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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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The young Sonya and Natasha as we first see them on Natasha and her mother’s name day, Sonya revealing to Natasha how much she loves Nikolai (Episode 1)

Dear friends and readers,

I just loved this mini-series, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov (quietly marvelous); Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova and Joanna David as Sonya Alexandrovna (cousins, both perfect in the roles almost as envisaged by Tolstoy, only Pulman writes for Sonya far more depths of pain and rebellion within); my favorite actress from the 1970s BBCs series, Angela Downs as Marya Bolkonskaya, Alan Dobie slowly melting into a thoughtful conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky, her brother, and perhaps best of all, Frank Middlemas as an unforgettable scene-stealing General Kutusov against the steely-iron egoist Napoleon performed by David Swift. I could go on to name more (Sylvester Morand is a more sensitive Nikolai, brother to Natasha, but perfect as the conventional man, with Gary Watson superbly just your moral effective soldier, Denisov, understandably in love with Natasha). And must not omit the other central controlling creative presence, John Davies as director. There is still such snobbery about TV films that the recent anthology Tolstoy on Screen never discusses it.

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Pierre, young, nervous, puzzled as his father (not legally. and whom he hardly knows but has been all powerful and is enormously rich) lies dying in a nearby room (Episode 1)

It was after my first watch-through of this that I proposed on Trollope19thCStudies that we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace together. Of Tolstoy’s text as translated by the Mauds, and revised by Mandelkera realized: What is so entrancing is how carefully subtly done are all the scenes, how Tolstoy’s philosophical and political thought is gotten into the film by inventing further scenes that frame what’s in the book; how each hour is a unit in its own, with its own mood and juxtapositions fitted so perfectly.

My experience was at first it is hard to get into the story as Pulman is moving naturalistically and not attempting to rivet our attention at all costs. Very like his quietly opening magnificent I, Claudius, this War and Peace series grows on you (like Tolstoy’s book). After a while, you realize you are so involved with the characters and stories and themes. As with my blog on the first two War and Peace movies (going in chronological order of making), the 1955 King Vidor and 1966 Bondarchuk W&Ps, I won’t go over the book’s story line and characters but leave the reader to find a summary or read my first blog on Tolstoy’s novel — or (as I hope) the reader has, or is about to, read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I find the wikipedia page contains minimal cast lists and awards, and no break-down of episodes, no commentary, and there has as yet been not one essay in a published film journal (on-line or off), I’ll proceed episode by episode, 20 in all.

Episodes 1: Name-Day; and 2: Sounds of War

Uncannily (for I doubt Pulman read Tolstoy and his wife’s manuscripts as described by R.F. Christian in his book on the ms’s and sources of Tolstoy’s W&P), uncannily, Pulman reverses the scenes the novel opens with in the way they appeared in an early draft of the book.

The first episode in early drafts of W&P allow us to meet our central Rostov family: the fond weak naive count (Rupert Davies), uxorious over his calculatingly worldly wife, the Countess (Faith Brooke pitch perfect in this part); enjoying themselves by the spectacle now that they won it, all the while they are (clearly) overspending and being sluiced by everyone around them. In this the same limpet-clinger, Anna Mikhailovna (Anne Blake) greedy for money for her slowly emerging worldly son, Boris (Neil Stacy, aptly the same type in The Pallisers, Laurence Fitzgibbon, Phineas’s fair-weather friend). Episode 2 brings us to the first passages of Tolstoy’s novel, “What do you think of this man, Napoleon,” the fake patina of concern, the cant feeling of Anna Scherer (Barbara Young) in talk with the novel’s strongest site of mindless corruption for money and rank, Prince Vassily.

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Anna Scherer and Prince Vassily – the first moments of the novel realized (Episode 2)

Pierre comes in and his candor, intense interest in and sympathy for the “revolution” and Napoleon immediately makes him a pariah, laughing stock, but his equally sincere (if far more polished or cagey) friend, Andrei is there, and we see how bored this intelligent man is with his wife, but also how rough and hard to her. Pierre is as yet flotsam and jetsam and after promising not to go to the debauchery party of the novel’s slimy amoral drone aristocratic male semi-rake, Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker, fitting son for Vassily), Pierre goes and thrusts himself into the drunken feats and cruelty to a bear and police officer that ensue. And then the (for me the first time) the astonishing frank depiction of the fight between Vassily and Princess Katische (cousin to Pierre, stands to inherit a lot if he doesn’t) on the one hand to grasp the money, and Anna Mikhailovna on behalf of Pierre who she hopes will reward her well, over the dying man’s papers & will. The unscrupulous Anna is in fact responsible for Pierre becoming a rich man, a fact that empowers several sets of characters in the book. A fitting contrast to Andrei’s austere, old-fashioned patriarchal home, the rasping tyrannical father, old Prince Bolkonsky (Anthony Jacobs) making life miserable by enforcing geometry on his self-effacing deeply generous puritan of a daughter, Marya.

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From the first scene of Andrei and his sister, Marya, they capture the implicit depths of bonding and communication of this pair (Episode 2)

Andrei unburdening himself of his wife by setting off for the “heroism” and honor of war duty. Andrei will be disillusioned slowly. The different worlds of the upper classes, gender faultlines, feeding off war of “le monde” that form the novel.

And then our first battle: Episode 3: Skirmish at Schongraben

This is a remarkable hour. The BBC people had to film real people, crowds of them in formations, real animals, gotten real canons and shot out from them. They tried for historical accuracy with weaponry and uniforms. They burn down a real bridge they had built. The scenes of masses of men must be there. I wondered what park they were using :). They were not able to project and show the carnage Tolstoy’s language can do so efficiently but it enough was done to be suggestive. The whole hour was given over to these hard war scenes, and an anti-war bias of the film has begun. Frank Middlemass particularly believable, effective — as when they learn of a massacre of the whole army of General Mack, and Andrei appalled to see how little seriously many people take this.

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POV Kutusov hurrying out of his room to Mack to register his sense of the horror the man has known, from the back Andrei

It helps clarify the novel for someone reading this part of it. David Swift starts up the character of Napoleon quietly; Tolstoy begins with the man as nasty, as numinously strong in his manipulative letters, cunning and bold: Swift and Pulman’s Napoleon only gradually shows himself centrally egoistic. But note how we are now in a historical film. And at the close Nikolai’s first experience of battle: his shock at the real danger, at people actually wanting to kill him (though he had wanted to kill them and hadn’t thought about it); when they blow up the bridge it seems to him a game (not so to Denisov)

Episode 4: A letter and two proposals; 5: Austerlitz; 6: Reunions

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Now the spillages begin as well as clear structuring: as the scene opens the Count is weeping over a letter; it’s from Nikolai telling of how he was wounded, the family’s characteristic half-comical over-responses and mode of re-assuring themselves. The unvarnished sincere emotionalism is then contrasted to the worldly cunning which despoils lives: Vassily maneuvers Pierre into marrying his daughter, Helene (Fiona Gaunt, a thankless role), shown to be utterly hollow, embarrassingly sexy, and after wealth of a man she hardly knows and despises, but Pierre unable to extract himself (not for the last time).

The pain to come of this contrasts to the pain experienced when the plain Marya finds herself courted for the first time by Vassily for his son, Anatole.

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She cannot but welcome the possible escape

But the complex old man maneuvers the situation to leave Marya distraught over Anatole’s hypocrisy, and chasing of the French companion-semi-mistress, Mlle Bourienne. The old prince is saving Marya a lifetime of grief, but she is so hemmed in by him she can meet no one naturally. Contrasting close-ups of Pierre desperately pressured and allured and Marya in bed brooding

caughtbecauseattracted (Episode 4)

And again a full episode of war: Austerlitz pivotal in the book, for at its close Andrei seems to have been killed, and the Russians permanently defeated. Long war scenes which show incompetence, scores of people dying for nothing (the book shows this), Napoleon emerges multi-sided, powerful man with an attempt to explain (he’s not at all like the characters seeking true friends, he’d laugh), a man strongly controlled on battlefields and seeming enigmatic political performances.

