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Archive for the ‘visual art’ Category


Hamlet (Papa Essiedu), Gravedigger (Ewart James Walters) and assistant (Temi Wilkey)


Leones (Michael Tisdale) accosts Camillo (Eric Hissom)

Friends,

I have been putting off writing about the plays, concerts, lectures, and dance I’ve been to since coming back from Milan (well I did just once because Friel’s Translations was not to be missed) that they have begun to pile up. So late as it is, I’m here to urge all who read this to see the RSC’s Hamlet with a nearly all black cast. It is touring.


Hamlet with Lorna Brown as Gertrude

Allowing for exaggeration, the reviews have (rightly) said that Essiedu makes the experience what it is (Telegraph (several of the actors were superb, especially Clarence Smith as Claudius, James Cooney as Horatio, Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia): a new star is born; Washington Post: a rogue outsider artist).


Marvelously comic: Richard Henry the old shepherd and Joshua Thomas the young one


Grace Gonglewski a strong but frightened Paulina (of this tyrant)

But I’d like to qualify that and say its strength is the same as the deeply felt Folger Winter’s Tale, which I saw two weeks ago now: The Folger WT also had some great acting: Michael Tisdale as Leontes, Melissa Graves (an understudy) a poignant dignified Hermione, Eric Hissom, any number of linked characters (Camillo, Antigonus, Storyteller Time). More important: the directors of both productions allowed the actors to do Shakespeare straight on. Both are despite some exhilarating African music and modernized songs and dancing in Bohemia traditional productions.

I can never have too much Shakespeare. By the time we got to the final scene of Hamlet, I felt the awe, the wild exhilaraton, and savage ironies Shakespeare intended me to feel. In the last scene of The Winter’s Tale, I felt a grief akin to what I nowadays feel when I see King Lear. In Lear death is the final blow of a harrowing of cruelty and madness; in The Winter’s Tale, we are awakened to a joy we cannot quite believe as “oh she’s warm” is pronounced. I wish this Winter’s Tale had gone on tour. When they are this good, I often hope to myself that they have filmed it onto a digital device.

The most intellectual and stunningly moving experience was Ivo von Hove’s After the Rehearsal and Persona at the Kennedy Center. Gijs Scholten van Aschan in the Bergman role and in the first play Marieke Heebink as his wife, contemporary partner, an aging actress (alcoholic, depressed) who needs him more than he does her (and he needs her) and Gaite Jansen as the young substitute (possibly pregnant and not sure she wants this life), taking over. In the second Heebink is a mentally shattered woman, with Anne her young nurse: after much manipulation and emotional attacks, the two see themselves in one another.


Somehow the hospital turns into a summer cottage where it seems to be raining continually — rain helps wash away tension

The plays (originally done on TV are about the destructive and therapeutic function of art in a dedicated artist’s life. Hove is superb at Bergman material (like the corrosive effect of growing old) getting his actors to release the vulnerable and angry self. The same actors played the parts in the Barbican; it was in Dutch with surtitles. The stories were not intended to comment on how men use women in the arts, but they do, prophetically.

The sets and stage business was so poignant too: the second ended in both women standing in a large pool of water, together, in simple white shifts, holding hands.

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As to concerts, dance, our local small Metro-stage in Alexandria provided a warm delightful presence in Deb Filler, a New Zealander Canadian Jewish storyteller doing all sorts of traditional sons “her way;” in Yiddish as well as English. You haven’t fully enjoyed Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah until you’ve heard Filler sing the song in Yiddish too. Writer, actress, singer, comic, musician, hers is a one woman entertainment, stretched out with some film. She was the third of three women solos this spring at Metrostage (Catherine Flyte (scroll down), Roz White (ditto)).

And to tell the truth, more than the Folger Ovid’s Vineyard. They had a soprano singing from two operas, Phedre et Hippolyte, and Orphee, a man brilliant on the flute, a rich harpsichord and a woman who worked very hard on her violin, but still it was tame except for the unexpected beauty of the melodies of Jean Philippe Rameau’s concert songs for harpsichord. The Folger Concert has not been as inventive this year as previous. Perhaps I should start to go to the pre-performance discussions.


They used the set from the Winter’s Tale

I did go to one dud: the Scottish ensemble and Anderson Dance performing the Goldberg Variations at the Kennedy Center was an in-your-face insult to anyone with sensibility. After the Milanese Goldberg Variations at La Scala as stunning beautiful — graceful, lyrical, interestingly psychological, wonderful group patterns — this group fobbed us off with comic grotesquerie and awkward individual non-dances. If I had been on the aisle, and hadn’t gone to trouble to see it, and hadn’t kept hoping at some point there’d be dancing, I’d have left after the first ten minutes.

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A Smithsonian lecture on art


Cezanne’s Boy in a Red Vest

Although I’ve not gotten to the exhibit at the National Gallery, I did go to a long full lecture (many good slides) at the Smithsonian on the Cezanne portraits. I bought the ticket and went to the Hirschorn in the hope I would be taught why I should like Cezanne’s art. I don’t: it seems so inert. Roger Fry loved it, and I’ve friends who say they do too. To me Cezanne’s paintings seem made up of empty abstract forms, even if “monumental,” and he leaves me cold; the portraits often lack faces. While curator told of interesting relationships between Cezanne and his sitters, and said there were several versions of a given portrait at this exhibit so you could study the differenes, she never answered the objections of several reviews of the show, e.g., one in the Washington Post by Sebastian Smee, and three very respectful questioners in the (crowded) audience. Madame Cezanne as painted by Cezanne has been vilified for not smiling (women are supposed to be joyfully compliant at all times). Smee omits that Cezanne was the son of a very rich man who supported Cezanne all his life, so his choice to paint peasants — and to live with one and mistreat her for many years (she was left isolated) before finally marrying her has a certain hypocrisy.


Madame Cezanne in a Red Arm Chair

The curator offered the idea these are iconoclastic portraits, modern, refusing to satisfy us or glorify the sitter. Well in the Cezanne cases (unlike the same thing seen in Vanessa Bell’s portraits) these are not rich customers buying a pre-photographic portrait to glorify themselves. I become irritated when people complain about Cassandra Austen’s second portrait of Jane Austen where Jane is not facing us. She has the right to look away; it’s a trope of reverie in the period — you can find the same pose in front of novels. But when Jane was facing Cassandra, Cassandra drew her face. A friend on my WomenWriters@groups.io list wrote she had read that the faceless portraits reflected how humans/individuals are unknowable. We can think of Woolf’s de-centered novel Jacob’s Room, where similarly, we never get a clear picture of Jacob; it was said Woolf was inspired by Vanessa’s painting at the time, in particular her faceless portraits.


A detail of one of Vanessa’s paintings of her sister, Virginia

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Must not leave out new TV & Internet films

I’ve left for last and now just briefly the fascinating four part adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End by Kenneth Lonergan. Sometimes nowadays TV offers us far richer experiences in film, music and art than what is found in physical theaters. I don’t think this production was that superb but when compared to the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala (see Samanthan Ellis’s ironic take) and it is quite different from the original book; still, it was thought-provoking with its own new genuine feeling, intelligent, meaningful.  Who would not feel for Leonard Bast after this one?.


Phillipa Coulthard as the cultured assured Helen and Joseph Quinn as the aspiring Leonard Bast

I then re-watched the 1993 film (on a DVD with two hours of features about Merchant-Ivory) and it was subtler, more nuanced, more sheer content somehow, with Margaret inexplicably actually falling in love with Mr Wilcox while the 2018 film makes this central relationship seem far more performative and self-interested,

but the more recent film is more deeply empathetic towards the failing Leonard Bast, and makes explicit how these privileged wealthy people live off the undercompensated labor of others. I hope to write separately and with more detail than I have here when this summer on TrollopeAndHisContemporaries@groups.io we read the book together. I bring the new version up here to mourn that it did not appear on PBS (which sticks to inferior mysteries and thinner contemporary books and stories) but Starz (a high tier channel and too expensive for many people). I am watching the second season of Handmaid’s Tale but will hold off any comment until I’ve reached the end.

A paradox: Izzy came with me to the Hamlet and Winter’s Tale, to the Metrostage; a friend, Panorea to the Folger but I’ve felt least alone watching Howard’s End and now Handmaid’s Tale because of my friends on my three lists at groups.io. There we had ongoing good conversation and look forward to reading Forster as our summer project. They revived the foremother poets postings on Fridays on Wom-po (a women poets list)! Reader, I am working on a woman artists blog on Vanessa Bell too: Frances Spalding’s biography and Richard Shone’s art criticism (on Duncan Grant and Roger Fry also)

I hope no one takes any of my blogs as here to give the impression I am living a good life, surrounded by friends or whatever is the going ideal norm for existence for a woman like me. It is far too late for me to come near a fulfilling existence for myself now, if it ever were in the cards. I was exhausted last night, falling asleep in front of a movie, couldn’t read Virginia Woolf’s A Sketch of the Past (her memoir printed in Moments of Being), so I reached out to others with material I thought might find acceptance and be of interest to those who come to this blog. Add something that might cheer or help others and that might prompt them to write back in a similar spirit.

Ellen

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The first modern biographer, Lytton Strachey and his subject, Queen Victoria when young

Friends,

I’ve been thinking about biography all my life; that’s because I’ve been reading biography all my life. To prove to you how odd I am the first books meant for older readers (meaning post-childhood) I remember taking out of the adult library on Sutphin Boulevard (in the southeast Bronx), at the time (in my child’s memory) a huge irregular building with many back-stairways; I say my first introduction to adult reading (which I chose, not forced on me) were two fat tomes, bound in brown, of two Renaissance queens, Margaret de Navarre and her aunt, Jeanne d’Albret. Why I chose those or how I found them I’ve no clue. Since my teen years I’ve been aware that I have a favorite kind: literary biography. I’m convinced that as with ghost stories, certain kinds of gothics (female), and epistolary novels, women write the finest versions of this genre, though men who can write an equivalent of l’ecriture-femme can produce gems too. I even love biographies of biographers: like Caroline Moorehead on Iris Origo (of Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44).

The last few months I’ve been especially alert to the form as I have not given up my new life’s goal to write a literary biography of Winston Graham (of the Poldark matter and Cornwall) and turned an offer to include a paper by me on the subject of Johnson and Woolf as paired modernists into a study of their biographical art.

And two weeks ago I chanced upon the equivalent of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography. Maurois makes an attempt to understand his chosen genre’s prevalent characteristics in the modern kind too. Modern biography, he says, is a conscious work of partly imaginative (that is to say, fictional) art, a courageous search for truth in which the biographer realizes highly complex personalities; the most fruiful subjects are of people who have struggled, endured failure, but achieved something. I’m going to look at biography from the different aspects Maurois identified.

