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Archive for the ‘women’s art’ Category


The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes (people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety. This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do as the one the nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose one that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory did not have the same talent. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University, he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; but we meet up with the other biography for we learn they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory: there are good biographies, much better than the ones I’ve provided, insightfl details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen

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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

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Hana (Andrea Riseborough) examining a temple (Luxor, 2020, directed scripted Zeina Durra, 2020)


Oliver Sacks His Own Life (biopic, 2019, Ric Burns directed, using Sacks’ book of the same title)


Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in sunlit landscape contemplating excavation (Dig, 2021, directed Simon Stone, scripted Moira Buffini from John Preston’s book)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been very fortunate in the last week or two because (without doing this deliberately) I’ve seen three excellent recent movies (actually four, see Even the Rain, 2011, in comments), all of which are thoughtful, quietly passionate, with genuinely interesting content, landscapes, story — all providing a true uplift. I write this blog to tell those of my readers seeking some respite from anxiety (COVID morphing into more deadly or infectious variants, not enough vaccines, the economic future. people hurting economically, and trying to self-isolate) you need only go to your computer and it’s a couple of clicks and a nominal sum away.

I don’t want to overdo this as I think of what most popular movies are, but I begin to wonder if there has been an effort recently — given the continued misery (see above) — to produce films where characters persist in hoping amid nearby or coming carnage (middle eastern wars, WW1) or the neglect of the agonizingly mentally disabled) or their own inner demons and distress. It really is a coincidence that just now on PBS, an excellent re-make of the movingly comic All Creatures Great and Small, has been airing, coming over your cable from PBS for the last five weeks. But maybe not that the era the film-makers are drawn to is just before or after WW1


James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) treating Strawberry, the cow (ITV, 2020, now on PBS)

I watched Luxor and Oliver Sacks His Owe Life as assignments in a weekly movie-class, where we watch movies online at Cinema Art Theater (supporting our local art movie-house). We are in our second week of four, all current movies. Luxor and Sacks are $12 each for 3-4 days of potential watching.

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What a relief is Luxor.


Hana with the newly re-found Sultan (Karim Saleh) at the hotel bar

It’s such a quiet movie, people hardly speak. The sexual acts that occur — several times, Hana, once with a stranger she met at a bar, Hana more than once with Sultan) are off-screen! There is no overt violence in front of us. Hana has returned to Luxor where she spent a joyous time with Sultan (throes of first love) 20 years ago. She is suffering from PTSD after years of surgery, practicing medicine the worst war and refugee places you can imagine — the Syrian border is mentioned. Unexpectedly she finds Sultan is now living there; he too returned, to do archaeology for the Eygptian gov’t (to please nationalists, for tourism). The story is we watch her slowly seem to get better, to come out of herself. Towards the end after she dances at a bar and comes back to her room in the hotel with Sultan, she bursts into hysterical shattered crying. To find tranquillity you have to allow the passions some release.

Like Celine Siamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s oddly devoid of dialogue — some people in life do talk a lot … but not this pair of lovers. As you go through her experience with you, you (or I) find therapy yourself.  At one point Hana visits a fortune-teller with the hotel owner.  It is also at core a romance, with two people who once knew each other, coming together again (like Linklater’s Sunrise, Sunset trilogy) with beautiful photography of this city left off the beaten track of commercialism, power, and today not even getting heavy tourism. It’s an Indie , the director is a woman who has made other movies of a similar type it seems. Roxana Hadadi writes a fine favorable detailed review on Ebert. It gains its denser power by the significance of the temples, the history of lives lived in squalor and hardship, the profound irrationality of people caught in their statues

The small diurnal transient lives considered against this backdrop, which lives are nonetheless precious and everything to those living them — this perception embodied is replicated in The Dig of Sutton Hoo below.

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Self- or group-reflexive still – during the course of the movie we met the living people now making the film and friends to the dying Sacks, as well as those no longer living (through older photos and Sacks narrating

His Own Life is the title of Sacks’s last book.  At last, out as a gay man, he owns his life.  And now he tells it. I’m a reader and teacher of Sacks’s books and essays as was Jim (our library of Sacks’s books) and I’ve taught several them (Hearing Voices, A Leg to Stand on, Migraines) and xeroxes of chapters and essays from others and periodicals (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, the New York Review of Books), and I thought I knew a lot. This film taught me I knew very little about the man’s full life (Jewish boyhood with physicians for parents, 3 other brothers), his character, how he grew up in England, how his mother rejected his homosexuality with abhorrence and then silence about it.


Oliver Sacks as a child.

What a sexy young man he was — when he left England, after having gone to the best private schools and then Oxford, for San Francisco & then Greenwich Village, NYC


Oliver Sacks, 1961.

His colleagues at first sidelined his work or fired him (when he accused their punitive methods of cruelty), his going on drugs, a slow and agonizing flowering when he got a job in a Bronx clinic where he was able through insight, drugs, compassion to bring catatonic people back to life. His literary success and then social through giving talks in prestigious places, his success as a doctor finally brought the psychiatric world round enough to appear to accept him.

I did not know he was homosexual and had to hide this most of the time. I was startled to see how heavy he was at one time. To watch him risking his life in crazed motorcycle riding. He is presented as living a more or less chaste life until his last years when he fell in love and his last partner, Bill Hayes, is in the film. The film narrator attempts to explain his methods, and his clinical work is done justice to as well. Among the witnesses is Jonathan Miller who describes Sacks at Oxford. Owen Gleiberman has written an intelligent review of the film, conveying the deeply humane nature of the man that also shines out in the film.

The film omits a few things about his career itself:  he was a wonderful storyteller  — a writer.  And central to is professional success without the support of academia was to have had the abilities of a novelist (in effect). His chapter stories are little novels where he has himself through his writing understood his patient or alter ego better by talking/writing to the reader.  To be sure, all these are based on years of clinical work (which work is not respected by the highest academics who prefer the theories that arise from abstract thought and research).

Very important: his real thrust was low tech (see especially Migraines). He contextualized and understood phenomena in history, e.g., the deaf in Hearing Voices where they were idiots for centuries and suddenly were people like you and me after the 3 Enlightenment philosophers invented sign languages.   The last thing he resorted to was a operation (see Migraines especially), and drugs were only applied after long talks and getting to know and understand a patient.  This is not appreciated by the medical establishment, supported as they are by the pharmaceutical industry & astronomical prices for surgeries.

As Oliver Sacks’s homosexuality made him for a long time an outsider in society, so his deeply humane methods, and his choice of approaches which are not prestigious (or as well paid) .  Sacks’s storytelling,  abilities as a brilliant writer as much as a clinician, neurologist and psychologist made him the hero and explorer and man we should be grateful to.

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Dig is a pastoral movie with much sun over the peaceful green fields of southern England

The Dig. I loved almost every minute of it, and although I realize the novel from which it is adapted, departs from historical accuracy, invents personalities and characters, I’ve a hunch it’s the sort novel I will find comfort and strength from (I have bought a copy from bookfinder.com). I gather the movie is getting a big audience; the subject is one long known, one which does attract a popular audience when set up in a museum to be a spectacle of gold: the Sutton Hoo burial grounds, the ship, its treasures, the Anglo-Saxon history.


Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) in the sun — many of the characters in Dig and Luxor are photographed in the sun


With Peggy Piggot (Lily James) by a left-over wall — your conventional romance trope

As with Luxor, and (on TV) All Things Great and Small, the photography is beautiful. One does not wonder why so many Anglophilic novels are set in the southeast. The acting very good: Ralph Fiennes, as Basil Brown, the “amateur” archaeologist, superb excavator, hams it up a bit with his accent, but when he is gone from the screen is when the film begins to fade and lose strength of emotional will and understanding.  He, together with the owner of the property, Carey Mulligan, as Edith Pretty, who catches the note and behavior of the upper class woman with her sense of privilege, have found the buried ship and its treasure together. She defends him only slowly from the ambitious academics, but it’s she who saves his life when the excavation collapses over him; she tries to invite him to dinner but he evades what might have been a very painful experience for both; nonetheless, they form a strong bond in the film. At one point he leaves the site because he is treated so rudely, condescendingly by those with degrees, but he is persuaded back by his wife, May (Monica Dolan) on the grounds that has he been doing this all these years for these people’s praise? At its end, she says she will be sure he will be recognized. Intertitles in the final credits tell us the Sutton Hoo material first arrived in the British Museum 7 years after Edith’s death; and then it took a long time for Basil Brown to be properly credited, but he and Edith are both central names on the exhibit today.

Our two central actors are ably supported by Johnny Flynn, as Rory Lomax, who I first saw as Viola in the all male Twelfth Night, and does have this charisma-charm; & Lily James, as Mrs Margaret (Peggy) Piggott, who falls in love with him (James has been superb as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Cinderella, & Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice & Zombies). Rory Lomax is Edith Pretty’s brother who is going off to WW1 as a RAF and we and he and everyone knows the danger and death rate high.  Peggy Piggot is the wife of the one of educated by degree team who is also homosexual and has married her in a cover up ,and continually rejects her body and companionship. Like Brown, she is not professional, has no degree, but knows a great deal, and she comes upon a jewel first (fiction can do this).

One of the film’s pleasures is its staunch egalitarianism. Again, the seeming ordinary man is our hero, and he is almost pushed off his site; but his wife persuades him to accept the snobbery and sidelining by the official professionals who at first treat him like a servant whose services they must endure but control. But after all he is not ordinary; the caste system erases people not born with money and rank, irrespective of their deeper talents.