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Nikolai maturing (Episode 5)

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One of many moments in the battle landscape (Episode 5)

By the end of Episode 5 all the characters are dispersed and then in 6, Reunion, they are brought back to where they started: grief as Andrei’s death is understood from uncertain letters; Nikolai’s home-coming to love; Pierre’s to cool indifference; Helene now having an affair with Dolokov (Donald Burton), a bright cunning amoral rakish and sadistic side-kick of Anatole’s; the death of the princess in childbirth just as Andrei does return. What’s plotted is a cyclical repetitive structuring, a return to the same character in the same situation but older, there’s been intervening experience

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Far shots, odd angles, landscapes each make a different statement: this is a courtyard modeled on typical Russian country mansions of the early 19th century (Episode 5)

I am impressed by how: how brilliantly and convincingly Pulman conveys Tolstoy’s depiction of nervous distress in a nuanced way so as to show it in public situations. The explorations of the miseries of these arranged marriages by showing someone marrying badly and how he’s engineered into it: Pierre with Helene. Pierre has a rich good nature and is thus taken advantage of by Vassily who forestalls his holding off by just pretending that Pierre has asked for Ellen’s hand. Yet Vassily does not succeed with Prince Bolkonsky: Vassily having garnered Pierre’s fortune into his family, makes a move on Maria, the homely Bolkonsky daughter, and ironically the ill-natured man are much better able to fend off this than the semi-trusting instinctive one: Anatole is precisely wrong for Maria who is fooled by him: he would have had an affair with the French governess before he left the mansion. Ironically we see how the foolishly aptly-worldly Andre’s wife, the little Princess does just fine with the hypocritical shits like Anatole and Vassily. Yet she’s become poor in health; she needs society, Andrei as her husband with brains, or her pregnancy will destroy her. Anthony Hopkins’s performance: young then and calibrated just right, with no embarrassment. People individually; in “le monde,” in war.

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

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Walking and Talking (Episode 7)

Episodes 7: New Beginnings; 8: A Beautiful Tale

The first ironically titled; the second (unusual for any book or film) uses a surge of idealism and hope first to undermine Andrei’s bitterness and losses. Andrei is pulled by Pierre’s visits from his retirement and meditatiom, meets and is “recalled to life” (a Dickensian phrase for a man come out of prison) by the intensity of Natasha’s youthful hopefulness and joy in all the sensuality and thoughts, plans of existence found in Natasha at a ball.

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Andrei asking Natasha to dance (Episode 8)

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The sun on his eyes (Episode 8)

Pulman, together with stunning performances by the actors, did justice to Tolstoy’s book. After Austerlitz, after a dual, a death from pregnancy, disease, we see a turn to meaninglessness as the good characters cannot get others to act seriously, usefully, lives not realized, gifts thrown away, the absurd lack of thought and also how the man given big honors knows this (Frank Middlemas as Kutusov got that across at this table). Pierre is driven by needling and insults from Doloknov at the same dinner party to duel with him as his wife’s lover and shoots to kill — an act of naivete (I bond with this aspect of Pierre.) Luckily Doloknov does not die as he in his apparent last breath tries to kill in turn, and then grieves over how his mother will miss him.

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Dolohkov, Nikolai, Denisov Laughing at Pierr, his POV (Episode 7)

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Pierre fleeing the scene of the duel (Episode 7)

Then we have the scene of Pierre shouting hysterically at his awful wife (the portrait in Tolstoy is misogynistic and Pulman keeps to it) to get out. He can’t stand the sight of her. She says oh yes, she can hardly wait, but he is going to pay.
 
Very moving were too long dialogues you’d never see today. The first Pierre on his way to his estate, in retreat from the corrupt society, meets with a Mason and they talk deeply about life’s meaning: whether one should believe in God or an afterlife and what if you don’t. He becomes a Mason. Pullman shows the ceremonies to be absurd (modeled on some performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute either Pulman or Davies saw. 
 
He visits Andrei and now we have another more enlightenment type discourse where Andrea is the atheistic view and more or less wins as probable and Andrei proposes another way to get through life – -you don’t need to believe in this overarching pattern at all. It seems more or less you muddle through. Don’t even try to do good – -which is what Pierre has been trying on his estate. We do get views of the peasants where are deeply class-ridden but the film means seriously
 
A wholly invented scene for Napoleon in council conveys Tolstoy’s views on history (how it works), philosophy (what is the meaning of life even) in ways relevant to politics today. It’s a relief for em to re-watch this film over and over.

Episode 9: Leave of Absence

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Natasha dancing to a folk violin played by her uncle

The title is utterly inadequate: this hour includes the beautiful renditon of the Rostovs’ Christmas embedded inside the family pathologies and tensions and misunderstandings of the Bolkonskys (the old prince’s biting cruelty to Andrey, the countess’s hysterical tirades at Nikolai, his at the stewards) and the desolation of Pierre as with over-voice he tells us of his life with whores/flunkies in his wife’s salon (the Masons have not helped). To me nothing comes near this rendition of War and Peace. From the point of view of moving the story forward, or about the character’s coming fates, the film “wasted” the whole hour. This was a splendid full scale elaboration of a Christmas interlude at the Rostovs in the country just after we are told their finances are in a wretched state – we’ve seen how Nikolai gambled away a huge sum in the previous episode. All the characters are in character: the dinner, the dancing, the hunt with another family; it was atmospheric, the idea Talleyrand’s about how sweet such lives were before the tumbrils began to roar through Paris. it is a high point in the novel too.

Episode 10: Madness

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Natasha trying to explain her vulnerability to such a seduction/attack.

In this episode as Pulman presents this supposedly nadir of Natasha’s young life, she succumbs to her nervous distress at having to wait for a year for a man to return to her and then decide if he wants her, the disdain of his family, and falls for anyone who says he values her. I know outwardly this kind of incident — the young girl eloping with a cad or looking at him so idiotically happens; in the book Tolstoy finds less explanation for it than Pullman in this BBC movie. Davies (BBC, 2015, Lily James as Natasha) has the Freudian erotic enthrallment paradigm in mind more (for Tolstoy that seems to be the whole matter). Sonya saves her and Pierre comforts her. Probably because I now know of the opera playing on Broadway with the title, Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, for the first time I took note of Pierre’s pointing to it as an omen. I didn’t note it much when I listened or read either. Especially the 2007 mini-series made for TV of W&P focuses precisely on this particular incident: that film turns the book into a soap opera heroine-centered Victorian melodrama (idiot girl fooled by vicious young man ends up punished but is comforted by good young man). Pulman’s shows how the same literal material can make a viewer/reader soar as these beautifully natured characters begin to recognize a life’s companion.

Since the characters have been given so much time to develop, the awakening relationship because of this incident between Pierre and Natasya is believable and touching. Beatrice Lehmann is superb as the aunt who rescues Natasha from eloping with the shit Kuragin male, Antoine (married to someone else) on Sonya’s say-so then castigates Natasha for “disgusting” (read sexual) behavior. Unlike Tolstoy’s or Davies, Pulman’s Andrei is hurt but also relieved — he was about to make another mistake, marry another girl far too young for him. Pierre is the site of consolation in the book and this mini-series. No one comes near him in moral understanding. Though he hasn’t got the strength of character to withstand the society around him when he confronts evil, and he certainly hasn’t the power to change much, he is getting better at it. The episode ends with him comforting Natasha

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It is not hard when experiencing this mini-series or reading the book to understand that this core is not the whole even to a limited extent what shapes the experience (which is the mistake of both the Vidor 1955 and the 2007 mini-series). The moment would not have the larger meaning it does without our exploration of the larger corrupt society, the worlds of Russia, the family lives, how so many types find different meaning and loss in their interactions, and how politics by military violence, the top pest males (Alexander I played by the quiet David Douglas is as selfish and uncomprehending of anything beyond himself as Napoleon in the film), and their imitators at all levels impinges on everything. In this scenario, Helene, Anna Mikhailovna, Anna Scherer, Countess Rostov, Katische are the female servants of this order. Those major characters resisting are Pierre, Natasha, Sonya, those upholding but with decent values Nikolai, Denisov, Count Rostov (though he’s been sluiced)

As Borodino is the pivotal moment for “the war” and larger history parts of the book, so Natasha’s enthrallment out of weakness, shame and her near-abduction incident is the pivotal climax for the “le monde” part of the novel. Pulman imitates this structure.

Tomorrow the second 10 episodes.