First, biography as a work of art: its concern for truth requires documents, but to express a personality requires art. How to do this?

You must choose an angle on the life: he calls this your true subject, and you find the hidden unity of that life through this angle of vision. Johnson may have said the most obscure seemingly reactive, passive life may teach us something important but the truth is you need something to present beyond daily non-events, and it’s best to have an individual who plays some part, no matter how seemingly varied, on some aspects of the world’s stage in a more or less unified performance. Doing the same kinds of things over and over for the same deeply held motives. At the same time all moral preoccupation in the work of art kills the work of art, so the angle should not be moralistic.

Surprisingly perhaps, he finds the chronological method avoids dryness. All of us are artifically made (not just women); that day a great novelist was not born, a baby was. We are not unchangeable. Yet as we change slowly, most of the time imperceptibly, a good biography traces the spiritual and emotional development of someone as history impinges on him or her. You must make us see and feel the person physically. Boswell’s strength is his ceaseless gusto for every particular and entertaining simple style, but while he (I think) presents a distorted emphasis, he has understood enough authentically of his enormous cache of detail, with person who was fecund, varied, interesting so reading the book, we feel the more of this the better. The diary of the brilliant mind, a sketch in words of the person by a close perceptive friend or family member, is invaluable here. Boswell has Johnson’s letters and he (in effect) kept a diary for Johnson every time he met him and was able to find others who had written down or remembered what Johnson said too. There is this obstacle: how much truth do people write in diaries? how representative is what you write down of your life? How much do they understand of themselves. In Johnson’s case he lacked a secular non-judgemental framework. In many other cases, is the product of a writer posing to himself or anticipated others.

Biography considered as a science.

The thoughtful among the public often regard the chief character of a novel as a mirror of the author (no matter how disordered) — especially in non-formulaic fiction. So there is evidence the biographer can use. Also lyric poetry and psychologically revealing plays. A group of characters surrounding and commenting on this center provide a considerable expository base. Of more demonstrable equal value are memoirs of contemporaries who knew the subject — even if the writer is dim (as Margaret Oliphant said of Jane Austen’s nephew in his invaluable Memoir of My Aunt Jane). Letters are the lifeblood of a biography from this standpoint but there people are performing too. No person is understandable apart from her historical time. You must study the era, the geography and way of life where the subject lived, its history. So biography becomes the story of an evolution of a soul against a background of history, with help from contemporaries who knew him or her. That’s as close to objectivity as you’re going to get (thinks Maurois)

Biography as a mean of expression. The biographer chooses a subject which gives her the opportunity to express what is in her very keenly. Beneath the objective surface there should lie that vivid emotion, which gives a book an intensity a burning passion.

Biography will not come alive if you write it coldly or distantly. The biographer is seeking an opportunity for displaying some aspect of him or herself. This is all indirect: by quite an indirect means and through the medium of characters very far removed in circumstances from the biographer, the biographer attains to self-expression. Yet in novels and fictionalized (skeptic, modern) biography, the writers’ characters do not have to have been real or lived as people, just very believable in context. We should ask, whatever the indirect means, what were the secret springs in the biographer which are at the bottom of this desire to write someone’s biography? For Maurois writing of Shelley it was a deliverance for himself to write the life of Shelley. (For me what compels me are an attitude of mind I identify with in the first half of Graham’s Memoir, find acted out in a core group of characters in Graham’s first seven Poldark books, and the escape from my contemporary world is an intense relief.) In sum, biography is an expression of character when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature. Then it’s autobiography disguised as biography.

The appealing tone (Maurois suggests) derives from how the biographer regards his or her hero or heroine as greater than him or herself — or more important for some reason. Johnson finds it of riveting importance to show that the supremely gifted person can end up having done nothing most people would admire or value and in tragic misery when dying. Woolf is looking at a man as an artist of great integrity, who will not compromise his art, and was (she thinks) crucially influential anyway. The modern biographer recognizes he or she can never uncover the whole of their character’s innermost springs confront the mysteries of real people; Maurois thinks the biographer finds his or her way through a one alive persov by dwelling on one aspect of that person and sometimes fleeting, a limited and yet suggestive expansive aspect. Guilt at running the risk of spoiling the reputation, the considered presence of how the person is remembered, worry at offending and attack doesn’t stop the biographer from writing the life up as accuately as allowed in print. I don’t know quite what Maurois meant when he wrote something to the effect the biographer thinks he can refashion a thought then in the image of our own today.


Anthony Trollope, artful albumen print photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1864)

He turns to autobiography as a sub-species of life-writing. Do you know the truth about yourself; your invisible center? Several causes make autobiography to some extent false and inaccurate. In a nutshell, we forget.

It’s here he first quotes Anthony Trollope’s utterance as a key: Trollope doubts truthtful autobiography is possible. Who would tell the meannesses he or she had done or thought. Trollope tells us he remembers so much from his boyhood — what produced that violent impression has the power to continue to make us tremble, himself to burn with passionate humiliation. He controls that seismic power. It’s a truism if we live through war we remember more as children. We don’t forget the shock at what we have seen.

To make up for blank space before say ages 7 to 9, most autobiographies of childhood are to some extent fabrications because what we have to fill in is what we remember and that is partly from what our parents told us. The confused feelings and associations of such our first crucial years are lost in obscurity and the unremembered past — yet here is this complex individual (Trollope) emerging around this shock. Johnson (and others) urge people to preserve written testimony before what happened is lost –- a fairly detailed record alone can bring ourselves before us, and the diary is its basis. Trollope relies on these memories burning into his mind still.

What else do we forget? The subject forgets her dreams, yet much of our hours are spent in forms of dreams. The biographer and autobiographer omit or forget in order to make a work of art – so much of life has to left out. “The cult of the hero is as old as mankind,” but we must struggle against it (says Maurois). At any rate we (helplessly sometimes) censor the disagreeable too. People feel a deep sense of shame at petty and other humiliations they have endured (Trollope is able to tell of these), at their bodies, very few can tell truth about sexual life: immediately too one response from many readers may be unacknowledged voyeurism. How painful to think that what you are writing is fodder for someone’s silent ridicule or disdain.

We also rationalize after the fact and finds reasons for what often occurred by chance. Maurois feels (and like Mrs Proudie, I agree with him), that there is no system to life, no pattern for real, no meaning, and we act out of private personal needs and to other people nearest us. The order we experience is from our need to sleep, to eat, to defecate; the institutions society says we must go to; our need to earn a living or share one from someone somehow. We also want to protect those around us. The underlying design here too must be the development of mind, that is your pattern, and that Trollope succeeds in: a portrait of how this novelist came to be and the nature of his novelistic art, a book which is a diptych.

Maurois may have seem to have left out much but he is speaking of modern biography:


A modern biography …


EBB’s life from the point of view of her dog, of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson (said to be Margaret Forster’s finest book, except I’d say for her biographies of the females in her working class family.)

Maurois does not talk of early biography (the way Forster does not talk of the earliest pre-novels before the later 17th century in Europe), not before Johnson and Boswell by which time biography had become in individual instances a portrait of an individual life, and then through these two men’s books (and the fiction of the era) consciously texts aimed at developing the sympathetic imagination of the reader who then can enter in (Rambler 60 and Idler 84),

Maurois mentions but does not regard as “true biography,” commemorative, pious, family, the zealous many volume documentary, which at its best aimed only at a consciously semi-censored “truth to life,” and is found in Gaskell, Oliphant, Froude’s Carlyle where (according to Virginia Woolf in Flush) a dog is said to have jumped out of a window or off the roof in response to the killing nature of the Carlyles’ marriage.

Maurois is contemporary with Woolf’s essay on modern or “The New Biography,” where she says what the new biography does is convey personality deeply, and she includes the semi-fictional sketches of Some People by Harold Nicholson as modern biographies. Later she changed her mind in “The Art of the Biography,” and conceded the foundation of biography must be fact, evidence and its means verisimilitude. And her last biography is her Roger Fry:

Facts are the problem, she says. By the time she gets to the end of either essay she’s made a case that the central use of facts can limit the biography. The existence of documents (facts) for Queen Victoria can make writing her biography so much more satisfying and near to great art. But how powerful and intense Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, that Strachey got in the “stranger bodies’ of the Elizabethans through strange (unconventional sexuality) imagining.

And at the close Maurois admits the genre has so many limitations and obstacles one might say it is impossible to pull off except you admit it’s fiction ,,,,

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

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


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

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

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


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

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


Bean is that movement under blue cloth

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

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

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


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

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


One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

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


Scofield in pain but controlling himself


Anna giving up her son

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

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


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

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

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

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One of the older Penguins

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

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


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

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

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

Ellen

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Dave Jones as Daniel Blake in front of a grafitti he drew, demanding his appeal occur soon

Friends,

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale turned into an often harrowing grim mini-series is not alone this season. Two more films and one play, all magnificent of their kind, and all appropriate to the newly transparently cruel and hypocritical (at least here in US) regime that has taken over. Three concise reviews.

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Katie (Hayley Squires) driven out of the office, later accused of stealing in similarly focused humiliating scene (in fact she did steal as the money she was given was not enough for their needs)

I, Daniel Blake might be dubbed Cathy Come Home Redux. Cathy Comes Home traced the gradual degradation and ruthless abandonment of the young woman at its center: surely no one who has seen the final scene where Cathy’s children are forcibly taken from Cathy in a bus station where she is left homeless can forget it, no matter what your response. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, scripted Paul Lavery, is clearly a fictional story while Cathy Come Home is still taken as a documentary by some (so real does what happens feel) and ends similarly in a final memorable blow, slowly coming on over the last part of the film.


He’s not followed the rules; what he’s done is not good, it won’t do

The story: An old man, Daniel Blake (Dav Johns) whose wife has recently died, who spent his last years caring for her, has a heart attack and is advised by his physician not to work (to retire). He applies for a pension based on his sickness. He is given such a heartless round-around in the gov’t pension offices: the Forms he must fill out, and on line (to prove he’s looking for work he must apply online); inflexible criteria; with punishments of delay or ouster (no hope of any money ever), that we must gather, they are there to make him go away, and find a job — no matter if he dies of his sickness. It would be more humane to tell him in the first place. I can see some of the scenes as a modern Bleak House where misery of “Nobody’s Fault.” Only one employee of this pension place shows any understanding of his case, the absurdity of what’s demanded. The parallel plot is of a young London woman, Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) escaping a brutal husband with her two children; she too applies to the same place for help Ha! she is thrown out as disruptive. There are very long lines in from of the food bank. Daniel is treated abusively on the phone by a prospective employer. She and Daniel meet, become a supportive team (he makes shelves for her, shops with her, shares his food with her children) until he discovers she’s succumbed to prostitution to make ends meet, and he has his application for disability funds (what we’d call) rejected. He finally cries out against this system which demands he find a job that doesn’t exist and he should not work at. He retreats in despair to his empty flat — he has sold everything off to have some money to stretch out. At the film’s close someone has hired a lawyer for him who assures him that he will now have the pension wrongly kept from him after a hearing (which does not look easy). Katie is there with, having become emotionally dependent, wants permission to go and live with him. Daniel nervous, under considerable pressure, goes off to the bathroom ….