Fiennes was believable as the older man whose partly orphaned son is attracted to him — they look at the stars through Brown’s telescope together. When Mulligan presented the reality of a personality of a upper class woman of the era, now widowed, she shows a hard edge, and assumes of course that her servants should serve her hand and foot. The love story of Rory and Peggy is conventional, but I did not find it detracted — it done from the DH Lawrence point of view, which roots the attraction of the two people to their deep time alone at night in the natural world all around them (a tent, behind a garden wall).


It rains; the women with the famous archaeologist from the British Museum (Ken Stott)

It themes includes death — Mrs Pretty visits her husband in his grave; she is discovered to have rheumatic heart disease and physically deteriorates during the film. Her young son is desolated when he sees this, and cannot save her — as he tells Mr Brown. Then we get this wonderfully delivered speech by Fiennes-Brown about failure: how we fail all the time, have to accept it, and just try to fail better. He got near Robert Louis Stevenson’s axiom. The boy clings with admiration to Mr Brown.

Et in Arcadio Ego; death is in The Dig shaped by the film’s consciousness of long time, and that each individual is part of some long range cycle seen in the buried ship. We are in an ancient cemetery. Planes going over (RAF) soon to be replaced by the brutal Germans with their bombs. All this is in Luxor too: war and carnage, the irrational temples. Sacks is dying and has been deprived of deeper companionship of a lover most of his life. The dialogue is realistic, well done. For detailed full reviews see Sheila O’Malley on Ebert. Also The Guardian, Mark Kermode, better than usual because he’s reviewing a better film.


Fiennes’ presence helps make The Dig


Riseborough pitch perfect in silent grief


Playing piano, being filmed in His Own Life; his papers just below — there are no online photos of his patients (Jim used to feel that there was a voyeuristic element in his books)

Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (San Heughan) bidding adieu just before battle of Alamance (Episode 7, “Ballad of Roger Mac”)

Friends and readers,

We covered The Fiery Cross and Season 5 in the context of the books and seasons thus far as a miracle of dramatic stillness and intensity; then Episodes 1-5 as a series of “her-stories,” using voice-over, remembrance, juxtaposition brilliantly. Episode 6-11 continue the emphasis on women’s issues, being a kind of culmination of discussions and dramatic events in previous seasons, with Claire now taking Marsali on as her apprentice and true daughter, while under the pseudonym of Dr Rowling she publishes advice on contraception and other women’s matters. This is interspersed with Jamie and Roger moving from antagonism, semi-alienation to an increasingly close friendship and alliance, and lastly wry ironic mutual interdependence. The father-son theme is reinforced by the return of Ian (John Bell), Jamie’s nephew-son, as Roger’s voice is silenced after he came near death from hanging, and Jamie repeats this feat of coming near death and then escaping, after he is bitten by a venomous snake. An outlook from previous seasons (especially over Culloden) re-asserts itself: Jamie has evolved to the point of a fierce anti-war stance (insofar as he is able), so that when Murtagh is senselessly slaughtered (and the grief of Jamie is terrible) Jamie at long last lashes out at the hypocrisy of the British establishment in fomenting these conflicts so as to tax and control the less powerful.


Marsali (Lauren Lyle) and Fergus (Cesar Domboy) seen working alongside Roger and Claire rescuing the hay (Episode 6, “Better to Marry than to Burn”)


One of many scenes between Claire and Brianna doing all sorts of daily things together, here they take an opportunity to walk along the sea (Episode 10, “Mercy ….”)

There are two weaker episodes, 6, “Better to Marry than to Burn,” where the patterned manners of the characters as they attend Jocasta’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) marriage, produces a stiffness and artificiality reminiscent of some of the scenes at the French court and in Parisian elite society in Season 2 (Dragonfly in Amber). A sense of forced construction is also found in the clumsy machinations it takes for Jamie and Claire to set a meeting with Bonnet (Ed Speelers) as smuggler. This feeling is more prominent in Episode 10, “Mercy May Follow Me,” where underlying clichés when Bonnet kidnaps Brianna and threatens her and she pleads with him come out in a stage-y (corney) way.   Then the ease with which Jamie, Claire, Roger, and now Ian with them, find and beat up Bonnet in the midst of selling Brianna to a trader re-enforces this feeling of a superfluous almost filler episode.

Episode 6 is almost retrieved by Roger rescuing the crop of Frazer’s Ridge when locusts descend by remembering how smoke can drive them away (so he enlists all the people living there, and becomes a hero in ways that come natural to his character and knowledge). And Episode 10 transcends its clichés when at its close we see Bonnet being executed by slow motion drowning, hastened only slightly by Brianna becoming a sharp-shooter and shooting him with a long-range rifle in the head. Each of the young women in this series when raped, beaten, abused carries a rage in her that each satisfies when opportunity for revenge is offered (e.g., Mary Hawkins stabbed her assaulter through the chest, Season 2).

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The rest is marvelous.

Time is marked and measured in different ways, the colors of our lives were changing, the vibrant greens of summer faded beneath the ever-varied canvas of the sky, and blue violet shades of indigo dye, replaced by the russet tones of autumn, brown hues of harvest …

An over-voice time-passing sequence, Episode 11, “Journeycake”)

All Outlander combines a form of heroine’s journey that can be regarded as a counterpart to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (see Patti McCarthy, “The Heroine’s Journey, Claire Beauchamp reclaims the feminine,” in Frankel’s Adoring Outlander collection; also Maureen Murdock, Heroine’s Journey). The call to adventure for the male here becomes a call which is also an awakening (think of Claire looking at the vase on her honeymoon, of her dissatisfaction with Frank and his with her). Then she crosses the threshold (the stones), and experiences deep changes within her over many trials, which in Claire’s case include meeting with a protective alluring animus, confronting false males, bonding with other women and becoming a mother. Books 3 (Voyager), 4 (Drums of Autumn) and 5 (Fiery Cross), move from a return, to ordeals to more thresholds, to making a home (yes all this effort to come back to make a nest), and becoming a powerful woman from having learned who she is and developed a path for herself.

A more specific vein of this journey is seen across the series (see Nicole M. DuPlessis, “Men, Women, and Birth Control in the Early Outlander books,” in Frankel’s Outlander’s Sassenachs): the first four books too deal with specifically the themes of birth, mothering, breast-feeding, abortion, rape: e.g., Claire helps Jenny in a breech delivery; Claire almost dies in childbirth; she develops a deep relationship with Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour), Geillis’s witch-like (Lotte Verbeek) qualities includes her handing out of abortifacients, herbs, and herbs to induce early labor; Geneva’s (Hannah James) pregnancy by Jamie at Helwater; Claire’s offer to help Brianna abort the fetus once she realizes Bonnet’s rape of her may have led to her pregnancy (and Jamie’s objections). The Fiery Cross, taken as a whole, from the early episodes on wife abuse (a Bluebeard punished), tyranny over a daughter (Brownsville), an adoption of a baby) seems to intensify these with Claire now seeking to educate young women to prevent pregnancy, married women they do not have to accept physical abuse, Roger’s agreement to help stop Brianna from getting pregnant again. Perhaps the book moves so slowly because Gabaldon has taken on the function and content of unusually frank magazine articles.


Roger hung, lower part of his body seen (9, “Ballad of Roger Mac”)


Brianne realizing

Supremely moving, exciting, riveting were the episodes, 7, “The Ballad of Roger Mac,” and 8, “Famous Last Words,” returning us to the anti-war stance in the midst of terrible violence we saw in the Culloden sequence at the close of Season 2 (Episodes 9-12, especially 9, “Prestonpans”) and opening of Season 3 (Episodes 1-3, half each of “The Battle Joined,” “Surrender”): Roger is literally hung at the close of 7, just pulled down in time, and revived by Claire, he is unable to speak for most of 8, “Famous Last Words,” driven and haunted by memories (the directors were inspired when they decided to show the trauma through old-fashioned black-and-white reels)

There was a battle of Alamance between the Virginia Militia, mostly white upper and middle class British people born in the UK and lower class farmers (“regulators”) fighting excessive taxation (they had no representation) and the militia won — they murdered many of the regulators, gave no quarter — just the kind of thing Howard Zinn describes in The People’s History of the US, and happened at Culloden. We see Jamie and then a Protestant priest trying to persuade Governor Tryon against the battle; there was an offer of compromise, but he feels this will help his career to be seen to have crushed an uprising (if he can). I just loved how Jamie horrified and deeply grieved by the murder and death of Murtagh who dies trying to reassure Jamie (it’s just unbearable as he screams over his father-brother-friend “help me” [someone] and brings Murtagh back to Claire) cries out against what is written in history books and what happens for real

Will it be written in history, sir — that ye killed and maimed and paid no heed to the destruction ye left? That ye brought cannon to bear on your own citizens, armed with no more than knives and clubs? Nae, it will say that ye put down rebellion and preserved order, that ye punished wickedness and did justice in the King’s name. (then) But we both ken what happened here. There is the law and there is what is done. What you’ve done is kindle a war — for the sake of your own glory. [Tryon’s jaw clenches and his men move toward Jamie — protective of the Governor. No one speaks this way to Tryon. But Tryon waves them down.] GOVERNOR TRYON: Colonel Fraser. I had no personal stake in this, no need to glorify my exploits, as you put it. JAMIE: None but the governorship of New York. GOVERNOR TRYON: I told you I would not leave North Carolina in a state of disorder and rebellion. I have done what I have done as a matter of duty. And because you have done your duty, as promised, I’m going to overlook your insolence. JAMIE: Aye. My debt is paid and I’m finished with my obligation — to you — and to the Crown. You may have yer coat back, sir. Jamie wrests off the red coat Tryon made him wear, now stained with Murtagh’s blood, and lets it drop into the mud … (written by Toni Graphia).