Ellen

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Bald Hills, one of many landscape scenes, where the Bolkonskii family lives

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Marya (Antonina Shuranova) submits to her father, Prince Bolskonsky’s (Anatoli Ktorov)’s instructions in geometry

Dear friends,

During the few months a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies were reading Tolstoy’s novel, and those before when I was listening to the novel read aloud (Books-on-Tape now on CDs), I watched four War and Peace films: three “mini”-series (I put mini in quotations since Bondarchuk’s Russian epic is 507 minutes; Jack Pulman’s exquisite BBC mini-series in 1972, 900 minutes, with the “short” version by Andrew Davies in 2016 clocking in at 6 hours and 19 minutes) and one cinema feature (Vidor’s 1955 Hollywoodized W&P a mere 3 hours and 20 minutes). These are not the only War and Peace films to have been made, but they represent what is available today (plus a 2007 mini-series that turns the film into a romance about Natasha Rostov), what is seriously watchable.

I begin with the one most written about: Sergei Bondarchuk’s truly epic War and Peace, filmed as a profound reaction against the Hollywoodized and Italianate War and Peace, directed by King Vidor, script by Mario Soldati, as a trivializing debasement of a book Russians are deeply proud of, a part of their national heritage. The interaction between these two has been taken as an episode in the cold war. I found the American-Italian film tedious but those interested might like to know you can read the script on-line, and read a brief conversation I had with people who were just reaching adulthood in the 1950s and were entranced by Audrey Hepburn (Natasha) and Vittorio Gasmann (as transgressive rake-male seduces elusive archetype). I’m glad the first film was made, as it led to the Russian gov’t and many individual groups, to say nothing of some spectacular artists in Russia at the time give their all to bring Tolstoy’s novel to cinematic life.

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is still the most written about of all these and I am aware I shall probably fail to convey the experience, but perhaps a concrete description of its four parts can function to encourage others to attempt this film and (standing warned, knowing what you need to do or be prepared for as you start) overcome obstacles to enjoyment. More than the other two mini-series, you must read the book first. The 1972 BBC Pulman War and Peace almost succeeds in doing without a pre-read (but if you have read the book then you appreciate how extraordinarily the film gets in so many kinds of discourse from the novel). A synopsis will not do. But if you read and then watch and then re-read, the film will enrichen and add much to the book (especially the voice-over which picks up on Tolstoy’s darkest utterances).

Each time I would start a new disk, I admit, I felt un-eager because in the new digitalized version (2003, which is the one you must buy or rent) the faults of the original are on display too (which you need to know about): keep clicking “English” on the first paratexts and you will experience three languages: first, a voice-over narrator (very well done, dubbed in English, keeping you alert to or understanding what part of Tolstoy’s story we are in, and explaining what is the situation you are watching). Then there are the characters “inside” the frame who speak in French (no subtitles but it’s simple short French) or Russian (with English subtitles, not dubbed). The actors at the time respect decorums and are not wildly virtuoso in performances, they are not close-up to one another and the percentage of close-ups is small. Film affects us most deeply through faces — so that is often lacking. But then I would find myself engulfed all over again. The visual and aural create meanings the book can’t get near; it functions as a shooting script.

But then within a few minutes I’d be engulfed again.

The problem all the essays on Bondarchuk I’ve read have is no single or sequence of stills/shots or clips or montages can come near to conveying what it feels like to experience this vast assemblage of seemingly superabundant ever-changed, controlled and appropriate camera work from moment to moment. Scenes of vast and minute maneuvers in battle and horrific carnage (with literary hundreds of people involved for each sequence, thousands over-all) predominate, and for which it is probably most famous:

But Bondarchuk and Vasili Solovev’s script dramatizes just as surely the intimate and varied story-scenes of Tolstoy’s book, in society and at war, indoors and outdoors, between two or a few people, at a table and in crowds and ritual ballrooms and battle line-ups. I love the many atmospheric moments where dissolving clouds over a forest or some landscape or time of day or season are captured — all Woolf-like luminous envelope as life. Here’s a snow-filled shot of the sky and wood in Russian winter:

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And by contrast, where a character stands frozen, prompted to remember his past as a bomb near-by spins and spins about to go off and we get revolving montages of flashbacks of memory; or we are at a savage hunt and experience the terror of the wolf (the POV) before he is (I hope not for real) hacked to death; or characters weep as one lies dying:

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Andrei (Viacheslav Tikhonov) dying and Natasha (Liudmila Saveleva) crying over him

or walk and talk about their philosophical differences, or chase after one another enclosed and amid beautiful plants. There are scenes of social life in vast drawing- and ball-rooms, war councils, the world of the Russian country house and its grounds and smaller houses around it are shown us; wild madness on a battlefield or besieged city:


Sergei Bondarchuk plays Pierre: here towards the end of the film he’s registering the irrationality and inhumanity of the world’s doings

On top of this, highly varied music from symphonies and classical compositions, original mid-20th century music, to folk music, to effective modern sound track accompanies many scenes. So I won’t try but instead tell how the film re-organizes the book into four coherent parts and makes the book’s themes and plot-designs more accessible (or simpler) than Tolstoy. Bondarchuk clarifies Tolstoy, like some neo-classical rewrite of Shakespeare. Bondarchuk has reconceived Tolstoy’s vast book sufficiently so the film carries a condensation and restructuring into four parts and yet seems to leave little out that counts.

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Part 1: Andrei Bolkonskii (140 minutes)

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Anatole Kuragin (Vasilii Lanovoi) and Andrei Bolkonskii (Viascheslave Tikhonov) —

In his study of the drafts of W&P R.F. Christian says Tolstoy began with a low-life vicious aristocratic male, i.e., Anatole, for his hero, and gradually substitutes the intelligent ethical Pierre; in the book as we have it, Anatole seduces Natasha and ruins the secondary hero, Andreii’s life and dies next to him in a war hospital, so it’s fitting the first shot of both should be together as they enter the hollow party of Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Angelina Stepanova)

The story line takes us from when we meet Andrei who is weary of his wife, finds no meaning in the landowning and socializing roles he is given, leaves his wife with his family, and goes off to war only to discover its meaningless cruelties and hierarchical corruption. Within that story we meet Pierre Bezukhov at Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, and take him past his father’s death, inheritance of vast property, and succumbing to Prince Vassily’s manipulations to the point he marries Vassily’s daughter, Helene, a woman whose amorality and promiscuous sexuality he cannot stand. This is punctuated (so to speak) by the Rostov world: the innocent Natasha, the repressed hurt Sonya, her dependent cousin, the two naive young men, Nikolai (not so naive he doesn’t go after Sonya) and Petya, the corrupt Boris and his sycophant mother, wild dancing on the part of the count, coarse worldliness in the countess. POV is Andrei’s much more often than Pierre’s; and is impersonal in the Rostov and Bolskonskii worlds.

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Andreii’s father, old Prince Bolkonskii (Anatoli Ktorov) first seen walking through golden autumn woods, and to his side an unexplained string quartet plays music

It seemed to me after a while a deeply poetic part. The emphasis towards the end are these horrific visionary battles but before that, the countryside, the mansions, the sky, water, landscapes of stunning beauty — be it in the snow or in spring, or just aspects of color on the screen. They are there to express a vision of Bondarchuk’s own about Russian which he thinks undergirds Tolstoy’s own more socially-driven matter (and is reinforced by the conversations of Andreii and Pierre). There is some realistic psychology, though the playing is expressive rather than subtle. It’s intensely serious: it seems to trace Andrei’s disillusion and does end on a close-up of his face on the battlefield of Austerlitz where he is left for dead.

Part 2: Natasha (93 minutes)

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Natasha Rostov (Liudmila Saveleva, not a star, but new presence) —

Most people pick the stills of her at her first ball, or enthralled either with Andrei or Anatole; here she is walking in a wood, the bright face of hope for which Andreii falls in love with her

The second part is like an inset novella, a domestic fiction, it is quiet. As Part One focused on Andrei’s story so Part Two centers on Natasha, taking her story from her child-like sexuality with the live-in Boris Smirnov in the garden,and her ecstacy for Sonia (Irina Gubanova) in love with Nikolai, Natasha’s brother (Oleg Tabakov, his role much shrunk). We see her with the Countess her mother (Kira Golovko) in the bed, preparing for her ball, how she fears no one will ask her to dance. We also have the story of Pierre carried on as substory once again: his despair with his wife, her adultery, Dolokhov’s mockery of him, the duel, his returning to his land and finally going to Andreii on his. How Andrei (returned to life, now a widower), is so taken with her that he loves her at first sight and asks her to marry him. Her mother has already brushed off Boris not from reasons of character, but his lack of rank and money.