I leave it to the reader’s imagination what happens next, only say the event leaves Katie howling.


Daniel, Katie, her two children constituted a family

Blunt, dignified and brutally moving says The Guardian. What struck me (see World Herald) is how many scenes were familiar to me — from similar phone calls I’ve made, similar attempts to get justice from a stone (where you thought there was a human being there), lies, what friends unfortunate enough to have to go to what once was called “Welfare” (now mostly abolished) went through. It played to a crowded audience at my local arts-movie-house.

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The answer if you’re black in America, is it’s not improbable and at any time you could be called to give evidence or arrests.

The above image taken from, 13th, commissioned, directed and written by (among others) Ava Maria Vernay, has a plot-design which allows a gradual realization (then enforced by some of the interviewees) that the present mass incarceration of blacks is a re-incarnation of slavery. Before mass incarceration, the lynching system and demand for utter self-abjection and apartheid policies were a re-incarnation of slavery; before thatafter the civil war the wide-spread convict labor system (men working in chains), and of course before that slavery was open and frank. As Ava DuVerney moves us from the present, back to deep past and then forward again, she interviews a set of extraordinary and ordinary people on the situation of black people and individual cases where a great leaders was outright murdered, or put in prison, or exiled (if he escaped). The 13th admendment is said to forbid slavery but it has this clause “except when the gov’t [decides] a crime has been committed.” What a loophole. How could it be that such a horror as slavery could have been tolerated? one person asks. Well, the horror of the prison system is tolerated — and it’s not kept wholly invisible. As I’ve become convinced every single person in the US or UK (maybe Canada too), the people I talk and write with has had him or herself, or a beloved relative or close friend cancer, so every black family in the US is has lost a relative and/or friend to this (now privately owned capitalist) devouring people machine.

It’s a deeply pessimistic film for at its end several of speakers suggest that this kind of re-incarnation is almost impossible to stop — unless you were to smash the central structure and beliefs of the US. People are living in hideous punitive slave conditions in many of these hell-holes. Sometimes decades of solitary confinement. Most committed no crime when taking a drug which only harmed yourself (and you should be sent to a medical center) is the basic cause of the sentence. When the old man lays dead on the bathroom floor, someone announces explicitly he died because of decisions of the state. A seemingly anonymous world. “Nobody’s fault, I’m just doing my job say all the authority figures but one

To see this you need only go to Netflix streaming, after which you can listen to an intelligent discussion of the film by Oprah Winfrey and Vernay.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon seen through mirrors

A rarely performed play, I suggest that Timon of Athens (directed by Robert Richmond, and many technical people made the set and atmosphere), the play, I say, was chosen because like I, Daniel Blake and 13th, Timon is a profoundly indignant and angry work. Shakespeare just shows this more than Vernay and Loach; I hear him again as I did in Hamlet and Lear, indirectly in Macbeth, pouring his soul out throgh these tragic figures. Like the two films, it too is appropriate to what’s happening in our world today. Barbara McKay’s critique includes a concise summary of the nature and contrast between the play’s two parts. Kristin Franco’s review emphasizes the greed, hypocrisy, total lack of loyalty, hateful core of this society in the first half and the despair of Timon alone on stage with 5 visitors (rather like a Greek classic play, or anticipating Samson Agonistes). The dramaturgy is set up as an analogy. In the first half everyone overdressed, over-talking, neon lights, ceiling light, a light use of strobe creates this pervasive madness, which after a while others do not realize is around them (because they’ve produced normalizing discourses). People run about with ipads, there is a great deal of sheer flash. Everyone pretends, everyone on the hunt for best personal advantage. The one exception is the Jacques-like characer (AYLI), Apemantus.


Grovelling
Crowd-sourcing —

There is a Kent character too: Flavius, played by a black actress.

Everyone else lives off Timon, pretends gratitude. He loses all his money, his place at court, and no one will lend him money or help him. The noise, the extragavant dancing, the extroversion of the inner heart of the play was good. Effective theater. They sneer, say he must’ve deserves it. Things he cherished (books) mean nothing as he becomes disillusioned of his imaginary images of a better state, fine people, any chance for decent humane forgiving values to prevail. I thought of Coriolanus who had given his all to his people, but could not come down from his arrogance and when he fought hard and did not get the rank he deserved, he crosses over — only to find himself brutally murdered.


Individual moments show intensely good feeling – as if the actors knowing they would not be permitted to have generous hearts or the nobility of those black heroes risking their lives

I loved the second half. Now we are on a bleak bare stage. Timon keeps calling for a tree (you’d think he’s read Waiting for Godot). Timon the ultimate deportee, in rags, lucid raging, the great actor who made the production, Ian Merrill Peakes kneels, grounds himself to the ground. Here is the famous misanthrope. He is justified in his conclusions, but the play leaves open room that he had the responsibility to go under, to fight Trump and his gang. All he accuses his ex-friends for is what we hear praised and excused each day. He insists on his excuses: this made me anticipate a hard comeuppance, and so it is. His house, the natural world now turn on him. No friends. Timonechoes Hamlet: as in response he plays half-ironic anticks in word and deed, I was reminded of Lear on the heath. Timon does feels for the “unhoused.” Also of Beckett as Timon goes into another hell-hole, soliloquizing. They reject all the glitter and vanity of opulent riches. No one from the first half of the play is forgotten, all brought back and all exposed. But they are not forgiven because they do not repent. At end Timon dies of heartbreak, exhaustion, inanition from self-starvation.

A play, a documentary and a fictional film which feels like a documentary for our time.

Ellen

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Hana (Juliette Binoche) looking around villa wistfully before moving in with her patient (The English Patient, 1996, Anthony Minghella)

Echo is the sound of the voice exciting itself in hollow places — a phrase from Christopher Smart’s poem to his cat Jeffrey which repeats across the novel. Smart was put into an insane asylum by his family, exiled, displaced, left to rot. He was kept company by his cat Jeffrey: For I will consider my cat Jeffrey is an extraordinary masterpiece of a touching poem.

Dear friends and readers,

I am increasingly remiss about writing to my wider circle of readers and friends. I will try this summer to return to more frequent blogging, especially about the books I’ve been reading.

This spring I have been having such a good time with all three of my classes of retired adult readers at two Oscher Institutes of LifeLong Learning, pouring myself into everything that leads to a good lecture and discussion as a teacher, and what’s necessary to participate as one of the “learners.”

One book that for me functions as an absorption into beauty through extraordinarily poetic rich literary prose and loving compassionate comfort from the believable relationships among the characters who are presented up close to us is Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the charred remnants of the witty, humbled Almasy, the as yet undefeated by death mothering-nurse Hana, the desperately seeking meaning, once tortured Caravaggio, the utterly self-sacrificing figures of true integrity, the bomb disposal soldiers, Kirpal Singh and his lieutenant Hardy. Turned in Minghella’s movie into a wildly unreal romance of death between a Scarlet Pimpernel kind of hero (again Count Almasy, Ralph Fiennes now heroic adventurer in the desert) and self-deprecating warm-hearted Rebecca (Katharine Clifton). One admits in the film the actors present characters so deeply well-meaning and humane, in a film of unsurpassing visual beauty (the desert becomes sheer color), soaring music, that I could never cease from watching. The DVD had a second disk whose features about the making of the movie are (put together) longer than the 2 hour film story. It was such a commercial success (as has been the book) I’m just going to assume, you, gentle reader, have read the book and seen the movie.

So what can I say that might be of interest? Well we read it in my course called the Booker Prize marketplace niche. It is a quintessential example of the best kind of literary masterpiece that wins the prize. It speaks to us in our present political and economic predicament. for the characteristics of these books, see my blog On Using a Long Spoon: the Booker Prize (scroll down).

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Count Almasy (as yet unnamed, Ralph Fiennes) listening irritatedly to Katharine Clifton’s chatter as they drive through the desert

No book occurs in a vacuum and like so many Booker prize books this one has a rich context, which nowadays includes the movie in our emotional memories.

I begin with Ondaatje, as the book, the source of our talk and the film’s script comes out of the soul of the author: multinational multicultural, family divorced. While the elite of a colonialist nation – a colony – often lose out when the imperialist government in the “center” departs, which partly accounts for why his family left Sri Lanka, and moved to Britain and then Canada, he went to the upper class elite type boys’ public school. born on 12 September 1943 in Kegalle, fifty miles west of Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon (sehLOHN) and is now Sri Lanka. His family owned a tea plantation, members of the Eurasian élite. Name tells you the originals are probably Dutch — the Dutch early colonized the Spice Islands (as they were called).

When he is 2, his parents divorce (his father violent, alcoholic) and his mother and he go to live in Colombo where he goes to a boys’ school modeled on upper class British schools: St Thomas Boys’ College. Many of the countries Britain colonized took some form of this and you can find versions in US prep schools. So British/English background very strong. He moved to England in 1952 (age 9) and goes to Dulwich College, an old public school with strong academic record and long literary associations. In 1962 he moved to Canada (age 19) where his older brother was living and enters another school rooted in British traditions, Bishop’s University, only it’s in Quebec which is French speaking and strongly French in culture. He’s lived in Canada ever since — with time out for visits to Sri Lanka.

As far as I can tell his novels are set either in Canada or Sri Lanka except for The English Patient. He has written a memoir; In the Skin of the Lion is a powerful historical novel (set in earlier 20th century and Canada). His novels are discussed as Canadian and compared to other Canadian novels. He calls himself an someone with a migrant’s perspective, and it’s one that is more than double

When independence comes to a colonized place, the old élite often loses out badly, not only in terms of money and property but in the sense of their identity. They don’t belong in the “old” or mother country. They are themselves then the marginalized and deprived. Which is what happened to Ondaatje’s father and his mother in a double sense (divorced too). This marginalization of the previous bosses now aging is the subject of an early Booker Prize winner: Staying On

His background is that of the commercial writer, someone who makes his living through writing, not writing and teaching in a university (which many writers do as most people can’t make enough money from writing to support themselves). He left a university post when he didn’t do a Ph.D. thesis; he’s on his second marriage. He’s also a poet; in fact his earliest successes were as a poet. There’s a Trick I’m learning to Do with a Knife is a book of poems. His education is that of the upper class élite, but his homelife one of a displaced person. He seems to have a penchant for admiring the adventurer male, for finding release and romance and meaning in the lives of those who live on the social edge and are unconventional. An early book of poems and narratives is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Billy the Kid was a psychopath, homicidal, and not really a conventional hero whatever cowboy stories might make of him.