Roger ends up so badly by chance; the same governor carelessly gives an order to have three men hanged. Roger had tried to reach Murtagh to tell him that Brianna remembered the battle would go terribly for the regulators Of course it’s too late to stop anyone. On his way back to Jamie’s camp, Roger encounters Morag Mackenzie he met in a ship coming over, whom he had saved from being drowned, together with her baby. Who is a relative of his clan. They hug and what happens but her thug of a husband (played by Douglas McTavish brought back as this different fierce character) fiercely acts out male jealousy, twists his wife’s arm, beats Roger up — with other thugs. Roger is just not a violent man. He goes missing and is not found until the last scenes when the family group comes upon him apparently dead from hanging. We had now and again seen him singing across the series. He’s a gentle soul – a professor is what Jamie has begun to call this son-in-law. Roger is no match for this world of senseless bullying male violence. He is thrown on a pile and taken up to be hanged. We see what the Governor’s (and Trump’s) much vaunted law and order really is.

Episode 8 brings home Ian with Rollo (his beloved companion dog) from the Mohawks, and it is Ian who goes with the stricken Roger to measure and survey a gift of land the governor has offered in compensation for his error. The return of Ian, his melancholy but joy upon coming home, Jamie’s attempt to understand, Claire’s reciprocal nurturing all form the mood of Roger’s slow recovery. The episode is punctuated by the black-and-white memories until near the end. It begins with a flashback to the 20th century where Roger had been teasing a class over what would one want to say when you are on your deathbed.


Jamie on the stretcher, Roger pulling him back to the Ridge (9, “Monsters and Heroes”)

Episode 9, “Monsters and heroes,” is the culmination of Jamie and Roger’s finding a modus vivendi for living together in understanding, respect and friendship. The monster is the venomous snake who bites Jamie’s leg and makes it swell, risking gangrene; the heroes Jamie, Roger, and Ian who all have to cope with this seriously limb-, if not life-threatening condition (Jamie comes near to having one leg amputated). At least 2/3s of the episode traces the close relationship and knowledge the two men for the first time gain of one another. Roger gets lost, he cannot kill anything much (he confesses he does not like to kill anything), but he understands infection and lances and sucks out the poison insofar as he can. He makes a miserable kind of stretcher and proceeds to try to drag Jamie home. Jamie is the one who misbehaves — terrified he will die, frightened for the three 20th century people dependent on him, he begs Roger to kill Bonnet for him, to promise this and promise that; he refuses to have the leg amputated if necessary, bringing down on him Ian’s wrath for the way he, Jamie, seems suddenly to regard disabilities — remember Ian’s father, Fergus’s loss of his hand (I thought of Hugh Munro).

There are almost no distractions of other episodes:  we hear of Jenny and Ian back in Scotland, a scene between Lizzie Wemyss (Caitlin O’Ryan) and Isiash Morton (Jon Tarcy) was put into deleted scenes; Marsali gives birth on her own with just a little help from Fergus. Thus we have long uninterrupted scenes of characters talking, interacting, Claire at Jamie’s bedside, her intense presence stirring in him a will not to die; her invented penicillin does not work because her needles and instruments were destroyed and she can administer it only as a drink, not into Jamie’s veins. The episode gives the woman an important role again; Claire is doctor, but Roger remembered to cut the snake’s head and top of body off, and when back in their cabin, Brianne remembers you can draw from it the venom which can act (it seems) as an anti-venom and herself invents a syringe. In the manner of almost all the episodes of the season, this one is self-contained, resolved almost fully by the end with Roger taking mild revenge by teasing remarks as he sits next to Jamie’s bed.


The stones into which Brianna, Roger, and Jemmy tied together disappear, presumably poof, and Ian left to stare

Episode 11, “Journeycake” is the fearful penultimate hour. It opens with an over-voice and montage, and time passing, and the family of four adults returning back from town to come upon a house burnt to the ground, all its inhabitants murdered or burnt to death, one shivering in pain near death. All four remember the obituary Brianna brought back to the 18th century of her parents being killed just this way. Lord John (David Berry) who has been given too little to do, is returning it seems for good to England, to take care of young William’s interests again. He will take Ulysses (Colin MacFarlane) with him. He gives Jamie another miniature of the boy and this gives Jamie a chance to tell Brianna she has a half-brother. It is discovered that little Jemmy can time-travel, Ian demands and finally is told the truth about Claire, and it is he who drives the three to the stones and watches them disappear into them near the end of the episode. The sorrow here is that Jamie’s deepest bonds are with these three people, including Claire and they are all safer in the 20th century. At its close, Jamie and the Fraser Ridge men have been tricked into leaving the house area, and the Browns who have several males who have reason to resent Jamie and hate Claire (particularly the one whose daughter she has protected, whose wife she has helped against his violence), who come and abduct Claire, murder one of the people in Claire’s surgery and leave Marsali for dead.

Next blog: the astonishingly powerful conclusion, Episode 12, “Never My Love”

Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in Boston Catholic Church, circa summer 1968


One of the many voice-over shots combining Claire’s images from different times in the series, different episodes & places, with accent on a character just choosing a new destiny

How many times have I put my hopes, my fears, my secret longings into the hands of a Being I can’t see, can’t hear, can’t even feel. And how many times have my prayers been answered (followed by a shot of Claire in 1772 having created penicillin from molds …)

Friends and readers,

Episode 5, “Perpetual Adoration,” seemed to me to epitomize in its most extreme form the kinds of experiences this season at its best offers: thoughtful retrospective framing or talk/feelings and characters’ memories deeply part of each sequence of scenes. In this episode Claire became an over-voice in a series in interspersed scenes mostly in a church in Boston 1968 (which, interestingly, are not to be found in the script on Instagram) contrasting with what’s happening in 1772 North Carolina; this over-voice was hitherto used most often in Season 1, but only once when (daringly) it’s Jamie (Sam Heughan) who does the over-voice is the theme the same: him meditating from an indeterminate present on the choices he has just made in the past, or deep past, or imagined future, like to marry, then stay with Claire (S1, Episode 9, “The Reckoning”) viz., “I’ve always known I’ve lived a life different from other men./When I was a lad, I saw no path before me …”

These scenes are not in The Fiery Cross either. They point us to the fantastical interwoven (images of the spider and web are in some of these monologues) movements in time and space in the five seasons thus far, and by extension all five books and to its core center, the motivation actuating many of Jamie and Claire’s decisions: their devoted love for one another. They are religious, making time a function of living in a space and time which are God:

Time is a lot of things that people say God is. There is the pre-existing and having no end. There is the notion of being all powerful because nothing can stand against time, and everything is taken care of, all pain encompassed, all hardship erased, all loss subsumed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. And if time is anything akin to God, I suppose that memory must be a devil …


Another montage, this time with Jamie …

The idea combining the juxtapositions of events in 1968 Boston and in 1772 North Carolina in Episode 5 is quietly self-reflexively witty: a man named Graham Menzies, a Scotsman, whom she was to enact surgery on, told her of his unceasingly love for his wife, such that he keeps up a perpetual (daily) prayer time in church with her in his imagination. Menzies dies unexpected of an adverse reaction to penicillin, and she so moved by the experience, that she takes a leave of absence and persuades Brianna (Sophie Skelton) to come with her to London to where her first husband, Frank, had wanted to bring his daughter. (The wit is that the actor playing Frank is called Tobias Menzies; the character and last name do occur in Voyager: he is a patient Claire helps die of cancer.) Frank is now dead too; when in London she learns of the death of Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) and goes to the funeral in Inverness Roger (Richard Rankin) has created. This starts a relationship between herself, Briana and Roger, which will inform her that Jamie did not die at Culloden, and lead her to dare to go back through the stones.


Over-voice, montage includes Claire jumping out of the coach in the third season, into Edinburgh and walking to where Jamie has become a printer …

There is an echo of Claire’s voice-over in a scene with Joe Abernathy in a cafeteria where he comes to comfort her, and admits it was he who left a torrid historical romance on a coffee table for her to read (which she now has with her, The Perpetual Pirate …); she says to him: it’s “as if everything is pointing you towards something but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is … ” The last actual voice-over of the hour occurs in 1872 when Jamie comes back to her, he hopes having put an end to the military action he was pressured into against the Regulators (led by Murtagh Fitzgibbons [Duncan Lacroix]). Jamie has brought home a kitten (Adso) he found just outside the house he set on fire after he strangled to death Lieutenant Knox. Knox had just found out he and Murtagh were close kin and was determined to expose Jamie and start the hunt for Murtagh again. This kind of cold-blooded sudden remorseless action is unlike Jamie, and recurs in the last episode of the season when Claire is gang-raped — both instances involve someone Jamie loves intensely, A bonded with intensely.