Unlike the book and unlike the two BBC films or Vidor’s, Bondarchuk’s Andreii quickly realizes he was under a delusion, she is a symbol to him, and not a mature woman (as his wife was not mature and bored him), so his decision to wait in this film for a year is a holding tactic. This helps justify her turning to Anatole in this film. Bondarchuk is stepping back from this male patriarchal vision of the nubile, readily erotically enthralled, yet holding to it. We have her joining in intensely at the hunt, dancing wildly to folk music at Christmas (the uncle playing the violin), and then as the year passes, restless, feeling deserted, wasted, and riveted by a spell the libertine, Anatole, can perform on young women (so Bondarchuk seems to assume). Natasha comes near eloping; stopped with the help of Sonia and Pierre, this second part ends on her humiliation, remorse, begging pardon from everyone, including Pierre (showing up as the ever present kind brother) to ask him to ask Andrei to forgive her and he cannot — he is too rigid a man. Her face dissolves into the sky, and then a vast landscape with “1812” in large letters, and the voice-over narrator comes on to tell us of the irrational stupid waste of what is to come, and the huge armies cross into Russia (if you didn’t watch it, go back to the first YouTube).

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Natasha having bad dreams

The second part contrasts to the other three: it is mostly very quiet, the acting is stylized. A young girl’s life and (temporary) downfall. The narrator functions more centrally here than the other three parts: he repeats his phrases, explicates, provides a depth of feeling; the English dubbed voice is very good; the subtitles too. This is accompanied by beautiful shots; it’s like being in a painting of Moscow, the countryside, especially the long Christmas sequence is appealing. A celebration of Russia, which for me is undermined by the misogyny of making women into sex objects, easily roused unthinking subject creatures.

Part 3: 1812 (78 minutes)

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Pierre and Tushin (Nikolai Trofimov) brave soldier in the book

Our focuses slowly become Andrei and Pierre, one as conventional but disillusioned bitter military officer, the other increasingly shocked civilian. Andreii delivers sonorous meditative despair soliloquies; there are some quiet scenes of him now and again, first framing the phases and then inside them. Pierre is on the battle field like some deer in a headlights,continually more traumatized. The part begins quietly at the Bokonskii home — the scene of the old man refusing to believe Maria and the governess that the French are about to entry their territory, then forced to, and finally dying.

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He does ask Maria to forgive him as he does not in the other two films. These are interwoven with a vast scene of a ball at which the emperor Alexander I appears, and the coming battle is announced. We are at the Rostov home too where the young boy, Petya insists on going out to fight and the countess, his mother is devastated. During the battle we move back and forth from the famous General Kutusov (Boris Zakhava) on one hill and Napoleon (Vladisla Strzhelchik) on another.

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Napoleon is presented as a grim fate (how he sees himself) without conscience or feeling. (Pulman’s 1972 is much more nuanced while blaming him; Davies’s 2016 has him as originally a revolutionary and refuses to forget that; Bondarchuk is closest to Tolstoy). Kutusov cannot at first accept that the Russians have been defeated; he did not want to do this battle and he is crushed to realize they have lost. but then draws victory out of this defeat by realizing in front of us that winning a war is not the same as winning a battle. His business is to save lives and his heroism is to refuse another battle.

At the close of this third part as in the close of the first, Andrei has been badly wounded — worse we eventually realize, and this time he will die, slowly. Nearby a man is moaning fearfully in his death agon as his leg is amputated; this turns out to be Anatole. And across the way Andrei sees Dolohov who seduced Natasha near death. Perhaps this second pairing is too neat parallel — Bondarchuk offers us patterned visuals like this throughout his film (like Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays).

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This is a more stunning depiction of war than I’ve never seen before quite. I have seen effective anti-war films, and late last October Kilo Two Bravo — but it was implicit, focused on incidents, much more narrow. What is terrific about this is the size and scope of the scenes, and the relentless ruthless condemnation of war as horrific, senseless, cruel, utterly irrational at the same time as vast, wildly heroic, chosen. All these people (as Tolstoy says) are not forced. They choose to do this. The final focus scene is the battle of Borodino not far from Smolensk, which led to the scorched earth policy, the fleeing of all middle and upper class people from Moscow, and Napoleon’s defeat because there is no one for him to negotiate with as his army falls apart into marauding. I knew exactly where everything was, what was happening. This is due to the over-voice impersonal narration — invaluable. We meet the great famous Kutusov in his councils, falling asleep at the same time as ever vigilant; he contrasts to Napoleon on the other, at first all square-faced steely-firmness, stoutly glad, but when in Moscow shown up for the petty egoist (this is Tolstoy’s interpretation) he is.

Vast scenes of carnage of all types, sometimes close up, sometimes aerial, sometimes from the side, sometimes full face. Close up of men suffering in so many ways while at the same time they fight on determined like some crazed machines started who can’t stop (the narrator says something like this). The suffering horses, the animals. Canons, bombs, grapeshot, lines of men shooting, the guerillas, bombs blow up everywhere: this is not fakery, they are doing controlled versions; real live generals were consulted, all the Russian hierarchies involved it seems.

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The part has to be watched. It outdoes the battle scenes in Part 1 — so vast and thorough and believable they manage to make it. It is a deep contrast to Part 2 an inset domestic novel.

Part 4: Pierre Bezukov (92 minutes)

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Kutusov quietly grieving after he has had the courage to tell the council they will not try to stop the French from entering Moscow (nor will he try to cut them off as they leave) …

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Pierre during the trek starving frozen from Moscow

So now finally Bondarchuk (he gave himself the hero’s part though he’s not handsome) comes forth as primary story; as in Pulman’s 1972 BBC W&P there is a parallel between him and Kutusov at times. It’s about the horrors of war (yet more), another phase. We see panicked people, fleeing, and go through the scenes of the Rostov’s reluctant and utterly disorganized withdrawal from Moscow, with Pierre’s mad choice to stay in order to find and kill Napoleon. The place catches on fire, he becomes distraught, saves a baby, is captured as a dangerous incendiary, and imprisoned, then almost killed by a firing squad with our viewing the others murdered in pairs so senselessly.

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Moscow on fire — we should remember how this would resonate in 1966 for a Russian audience

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From the execution scenes

The over-voice is frequent: the words come from the beginning chapers where Tolstoy’s words in effect damn these apparently helpless people. Why are they doing this? Why are they slaughtering one another? slaughtering horses? senselessly killing killing killing. Why do they obey the Napoleons of the world? Napoleon admits he must return, is humiliated, and we experience that long trek with Pierre and his new found guru, Platon (the idealistic peasan, Mikhail Khrabov) gradually distancing from one another as Platon begins to die, and ends up shot because he can’t keep up, the pathetic dog howling. The words of the overvoice are grateful that Platon is out of this (Bondarchuk does not use Platon as a mouthpiece for optimism or God’s presence as Tolstoy does). Kutusov seen carrying a weight of immense concern and pity.

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Platon falling behind, the soldiers go to shoot him

The episode concludes towards the end by juxtaposing the long drawn out death of Andreii who the Rostovs unknowingly took with them from Moscow in a wagon, but not naturalistic (as in Davies’ 2016 where we see this), the experience is visionary, intendedly religious. The camera moves up to Andrey’s face and he dreams: he remember his scenes with his father, the land, terrible killing, and we see Natasha there telling him he’s not dying. But he tells her he loves her, he forgives her (the sense of there is nothing to forgive). Visionary sequences of land and sky signalling some powerful God-like presence. It does end quickly after that. After the rescue of Pierre, quickly done, Petya even quickly gotten out of the way in his senseless death (the point here is the mother’s grief and father’s loss, which is too quick, like a caricature). We see Pierre riding through a Moscow being rebuilt and arrives at a house where we find sitting Natasha and Marya (both in black) with little Nikolai (Andreii’s son by his first now long dead wife) by their side. Marya shows Pierre the new boy, and Natasha is there at last grown up in black and we hear the lines how if he were free and a better man, he’d marry her. (Nikolai and Sonia have long been lost from view.) Then Bondarchuk concentrates on visions of the sky and universe as places of oblivion and peace at the close.