Booker Prize books are deeply rooted in history, the past, meditate the unknowability of history at the same time as uncovering its layers through memories of the characters and in depth presentation of the story’s cultural nexus. The books to read are: Saul Kelly’s The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, Paul Carrell’s The Desert Foxes (1960, from German point of view, non-fiction), and H. O. Dovey’s Operation Condor: Intelligence and National Security (1989, an M15 Man based in War Office in Middle East).

Who was Count Laszlo or Ladislaus Ede Almasy? He was a Hungarian count from an ancient family; born in deepest Hungary; he was educated as an aristocrat and his politics were deeply reactionary. He was an anti-semitic Nazi; he sold secrets to the Germans which probably led to deaths of spies on the Allies’ side. That is one way he lived. He also spied for the Soviet Union and he spied for England. He had to have done the latter as it’s the only way to explain his escape from a prison for Nazi spies which someone helped him escape from. Almazy was the kind of person you can’t buy; they are only for rent. He was probably not a nice man. Indeed he was probably a bad man in many ways, amoral. The world of spies is still a dirty and nasty one; it is still filled with amoral types. The world is I’m afraid made up of such people and they sometimes end up running countries nowadays — if they can spout piety at people and have control of the military.

Almasy’s was a marginalized family (like Ondaatje’s). By the 1910s aristocrats were out and his family was cash poor. The way to grow rich was not to go on adventures through the desert which is what he did. The way to grow rich is become an investment banker, to go into industry, build railroads and interconnective communications, be in short bourgeois, self-controlled and dull. You do like Donald Trump – buy and bankrupt companies and sell early; Romney did that too. You don’t spend all your hours hanging out in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo reading poetry and getting very drunk. Almasy was your adventurer-explorer. He was also homosexual. He left a packet of intense love letters to another man. He was passionate and romantic; the homoerotic aspect of his character is hinted at in the relationship between Madox and Almasy in the book and the film.


Madox (Julian Wadham) as yet not aware his friend a possible spy, is angry over Almasy’s apparent carelessness over the maps and papers detailing plans

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat posted in Egypt in the 1930s, said that the count had planned a desert museum as a front for German espionage. She lived in Washington, DC and her father, Laszlo Pathy, was Hungarian consul general in Alexandria, Egypt; she wrote an article for The Washington Post that outlined how Almasy sought revenge against her father. After the count’s museum plans were scotched in 1936 because the Egyptian king learned that the museum was planned as a cover, the count blamed her father, Mrs. Salett said.

Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, the count sneaked into Cairo for 10 days, Mrs. Salett said. On his way out the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to arrest when he occupied Egypt. Among the names, she said, was her father’s. For Mrs. Salett, and other Hungarians who have seen “The English Patient,” the movie portrait of Almasy is “amoral and ahistorical.” She said that by ignoring the count’s work for the Germans, Ondaatje, who won the Booker Prize for his novel, trivialized the “significance of the choices men like Almasy made.”

Almasy (as in Ondaatje’s book) cultured, well educated in among other things geology, and he become part of a group of people living in or continually visiting Africa between the 1910s and 1940s who were interested in exploring the desert. Some were archaeologists (Louis Leakey was one of these), some big-game hunters, some plantation builders. He was an important member of the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa which was international in membership; he wrote a couple of important monographs on the desert. He did heroic research and deeds. He crossed the desert alone under very extreme circumstances more than once.

There was no such person as Madox — though Almasy’s had lovers. He is fictional but there was a Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. It’s not clear whether Geoffrey was a spy; he might have been. He was also a genuine explorer; he died young and Katharine was an adventurous woman. She died during World War Two in a plane crash. A whole group of them in Kenya found in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. West with the Night a classic book by Beryl Markheim, bush pilot; like other women people have claimed she didn’t write her book. She did not die in a plane crash but lived in poverty for a while until her book was rediscovered, she gained back friends with her money and became a horse trainer. Plane crashes were not an uncommon way to die among the members of this group. The Royal Geographical Society threw up another political figure probably much more important than Almasy; he’s mentioned in the book and I think in the film (though I’m not sure): Major Ralph Bagnold. Post-modern history prefers to tell of the subaltern, the marginalized.

Bagnold is said to have helped the British take over much of the desert and succeed in beating the Nazis in the desert. Like Almasy, he had at his fingertips and in his brains solid knowledge of how to live in the desert, how to survive, how to carry on a campaign, and he headed important groups of military people in the mid 1940s. He was awarded all kinds of high medals at the end of the war. Almasy was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions by Field Marshall Rommel and died in 1951 of dysentery.

Ondaatje must’ve done enormous research both on the desert, on this Royal Geographical Society (all sorts of small details turn up which are transformed into the fiction) and into Almasy’s own life. This beyond the literary intertextuality that is continual. A certain kind of Booker Prize book is like this: Wolf Hall by Mantel is this way.

He also researched the way the way was fought in Italy, landmine bombing; there is much transformed information about World War Two, about the migrations of peoples across Italy. Italy was a melting pot people moved up and down and ravaged the place; amazing anything left except that it was not bombed from the sky in the way Germany, England and Japan were. Japan suffered by the way horrendous losses even before the two atom bombs. Much of England’s old structures on the ground were destroyed; a couple of German cities were firebombed to the point that you probably could not have killed more people had you dropped an atom bomb. Back of book, credits show he read up on experience of Canadians in World War Two. The descriptions of the defusing of the bombs is utterly accurate and as I said you could worse as background for this book than watch the 1970s mini-series, Danger UXB.

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Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hana’s first encounter — in the ruined library which he rightly worries is landmined

The book’s deep archetype is (perhaps unexpectedly seeing the above background) home: the characters we learn to know and love rebuild themselves a new family, and a home: in the movie we do see Hana (played in the movie by the lovely Juliette Binoche) gardening a lot; several times a family is formed and it’s destroyed or can’t last under the forces of war, colonialization and the way society is structured which pulls everyone hither and yon. The book to me – you may disagree – has this deep motif of retreat which I see in A Month in the Country (the second book we did in this class on the Booker Prize) – the world of art, science, thought imagination and without stretching it one can say The bookshop (the first) stands for that with its wonderful set of books as originally set out and described by Florence Green.

The English Patient is deeply post-colonial: a protest on behalf of the marginalized subaltern person subject to the economic and political and military domination of the patriarchal imperial west. In an interview Ondaatje is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of international bastards roaming around the world today. That’s one of the books (and film’s) main stories or themes.” It is also post-modern, characterized by high scepticism towards the idea that people really believe in enlightenment moral values and act based on these, and that these values will save our civilization from horrific self-destruction.

As the novel opens we meet two exiles, Hana and Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), then a third, Caravaggio (William Dafoe), and finally a fourth, Kip or Kirpal Singh (Naveen Andrews), with sidekick, Hardy (Kevin Whateley): who’s not that much a felt presence in the book; he is made much more of in the film, but he stands for all that is decent in the normative). They are living in an abandoned house which was built in the Renaissance, the house of a great poet and learned man, Poliziano. Repeatedly the novel connects present time with the past to show how much what we experience today and do is continuous and built upon what others experienced and did in the past. While far fewer and less varied, the war scenes are as realistic, seriously felt and realized as Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.

All displaced and exiled characters; at the same time they are rooted in their original cultures and don’t forget their earliest experiences. In England we find people who are deeply rooted: Madox, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, Mr Harts, who form an English family for Kirpal or Kip (named so as to allude to Kipling’s Kim) and the Cliftons (Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth) who are very upper class British.

It’s a novel about attempts at healing too. They find comfort in one another, read together, listen to music, the deepest wounded take morphine and drink condensed milk. The character Cavavaggio is especially important when he decides not to murder the English patient. The villa is a kind of Eden, an escape, a primitive garden, a cul-de-sac. The people come together without technology.

The beauty of the figures in the Cave of Swimmers is repeated in the beauty of the figures on the church walls in Italy, the songs from the old fashioned record player, the piano. What does sex become in the villa? Not this violent challenge, this devouring of one another. But nurturing. I’m attracted to the character of Hana and Caravaggio and their friendship: niece and uncle. He and Hana are my favorite characters. Displaced daughter/father lovers; “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate”; each of them in their “own spheres of memory and solitude”; “To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self” (p. 49). I find Hana a beautiful character; so too the way Cavaravaggio is presented — in the novel.

In novel Almasy says he hates ownership. In film this idea is scotched because he is turned into a sexually jealous man who wants to own Katharine. But in the book it’s a significant theme. Who owns who? Does anyone? Whom do we learn from? Ondaatje has said a central relationship in the novel is that between Kip and Almasy: the colonialized and the elite European male. Kip learns to respect the man but he demurs at the books which argue for colonization and marginalizing his people. Why are they paired?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an ultimate colonialist text; there’s a deliberate echo of the name Kim in the nickname Kip. I’ve never read Kipling’s famous novel, Kim, though I have read his The Man who would be kind; Jim my husband read aloud his children’s Just so stories to my older daughter – how did the elephant get its trunk, the camel its hump, Rhinoceros its skin – they all end with this loving coda to the child being spoken to. Tone at end reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family. Kipling has a bad reputation today but it’s unfair. It has poems by Kipling, original book had glorious and interesting illustrations.

Herodotus, the book Almasy clings to, puts his photographs and letters in, was an early Greek historian; called the father of lies. He tells a very slanted history. He is known for his folk stories and mythic geography. Great chronicle with world wide scope.

It’s a novel about a world in ruin but also asserts that the world has always been in ruin. We cling to these roles because we don’t know what else to do. Cultural identities are given people. People insist English patient English. Why? Because of his culture. We see our characters make alliances based on individual affinity and congeniality of outlook and taste not biology and cultural ritual. Body as a site of resistance is very frail in the book. People smashed easily, burned up. Now you are here, now you are not. Lord Suffolk trinity; Hardy. Violence important in book: barbarity of people to another another; indifference of natural world.

Its meditation on the place of memory accounts for the rearrangement of time to be subjective. The language gorgeous: a voice of his own. Splendour of imagery everywhere, songsong lyric quality.