God is merciful, God is eternal. Someday I will stand before God and I will receive an answer to all my questions, and I do have many questions. But I won’t ask about the nature of time. I’ve lived it


Having the voice-over with Adso (looks just like Jamie’s mother’s kitten with same name) brings out the optimism of Gabaldon’s outlook: she had been driven to stay alive by eating earthworms, insects, what vermin she could find, and now she will have milk, fish, and Claire’s chair

What kinds of incidents are these? We continue the story of Claire re-inventing pencillin, with Marsali (Lauren Lyle) as her apprentice; they together remove the tonsils of the two twins she and Jamie have freed from a brutal master; and they do not sicken but become better. Roger has returned from Brownsville where he as captain was recruiting men for the armed conflict against the Regulators, and we see him and Brianna making love, adjusting to their unexpected circumstances but beginning to think of alternatives. Roger finds the jewel that Bonnet gave Brianna and discovers that she saw, talked to, told Bonnet that Jemmy is Bonnet’s son; a fierce quarrel ensues. After Roger spends a night out in the wood, and and talks with Claire where the theme of time is again emphasized (he must not be “careless with [the] time” he has with Brianna), he returns home to her (their log cabin) and the two are reconciled. The hunt for Murtagh comes to a close when the governor decides to pardon the Regulators (this did happen) and then the curiously sudden chilling murder of Knox by Jamie (as described above) occurs. I believe we are to notice that Jamie burns the list of prisoners at Ardsmuir which Knox had got hold of and remember how such papers so precious to 20th century researchers function very differently to those who exist[ed] in the past. As I said in my previous blog, these episodes are quiet, self-contained with all the emphasis on inner lives, relationships, that work as a social fables.

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A quick synopsis:


Far shot of wedding: we can see in the audience all our favorite regular characters (but Murtagh)

Again in the previous blog I told of Episode 1, Roger and Brianna’s wedding, with three sets of lovers, much joyful celebration, a ritual ceremony of the men of Fraser’s Ridge, now including Jamie, pledging loyalty, all framed by the necessity of Murtagh’s having to leave to remain safe from the Governor’s militia.


Claire at work with women around her

Episode 2: “Between Two Fires” refers to how Jamie is being driven to pretend to seek out Murtagh and destroy the regulators in a battle. This is interspersed with quiet scenes where Claire despairs of her ability to help people because they will give to their very sick relative a treatment which kills him or her. With Roger’s help, she snatches one corpse (they bury something else heavy in a coffin) in order to do an autopsy; then hides and study the corpse — what a no, no for this era. It’s nerve-wracking to watch. She observes Marsali good at sewing, cutting up a lamb, bright as a reader and enlists her as an apprentice physician. In the episode Roger having a hard time adjusting to the macho demands of him in this lifestyle. This is intended to contrast to the concluding scene in a tavern of crude wrestling between women, gambling, and finally fierce dueling in which Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) appears, cruelly and inhumanely taking advantage of a man who had given in, blinding and cutting his hamstrings.


Just after Roger has sung to the baby, Brianna listening, he carries off the wash …

Episode 3: “Free Will” An outstanding hour. Just before the middle of The Fiery Cross, Jamie and Claire come upon a scary house, dark, desolate, there to retrieve the indentured papers of two young men the master of this house had beat severely (whom Claire has cured of tonsillitis). Inside a wretched woman, Fanny, who says her husband is dead — the Beardsleys. He is not but near death; he used to beat and emotionally torture her; he has killed 4 wives before her. She now tortures him. Claire tries to care for him medically hasn’t the modern resources. Fanny gives birth to a child whose features and skin-color show her father was an enslaved African. The next morning the woman has fled, leaving the papers under the baby. Claire goes out to the clearing; Jamie ask the man if he wants treatment, to be left there, or to die. He is in horrific condition and chooses death. Camera switches outside to Claire waiting with the baby. A shot is heard. This delving into trauma has some sweet relief: we see Marsali doing well as an apprentice doctor. Brianna and Roger scenes where he urges on her returning to the 20th century. There are harder scenes too: of recruiting, a mother sends her sons off because the dangerous life offers opportunities and better food. The writer here, Luke Schelhas, brings out the obvious feminist perspective subtly (one not in the novel).


Marsali learning from and discussing procedures with Claire

Episode 4: “The Company We Keep.” I loved the moral of this one, spoken in voice-over by Claire.

Adultery. Betrayal. Dishonor. Excuses could be made, of course. I know I made my own when I was separated from Frank by a power I didn’t understand [slow motion called for so we see the young couple fleeing together on a horse where other horses, goats, and people chasing these get in the way of the fiercely angry male Browns stopping them] And yet whereve you are, you make choices — foolish ones, or ones that save yourself and someone else. All you can hope for is that the good will outweigh the harm that may come of it …

Jamie and Claire arrived at Brownsville where Roger and Fergus are supposed with a band of men recruiting. The Brownsville men savage, uneducated, hav shot at and demanded Roger turn over to them, Morton, a young men from Fraser’s Ridge; Morton has impregnated a Brownsville daughter intended for marriage to an older rich man. It emerges Morton is also already married but the marriage was made two years ago, didn’t work out. Jamie furious with Roger for having acceded to imprisoning Morton (as captain Roger is to protect his men first and now others have departed). Another young woman has given birth to a baby who has died. Back at Fraser’s Ridge Brianna has evidence that Bonnet has been sneaking around; she and Marsali converse, become friends, with Brianna realizing that Marsali has a fund of common sense courage and witty ways of expressing this. A convoluted set of scenes at Brownsville by the end of which Claire has given the baby to the young woman (though in a long walking-together scene Jamie has offered to keep the baby so he and Claire can bring up a child together — she wisely says this will not work the way he thinks), and Roger (remembering how he followed Bree to this century), and Claire and Jamie enable the young couple to go off to make their destiny together. As Claire’s over-voice is heard I thought of how 52 years ago now I returned to England, for a few weeks an illegal immigrant, married him with so little money, against the advice of all, and what a good life we had for nearly half a century. The writer here is Barbara Stephansky.


The young woman who has endured the death of a newborn, taking over the baby Fanny left behind ….

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) in the 2nd season bonding over the mine (scripted Debbie Horsfield, 2015)

I’ve now got three books on Outlander, two collections of academic essays, a masters thesis, and an academic style journal essay — on both the books and film series. All find much to interest, explore, and admire, especially in the areas of sexuality and romance as a genre. To date the only two essays I know of on the Poldark books have been written by me and presented at two conferences; otherwise all that exists are about five or six (excellent) essays on the film adaptations with the books of interest only as shedding light on the films, and except for me none of these credits the books or films with any originality or having brought anything unique to the TV channel/company they were made on behalf of or for. I don’t think that’s the fault of Winston Graham or either film series. While Graham’s Poldark books (especially the first seven) have never fallen out of print or become unavailable, and there are scholarly essays (two) on his contemporary fiction, the numbers of sales are nothing to Gabaldon. The series failed to stir enough interest or respect to demand a filming of all twelve books. The last season basically substituted a different story for Graham’s projected intertext between Books Seven and Eight.


Lord John Grey (David Berry) in love with Jamie, and Jamie reciprocates at least in chess games and conversation ….

Something in Gabalodon’s books and films are answering to needs and desires of today’s audience. The masters thesis, by Mary Heath, “Villains and Heroes: An Analysis of Outlander‘s Portrayal of Sexual Violence” begins by offering statistics to show that the program is credited with increasing the ratings of Starz substantially, and especially increasing the women watching the channel. This is not the place to lay out or even suggest what can be adduced. I hope if I can get myself to before I die (and once I stop teaching) to write a book on these two sets of historical fiction romances. For now, all four publications have chapters or essays analysing to her credit Gabaldon and now Roger Moore’s (he is what is today called the “showrunner” or has been until the 5th season the linchpin central presence of each season’s development, content, art) their presentation of the homoerotic and homosexuality in the Outlander matter. We have women’s friendships, and mother and daughter pairs, but no discernible lesbianism thus far.

I find in the fifth season something else to compel me: these stories in the books and films in the previous seasons no matter how masculinized (with males at the center of many episodes of the fourth through fifth season, transposition of what was domestic romance to action-adventure) represented another brilliant turn in the history of women’s historical romance speaking to women who are not embarrassed to listen, who have not been trained to despise this genre. I submit that the retreat of Roger Moore from active supervision and involvement with the show, Toni Graphia, Matthew Roberts, and a few other repeating names have gone further and even with a book as flawed as The Fiery Cross made beautifully artful episodes that are both feminine in feel, feminist in thrust, and counterhegemonic. I hope to show that in Episodes 6 through 11, we have anti-war sequences (to be fair, Episode 10, Prestonpans in Season 2 was strongly anti-war) and if not a repudiation of violence as a solution to life’s conflicts, a strong sense violence only makes matters worse, and (as with the Poldarks) what is wanted is community.


Claire and Jamie (Season 5, Episode 8, “Famous Last Words”) — in this season they are the older couple deeply in love still

I conclude with a summary of Eleanor Ty’s essay in Adoring Outlander, ed. Valerie Estelle Frankel, explaining “The appeal of Outlander: Melodrama, Gender, and Nostalgia.” A strong competent heroine, intelligent, passionate performing amazing feats of healing and nurturing, and a cadre of other similar heroines (I remember Mother Hildegarde [Frances de la Tour] in Season Two (Dragonfly in Amber). Melodrama: heart-wrenching scenes of emotional conflict and physical punishment: Jamie as Christ flogged by the Roman soldiers (Black Jack Randall in the first two seasons). We mourn for our couple’s losses of 20 years; what might have been (in 3rd season, siding with the powerless); our hero and heroine are both orphans. The Renaissance man as hero.