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What jarred me at the close is the over-voice suddenly insists life is good, the world is beautiful.

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Still an extraordinary film. Like many others who have seen it, I think it is a filmic realization by one genius accompanied by thousands of willing people of a great book.

A solid ethical perspective, beautifully filmic art, an important masterpiece of film.

This new DVD has a fifth part, features with interviews of some of the original film-makers and actors. You can see the extraordinary seriousness with which the film-makers, production designers, actors, everyone set about their task together.

“One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being able to express it, is better than all the fluency and flippancy in the world.” –William Hazlitt

Ellen

NB. Blogs on War and Peace to come: the 1972 BBC War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pulman, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a masterpiece, follows and is inspired by Bondarchuk; then Andrew Davies’ 2016 W&P follows and is inspired by Pulman and Bondarchuk. Pulman chose some of the same central scenes, Davies some of the same visionary moments.

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The ultimate symbol of power

You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain — Richmond, Henry Tudor, RIII

Dear friends and readers,

This week I’ve been watching the BBC versions of the second season (2016) of The Hollow Crown. Three plays (Henry VI, 1-3) at one time, or for a couple of hundred years thought such juvenilia that Shakespeare did not write much of them, seen as incoherent undoable (on the stage) obscure messes, were made to speak home to us in thrilling relevant ways. A fourth (Richard III) once seen as a vehicle for almost camp histrionics, becomes a serious study of how an evil character forms and how such a man gets behind him sufficient powerful people to put him in charge and in the process becomes a haunted crazed warrior-soul. I won’t be dealing with the obvious parallels between the present dire moment in public US politics (and less frightening but still urgent parallels in other countries), but just assume my reader will see them. If you will watch these brilliant abridgments, then read Shakespeare himself (the full texts), and then watch again. If you think I am exaggerating, remember (or I need to tell you) that the wildly-popular Games of Thrones began as a free semi-fantasy adaptation of these Shakespeare’s plays by George Martin (who read them as history of “the wars of the Roses in the Middle Ages”).

A little background in recent performances will help. One scholar-critic says it was in 1953 that the four plays of the Wars of the Roses were staged fully and in sequence for the first time (Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder”); another dates this back to 1906 (Swander, “The Rediscovery of Henry VI“). Then in 1978-79 Terry Hands staged the Henry VI trilogy (“warts and all”) and the production was a terrific success. Then the 1980s the BBC staged all four plays as closely as possible to what was written by Shakespeare as part of The Shakespeare Collection. I can vouch personally that in the 1970s Joseph Papp in the Delacorte Theater one summer did all three Henry VI plays complete followed by a complete Richard III in repertoire across the summer; on an all-night marathon all four played from 9 at night to whatever time in the morning they ended. Jim and I were there, and I know I slept through some of Henry VI Part 2 and again part of Henry VI Part 3, but saw most of the series, covered by a blanket. Why for so long were these plays not long after Shakespeare’s era thought impossible to have a success with: episodic structure, pageantry, stilted lines (let’s admit it), to say nothing of the foreignness of the story-matter?

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A father and son pair amid the carnage

But with the whirligig of time leading audiences to recognize in the deeply pessimistic content and political insight of these stories, the content attracted once again. The Tudor matter is not a barrier after it has been made so familiar by her recent resurgence of popular historical films and adaptations (especially of Henry VIII’s court). So abridgments began to emerge. A specific pattern can be seen in three compressions: a film-culture Shakespearean, Alan Dessin (Rescripting Shakespeare), was the most helpful in enabling me to understand what we see in this abridgment in his descriptions of three previous condensed abridgments: 1988 ESC by Michael Bogdanov, 1988-89 RSC by Adrian Noble, and 1991-3 OSC by Pat Patton (“Chapter 7: “Compressing Henry VI“). What’s common to them all is the three parts of Henry VI are compressed into two, with Richard III following the same trajectory as Shakespeare’s play, but made shorter, to leave room for location shots, some re-arrangements and additions taken over from the previous plays for connection (in the appearances of Margaret for example) and satisfying climax. It’s much less changed than the Henry VI plays, which may be said to be re-vamped for TV and location shooting too. That’s what we see in this new Hollow Crown, with a few important new emphases or differences. As with the first season (2012) of The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, a Henriad so-called), the roles of the women were not so much expanded as given full play, all the original nuances, emphases and pivotal moments played up for all they are worth. Strong women everywhere. Silent women clearly there in the scenes (Doll Tearsheet in the Henry IV plays) given plenty of pantomime. This may be history as Jane Austen suggested “the men all good for nothing,” but it’s not “hardly any women at all.”

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From the powerful memorable performance of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York pleading for her ne’er-do-well son’s life before the king: she does not sue to stand; she sues for pardon (from the 2012 Hollow Crown series, Richard II)

More to the point these are not “tiresome at all,” nor dull” (Austen as Catherine Morland on history, Northanger Abbey) and not exactly “made-up.” I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare series are the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated marvelously: they keep some of the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace for inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance in staging scenes, but to this has been added the way the actors speak the lines. They talk the lines as if they were speaking today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying by action, gesture, costume, emphasis, nuance. Ben Power, the script-writer has cut astutely, omitting, re-arranging, picking up what epitomizes, what is closest to street or ordinary talk. It’s just astonishing what they achieve by the outstanding performances, saying the speeches so naturally.

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Far shot of garden scene: where the two sides of York and Lancaster pluck the red and white rose

To this has been added, the use of the locations – the locations become actors in effect themselves, each old castle, fortress, field; these are not staged plays as in the 1970s and 80s, but figures in large picture screens where sometimes we have a staged scene but never allowed to become wholly still. The director Dominic Cooke is so alive to how to emblematize, make bodies move, and intersect with one another and yet the added action does not distract. The camera work is as sophisticated as any expensive cinema production, with zoom, medium, far shots at the right moment, and so many close-ups done at interesting angles. I wanted to watch again and again because there was so much to see — and even more in the more mature first Henriad series (which I’ll blog about this quartet eventually too).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Principal male roles: beyond Gloucester, Talbot (Philip Glenister, Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar), Warwick (Stanley Townsend)

What else? This second series of Hollow Crown (though Shakespeare’s first) is done as a single story. All three plays (originally four) are one continuation. The abridged or compressed Henry VI Part 1 opens with death of Henry V, grief, and declaring a baby king, and then we see an intertitle to 17 years later and a scene where Mortimer, father (Michael Gambon) of the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar), is dying; Mortimer tells his son, he is the rightful heir. What happened was years ago Bolingbroke wrongly took the throne from Richard II, and Mortimer and his sons were next in line. The camera cuts to Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) a well-meaning boy, with the Humphry, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) nearby as his protector. We then move to the symbolic scene in rose garden where the Duke of York and his followers on one side, declare the House of York should have the throne, with the Duke of Somerset Ben Miles) and his followers on the other saying they or the House of Lancaster should have inherited after Richard II. Each plucks a rose: white for York, red for Lancaster.

**VIDEO GRABS FROM BBC PREVIEW SITE FOR MOS PICTURE DESK** THE HOLLOW CROWN, BBC SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION. Hugh Bonneville, playing the Duke of Gloucester, gets murdered while a couple make love during the same segment of the programme. The lovers are Sophie Okonedo playing Margaret and actor Ben Miles
Promotional shot of Hugh Bonneville, as Gloucester, fleeing those intent in putting him in the tower while the couple who brought this about, Sophie Okonedo as Margaret and Ben Miles as Somerset, make love

Looked at from this vantage what we trace is the destruction of the realm under a weak if honorable king, and story of the brutal wars of the roses, starting with York and Somerset’s competition for what Henry VI and Gloucester are not strong enough to hold onto. The compressed Henry VI Part 2 ends with Henry VI, disthroned, without followers, without clothes, distressed, in a kind of nervous breakdown, having lost all his followers and his wife (and relieved to have done so), wandering in the fields looking Christ-like in undergarments (and surely they mean to evoke Ben Whisloaw who played Richard II in Henriad series of the Hollow Crown) as he is dressed closely similarly; both are filmed to look Christ-like. Both are taken to prison, both murdered: Henry VI by the Duke of York’s deformed hunchback seething son, Richard, now Duke of Gloucester (Benedict Cumberbatch just as effective as everyone says) who is (“sudden when he takes something into his head”) rides to the tower intent on killing.