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Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) telling the story of Candaules and Gyges (voyeuristic husband turns murderous over lover) from Herodotus as the other men listen …. in the desert

It’s useful to compare a film adaptation to a novel since you have much of the same story matter. By seeing what’s omitted you can gauge both the thematic resonances the film wanted to avoid and the new ones they put in place. The same goes for looking at what’s added. On average another statistic at 37% of the original story matter remains; the rest is added. This is a case where the movie has gotten so intertwined with people’s memories of the book I have now to differentiate the movie from the book.

Minghella’s film reverses the emphasis of the book: specifically the romance story of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) with adultery and the jealous rage of Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth) takes over the movie. If you look at the book, after the initial seeing of the airplane in flight over the desert, the shooting down by Germans, the burning of Almasy and trek through the desert, we do not return to the story of Almasy and the woman we saw in the plane until the middle of the book’s 4th section, Cairo (1930-38), of ten, and don’t get into it in earnest until the 5th called Katharine. In the film this material is continually there, moved up front, woven into the story of Hana, Almasy as charred patient, Caravaggio, and Kip in the Villa San Girolamo (presented as once the home of Poliziano, a Renaissance prince and writer), is added to, and forms an important part of the final ending when the initial scene is finally explained. In the book the explanation for the woman in the airplane (we are do not know she’s a corpse when we first see her) is finished at the end of the 9th section, “Cave of Swimmers,” (where we see the ancient drawings of swimmers inside a cave) which contains also considerable material on Madox (Julian Wadham), implicitly Almasy’s lover, whose suicide matters in the book and is hardly mentioned, much less explained in the film (from horror at the church worship of the war, from loss of Almasy’s love, from Almasy’s betrayal of the British as a German spy); after which we the 10th section, “August,” move back to life at the villa, Kip and Hana’s love affair, Kip disposing and defusing bombs at great personal risk, the atom bomb, and Kip’s strong revulsion, and coda in Sri Lanka and Canada, where Kip has returned to his home culture to become a doctor and family man, and Hana retreated from the world to an island with her aunt, while Caravaggio resumes his role as wanderer, which coda is left out of the movie altogether.

Kip’s building of an English family in Sussex with the delightful Lord Morden (who never left Sussex in his life), his secretary Miss Morden (the name alludes to death), and their loving butler, with the thermos and sandwiches — they explore the geology of Britain together — all omitted. If you do not read the book you may see Kip simply as Hana’s lover. In the book he is not only a Sikh, but also an Anglophile, risking his life endlessly to save the Allies and people of Europe. His affair with Hana is counterpointed against the affair of Katharine and Almasy with more resonances and depths, and neither the major story. He does not break away because of Hardy’s death but because of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. His people were regarded as dispensable, wiped out in minutes.

The true model for the Almasy-Katharine story is Baroness Orzcy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel crossed by DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Think The Prisoner of Zenda. A band of English gentlemen dedicated to rescuing innocent aristocratic victims of the French revolution. The hero whose name is Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be effete (subtle, sensitive, impeccable manner, has read the classics) but is in fact a determined man of action. I hope no one needs me to summarize Rebecca, a femme fatale (it’s actually a misreading of the book but that’s another blog). It is simply factually true that Rebecca was used as a code book by the Nazi spies: it was carried about by Almasy’s men into Cairo. It’s just the sort of thing that might have appealed to the real Almasy who thrilled to adventure and romance.

Hana is no longer central; Katherine is — though they are treated as a double figure. In the book Almasy tells Hana about the winds; in the film, he tells Katharine.
The inimitable Kevin Whateley as Hardy — carrying Kip’s boots to be cleaned

Nonetheless, there is much gain too. The film ends differently: the film stays true to the transnationalism of the rest of the book. By showing torture you bring it home to people. The way the film opens and closes on the plane, desert and cave of swimmes, with the desert and the incessant maps assuming the function of presences, characters. Almasy chooses to die in the film; Caravaggio is given more intensity against Almasy in the film.

Actors enrichen a work: William Dafoe is particularly good, and Fiennes through his makeup. Hana too has inner beauty. With his small role as Madox, Julian Wadham does very well. He has presence and overshadows Kip as someone in relationship to the English patient.

Let’s not be snobs: there is a splendid visual quality. From Allen Stone’s review on line (“Herodotus Goes Hollywood”):

The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter’s brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the “cave of swimmers”–a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars.

Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; he does not want to deny the possibility of love which is what the book does. At the end in the desert Almasy paints the corpse and does not weep. Hana returns to her family; so too Kip.

The film ends with a sad but hopeful image of Hana in that truck with the child beside her, clutching Herodotus.

Ellen

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Friends,

Shortly after my husband, Jim, died, I began a process of finishing the books he was in the middle of reading when his brain gave out and he could no longer concentrate. One was Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. At the time I couldn’t face the one he had by his bedside, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie A Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Four years have now gone by, political situations facilitating torture have increased, so I thought I would finally tackle this one. Reading this material is upsetting but I have gathered far more than one blog ought to hold as it cries out to be shared. The underlying premise is humanities studies explain torture to us. It is thus a book in defense of the humanities, showing the importance and usefulness of the perspective too.

Part One consists of the Introductory essay by Carlson and Weber, “For the Humanities,” Lisa Hajjar’s “An Assault on Truth: A Chronology of Torture, Deception and Denial,” and Alfred W. McCoy, “In the Minotaur’s Labyrinth: Pyschological Torture, Public forgetting and contested history.” Read together, the argument across these essays is one Orwell made concisely: the purpose of torture is not to gain information; it’s to destroy someone’s personality, them as a self, and by extension as others learn of this to cow whole populations. What happens to people is they lose their belief in themselves as human beings: stripped, shaven, forced to defecate and urinate in public with nothing to clean them, tortured beyond endurance (the introduction says the Bush techniques were as bad as the Nazis), they live beyond death. They are like people who have died. A key element: from the time we are young we look to others for help. We expect help. This is from our relationship with our mother. The tortured person sees no one will help him or her. That abandonment is central to the new view of others and life that cannot be gotten over. This is why such a person will commit suicide, sometimes decades later. The term for this is “hauntology.”

This is seen in Elizabethan times — especially in the area of religion and atheism. In Elizabeth I’s prisons she tortured atheists — Christopher Marlowe was tortured and confessed to his atheism; Thomas Kyd’s death was attributed to torture. We forget that it was dangerous to be a playwright and if Shakespeare’s plays often punt too or are subtextual that’s why. I read on and have discovered something that is demoralizing in a new way: these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities. The origin of modern torture is sophisticated modern psychology/psychiatry applied. This enabled practice with impunity. Of course thousands (one citation in either South or Latin America was 80,000 dead from torture) were simply brutalized; the difference is in say 16th through 18th century racks and torture instruments of steel and iron were used; now electric currents are run through someone’s nerve system based on these “principles.” There are manuals of how to. Neither the Clinton or Obama administration had the courage or stomach to prosecute — and just as bad, not to expose this origin.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) in Outlander

One recent troubling development is this kind of experience is increasingly dramatized in films. In the final sequence of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the mini-series justice it was also deeply anti-torture.

Hajjar demonstrates from what happens in different situations and centuries too in these torture outbreaks that the purpose (as the thing achieved is) to de-humanize people, rob them of all security and stability; that is what the torturers are doing. The torturers go well beyond trying to get information. So the excuse of getting information is false, and that’s when you and prove it’s false (no good information, all lies), it does not stop. You say we cannot use this in court and cannot prosecute this person. Well, that wasn’t the point. You want to define them as outside all law and human community (unlawful combatants for example). You want to put them were they are abandoned and no hope from any other human being around them. Then you do want people to know in the countries and among the groups you are seeking to destroy, exploit, subdue. Assad’s slaughterhouses do more than murder; the hanging is a perfunctory last step. To me Hajjar tells an extraordinary story: after 9/11 the Bush administration snatched huge numbers of people and tortured them; not long after they began, they realizes these people knew nothing, were innocent of 9/11, but they carried on torturing them. It will be said but surely they believed them guilty and knowledgeable: the evidence they had nothing to do with 9/11 was so clear. I read a story recently about our court system in which judges say they have to kill someone convicted even if it’s proved he was innocent after he was convicted to “vindicate the system” (it was either in the LRB or NYRB). Were these people vindicating their system by doing these truly dreadful things to people — the people who did them had to be dreadful; the sole control was the people doing them feared they’d be punished

The second essay by McCoy puts paid to the notion in a way that Trump is beyond all we’ve seen: in a number of ways we see Bush did what Trump now threatens to do, and Obama refused to prosecute and condemn and left in place laws and apparatus in the US system that now could be used again. I discovered these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities in the 1950s at the beginning of the cold war and that is when they first spread. Among the shameful shameless behavior in public which has led to the majority of Americans who are asked (small but shocking) approving of torture as necessary for information: 481 prominent professors from universities which include the top 110 declared in a Harvard document that we should seriously consider torture as an effective coercive policy …. Everyone knows the history of Yoo, the spread of torture, the public disclosure — and suddenly for a while the public is horrified, the saying it’s just a few bad apples&c Those who fought included a group of soldier lawyers, JAGS they were called; they persisted. I have seen General James C Walker arguing cases on TV YouTubes. Colin Powell one of the few to break rank. Careless language again and again show this is not at all about information. Terrify and punish. Cheney has said we should decorate those who did this. Meanwhile their names are kept from us. Some international organizations continue to push back hard.

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Goya, Disasters of War

Part Two places torture in the contexts of specific societies. Reinhold Gorling’s important “Torture and Society,” begins the part with an attempt to get at the psychology of how torture destroys a personality. we are never self-contained, no matter what we may think we are continually closely involved with others from drinking water, to breathing, our thoughts and emotions reach out to other human beings and we feel others’ presences. He does not deny there is a self apart, but that the self acts within relationships — even if for some at a distance. Torture attacks the vulnerability of people in this area directly, it makes us aware of how dependent we are by depriving people of protection and provision. This explains why solitary confinement (which I’ve read is also subject to sadistic punishments by depriving food and light) is torture. It not only de-cultures people.

This is an evil that occurs periodically and when encouraged hard to check. There is this impulse to control, for power. What you do is block the person and bring their exchanges to a standstill. (A book called Psychopathologie des violences collectives is about states that use torture systematically — as the US does in prisons). The more a person is conscious of his or her vulnerability, dependence, more sensitive, the easier to torture and dominate. An important weapon is recognition, the withholding of it. When others recognize us and we them, the openness this depends keeps the torturer at bay (tweets function in a vacuum where the slanderer or tormentor does not have to recognize responses). It is a kind of theatrical or performative act and thus deprivation and recognition can be manipulated in schools to make children very miserable. These structures emerge when virulent conflicts in the society are ratcheted up. A repetition and spread of behaviors are then aimed at people deemed “unacceptable.” These then frighten others who are similarly “unacceptable” because they are vulnerable.