There is nothing Jamie cannot do when it’s sheerly a matter of his traits: reads and talks several languages, cultured, accomplished, loyal, skill with animals, born leader, released from prison he becomes a publisher. And she brings out how he is a virgin at first and yet complete warrior – remarking on surprisingly easily the book and film (episode: The wedding) carries this off. Then his devotion to, care of Claire, she is safe with him, knows how to comfort and make love (tasteful yet graphic enough)

Romance, Spirituality and Transgression: an elevation of earthy desires to a realm of sublime and spiritual. Here is where the fantasy element comes in. Sexuality is presented from a low perspective (earthly) and high poetry. You let the soul and body judge what is right — we move beyond reason, prudence, social conventions (in Season 5, the young couple they rescue from the Browns).


Claire revisiting Culloden in the third season (from Voyager, now 1968)

Nostalgia and elegy: Frank and Claire visit Culloden at the opening of the first season. Nowadays tourist put flowers by the Fraser stone. Starz pays enough to capture pastoral beauty of Scotland, highlights magic mystery (at its best not post-card like – though there are drops down – not enough spent in 4th season). A collective memory is put before us what, we are invited to assimilate a historical experience we did not live. The use of rituals among males bond them together — repetitive words, ceremonies (weddings) It’s said that the program did not air before the Scottish referendum lest it influence too many towards devolution …

Ellen

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Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett, 1980s BBC) — detection genius


George Smiley (Alec Guiness, Tinker, Tailor … 1970s BBC) — spymaster extraordinaire


Melissandra (Carice Van Houten), prophetess (Games of Thrones) — Cassandra-witch

Friends and readers,

This blog is a bit of departure from my usual modes. I usually zero in on a particular work or works; here I remain in general, and just cite examples briefly. What is left out (alas) are the moral inferences that Marr makes so precisely when he cites and goes over particular books and talks to particular authors.  (I no longer have the facility or strength of fingers or speed to get down accurately what he said.)  These inferences are mostly pessimistic, dark, unsettling utterances, often half-ironic.  So, again, in general, here is what he inferred: Detective stories today reveal an abysm of poverty; spy a fearful terrain of ruthless totalitarian and fascist states; sorcery the return of atavistic amorality as part of superstition. I add that we see in the latest of these kinds of works that women are made to behave in ways directly as violent and treacherous as men (this is not credible as at least studies of women who commit violence show); and men in the last 30 years ae shown to be as sexually vulnerable and ambiguous in their sexuality.

You may recall I wrote about Andrew Marr a few weeks, calling attention to his wonderfully insightful literary documentaries (for lack of a better term — they are highly entertaining, witty, amusing). One series was on popular “thrillers,” the action-adventure type, at one time usually male-centered (Miss Marple and Harriet Vane were the exceptions who proved the rule), which he divided into “detective, mysteries;” “spy, surveillance;” and “sorcerer, fantasies.” On first impression as I listened to him offer the “rules” (formulas) for each, play clips, talks to authors, the types seemed to blend, but when I conquered my recent laziness, and at least tried to force my hands to write stenography once again, and read over what he had said, I realized he had made distinct and explanatory distinctions. I was surprised to think about how his formula linked on the surface such different seeming detective stories, showed how different they are from spy and surveillance action, and finally picked up on the fantasy elements of historical romance, so this usually woman-centered genre shares terrain with say (and this makes sense) the stories of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin. I’m especially intrigued with the element of time-traveling in this last.

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Lord Wimsey (Edward Petherbridge) facing Harriet Vane (Harriet Walter) — the amateurs?


Sam Spade (Humphry Boghard, Hammett’s Maltese Falcon) – hired private detective


Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect): DCI

So here are the the characteristics of detective mysteries (they cross into police procedurals as you’ll see): 1: there must be a mystery, a pattern to find, a puzzle element, ingenious; 2) the writer must play fair, and not deliberately lead astray, no supernatural agencies; 3) the detective must not have committed the crime, corpses about, not an idyllic place at all; 4) there must be locked rooms, impossible terms, keys are clues, multi-layer to unravel; 5) the detective is a kind of super-hero, we must watch him so as not to be fooled by a sleight-of-hand, do hard work, find what actuates motivates people; 6) crime must be believable, painful, almost doing it in front of us, with a pervasive sense of evil all around it; 7) the detective must get his (or) her hands dirty and must set the world to rights, then retreat, escape back to his lair; 8) he must follow recognized procedures; incremental tedious work, under social pressure, moving into rotten hearts; 9) we have the comfort of knowing the truth at the end; we adapt, recent ones are complex; 10) the detective must be flawed, must be difficult to get along with, withdrawn, not likable (Inspector Morse).

I am struck by how the murder mystery in the second half of Phineas Redux corresponds to the above

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Alec Leamas (Richard Burton, The Spy who Came in from the Cold) — set-up betrayed spy


Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man — today’s fascist totalitarian states) — another set-up betrayed spy


The Americans, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) — without identities

Then we have the espionage story (and movie): 1) they reflect the particular social conditions of their time, people with insider knowledge, about betrayal; the question of who is the real enemy comes up early, foreign people, a creeping paranoia; 2) you must create a climate of fear, ominous atmosphere; 2) spies’ loyalties are always up for question (The 39 Steps, The Americans, Greene’s Human Factor), a popular version of an existential nightmare; 3: the spy contacts his nemesis; 3) they can end up cast out of humanity (as in The Spy who came in from the Cold); 4: they are ever trying to adapt to changing times. I add the vast perspective and explicit political propaganda, often anti-communist still.

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) amid the ancient neolithic stones, Craig Na Dun, Mrs Graham her sorceress (Outlander, 1:1) — healer & white witch


Gandolf (Ian McKellen (Fellowship of the Ring) — wizard

The fantasy, science fiction, allegorical: 1) you must build a whole world, consistent in itself as to details too; the depth of detail compels us; weave real with fantastical, keep it coherent with a map; 2) there is a portal to this other world; 3)these are anti-enlightenment stories, matter from the atavistic, where the “easy” laws of science do not necessarily apply; it’s a spectrum of extremes; 4) fantasy nowadays uses the method of distilled wonder (a metaphor); a parallel to the feeling we let ourselves be comforted by, making a parallel to faery; uses folklore that does not in itself seriously frighten — think of The Hobbit; 5) there is a hero’s story, sometimes told by the heroine, a dropped down trunk, papers telling the story; 6) someone to help us cross the threshold; you move into unknown, there are ordeals, supreme tests, sometimes an elixir helps you return through to “reality” or today’s world; 6) we come upon counter culture (not necessarily a good world); Le Guin shows us a fascist take-over, with a wizard; barbarism, bitchery; 7) there are rites of passage or rites tht bridge generations and new Gods created; 8) winter is always coming, deep poignant melancholy for what’s just over the horizon, a kind of existential threat; and 9) some explore the deepest world of author (so an inward form), and/or are philosophic.

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There you have it. Or do you or we? there are thrillers which don’t fit these paradigms, or slide over. So Daphne DuMaurier’s Scapegoat belongs to fantasy but remains in here and now — it’s not quite gothic either, as gothic’s sine qua non is supernatural and she would have us believed in her doubles, her twin men. Marr did not work in the gothic which has lent itself to formulas (some of which make fun of its furniture), nor ghost stories, the vampire and wanderer, nor specifically the female gothic. These would take several blogs … I have written of separate gothic stories and once in a while the gothic as such. I’ve a whole section in my website devoted to the kind: Gothics and ghosts, vampires, witches, and l’écriture-femme


M. R James, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral — core evil presence


Illustration by John A. Williams for Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Second Wife” (1912) — this is the type Jane Austen made fun of and parodied in her Northanger Abbey, it is a type Nancy Drew draws some of its power from (girl as snoop into wild and weird territories)


Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) arrives (NA, scripted Andrews Davies, 2007) — female reader of gothics.


A 1970 version of a Nancy Drew — girl sleuth

Ellen

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Sarah Hendrickx


Laura James

Once upon a time, a form of brief entry writing emerged and developed, which were called weblogs. These recorded what the writer had experienced on line that day. Gradually the form was shortened to blog, and the original meaning lost as the blogs began to fulfill so many other functions, take so many forms. Throughout though, one central reality remained: at some level they are all talking about on-line life, or making it; they are all irreducibly semi-autobiographical at core, shaped by the originating writer.

A touching movie made by Icelandic women about ordinary autistic girls and women (available on vimeo)

A significant, moving and even important (so rare is this topic broached even) movie about autistic women; it’s by an Icelandic woman, and the people participating are all Icelandic. You do have to pay to see it as a Vimeo; I did do it, joined by typing in my email and then making a password; you pay per video and this one is $8.99 – -I will watch it again and blog on it.

It opens with the problem that most research on autistic people has been on men (continues to be) and the argument for this is most autistic people are men — will this is self-fulfilling; again society just doesn’t care about women. In many societies until the 20th century women were kept out of social circulation.

So it’s a woman who is gathering autistic women together, organizing and trying to fight for funds for help, for recognition — the film lets them tell their stories and you can see how autism affects women. Some of the results of society’s response to this disability (basically social inabilities of various sorts as seen from the ordinary person’s outlook): unemployment, or never being promoted, for women often she does not marry. Loneliness. But there are some women who are successful in the marketplace (so to speak). Not liking travel. The film includes women on the lower end of the spectrum as it’s called. The film brings across how various are the traits but how there is this center, core. Many remain un-diagnosed: this is true of older people in general, but it is apparently still true of girls; their parents don’t make the considerable effort it takes to get someone to diagnose a child as autistic.