A little rewind: Shakespeare wrote the Henriad, the one the BBC did four years ago first, even though chronologically the Henriad comes second. Henry VI-Richard III were written 1590-93 and more or less in a row, while Richard II, Henry IV 1-2 and Henry V were written 1595, 1597, and 1599 respectively The Henriad is the more mature, and in numerous ways the more subtle, psychologically full and philosophically suggestive and varied but its story came first. Today we’d say Shakespeare wrote a four play prequel to his successful four play trilogy. But the second four plays were written as two or three stories: the story of Richard II is so separate in feel and time from the stories of Henry IV and V, a different man played Bolingbroke who became Henry IV (Roy Kinnear in Richard II; Jeremy Irons in Henry IV). The Henriad’s hero in Richard II never comes back in the other three plays. All the important characters in Henry VI Part 1 come back in Parts 2 and 3 and Richard III (even the murdered ones as ghosts).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Henry VI (TOM STURRIDGE), Margaret (SOPHIE OKONEDO) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) and Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) meet

So in this trilogy there are two major characters across all the plays: Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (played by the terrifically effective Sophie Okonedo). Henry VI dies before the third play, Richard III begins, but his absence allows one of the Duke of York’s sons, the eldest, Edward (Geoffrey Streatfield) to take the crown. The conflict across the plays is between Henry VI and the Duke of York for the crown, with a sub-conflict between the Duke of York and Duke of Somerset. When Margaret murders after torturing and humiliating the Duke of York) towards the end of Henry VI Part 2, his place is taken by his three sons, the other two being Clarence (Sam Troughton) and Richard of Gloucester who becomes Richard III in the course of that third play. This is part of Shakespeare’s over-arching 4 plasy but the clarity with which we can see it is not.

Further clear patterns emerge from the abridgment: We see over-arching story has smaller stories within it. In Henry VI Part 1 we have the action-adventure or war tragedy of the destruction in battle of warrior-hero, Talbot (Philip Glenister) and his son played against the tragedy (and it is played that way in this rendition) of the deluded or visionary (take your choice) Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), who first wins for Philip of France, then captured, is imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake. That’s the first 3/4s of Henry VI Part One. The last quarter, deeply movingly we have the downfall of the noble, innocent Humphry of Gloucester brought partly about by the ambition and crazed delusions-madness of his wife, the Duchess Eleanor (Sally Hawkins) touchingly called by him Nell. Henry VI ends with Nell taken away in chains, and Gloucester’s hacked-to-death murder in the tower. In Shakespeare’s original the murder of Gloucester comes somewhere in Henry VI Part Two.

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Keeley Hawes as the Widow Grey take with Geoffrey Streatfield as Edward, Duke of York, soon to be king

The new or compressed Henry VI Part 2 gives us the anguished romantic love of Margaret for the treacherous Somerset and his destruction in battle in the opening sequence; the quick romance of the proud widow Grey (Keely Hawes) more or less bullied by Edward into marriage near the end of the second third; and in the last Margaret taking the role of the helpless Henry VI as the lead of Henry VI’s forces against the sons of York, and her heartbreak when her son, Edward, is dismembered and killed before her very eyes by the York brothers. Shakespeare’s Richard III had the clearest original line: it is the story of how a tyrant personality takes power: inside though a smaller arc is the erotic bullying of Anne (wife of Edward) by Richard of Gloucester into a sadistic marriage in Richard III, and this is given more play by silent scenes of Anne, montages. We see Warwick change sides because Edward married beneath him, an Englishwoman, and did not let this uncle engineer an alliance with the French king’s daughter; we see the brothers’ rivalry played out, the downfall of Buckingham (captured fighting against Richard and instantly butchered).

The clarity of the patterns in the Henry VI plays especially are the product of the abridgment. They are not clearly laid out in Shakespeare’s plays, which include other stories: Jack Cade’s rebellion comes to mind. Richard III is linked in firmly to Henry VI by the use of flashbacks.

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Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc calling for battle above ramparts

Some particulars I really admired and then I’ll have done. In this new Henry VI Part One I was especially moved by the performance of Bonneville as Humphrey; the build-up of his fatherly relationship with Henry VI, Sturridge’s ability to convey what seems a disabled personality, a weakness beyond the character being a good man who is non-violent, not manipulative, so pathetically out of his depths with these people, led by his adulterous corrupt wife, Margaret to listen to evil advisers. Power arranged the script so that Dame Eleanor’s playing around with magical effigies (putting pins in dolls looking like the king) became a salient accusation in the onslaught against him. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality as she did Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Miles as Somerset gave off a depth of memorable sensuality; Dunbar as the Plantangenet tenaciously re-directed again and again to want to take the throne. The death of the Talbot becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good (he is not given enough funds for his army by either Somerset or York (we see Somerset being massaged refusing the money). Sophie Okenedo is extraordinarily mobile from one extreme emotion to another. Finally, the way Joan of Arc is played we pity her: she does not look to any gods but faces a mirror as she begs for her life — which is startling allowed by Shakespeare’s words.

I concede Henry VI Part Two is a little in danger of being mistaken for Full Metal Jacket at times. Maybe in Shakespeare’s original with the extra stories the space of the play would not be taken up by so much brutal violence. At the same time, what made the play work (each part can be seen as an individual playlet in the way BBC mini-series usually are) is how Shakespeare here is streamlined to give coherent shape and trajectory. Power and Cooke organized the 2 hours around battles. In the first hour or half of the unit we have a series of battles where first York and Somerset’s men are at one another until these two are beheaded, Somerset is casually crushed to death, then beheaded; York by contrast killed deliberately viciously. Then in the second hour a second series of brutal encounters where York’s sons, Edward and Richard, with Clarence at first having switched sides to Henry VI and Warwick, having returned to his brothers, fighting the forces nominally around Henry VI, actually Margaret (again Odenoko terrific), Warwick, and the few older men left loyal from Henry V, Exeter (Anton Lesser) for example. (This hanger-on from a previous reign reminded me of Bush senior’s most evil men, say Cheney, having a central place in Bush, the son’s administration and today still making phone calls on behalf of Trump to pressure congressional Republicans protesting against the the head of Exxon at the head of the state department).

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Kyle Soller as Clifford

Between these two series of battles, or threaded through them are the sudden alliances, treacheries, confrontations which emblematically bring out themes. Shakespeare’s original plays and this abridgment too works by repetition and emblem: the excruciating deaths of father and son, the son dying in spite of the father’s protest, the father in effect betraying the son by having taught him to murder and seek hateful revenge. This begins in Henry VI Part 1 with the deaths of Talbot and his son together, and now in Part Two we have at least four such scenes, two close together. The one which carries across the play is that of Clifford (Kyle Soller, outstanding presence here) seeking violent revenge for his father’s death. This is Shakespeare’s anti-war allegory. War as a value destroys men who love one another; they behave in utterly counterproductive ways. The depiction of Henry V and VI does not fit this trajectory but across the Henry IV plays (1 and 2) Northumberlands treachery against Henry IV extends to manipulating his son, Hotspur, and then managing to keep from his son that Henry IV offers a truce, so that Hotspur is led to his senseless death. Hotspur might have chosen the course of action anyway as war as a way of life is what he was taught, but actual cause is a father’s betrayal and lies. The theme is developed at length and maturely in this later double play. One might say the relationship of Bolingboke as Henry IV with his recreant son, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is a father-son comeuppance for Bolingbroke, and Hal’s choice of Henry IV as his father rather than Falstaff (treacherous and cowardly as he is, selfish, without any sense of responsibility or care for others) feels to be a tragic loss of companionship, a lesson in necessary betrayal.