(Remember the Victorian novels about children whose pain goes unacknowledged (Jane Eyre, David Copperfield). Very mild seeming but Ausen’s appalled Mr Knightley tells Emma she has done wrong because she now encourages others to openly despise and mock Miss Bates. This also fits in with Winnicott’s theory of how children grow up in families with object relationships needing love and empathy. When parents refuse empathy, it’s beyond neglect and functions as abuse which the child won’t forget.)

Gorling then argues how those not literally there, those fed rumors of the torture are witnesses and so drawn into the relationship. These witnesses are subdivided into those who shrug, are complicit, seem to turn away and ignore it. Turn a blind eye. The point here is they are pretending; they know it’s going on; the perception has taken place before the person manages to exclude it. The witness from afar can also fight against what’s happening in a variety of (often) feeble ways. There is another set of people involved: those in a relationship with the victim; they are indirectly but powerfully hurt too; their sense of security shaken. Nowadays with the Internet we have many more silent witnesses.

Isolation and disconnection seems to be part of the point of letting people know from afar that this is happening. Phiip Gorevitch who researched genocide in Rawanda said “genocide … is an exercise in community building.” Horrible I know but when in Trollope he acquiesces (openly in his travel book) in “elimination” of the native peoples you do see how he is doing this as community building, enlisting the settler colonialists. (Think of “the removal”of Palestinians from the west bank in Israel.) That violence and trauma leave their mark. By radically splitting it off (say into black sites) it is easily kept out of overt culture but it is there, and at the end he describes those pictures from Abu Ghrabi which most of us have seen and do remember. But the point seems to be is at the same time it can be denied (a few bad apples, not happening any more &c&c). You don’t account for what happened. You can deny the urge to do it. The process is Lacanian projection — where people really (it’s said and they do in part) try to conform themselves to what they think others see of them and how others see them. (My feeling about Lacan is usually that those who really allow this mirroring to be a prison forget how unimportant we are to most people, how they couldn’t care less about us as individuals and whatever they say or do is mostly transient gossip.)


Primo Levi, If this be Man and The Truce

The volume’s fourth essay suggests why we are today hearing explicit analogies with Hitler and Nazi and fascist regimes: Susan Derwin’s “What Nazi Crimes Against Humanity Can Tell Us about Torture Today.” She begins with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a direct consequence of Nazi crimes against humanity, from a commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. She then moves into Primo Levi’s If This Be Man (correctly Englished). I agree with her the title published as Survival in Auschwitz is worse than misleading: the book is not about survival in Auschwitz, we know now that of the 650 people taken with Levi to Auschwitz, 15 men and 9 women survived. The book is about Levi’s experience of living in the universe where most of the people were deprived of every right, and driven down to the level of animals (including no bathroom facilities, stripping, shaving, no utensils to eat with with). She says he wanted to make us see what happens to a social order predicated upon “the principle of enmity.” She then reports that the interrogation techniques of the Nazis included precisely those used by the Bush people. (They didn’t need the psychology/psychiatry profs of the 1950s to tell them what to do or why.) The idea was violate the integrity of the physical body, make you body your enemy since it is so full of pain, to make person be as dead.

I’ve read If this be man in Italian and I thought the title was referring to what the Nazis were doing to others, and how how the people were treating one another in this hell: they became utterly estranged, but Derwin feels Levi is describing the deterioration of each person within and without. How they lost the ability to observe, to remember, to express themselves, what it is to be “de-humanized”,’ the deep wound to human dignity, how depriving people of the smallest objects around which their memories clustered was to deprive them of memory and their worlds. (This reminds me of how a prisoner is forced to dress differently and everything taken from him or her when they enter a prison; only later is some returned as if it were a favor for good behavior.) Memory is integral to self-hood.

Derwin tells us Levi’s history, how he came to be captured, how he survived because he was put into a I.G. Farben laboratory (so was Lustig whom I mentioned put in a factory/lab and so escaped immediate death, and then managed to escape). He was left to die of scarlet fever when the Germans fled, but survived and resumed life in Milan as a manager of a chemical factory until 1977 when he retired to write full time. She goes over his works, and he fell from a stairwell in 1987. She will not say he killed himself — we cannot be sure says she.

Derwin then moves on to the work of Jean Amery who renamed himself from Franz Stangl, a former commandan of Treblinka – he killed himself afterwards too. He gave an interview and wrote that beyond the violence the pushing people into becoming quite naked and alone was torture. It is again what Carlson and Weber say at the beginning: this abandonment, sense of being alone with no help is central to the horror psychologically. Now Derwin suggests Amery tells us (in effect) the reason people kill themselves later is they can never forget that abandonment, they can never forget no one anywhere would help them. This intense loneliness (italicized) and lack of security and safety ever after triggers primordial anxieties, not to be overcome. You cannot face your dependency and broken attachments. The anguish of survival is the world is afterward forever foreign a place you are tormented in.

Then she brings back Levi where he describes sleeping with strangers who will sleep on top of you. I do remember this passage. It was so desolating how the people behaved to one another. They are out of contact with one another as people, all alone in effect. “Polluted sleep” is the translation, an atavistic anguish. Without possibility of communication there can be no relief.

This resonates with me – just a small example I think as I read if I try to tell people some of what I feel and they just can’t understand and if trying one terrifies or upset them — there can be no liberation from this once you have known it. I get it. A psychiatrist named Knell talks of how silence protects people, if you tell and get nowhere you feel rage or unprotected and it makes it all worse. People like Knell therefore are astonished at Levi and his lucidity. The policy of containment keeps you from that area of darkness. Cynthia Oznick writing of Levi’s writing said how he is writing out of retaliatory passion. Not at all, but I have read writers who I find are retaliating at the reader by terrifying them: to me Flanner O’Connor and Wm Faulkner are such writers, and some of the writes of spy thrillers (Susan Hill for example). So the gothic can be faulted centrally as a tool to hurt people? I have thought so …

The issue of who survives concludes Derwin’s essay. Ethical people who cannot compromise. Another group is caught up in the Italian erased by the English translation of another book by Levi: The Drowned and the Saved: I sommersi and il salvati: the submerged, the sunk, the overwhelmed. Those who fell into utter silence were those among whom it was far less possible that a sliver would survive. A shocking 80,000 died in southeast asia and the middle from torture – done by Americans too. What Levi says is the people who are so shocked they can’t talk are those who die quickest. Those who won’t communicate their suffering are the most vulnerable. Being able to talk, to reach out, to tell shows strength and also a sense of a self violated, the self is still there and it’s complaining and loud and long. It takes strength to be angry, it’s exhausting. Indignation means you have to think well of yourself on some level.

Derwin’s essay ends on the horrifying criminal behavior – whole scale – this man was a monster – of Hitler upon being asked if an infant be granted a mercy death – a severely disabled baby. Of course yes, but then he sent a doctor to look and before you know it a secret decree was issued between 1939 and 45 to slaughter and approximately 5000 babies died. “this would not have been possible without the cooperation of physicians, nurses, bureaucrats and parents. It was mandatory to notify the hospital if your child was born with a defect. Those with disabilities were labeled ‘eligible’ in the Orwellian language used.”

The fifth essay, Elisabeth Weber’s “‘Torture was the essence of National Socialism:’ reading Jean Amery today,” begins with the new acceptability of torture in US media: it’s not a good thing that 24 (a TV show) shows horrifying torture. It does not evoke horror but inures and the stories are about how X got this great information. The people at Guantanamo and elsewhere are defined out of existence. They are given a category which makes them not part of any category: unlawful combatants. They have no legal existence. Unnameable, unclassifiable. She repeats Levi’s point that the submerged are those who rarely survive. He called them Muselmanner, “walking dead,” “non-men, “Ghost like beings.” Ghost detainee was almost an official term. Ghosting. She then turns to the effect of immediate brutalization and her examples are not from torture but arrests. It’s common practice to brutalize people upon arresting them. This delivers a shock like torture: they have no recourse, they are not accused of anything, they never forget the experience.

On Jean Amery’s writing: Weber discusses the problem of the softened and misleading translations of Amery who wrote in German. Even the most famous phrases from this man have been toned down. One really reads: The ignominy (infamy) of annihilation cannot be erased (not Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased.) She goes into the German language and how viscerally Amery uses it: torture is the fleshification of someone; they become their body. When the police killed Eric Garner they would not his body breathe and we see on that video his hysteria and astonishment they were killing him.

Amery in his work shows us first how astonished people feel when they find themselves treated as nothing, as subhuman, as without a life that matters. Most tortured people even the submerged never cease to feel astonished at some level of their being. There is no path back from having experience this other side of death, of annihilation. (Derwin out of Levi said sadists want to nullify other people.) He or she occupies an inbetween place from then on where torture and the memories never end. They are more tormented at the time at ways of dying; they want death but not this humiliating animal one they are getting filled with intense pain — intense pain said Scarry is world-destroying. Then they take on the view of them of their torturers: they betrayed a secret; they are cowards.

I’m impressed by Amery and Weber’s use of Heidegger. What is violated is the pre-ontological understanding of being-in-the-world acquired by most children (not abused ones). Irreparable assault on “the House of being.” The third Reich was the apotheosis of torture. Their methods centered on this experience or threat of it. A system based on sadism. It makes me remember the powerful novel by Michel Faber, Under my skin: when someone suddenly pleads “mercy” it seems to harrowing as to break down the soul of a reader. (All should read Faber’s masterpiece). Amery disagreed with Foucault, Lacan and other French philosophical systems. There is a deep innate self in touch with itself that people can live on.

Weber ends with the idea where ever torture is used it’s impossible to control its ever widening reach. The horror is people who torture others enjoy it – how far can they go; what can they do to this person? Floodgates of transgression are opened, break down psychic boundaries systematically, as principle.


The Night Bagdad Fell (a farcical tragic political movie)

The sixth essay in the book, “What did the corpse want” by Sinan Antoon is about poetry. He says – and this is true, unlike most poets in the West, Arab poets are politically engaged and write political poetry, poetry which directly addresses political situations. The breaking into the news of the Abu Ghraib pictures and then the spread of knowledge that the US tortures systematically caused an eruption of hundreds of poems. The incident was seen as “ a ritual of collective domination and assault: — its effects were felt as “extended to the audience of the visual event and were traumatic for those who identified with the naked and assaulted bodies of the victims. Toonan then reprints a long powerful poem and analyses it. Tortured and wretched are synonyms; those speaking are the voices of the dead. The emphasis of the poem is to show how stripped the people have been, how stripped the corpse of all identity. They have only their own blood to be buried in. The use of dogs (and dogs were used in North Dakota as filmed by Amy Goodman – -she is the only one to have exposed the dogs with their jaws covered in blood) – the dogs there in the pictures used against the victims compounds the abandonment by other human beings. Given the Arab religion it also makes the corpses impure, unclean, caries the torture and wretchedness to the grave.