It does omit two areas which are explosive: a direct discussion of what sex life is life for an autistic women and what it is like to be an autistic mother. The central topic of bullying is brought up but it is not shown or no one talks of how this affects sex life for girls; very directly; elsewhere I have read autistic women experience far more violence and abuse. The whole area of sexual experience is just about omitted.

Friends and readers,

I continue our journey of life on-line as the pandemic carries on sickening, maiming and killing thousands of people. I passed the six month mark of “sheltering in place,” i.e., I’ve hardly been anywhere but to shop for necessities, hardly had anyone to visit but technicians. My last three or so blogs were all about what you can view or experience here on-line, interspersed by talk of books I’ve been reading with others, sharing here. Well here’s another, this time on Aspergers or autism (the words are not quite interchangeable). Among the many zooms I’ve joined on-line, I’ve joined Aspergers groups — to be candid, I have long been in a FB group for autistic women.  Above is a movie a new Aspergers friend online has recommended to me, and a leader of a group found the vimeo for.

This blog also continue my new goal of keeping these blogs shorter than I once did — so I supply professional shorter reviews instead of writing my own more detailed ones.

Earlier this summer (tempus fugit) I told on my autobiographical blog (Sylvia II) of two fine sources — on this complex very individualized disability: Tony Attwood’s Guide to Aspergers Syndrome and Hannah Gadsby, comedian extraordinaire who also highlights and absurdities and cruelties inflicted on LBGTQ people in society.

Last night I watched one of the videos of Sarah Hendricksx. (Is there any arcane new meaning to putting an “x” at the end of a word.) Very good — actually thorough. She is really a lecturer who softens and makes her material more appealing by her jokes. The jokes are funny (to me) but the reality is she is presenting material about the nature of aspects of my life, traits, existence which are painful to consider so I begin to feel distressed watching her. Yet the humor is salutary and there is much to be learned — especially for a woman. As in so much in our society, when Aspergers is studied, we are told about men as if they are universal, but the condition is different for women. She comes near to suggesting that there is a real gender fault-line in the condition of Aspergers for women and men here too. Hendricksx is better on this than Hannah Gadsby who is really a comedienne mainly and keeps her themes indirect — also about far more than autism. Hendricksx is also more detailed, more literal and thus more helpful

And her well-worth while book:

The difference that being female makes to the diagnosis, life and experiences of a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has largely gone unresearched and unreported until recently. In this book Sarah Hendrickx has collected both academic research and personal stories about girls and women on the autism spectrum to present a picture of their feelings, thoughts and experiences at each stage of their lives.

Outlining how autism presents differently and can hide itself in females and what the likely impact will be for them throughout their lifespan, the book looks at how females with ASD experience diagnosis, childhood, education, adolescence, friendships, sexuality, employment, pregnancy and parenting, and aging. It will provide invaluable guidance for the professionals who support these girls and women and it will offer women with autism a guiding light in interpreting and understanding their own life experiences through the experiences of others.

This book adds to our knowledge by providing an insightful, sensitive analysis of the pattern of behaviours in females from childhood through to old age… This book endorses my clinical experiences in working with females in the autism spectrum and validates the importance of diagnosis at any time in a person’s life. Therefore I would highly recommend this book for all professionals involved in diagnosis and supporting girls and women in the autism spectrum. — from the foreword by Dr Judith Gould, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Lorna Wing Centre for Autism

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I started Laura James’s Odd girl Out this morning.

James is very lucky because she is married to someone who helps support her — actually probably does support her with her income like mine was — I made making ends meet easily and provided money for holidays and books. (As she says, the statistic usually cited is 87% of Aspergers/autistic people have no job or go from job to job and some large percentage do not marry.) She also has two children and is in publishing. Me too on the children! And I have published. I was married for 44 years, now a widow, and I have two fully adult daughters.
James seems to me to exaggerate some of her sensitivities — perhaps for effect, but maybe she does feel all she says. I know she’s right about the horror of the way all people but those forking out literally thousands per ride allow themselves to be treated on planes. She brings in far more than the approach which begins with scientific categories and criteria can. I find I recognize a lot and suggest to other women that here you will find you are not alone.

Very readable – – simply lucid prose. It’s a also a story of the tensions in a marriage and a British middle class woman’s life today. Here is a professional promotional review: British journalist reflects on living with autism.

From childhood, James knew that she behaved and thought differently from other youngsters. Hyperfocused and sensitive to external stimuli, she tried to fit in by copying the behavior of neurotypical girls her age. She also “create[d] imaginary worlds in my head” that suited her need for predictability, logic, space, and calm. Yet James would be in her mid-40s before a psychiatrist officially diagnosed her with autism. Until then, she “genuinely believed most of my problems stemmed from the fact that I was adopted as an infant.” Told from the point of view of a mature adult looking back on and piecing together fragments of her earlier life, the introspective book intersperses the narrative of her present life as a married career woman and mother with reflections and stories about key moments from her past life. Success came only after overcoming great personal difficulties. Lacking in self-confidence, unable to secure a place in college, and fighting to “pass” for normal, James began adulthood with a disastrous marriage. Instead of making her feel complete, that union—coupled with early motherhood—left her feeling terrified and confused. Doctors misdiagnosed James and gave her medication that caused addiction and forced her into rehab. Her second, happy marriage was not without issues rooted in James’ need for constant communication. Motherhood also brought its own challenges, including coping with an inability to deal with her children’s negative emotions. At the same time, autism also contributed to the author’s success in journalism. Her profession gave James structure and the leeway to ask “any question that pop[ped] into my head and…[not be] seen as impolite.” Witty and illuminating, James’ book offers an intimate look into the mind and heart of an autistic woman who learns to understand her difference not as brokenness but as the thing that makes her unique.

A candid and unexpectedly moving memoir of identity and psychological upheaval.

I worry about the book’s final truthfulness though because the blurb at the back “assures” me that at the end she has some kind of apotheosis (too strong a word) in the book, and learns to live with herself much better. Oh right. Twice I was told when someone offered to publish a life story by me (I didn’t even pitch this, they came to one of my blogs) that I must make the story upbeat, must say how I’m a success now. I think such lies make people feel worse, and are much less help than telling the truth.

As I go on with these groups, I will come back here to add titles, explain what’s in books, recommend videos. Now that we are paying attention to girls at last, does not mean we omit the male experience, including those who advocate successfully for themselves and others: Ari Ne’eman Another YouTube of him indirectly addressing the problem of having to deal with a new administration (and president) deeply hostile to helping anyone not rich or powerful, much less disabled people:

Ellen

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John Lewis as Congressman not long ago

Good Trouble: its value is it shows the courage, bravery and real intelligence of John Lewis and brings together through flashback and forward what a horrific struggle and sacrifice it was to get the vote finally for African-Americans, with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965, and at the same time how this right, almost upon the gutting of the bill, was immediately challenged, threatened, eroded and the suppression of black and other poor people’s votes has led directly to the election of the Geogian governor and Trump. The footage shows Lewis as a young man, his hard life. It also centers on Lewis as a man enacting non-violence. I did not know how closely he aligned himself with non-violence as a technique for advancing reform – together of course with demonstrations and protests (just now the Trump administration is accusing another group of people of felonies with sentences of 40 years who were protesting something).


Ella Fitzgerald singing her heart out & below a famous rendition of Mack the Knife where she forgot the words half-way through but who cares?

Then Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

I watched Hamilton for the first time as a film on the computer with Izzy (who bought the subscription for the year). It is not a flawless musical (see below) but it transcends its problems, and was a good show to watch on July 4th. Its intentional humanity and the cast of all but one people of color was salutary tonight: here they are, the descendants of the people the powerful named white men and their tamed white women enslaved, exploited, worked to death. After 3 years of Trump opening up before all of us the horrible entrenched racism, violence, and profoundly brutal cruel anti-social autocratic and bigoted religious currents in the people who live in the United States, the cast itself makes an important statement — about a figure hitherto sidelined, the part white, part black genius Alexander Hamilton. And musically and for its wit it’s very interesting

Friends and readers,

Tonight it is no safer (perhaps less safe) to socialize with others than it was two months ago when I wrote my first blog on WFH movie-watching, or 4 and 1/2 months ago when Izzy first started to work from home through her computer, or when we first understood that all were at risk from serious disease to death from COVID19 (Pandemic). Tonight again I have three online films, which differ from the first three because all of them directly relate to the ripping open before us, partly due to the calamities of this pandemic (unemployment, further immiseration and impoverishment), the virulent racism that is at the heart of the way US society has maintained and increased inequality over the last four decades. For the calculated origins watch Heist

For the uses of racism, I recommend listening to or reading the transcripts from interviews by Amy Goodman with Keenaga-Yamahtta Taylor, Cornel West & Bakari Sellers This blog is about the movies, and these issues as they emerge from the movies.

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The best of the three and the one I urge you to see if you’ve not already, Good Trouble.

The film makes central to his story John Lewis’s alignment with non-violence: to understand why he was not assassinated (he was also a secondary character at the time, did not attract the same attention because he was small, young, not a rhetorician), why he won out for one of the few black seats in Georgia at the time over Julian Bond (and thus appeals to white voters) you need to know this. To see and listen to Lewis talk about non-violence tells you about the courage and risks this man took to try to obtain the vote for African-American people. Violence in the US is now a way of expression; punishment is what US society resorts to first, and brutal police who act with impunity its instrument. In the cases of mental illness, drug addiction, all sorts of social problems, the police are called, imprisonment the option. Lewis stands for reasoning, and for improving the lives of all through negotiation, talk, understanding.