One can regard as threaded in between the two sets of battles also when the Widow Grey is brought before Edward to ask that her property be returned to her son, before you know it Edward is wooing and offering to marry her when she refuses to be his whore while a delegation unknown to him is making up a French marriage, which delegation, including Warwick regards this conduct as betrayal, shameful and they move back to Henry VI’s side of the board. And so the battles begin again. Gradually too York’s youngest son, Richard emerges, Cumberbatch just electrifying as Okonedo as Margaret, steals the show each time he is on the screen. Henry VI Part 2 ends with a shot of Margaret in a dungeon in the tower, a chain around her neck, jerking madly at it, screaming I a queen, I am a queen.

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Judi Dench as the aged Duchess of York: the tragedies of this world imprinted on her face

I can’t do justice in the paragraph or so left to a few particulars of Richard III. I’ve known before through reading all the plays (yes I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and some of them a number of times, taught four: Richard II, Hamlet, Othello and The Winter’s Tale), and seen so many so many times that the great jump in ability, capacity, genius, Shakespeare makes is suddenly to throw into a full consciousness of a single man and make us stay there. He had not come near this before. It’s worth noticing fully that the consciousness he first chose was not a good man or highly intelligent thoughtful type, say Humphry of Gloucester (who is still only seen within for a couple of albeit long speeches, or Hamlet. No. A forerunner of Macbeth. It is the peculiar take in this one that all the lines that can be played up as showing deep psychological distress and disturbance and insane resentment and revenge (how hateful is revenge says Mozart in his opera play of Idomeneo) are drawn out, emphasized by the body Cumberbatch has had built around him. We can’t sympathize with this disabled unloved creature because he is so sneering, disdainful, cruel, lying in all his ways, but the lines are there. He feels a twisted remorse – or Cumberbatch makes us feel that fuelling his nonetheless attack-mode thoughts and actions. When he meets Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York now grown old (Lucy Robinson plays the role in Henry VI Part 1) he does convey he is hurt she never loved him as she conveys that upon looking at his deformed body she was disgusted.

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Close-up of Cumberbatch as Richard

The action takes us through the steps by which this Richard rises to power, wins people over to him one by one (out of greed, sometimes fear) and then alienates them, one by one. Most of them he manages to murder, but not all. (Therein lies our hope, those of us who are making analogies with Trump’s rise today that not all are murdered and slowly a group emerges who find their vital interests so threatened they raise an army around Henry Tudor.) The father-son theme is brought back. At the end Stanley terrified that the son he had been forced to leave behind in order to do the right thing, flee Richard of Gloucester and enlist Richmond, Henry Tudor, this son is seen walking over the hill. A great moment of hope and joy as they hug.

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Cumberbatch as the warrior Richard

At the end when the army which has gathered round Henry Tudor marching forth against the army Richard III can still amass, we have yet another of these ferocious brutal set-too between men hauling axes, clubs, broadswords, dirks (is that the term), and not far away others shooting dead arrows, the blood and guts and horror of the scene is obscured by rain and mud. It comes down to someone unseating Richard from his powerful horse (and we are made to feel how important being high up on a horse is) lands him in the mud. (In the Making of the Hollow Crown the filming of this part was discussed as very hard on the actors.) As they battle it out, and Henry Tudor wins, partly because Richard III is exhausted after his nights of harassment from ghosts and his own tormented mind, Henry Tudor downs him –- with help from Margaret who is suddenly there with a small mirror which shines a light blinding Richard’s eyes for the important few seconds. “My horse my horse a kingdom for a horse” is shouted coarsely and hoarsely, not as irony (Laurence Oliver’s take) but as a man in desperate need of a horse. Tudor comes from the back and hacks, and when the man lies prostrate, pushes a sword through his body, and blood squirts all over the mud and rain. The declaration is then: the tyrant is dead. Now we can all sleep in peace. (Well we here in the US and perhaps across the world can no longer sleep in peace. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose sleep has been ruined by hideously poisoned tweets.)

The film does not actually end on him, and there is a penultimate beautiful coronation ceremony where once again this iconic cleaned up hero is married to an iconic blonde, this time her grim mother (Keeley Hawes) standing to the side.
And then the final scene: the mad Margaret, impoverished, filthy, crazed, lookin down at the grave in which all the bodies are being thrown.

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Margaret among the hundreds of dead — final closing stills of Hollow Crown

I felt astonishing how dark Shakespeare is at the very outset of his career. This quartet made into a trilogy are his first known plays. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops Hamlet out of that), and the attack on the ambitious, power-hungry as deeply untrustworthy (Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra say) stays throughout the career.

Ellen

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Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

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Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

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They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

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While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

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I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

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Frank (Tobias Menzies) listening to Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) arguing he must give up Claire and go on to Oxford (Both Sides Now)

Wakefield: It’s fashionable in this modern age to dismiss the idea of good and evil, but there is evil, and it finds purchase in good men by giving sin the sweet taste of ecstasy. The Nazis drank from that poisoned cup, thinking all the while they were slaking their thirst with the sweetest wine.
Frank: Are you suggesting that I have been drinking from the same cup?
Wakefield: Evil has but one cup. They drank long and deep. Yours was but a sip.Make it your last. Turn away from the darkness that beckons you, and go back into the light.
Frank; You mean leave Inverness.
Wakefield: Aye. Go back to Oxford. You start your life over.
Frank: And what of Claire?
Wakefield: Let her go, just as she has let you go.
Frank: So you believe that she left with the highlander of her own volition?
Wakefield: Have you ever read Sherlock Holmes, Frank? Marvelous books. One point he makes, when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

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Jamie in a favorite spot since boyhood, over-voice mediation for episode begins (The Reckoning)

But the truth is, I’d forgiven everything she’d done and everything she could do long before that day. For me, that was no choice. That was falling in love … I should have been happy that the MacKenzie clan wasna about to tear itself apart and that I’d repaired my relationship with Colum and Dougal. But I wasn’t. The rift with Claire was an open wound that would not heal. I needed to do something, make a decision, choose a course of action. But what? (a meditation there from the middle and 3/4s of the way through the episode)

Dear friends and readers,

In her book on the Descendents of Waverley, Martha Bowden writes that modern historical fiction fuses romance, fantasy, and embodies history through novelistic elements; it’s an intersection of past with present or realism which enables the reader to experience the past as if we were there. It invites us also to think we could have been actor in the past, bringing the future into existence, and are rooted in the past through our ancestors too.

Amy Elias (Sublime Desire) and Martha Bowden (Descendants of Waverley) reveal a paradigm for the kind of historical romance Outlander draws upon (whether book or film): modern historical fiction and/or romance is written with an awareness of the essential unknowability of the past at the same time as there is this intense desire to go back to the past and experience it intimately. Even in such a plainly realistic and conventional historical fiction, Winston Graham makes this point central to his Forgotten Story (set in Cornwall, 1898), The Grove of Eagles (Cornwall, 1580s) and The Four Swans (Cornwall, 1790s). Post-modern historical fiction does this with its embedded histories in the past, its ironic self-reflexivities. This too is what time-traveling permits. It’s a spiritual questing to reach the irretrievable: “There is a yearning that resembles the yearning for mystical knowledge.”

This desire for some grand experience is centered in an event that erupts unspeakably and re-erupts; it’s a reaction formation against the trauma of history; it is continually deferred, it is awesome, strange, beyond comprehension, with an emphasis on the irretrievable for all involved. Is this not the way Outlander works? At the close of the first season we were on a boat with Jamie (Sam Heughan), Claire and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) bound for France, for Claire, to try to stop the battle of Culloden as ever taking place:

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As the second season begins (“Through a Glass Darkly”), Claire is sudden groaning with despairing trauma; she has been lifted from the time of Culloden to 1948, and cannot know who won. We have skipped Culloden — and so has she. Her questioning and research into learned tomes cannot reach the names of the individuals who played such a large fole (fictionalized); she agrees to become Frank’s wife once again with the vow not to try to know what happened, to give up her connection to the Scots rebellion:

clairegroaning (Through a Glass Darkly, Season 2, Episode 1)

whathappened (ditto)

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Claire groaning at the center of her return to the stones, circa 1948; demanding frantically of the 20th century man who won Culloden; researching the Reverend Wakefield’s library with Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson) by her side (ditto)

By the end of the second season (Episode 13, “Dragonfly in Amber”), we have still not yet been at the battle; we move to 20 years on, meet Jamie and Claire’s grown daughter who is told but at first disbelieves who her father was, but no Culloden. According to Martha Bowden and Amy Elias and others the mother of all these can be found in the later eighteenth century women’s gothic history/romance by Sophie Lee (The Recess) and of course Ann Radcliffe. I see Daphne DuMaurier’s dark vision as everywhere in Outlander as I see Walter Scott’s invention of a new self-conscious controlled genre.

