allen’s frequent defenses of fortune-tellers in many of his movies and there is a fortune-telling scene here.

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The glass harp medium (Frances de la Tour, aka Mrs Western in the 1997 Tom Jones)

Another backstory told through interwoven flashbacks is set in Japan: Holmes has gone to Hiroshima (1946?) to obtain a promised solution of which is said to restore the memory, only to find himself confronted by a Japanese man who accuses Holmes of seducing his father away from him and his mother through the stories of Dr Watson (The Study in Scarlet is the culprit), all the while we know that Holmes now deplores Watson’s fictions a providing false gratifying endings and heroism, with many details so wrong they are embarrassing. Of course this story “falls to pieces in your hands” (as Lane says). Worse, the explanation is reactionary defense of “national” and family secrets, of absurd honor which one sacrifices one’s life for? What Conan Doyle story does not do something like this?

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It is Holmes’s self-imposed mission in the film to retrieve: to retrieve the memory of who his Japanese man was (until near the end Holmes believes the man a liar, coward, and that he never met him — the man just deserted his family); to compensate for how inadequate, insensitive, absurd, selfish was his Jeremy Brett-like behavior to Anne Kelmot (the way this Kelmot thread is dramatized is closely reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Holmes movies), something which depends on memory and rewriting Watson’s story.

Much of this is done through the techniques of filmic epistolarity: voice-over with Holmes writing out new texts to replace Watson’s. Part of the fun of this is withholding. We do not see Mycroft (who explicates the Japanese story) until near the end of the film and it’s John Sessions (for me memorable as Henry Fielding, also in the 1997 Tom Jones); we do not see the bumbling inspector (played by Phil Davis, great in sinister, threatening roles in Dickensian film adaptations, now Jud in Poldark), until near the end. There is fun in recognizing these character actors from other costume dramas quietly semi-parodying the roles.

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Indeed the uplift at the close is the same fantasy Dickens plays upon in A Christmas Carol. We are asked to believe that people can make up for what they did wrong in the past, find a new person like the one you so hurt now to do better by. We do come near searing calamity in the present, brought on by both Mrs Munroe and Mr Holmes. I can’t deny that sometimes people (as characters) are lucky. The film is as Dickensian as it is Jamesian.

Hattie Morahan was once again “emotionally aflame” — Lane talks of her in A Doll’s House in BAM, but she was astonishing in Duchess of Malfi and I still watch her as Elinor refusing solace. I felt bad for Laura Linney(unbeatable in Love Actually, unforgettable in Hyde Park on the Hudson) that she was given the howling role. I found myself crying at the close because I couldn’t believe in the self-reproach and better behavior of our principal trio: Mr Holmes and Mrs Munroe, to say nothing of the maturation of Roger.

If I had anything to object to in this film it was that both Ian McKellen (too many great films and plays to begin to cite) and Laura Linney could have been given much more deeply nuanced moments. She is literally kept behind bars, looking out from windows:

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The film-makers were chary about releasing stills of McKellen showing the ravages of old age in the film, as he falls, eats, puts down stones for those who have gone before him. There was a pandering to the sub-genre of old man-and-hopeful worshipping-boy

OTOH, the beautiful loving feeling at the close of the film was authentic. Doyle’s ever-cool, ever witty, impatient Sherlock is now taking the risk of giving of himself; entering into loving relationships directly. Mr Holmes will leave the property to Mrs Monro and her boy when he dies. We see Mrs Munro and Roger in the garden working together and we see them walk off hand-in-hand too. The boy is now respectful of his mother under an eye of approval by Mr Holmes. He is 94, and we last seem him putting down stones (as Ann Kelmot did) for each of his friends now gone to the earth. He bows before them murmuring a lullaby. McKellen himself is very old now. It is a summer movie because through Jeffrey Hatcher’s marvelous screenplay McKellan as Mr Holmes is believable and comforts you.

Ellen

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