The film’s second crucial topic is the vote: we learn of the long hard struggle, of the final signing by Johnson, and then how it did need to be renewed (and was so by George W Bush) — but how it was immediately undermined and is now badly eroded since the Supreme Court gutted it. We see white politicians take office who illegimately win because the votes are suppressed (not enough polling booths, back to demanding documents, to intimidation, throwing votes out). If it has a flaw, it does not sufficiently show what was gained by the vote — or what those voted in by a majority of the people are for. For example, we do see the beginnings of school desegregation but not what having a congressman or woman representing African-American and poorer white people could try to do: instead of entrenched localism, funding of schools through small local areas so the schools in a wealthy area are very good, and the schools in a poor, inadequate, there could and would be attempts through the tax system to equalize funding across a state. Redlining policies which deprive black entrepreneurs of needed loans to start businesses are mentioned. But we don’t hear enough about discrimination in employment.

But it does convey Lewis’s character: his young years in Georgia as a sharecropper’s son, his early studious ways, his joining with Martin Luther King, the beatings he took, and then after the Civil Rights Bill, his first elections and how central he had become in his district. At the close there is a 15 minute recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. Don’t miss this one.

Where you can see it


President Obama presents 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., East Room, White House. Proud moment

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Ella Fitzgerald, 1940.

As with Good Trouble, Just One of Those Things covers Fitzgerald’s early life: born in Virginia, in her early years she was an outstanding student (like Lewis), with a talent for and love of dancing; her earliest experiences are shown to be harsh — when her mother died and she was left with a stepfather, she became disturbed in behavior (not mentioned in the film, perhaps her stepfather abused her), was moved to Harlem, and ended in an orphanage and (her nadir) a New York state reformatory. She managed to come out not that damaged, and supported herself by singing in the streets (reminding me of Piaf). The famous moment is when she went on stage at the Apollo theater and instead of dancing, she sang. She was not long after introduced to Chick Webb, bandleader and drummer and she became the singer for their troop. The film then traces her success from the years in Harlem (Harlem Renaissance clubs until 1935), through hard struggles to get on stage (helped by Sinatra and Monroe). Her body shape was held against her; she was not white looking


Photo by Carl Van Vechten

We see her with her son, the house she bought; that there was a estrangement. Norman Ganz was a benevolent mentor. She does seem a lonely woman, perhaps sad, but working hard and ceaselessly. Then her later years, a guest on TV variety shows; live performances in Europe. The film does skim over her relationship with other African-Americans during the Civil Rights era; we move quickly to her growing older, frailer as she develops diabetes. The narrator is Sophie Okonedo, and the people speaking are contemporary singers who see themselves as singing in her tradition. One wishes the film had been made 20 years ago so we would have more of her contemporaries (a review).

My real complaint or objection is we don’t experience her singing enough. So, here is another YouTube, a fifty minute show in Berlin, 1968:

Basically Ella Fitzgerald made her way most of the time on her own, and stayed among African-American people where African-American music was wanted and welcome — went to US cities where they had clubs and singers like Louie Armstrong (New Orleans, Detroit). The film (like the one on John Lewis) was too discreet — both films were unwilling to offend the very audience that used to exclude these people (and to tell the truth, let’s say in schools and neighborhoods still does). So you had to pay attention to pick up hints about how much greater was her acceptance abroad and again how brave she was in maintaining her independence.

Where you can see it

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Of Hamilton let me begin by saying I wanted to like it better and probably my reaction was the result of not seeing it live plus having too high expectations. That I was aware I was watching a movie shows in my regret there are no subtitles.

Miranda’s Hamilton is traditional great man history — though with the important salutary reality that instead of white men playing these roles, people of color today are playing them, the many great-grandchildren of the enslaved women and men owned by these people. British white friends have told me that this switch in races lacks some of the resonance that is felt in the US and so the play wasn’t quite as ecstatically received. It is in fact the usual patriotic history about the colonies, which attributes to the hero’s success, his individual ambition, intelligence, drive, luck, a phenomenal rise in rank. I didn’t like the militarism. Yes in effect duels are criticized, but not by anyone in the play. Hamilton had a son who died this way too. And we watch him grieve, but not learn a lesson. We are not shown that the reason men did this is if someone refused he was for the rest of his life scapegoated, ridiculed, was himself at risk from continual badgering if not more challenges.


Phillipa Soo as Eliza

It was certainly not feminist: the women are all adore the great man, want to bear his child. His wife is presented as spending the rest of her life making him into a saint. Maybe she did. I admit I thought the mockery of Jefferson overdone. Washington was treated with super-respect, and yet he enslaved people. I remember a letter by him where he is inviting another “gentleman” to his house, and tells him of a slave girl the man can have in his bed. Maybe I am overdoing it here, but where are the native Americans?

While I found parts inspired and compelling, giving a new angle, a new twist, I had been led to expect something quite above or different from the kind of show that makes for a Broadway musical hit. It is somewhat different: the hip-hop music, the brilliant rhyming verse, and the reverse of racial/ethnic groups. But stomping kinds of music? I found nothing particularly beautiful, tender; the poignancy came from the acting and at times story. What makes it inspired is the fervor of identification with Hamilton that Miranda conveys.

Miranda read Chernow’s book and took it seriously. He adapted into a musical arguments from treatises, material that is difficult to make a musical out of. Hamilton’s life was spent — a lot of it — was spent writing. There was an attempt at explaining some of the complicated issues. Miranda too offered a strongly pro-immigrant theme, that immigration is the way the US was made, but we should remember the characters on stage were were many of them the bourgeois and rich from the UK. Like many another top-down history, this one tells the tale from the perspective of those in power (men) and the rich (the Schuylers). In a sense its visceral impact lies in substituting the usual white stars for people in the story in power for people of color where refreshingly one could not tell quite who was what ethnicity — and that delights and fools us. It is a musical and as such I was impressed by how tragically it ended and how ironic and satiric it often was. Most musicals are utopian.

To be fair, here is what The Guardian reviewer, Sarah Churchwell, had to say:

Hamilton is the kind of transformative theatrical experience that has only happened a few times in the history of American musicals. It joins the likes of Show Boat, Oklahoma! and West Side Story as game changers, innovative productions that forever redefined what came after them. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, Hamilton was created by one man, Lin‑Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book about the musical (only Stephen Sondheim can claim as much, and none of his shows were such blockbusters). Hamilton fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written. The result is that nearly every song in the show works as a complex historical concert, layering musical pasts with the musical present, just as the historical past mingles with the political present …

Miranda had already created a successful musical (In the Heights) when he impulsively decided to read Ron Chernow’s prize-winning biography Alexander Hamilton on holiday (Miranda’s whim has made Chernow, who reportedly gets 1% of Hamilton’s profit, a very wealthy man). Hamilton represents something of an anomaly in American history, a founding father who never transferred from official histories into popular mythology. There are many reasons for this, not least that Hamilton’s positions were incompatible with many of our myths – he was avowedly elitist, for example, and supported the idea of a president for life – while his expansion of the federal government prompted the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which he brutally suppressed. Neither of these facts makes it into Miranda’s musical, which is the story of a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant from the West Indies who became the quintessential American success story through a combination of brains, hard work and audacity. Miranda creates a myth for Hamilton by celebrating him as a symbol of immigrant inclusiveness, egalitarianism and meritocracy: historically it’s a stretch, but theatrically it’s genius.

Eventually Hamilton became a hero of the American revolution, George Washington’s right-hand man, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, the co-author (with James Madison) of The Federalist Papers, and the primary proponent for federal government over state government. He argued for a national bank, created the national reserve as well as the national debt, and laid the foundations for the US’s economic success. His dramatic life came to a melodramatic end when he was killed in a duel by the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr. And yet, despite all these achievements and dramas, Hamilton has been marginalised by most popular accounts of American history. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams have been the subject of countless books, films, miniseries and even their own popular musical, 1776. But 1776, which tells the story of the battle over writing the Declaration of Independence, does not even mention Hamilton …

Yes he has been left out because he was mulatto, and Miranda identified. As Hilary Mantel has changed the way historians understand and write about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall), so since this musical Hamilton is quoted, described, become part of US central revolutionary and constitutional history once again.

Again from The Guardian: Hamilton … explor[es] mainstream history through the music of subcultures. Lines about racism from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (“you’ve got to be carefully taught”) rub shoulders with Busta Rhymes; Sondheim’s experiments in perspective from Pacific Overtures meet Snoop Dogg. There is a running gag about Adams, in which Miranda riffs on 1776; its opening number is the resounding “Sit Down, John!” in which the Continental Congress tells him to shut up. Miranda is doing the same, telling Adams and the Anglocentric American history he embodies to step aside. He sidelines Adams, waiting until the second act to mention him, and then has Hamilton sing, “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” Less explicit (in every sense) is Miranda’s decision to give Hamilton a signature refrain – “I will never be satisfied” — that echoes Adams’s line from 1776, “I have always been dissatisfied, I know that.”

Miranda’s lyrics are dizzying: he rhymes Socrates with mediocrities, before linking manumission, abolition and ammunition. Gilbert and Sullivan are not only sampled, they are schooled; Miranda gleefully told a journalist he felt he’d improved the rhyme in Gilbert’s famous patter, which becomes George Washington’s rap: “Now I’m the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal.” Puns abound with the exuberant energy of a word-drunk writer: “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance / They only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”


Daveed Diggs — in one of many exhilarating moments

More reviews: the New York Times, fact-checking, and problems with the movie, e.g., we lose the POV of Burke, and it feels complacent: Alissa Wilkinson of Vox

I’m sure I’d like it better if I read books on Alexander Hamilton and then watched and re-watched to pick up the subtleties, nuances of the dialogue and genuine arguments on behalf of this or that measure, which are brought into the play script. I’m probably just now so exacerbated, irritated, jaundiced (from the present regime) that I want other ways of remembering history beyond great men and who did what violence to whom. What has made me so welcoming to the documentaries on Lewis and Fitzgerald has made me have a hard time accepting another male-centered musical with a central train of violence and heterosexual sex, Hamilton.