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I return to Episode 8 and go on to 9 of Season 1 of Outlander in our journey through this mini-series, and these turn out to be an an extraordinary pair of episodes of Outlander, from this Bowden and Elias perspective. Both are (I now see) pivotal to the whole series, which project just this sort of romancing and playing with sublimity. Season 1, Episode 8, Both Sides Now continually moves back-and-forth between 1945 when Frank Randall is persistent in seeking for an explanation from the police and anyone else as to where his wife, Claire (Caitrionia Balfe) has vanished; and 1743 when Claire, after the shock of the violence she finds she must not only endure, but watch “her” side (the British armed forces and some renegade Scots), murder as ruthlessly, tries to reach her own century with where her status as a woman is so immeasurably raised that she can as a matter of course feel safe, something not true in the middle 18th century.

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— Frank by the stones, desolate, following Mrs Graham’s story, calls “Claire!” (opening stills of Both Sides Now, Season 1, episode 1)

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She unnerved, frantic rushes up, presumably hearing his voice, and calls to him, only to be captured by the British, (ditto)

It’s this movement back-and-forth, with history across times becoming one, not so much as a continuum, as the two specific times occurring at the same time, and in both cases the characters cannot know what has happened to them, they cannot explain what will happen, and they try to at the same reach and stave off the eruption of the sublime.

For the mini-series self-conscious fitting into modern historiography in fiction, we have in Both Sides Now a continual paralleling so that the doppelganger is not just Tobias Menzies as Frank and Black Jack Randall. The young woman in 1945 who lures Frank to a dark alley in Inverness where he is set upon by thugs, and nearly murders them is a type of Claire who unknowingly lures redcoats to ambush Claire and Jamie twice in the same episode and is taught to arm herself and murder others attempting to murder her.

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Or (another parallel) as Frank learns of the legends of the stones from Mrs Graham, so Claire distraught is taught to use a hidden dagger to protect herself.

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Mrs Graham telling Frank

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Claire listening to Jamie

The world of Inverness in 1945 grows out of the world of the Highlands in 1743. Both are historical periods, for World War Two fits Scott’s criteria of 60 years since. Both nightmares of death and destruction.

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Jamie telling Claire he must punish her because it’s expected and she will therefore not forget next time that the lives of everyone depend on her conforming — note that in this scene we see them through a gird of bars (The Reckoning)

Season 1, Episode 9, “The Reckoning,” the quiet reversal of gender roles undergirding the romancing of the series is brought out explicitly: so rare as to be nearly unique for at least the last couple of decades, the over-voice and narrator of this episode, thoughtful, inward, self-reproaching, self-exploring is not that of the female, but of the central male of the series: Jamie. As 9th episode opens he is meditating in just the same way Claire did at the opening of Episode 1 (Outlander):

Strange, the things you remember. The people, the places, the moments in time burned into your heart forever while others fade in the mist. I’ve always known I’ve lived a life different from other men. When I was a lad, I saw no path before me. I simply took a step and then another, ever forward, ever onward, rushing toward someplace, I knew not where. And one day I turned around and looked back and saw that each step I’d taken was a choice. To go left, to go right, to go forward, or even not go at all. Every day, every man has a choice between right and wrong, between love and hate, sometimes between life and death. And the sum of those choices becomes your life. The day I realized that is the day I became a man

One cannot over-emphasize how unusual it is to find a man speaking this kind of meditation, providing melancholy retrospective assessments and confiding plans. In the first episode of the second season Jamie is experiencing terrifying nightmares about Black Jack Randall who had whipped, raped, sodomized, almost destroy Jamie’s hand, branded him, broke his spirit in the two concluding episodes of the first season. It’s not a coincidence that this is the (for many women readers) infamous episode where Jamie beats Claire, spanks her hard with whip. What is happening is Gabaldon and her team of film-makers are moving between gender behaviors for both Jamie and Claire

So, at the same time as Jamie is our thoughtful semi-depressed narrator and meditator, as in many of the episodes where Claire narrates, is melancholy, questing and presides (so to speak), it is here Jamie who concocts the plan to rescue Claire, Jamie who tries to “clear the air” with Claire, almost (not quite) with no avail

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He tells her she is at fault for the British capture of her and danger to the men because she disobeyed him

Claire: Christ, Jamie, I went for a walk!
Jamie: I ordered you to stay put.
Claire: I don’t have to do what you tell me to.
Jamie: Aye, you do. You are my wife.
Claire: Oh, your wife. Your wife. Oh, you think I’m your property, don’t you? You think I belong to you, and you can’t stand for someone to have something else that belongs to you.
Jamie: You do belong to me, and you are my wife whether you like it or not.
Claire: Well, I don’t like it! I don’t like it one bit! But that doesn’t matter to you either, does it? As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel. That’s all a wife is to you, something to stick your cock into whenever you feel the urge. Let go of me, you you fucking bastard!
Jamie: You foulmouthed bitch! You’ll no speak to me that way! I went to ye at Fort William armed with an empty pistol and my bare hands. When you screamed … Ye’re tearing my guts out, Claire.
Claire: I’m sorry. Jamie Forgive me.
Jamie: Forgiven.

It is Jamie Frazer (to give him his clan name) who persuades Column to return the gold that Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish) and Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson) have been gathering along with the rents to fund the Scots rebellion. In his Jacobites, Frank McLynn tells us the Mackenzies were a clan who held out against Culloden; that their clan leaders were cautious and remained led by ties to lower Scottish landlords. (It is also true that there were quiet “traitors” to the Hanoverian cause among the British nobility, or people with Jacobite and French and catholic leanings, so the Duke of Sandringham as characterized in the series is within the realm of historical probability.)

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Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis) incensed against the gathering of funds for a rebellion by

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Dougal Mackenzie, Ned Gowan, Jamie Frazer

In Both Sides Now, the triangles of Jamie-Claire-Black Jack/Frank where Black Jack desires Jamie, Jamie and Frank desire Claire and she both of them begins to take on the nightmarish pairing of Black Jack and Claire in Jamie’s mind so that when in the 16th episode of the 1st season (“To Ransom a Man’s Soul”) Jamie sees Claire coming to nurse or make love to him, she turns into the lurid violent sadistic Black Jack. When the second season opens, “Through a Glass Darkly,” and Claire has landed in 1748, for her Frank turns into Black Jack. In the last third of the episode, when Frank’s hand turns into Jamie’s and Claire stepping off a plane to come live in Boston as Frank’s faculty wife becomes Claire stepping off a ship on the Normandy coast, Jamie is having nightmares where Claire turns into Black Jack.

As to the adumbration of explicit gender reversals, and romancing, in the penultimate scene of The Reckoning, upon returning to Castle Leoch, Jamie is confronted by Laoghaire with whom he had an understanding. She loves and expected him to marry her, and demands an explanation in the very glade that she seems to know he has loved and spent much time in since a boy.

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Laoghaire Mackenzie (Nell Hudson) accosting Jamie

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Jamie left in his glade-landscape after Laoghaire leaves

She is the aggressor offering her body to him, swearing he and he alone will be her lover, and he must tell a truth that he married Claire not just because Dougal told him to, but because he wanted Claire and now loves and will remain faithful to her. This will bring on her attempt to have Claire branded a witch and burnt. The last scene of the episode ends with Jamie swearing he will forgo tradition and never “chastise” Claire again, her saying yes to having sex with him again, and another of these (to me) alluring love-making scenes during which she threatens to cut his heart out if he does hit her and he demands she nonetheless call him master:

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The strong eroticism of romance

But then they find — uneasily — Laoghaire’s “ill-wish” (a set of hard twigs and branches tied together with thongs) under their bed.

History fused with romancing, at the center a historically sublime (horrifying crucial event of war) whose enactment is ceaselessly deferred.

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Modern photograph of Culloden battlefield

Ellen

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Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

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Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

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Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:

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It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).

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One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

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Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

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Garanca

We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

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Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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