Antoon’s second chosen poem is by Youssef who is said to be one of Iraq’s most famous poets, he is a communist intellectual. A recent collection of poems by him is Englished as The Last Communist Enters Heaven. The voice of the person is someone who rejects compromise with the invader (the US) with its capitalism. The point of this poem is there are no saviors; no individual can save the country or any group from anything. It is also to show that one of the purposes of torture is to prevent the victim from being an agent of anything. Then he tries to show the released who live trying to re-appropriate agency by becoming part of a group.

Sargon Bulus’s poem, “The Corpse,” seems to be about the torturing of a corpse, but then it turns out the corpse is alive and mutters, wants something. It reaches the harrowing effects of torture. Scarry says physical pain actively destroys our ability to speak, we revert to a state anterior to language, to sheer sounds and cries. This happens in in Michael Faber’s Under the Skin. Most of Bulus’s poems are about the carnage in Iraq. Antoon congratulates him upon being in a unique space “vis-à-vis the various ideological narratives competing for Iraq’s history and future” (!). Bulus avoids falsifying as good or triumphant what Iraq was before British colonialism, with no false promises for the future. An elegiac tone and no closure. Simple and eloquent in language an attempt not to have a specific personality. Worn, tired, exhausted people. These poems are conveying what is so hard to convey. I find Antoon absurd when he worries lest we think Bulus’s poems are defeatist. Why not be defeatist?

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Hans Hacke, US Isolation Box, Grenada, 1983

The third part of the book moves to artful representation of torture. “John Nava: Painting against Torture” begins with something more cheering: people seem to come together and feel for one another right after 9/11 (at least inside the US and NYC), but when Bush and Cheney started their hellish war, all this feeling was thrown away. Then real protests began and were savagely attacked. After an exhibition of paintings and tapestries at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, Cal, 2006, the art gallery had to endure weeks of editorial attack, police involvement from its pictures based on Abu Ghraib. Sure art should and can also console, provide escape, spiritual renewal, but it should tell hard truths too. One problem though was such pictures also had the effect of inuring people and getting them used to torture, even to accept it as “old hat.” Bush said “damn right” that they tortured (years later I remember Obama’s statement: “folks were tortured.”) Nava says in the end the torture and reaction in public eroded justice, devastated our national standing, licensed illegitimate war and corrupted a free society.

The eighth essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Torture and Representation” is about how these images of torture have been assimilated into our culture. She says the truth is earlier depictions were done in a way that justified the torture. A rare instance of pity can be seen in the famous Laokoon which can be seen as a God’s revenge through torture. From the 16th through 17th century pictures of torture were not supposed to make us reflect on the pain or create pathos or tragedy. It just confirmed this is the order of the world you must obey. A change came in the 18th century, the Enlightenment, the first real attempts to create compassion, identification, blame the establishment, the state as unjust merciless. The disquieting thing is how easily people become voyeurs and art even explicitly said, directed to critique the “bad guys” is being enjoyed by the watchers. After saying that the first true anti-torture, anti-war anti-establishment pictures we have are Goya’s, and that his Disasters of War were published only in 1863, 40 years after Goya produced them, Solomon-Godeau goes over 4 artists, 4 exhibitions which are troubling. She says first pain is mostly what can’t be communicated, the world shattering experience exceeds representation.

So what are the possibilities and limitations. Fernando Botero’s paintings after Abu Ghraib are so stylized, and he justifies a distanced formal approach by saying he wants to give the prisoners dignity. Solomon-Godeau questions this desire to “restore dignity.” Isn’t the point they had none. Botero fears the Sadistic Trump type follower will just despise the tortured – the way Trump openly despises McCann. Solomon-Godeau most successful object in one exhibition is an imitation of an actual box prisoners were put in by Hans Haacke: “US Isolation Box,” 1983. Four dimensional and the same size. Information about what the prisoners experience is immediately “visceral, palpable, immediate” Little ventilation, only slits for windows too high for eyes to look out, no bed, no toilet, old wood – like the person was an object of junk. Brutal pesent: “this is how the US military treats detainees and prisoners” all the boxes said. It was moved from a conspicuous to an inconspicuous space under political pressure. (Donald Trump falls squarely into the type of person that enjoys watching torture and despises the tortured person for being tortured.)

Clinton Fein’s Rank and File could be called Defiled. It seems to be a print of a sculpture of abject bodies all kneeling and bowed on the floor, you see only the backside of the man, or his feet coming out from under, and other bodies clinging over these. Solomon-Godeau sees a voyeuristic element in the silvery color and spectacle. Jenny Holzer’s Protect Protect is another which eschews imitations of people. On a wall the prints of actual hands, military memos, policy statements, autopsy reports: it’s these that permit and guide the torture and the deeply inhumane boiler plate language makes a point.

Last these black silhouettes I’ve seen and one hit me hard: it’s of a man in a kind of witches garb (or Klu Klux Klan outfit), over his head a bag; he’s being made to stand on a stand with his arms outstretched. Somehow it communicate a terrible psychological suffering to be so humiliated. So driven to do this. The silhouettes are done by a group of artists called Forkscrew; they are put on posters which are easily distributed. Perhaps that’s why I’ve seen these. They are called iRaq after the jargon names of our gadgets: ipad, iphone. She says the hooding makes for a shock of recognition. There are writhing women and men holding on to what looks like cell phones or old walky talkys in their hands, a wire to their head or ear – -they are being tortured with electricity. Again there is no possibility of enjoyment, even if each image is a spectacle, it’s a weak one. This group has produced other art mocking Apple ipod ads.

Douglas Crimp is quoted: there is no reason collective art in public is any less powerful and great than the work of art in a private gallery attributed to some artist, famous or not.


Waterboarding, Antwerp 1556 — it looks like the force-feeding of the suffragettes — which was a form of torture

Stephen F. Eisenman is on “Waterboarding: Political and Sacred Torture,” the 9th essay takes up the topic of waterboarding. The question he asks and finally answers is why of all techniques is waterboarding the most acceptable; the answer is it corresponds to primal religious rituals. First, statistics: after the photos from Abu Ghrabi wre published 2003. 54% of the US public were “bothered a great deal:’ a year later only 40%; December 2005 61% said torture was justified. Bush invoking “ticking bomb” succeed in getting congress to agree “CI should be allowed to use ‘alternative interrogation procedures’ and be given immunity from prosecution. A few senators fought that immunity (Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Joe Biden) but immunity granted. In investigations under his attorney general (Mukasay, that’s 2008) the criminality of the procedure of waterboarding wasn’t the subject of the session, only the destruction of evidence for it. Support for torture in the US today is not hidden or kept in professional websites; it’s open, available for all to see; Giuliani had police practice torture and was unabashed. Pictures of torture just don’t undermine the procedure no matter how brutal; these have been “normative practices” in the US as in the history of politics.

Eisenman then describes waterboarding: painful, terrifying, you come near death and many die. Many die. Many die. That this is kept up on someone shows it’s not information that is sought, what’s wanted is a confession you are in error, an apostate, deeply in error, it’s all your fault what is happening. He cites and describes instances from Roman through medieval to our own times. Many paragraphs.

Some artists have contested these: Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, Sartre, Benamin, Pontecovo — challenged the regime of these images and this talk. He goes over a picture by Sue Coe, “We do not torture” which successfully challenges (without voyeurism). Leon Golumb’s series from the later 1970s, Mercenary, Interrogation and White Squad, whos source is many photographs, journalistic reporting, raw accounts of people from South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador — including things like Walling a person: the person is kept seated, bounded, hooded, raw and extremist theater. All are described neutrally but we get it (it’s like some game).

This is where the essay becomes very worrying: there is a “longstanding pathos formula whereby torture victims are shown accepting and participating in torture, where it’s eroticized, the subjugation made part of a contract the victim agrees to.” (Oh yes that’s Outlander I realize in the depiction of Jamy and Black Jack.) Studies have shown that people write about this as how the interrogator becomes the parent, authority figure and the tortured acquiesces. Eisenman is concerned to refute these beliefs utterly. Not so. He says a hostage situation when not torture is not the same at all. Bodily pain utterly transforms this. He suggests it’s this idea the victim acquiesces, and become “child” is part of what makes people feel the victim deserves his fate because he is a victim. (Let me bring in that young man who deserted and was tortured and Trump wants to see murdered by the state as a coward.) The sexuality belongs to the image traditions of orientalism. Says Eisenman at the end: torture bears no resemblance truth, pleasure, cooperation; it is oppression, violence, frequently death and nothing more.

The tenth and last essay is by Hamid Dabashi, “Damnatio Memoriae.” Dabashi begins with a startling highly unusual letter that Medi Karrubi wrote to Akbar Hashamei Rafsanjani (I remember him from long ago, some American in Reagan’s cabinet, a woman, Fitzgerald?, said he was a moderate, and she was mocked, as a joke, there are no Iranian moderates – ho, ho, ho, what a ridiculous woman; she was an Ayn Rand fan as I recall). Karrubi spoke openly, with horror and remorse about how the Islamic republic “kidnaps, incarcerates, savagely beats up, rapes, tortures, murders, and then secretly buries in mass graves its young citizens, men and men; it’s like the prisons in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom (1975, the source of an Italian film). It was self-flagellating and yet he could not bring himself to give any concrete details. A cleric openly writing about the atrocities of the regime. Dabashi says the letter is Kafkaesque, Karrubi sees what is happening as a catastrophe for the Islamic country.
Dabashi says there is a little known Iranian film called K, which dramatizes 3 Kafka stories,”the married couple,” “In the penal colony,” “a Fratricide. “In the penal colony,” shows how people begin to have such a fascination with torture machines they no longer sympathize with, even think of the victims. In Karrubi’s letter he pleads with Rafsanjani to do something about this. He began to publish hard evidence; soon 3 official investigators came to take him in, ostensibly to find out about the torture, but soon he was the one interrogated, who is he charging? they seem to have forgotten what the charge was. They intimidate and accuse him of being bribed; he is taken to a presiding doctor, The Surgeon General and accused of lying. Need I say he disappeared.

It should be recalled that in 1954 an election produced a secular social democracy. The US CIA and its allies took that down, and replaced it with the capitalist- pro-US Shah. He did nothing for the poor but produced an early neoliberal state, and was overthrown. It seems there lingered public groups in the Iranian gov’t who were anxious about torture, angry to hear or admit to them, but the result was sidelining. New and images were now kept to a minimum; that Karrubi videotaped his testimony horrified them.

In comparison what the AbuGhrabi Americans reveled in is a kind of orgy without shame, and the Iranians regarded the pictures and all that came out of Abu Ghraib and thereafter as shameful to watch; US soldiers took pleasure in having themselves photographed the way lynching southern vigilants did over black people. People were tortured for the camera’s sake; for US people exhibitionism crucial. There was an exhibit of these photos in NYC curated by Brian Wallis, text written by Seymour Hirsh. Some people did see the sanctimoniousness hid the reality of exhibitionism and complacency. Dante argued that this exhibit was a form of entertainment which did not bring viewer close to agonies of victims (think of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.)

One might say an excess of evidence was turned by academics into tropes for analysis (and papers for conferences and tenure). The US people would take prisoners out, force them to be animal like take pictures and then rape and beat
Gluttonies of violence are seen in Quentin Tarantino films. We are luxuriating in animperial visual regime; spectacle sustains this museumification. Over-estheticizing produces tomes of unreadable prose about unrealities – the images themselves. Victims become invisible – an empire of camps, all under surveillance. Palestinians cannot talk about what was done to them – indirection is how torture speaks. A cycle of naked life has been set up where we come back to Nazi concentration camps. Dabashi is suggesting that trguments that civil rights movementd in Iran are rich people’s resentment against poor people’s president reveals a depth of moral depravity –- this is to ignore millions risking lives, tortured, taped, murdered by “popular” president’s forces. He feels science fiction tech films erase reality — this is important as so many US people go to see these and then go on allegorizing about them. What then can make these regimes fall? Real screams and hidden horrors are all that came make them fall, if the accumulation begins to be too many people over too long a time ….

The interested reader may want to go on to read essays on “hegemonic masculinity” in film as connected to torture (Viola Shafik) and music (two on this, Christian Gruny, Peter Szendy).

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From a recent production of Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (her grotto-prison)

The last section of the book is about people who have written treatises and handed down legal decisions justifying torture and poetry, plays and novels in the 19th and 20th century about torture. I’ll be briefer here. Speaking about Torture is reviewed in an academic arts journal (ironic) the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 28:1 (2013:102-4 where Aaron C. Thomas singles out these last essays in the book: on Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (the essay another by Julie A. Carlson) he writes in a way that exemplifies Dabashi’s argument; Carlson’s context includes William Godwin and the Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, the man who “has long been credited with galvanizing public opinion against torture and leading to its abolition” in Europe during the Enlightenment” (only it didn’t). Thomas covers Darieck Scott on a pornographic novel by Samuel Delancy, Hogg, which detailed the torture and murder of many women and children (apparently censored).

Speaking of Torture is an important book. Many essays all considering torture from a wide variety of angles. It is troubling that I do not remember any reviews in the mainstream review journals (LRB, NYRB, the New Yorker, or the TLS).

Ellen

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Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) holding hands with Joseph de Rocher (Michael Maynes), Dead Man Walking

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve seen a new great opera. It’s not often I’ve felt this. For a number of years Jim and I, sometimes with Izzy, went to recent and mid-20th century operas performed at the Castleton Festival in summer here in Virginia. Jim took me to Silver Springs AFI theater where we occasionally saw an extraordinary HD transmission of a European production of a recent opera: I remember Britten’s Peter Grimes from Covent Garden. Over 45 years of marriage and living together we occasionally saw a new opera in London or Rome or Paris (maybe 5 times). I can recall a very good short opera about a puppeteer theater, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and feminist (would you believe) Lucretia, Eurotrash renditions of classics, Menotti’s appealing (to me) Amal and the Night Visitors.

Tonight at least none of them that I remember except maybe Peter Grimes astonished me the way this did. We are not spared at all, from the enactment of raw emotion: its unsparing dramatization of ferocious anger on the part of the murdered youngster’s parents, and attempt to show the brutal crime, its equally insistent dramatization of Mrs de Rocher (in this production Susan Graham) as grieving she is a failed mother and yet refusing to allow her son, Joseph (Michael Maynes) to confess he did the crime and say he hopes his death provides some relief. To the insistent pressure and nagging that he must tell the truth in order for Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) to reach him and offer love. We are not spared the the execution scene where we can see how every effort is made to detach all individuals from doing the act: the police strap the man down, the nurse administers the compound into a feed, but the actual killing is done by a timed switch.

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This shot from the 1995 movie is re-created in this opera production

In Kate Wingfield’s brief if otherwise rave review of the Washington Opera production of Dead Man Walking (music Jake Heggie, libretto/play Terence McNally), Wingfield tells us to wipe out of our minds the 1995 movie made from [Sister] Helen’s memoir with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The implication is this opera won’t compete or is so utterly different from 1990s film and books (to say nothing of podcasts, radio broadcasts, it’s bound to disappoint unless we hold off on expectations. is it? Arnold Salzman found it magnificent.

Whatever might be the high quality of these earlier iterations, this one on its own, as opera should, reaches the tragedies of our failed social compact today. For it has failed, and most people seem to have no understanding why. A culture gone utterly awry in what it tells itself in the news, publicly. Why else this desperate election of a corrupt malevolent lying clown? The setting is perfect (Allen Moyer): the prison is a realistic recall of Marat/Sade as I’ve ever seen, all black and white, bars, the prisoners on death row mad with anger, the behaviors crazed enactments of frustrations from believing in our macho male norms: American prisons are as bad as any ever were, back to medieval times. The costumes capture the working class characters in jeans, T-shirts, frizzy dyed hair for women (De Rochers), the lower middle (carefully put-together pant suits on the heavy awkwardly made-up women, cheap suits on the men). The nuns, Helen and Rose (Jacqueline Echols) are innocuous in soft blouses and thin skirts.

The story and now this opera is intended and I think it is a deeply anti-capital punishment fable. The auditorium was full and the applause strong. I admit as I left I overheard some conversation which was not encouraging — people saying they “could not sympathize” — the dress of the Kennedy Center patron is upper middle. It is also religious as it’s suggested the nun’s intense generosity of spirit, her willingness to open up comes from her religion, not ethics or rational conclusion upon the full circumstances. It’s not by chance that the hero is not black but a white man. In reality state killings are acted out upon black men far more than their percentage in the population could make believably unprejudiced. With private prisons, draconian imposed sentences, in states where the local culture is obtuse and merciless, executions carry on. So how much good this story has done thus far and can do is hard to say. It explicitly advocates compassion when it should speak more in the vein of this could be you or I who got involved with this, whose child killed or was killed, who is the “failed mother” (thus Mrs De Rocher berates herself), destroyed parent. What were these 20 year olds doing out there in that swamp that night, in that drug-filled club?

It is an opera which shows a people fixated upon death. Death is all around them. In that park that night. The two rapists had guns, clubs, weapon-filled. On the highway the nun speeds down a cop is waiting to threaten until he realizes she is a nun. In the prison. Seemingly everywhere. Police are belligerence personified. This opera slowly becomes transcendent with grief. David Friscic finds it a “dark night of the soul” and one of the people sitting by me was moved t to say in the intermission, “this is no comedy, nothing light here.”

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Susan Graham as Mrs De Rocher begging the appeals board not to kill her son

It’s what Joseph Kerman argued for in his great book Operas as Drama: it’s a sung play, whose dialogue is satisfying. Terence McNally is a great playwright. Nuance is what is respected: well this has nuance throughout: small moments of characters moving in this or that direction. In the second act Owen Hart, the father of the teenage boy who was murdered comes forward to speak to Helen and say that he is not sure the execution is going to give him satisfaction; his wife and he are now separated, and a sense that far from helping, this execution is meaningless to him. The role was to be sung by Wayne Tigges, but he was ill and a bass-baritone was flown in from some other opera house in another state!w whoever he was, he was superb in quiet realism. Graham as Mrs de Rocher remembering Joseph playing porpoise in the water as a child, his giving presents to his half-brothers. The background of poverty, a broken marriage, a dyslexic boy ignored, disciplined, given up on and getting into company of similarly thrown-away young men is suggested by her memories. The larger emblematic scenes (this would be Francesca Zambello) are effective — such as the appeals board. It opens with Helen and Rose and their children singing about love being all around us (from God) and at the end Helen remembers and re-sings the melody. But inbetween are these black and barred scenes, the men on death row, shouting, and angry. Such is the US today.

I thought the singing beautiful — the nun is the center of lovely and ritual melody, Mrs de Rocher’s music echoing hers, and the music harsh and shrill where this was called for. I am not musically knowledgeable enough to particularize further but it did seem to me the closest musical experience I’ve had to the great Death of Klinghoffer which Izzy and I went to NYC to see and hear in November of 2015. I know the Met was badly burned by these deeply reactionary anti-Palestinian groups over that one. This is a similarly deeply humane deeply liberal clairvoyant experience. It’s not choral in the way of John Adams. The US working and lower middle class, Louisiana are not places where social groups come together in any kind of felt love, but its base is the same quiet realism. Here is my review of Adams’s opera truly at the center of American operatic culture, sincerely and genuinely (uncorrupted by trash realizations that sell). Here’s Izzy’s concise take in the context of Adams’s other opera, Nixon in China, and being literally at the Met opera itself.

FILM: DEAD MAN WALKING (1995) SUSAN SARANDON AND SEAN PENN IN A SCENE FROM THE (1995) FILM  WORKING TITLE 01/05/1995 CTK32024 Film still Drama
Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn as Helen and Joseph (this scene is recreated in the production

I should not leave out that this work’s source is a woman’s memoir. On one side of me was sitting a young woman who told me she has met Sister Helen twice. Helen Prejean is now devoting all her time to ending capital punishment. She needs to turn her attention to the larger issue of a harshly punitive culture, and a continuum of de-humanizing and using pain to the point of torture (solitary confinement is merely the most egregious) as the larger context to fight against. It’s women who write such books: Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and a book I hope to produce a useful review of here soon, Elisabeth Weber and Julie Carson’s important book of essays, Speaking about Torture. As De Rocher is led to his execution, the police and guards cry out: Dead Man Walking.

There are only two performances left in the Kennedy Center, but this is not the first production (in that Susan Graham was Sister Helene). The 1995 film (scripted by Tim Robbins from Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir) was nominated for and won several well-deserved awards. I wish the Metropolitan opera would pick it up and make it an HD opera — my only worry would be they might over-produce. I couldn’t locate any shots of the stage and a limited number of photos of the actors so have filled in with two stills from the 1995 film. So many pre-20th century operas are museum pieces and worse: they are misogynistic, imperialist, just absurd or silly. Every effort is made to somehow make them acceptable or congenial to modern opera-going audiences. Here the opera itself speaks home to us.

Ellen

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