Alas, perhaps perversely I remembered Eileen Power’s Medieval People and Medieval Women.


The Magdalene Reading by Van der Weyden, 1445 (from the cover)

Ellen

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Un Village Francais; — first episode as Germans take over


My Brilliant Friend aka L’amica geniale, Elena (Lenu) Greco (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila, Raffaelle (LiL) Cerullo — principal heroines


Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) — National Theater

Friends and readers,

During this earliest phase of living with pandemics (WFH for those who can), a new but probably temporary genre (as popular blogging goes) has emerged among those paid to do it: the column telling readers what good movies series, recent and long ago, are available for viewing on-line; sometimes for free (YouTube, PBS portals, National Theater from London), sometimes part of a subscription (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Acorn, BritBox). I do not pretend to compete. The accent is on new or very recent programming (I have not seen or read about even one Game of Thrones episodes) when older, mystery thriller, British costume drama, “classic” serials (though I am kept up, this will not be about Inspector Morse & progeny); cable channel star products aligned with fashionable seeming politically serious series (say The Plot Against America, West Wing). I am a novice at learning what precisely is among the cornucopia. I just learned of a YouTube presence of Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife, with a young Lindsay Duncan — who knew? I’m not trying for little known, and, at a minimum, such blogs will recommend six to eight titles.

But I am offering advice in the same spirit, slightly altered — and much fuller. What you should not miss, on offer because of the pandemic and reflecting our hard era.  Not one made in the USofA, two cannot be watched without subtitles; and the third, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra comes with subtitles. Maybe I should have called this Subtitled Movies.

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The exemplary hero and heroine — doing their best, meaning well enough — the mayor, Dr Larcher and the workman’s wife, Marie Lorrain

I’m only half-way through the seven seasons of Un Village Francais. I am hooked. What can I say that will be adequate (and not go on for too long). The first episode of the first season begins with three children killed as the Nazis fly a plane over shooting everywhere everyone in sight, accompanied by implacable bullying of the citizenry by men in trucks armed. We are introduced to three or four family groups plus others, several professional offices, see the Germans. The ongoing story justifies to some extent collaboration. It does more than explain how this happened, but leads us to sympathize with those who succumb, and even actively do the Germans’ bidding in return for favors not just personal but for the village as a whole. There is some unfair treatment of the communists (as senselessly killing): The communists were the backbone of the resistance: they were often the backbone of many of the parties against fascism – -in Spain, the Republicans, in China, around the world. Each was more or less locally run.

One way to sneer at the resistance has been to deny it existed in France — Caroline Moorehead is among those to demonstrate not so in either Italy or France. In two of her books, she demonstrates they were careful, cautious, respectful of one another’s lives – or they could hardly have survived though thousands were murdered. Importantly these many hours of believable sincerely imagined tough lives, wih their intermittent pleasures, griefs, warns us what fascists are and if they ever gain complete control in the US what we are to expect. 90,000 deaths and still counting, a collapsed economy with a stubborn refusal to help 85% of Americans for real is just a start; a laying on of the groundwork as the rule of law is savaged and the many agencies of the gov’t run by corrupt sycophants, made to rot from within. We see this in quiet enforced business practices that have the effect of starving and stealing all resources from the French to send to German privileged. Get rid of the weak, exploit and enslave those somewhat stronger, kill imprison the uncooperative.

So much of the power of fascists stems from those of decent beliefs for the real good of a public believing the people you are dealing with will operate decently, from at least roughly the same moral norms. It was extraordinarily creepy and awful —- I felt it in my body —as the mayor and police chief, etc, think they can turn the French thief over to the French authorities, and he will be treated justly, then are betrayed. There is nothing to do as the villager, who deserved a slap on the wrist, is turned over to the Nazis for what we know will be a horrible fate -— again and again, you feel the vulnerability of his body and the bodies of the men who unwittingly allowed this to happen, how they turn away, can’t watch, feel so utterly helpless and bad. Torture in front of us by burning people with cigarettes during interrogations as a first step.

Step-by-step is the process. (As we in the US are experiencing under Trump and his vicious Republican regime.) You understand, too, why the mill owner, simply seeing the immediate great benefits, makes the creepy deal with the Nazi commander to supply the wood planks to him. You know it will end badly, but you also realize that the French collaborator is not evil, just doing what seems to make sense at the time. Women now have to be careful who they have sex with — you are then identified as of that party. Interesting how the people fool themselves. Each person thinks individually oh I’ll just do this or that and I’ll survive. Schwartz switches to concrete when a new German commander has a new crony he wants to do deals for wood with. Contracts are worthless where law and justice don’t exist. The Jewish man thinks he will be alive when the war is done, and that he can take what’s left of his business back then so he does a deal too.


Schwartz

Mr Schwartz is a fascinating one: he is driven to murder a man who was trying to blackmail him into betraying the Jewish man who was lending him the money to transform his business and his wife — he is central, his well-meaning capable educated authority has led to him being a collaborator. His brother is now being pressured to move up from resisting by handing out pamphlets to killing in reciprocation, except the Nazi will kill as many hostages as they feel like for every murder the French commit. Lucienne, the schoolteacher now pregnant by the Nazi officer. Marie, a peasant’s wife who evolves into independence because she is gifted with strong intelligence, Henri De Kervern is the bearded policeman who becomes involved in the resistance.

For the most part there are no black and white villains or heroes/heroines in this drama. Everyone has to deal with complicated choices. Which I think is true to life. No one can say what they would or would not do given extreme circumstances. What I really also like about the series is how the characters evolve in ways you would not expect. We are in the middle of series three and could not have foreseen many of the developments. One of my favorite characters has been Gustave, the young son of the communist Marcel Larcher (brother to the mayor).


Schoolteacher, Lucienne

One of the many stories of private life: Lucienne is now pregnant by the German (Nazi of course) soldier. At first he has given her the cold shoulder. Despite her religiosity (and we see her praying repeatedly by the bed) and going to a priest to confess her sin (fornication apparently). Each man has a reason beyond himself why this is unacceptable. Priest: we will just about excommunicate you. You are a pariah if you do this. Lucienne leaves the church, having determined for own sake (and probably that of any baby caught up in this horror) to get an abortion.

What’s remarkable is again it’s the men who stop her. Reluctantly, but determinedly Marie visits Lucienne to see why she’s upset, suspecting all the while Lucienne is pregnant. Marie has self-aborted but takes her to a Jewish midwife, and they are in the midst of their operation, just about to start and De Kervern stops them. He says it’s against the law, he’ll get in trouble and he’s about to throw Hortense out. So they stop. Lucienne goes home and tries to self-abort and ends up bleeding profusely in the school; Mr Bedier (in love with her) rushes her to Dr Larcher who saves her life but refuses her an abortion. It’s not safe; just think of how much joy and meaning a baby wil give you. &c&c. Anyway he won’t. Then he bothers Mr Bedier who he thinks the father to care for her. Bedier is willing — this gives him power and purchase over her, but he is also a good man. The Nazi soldier comes back with all these offers of later loyalty. He is in love with her and wants her to have his baby. They are thwarted by the spiteful Mrs Schwartz who loathes Lucienne for not choosing her cake in a yearly cake-baking money-raising contest.

The story brings out how the women would all help but the men have the power and all stop her. The girl herself casts aside her religion (another force controlling her) and would risk her life to abort this burden and trouble – she will be despised by many for having a child out of wedlock, it will be despised. Not everything that happens in this series is the result of this particular war …

For commentary (analysis, evaluation on Seasons 3-4 click here).

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Across Lila’s kitchen table

My Brilliant Friend is one of these mis-named series from a cycle of books where the title of the first book becomes the title of the whole series. My Brilliant Friend is the title of the first volume and was the source of the first film adaptation series; the 4 novels are called The Neapolitan Quartet (they are mostly set in Naples); this season, the second, ought more accurately to be called The Story of a New Name as it is an adaptation of the 2nd novel, with this name. Lara Zuram in the Rolling Stone offers one of the best general assessments and interpretations of this second season I’ve come across. unfortunately this is not many: in Italian, Italian in feel, culture, places, on HBO, as one of the best TV films this year, and as a deeply woman-centered exploration, the 8 episodes are not getting the attention they deserve.

Here first is my review-essay of the second and third (Those Who Leave and Those who Stay) books. It is Lenu who by the end of the second series is being enabled literally to leave Naples: by going to college in Pisa, she has met and is about to marry an upper class young man who is himself becoming a professor, and through his mother found a publisher for her autobiographical novel (based on a story Lila wrote in their shared childhood), and by the third novel is living out her life among the intelligensia of Northern Italy, in Turin and Rome to be exact. Lila is said never to have left Naples and its environs (Ischia) ever.

Now to the second season for the second book:  From the fourth episode: The Kiss


A viscerally felt experience of the beach at Ischia with Pinu (married to Lila’s brother, Lila is married to Pinu’s brother)

I’ve not seen or felt anything like this in a long time. It’s not just that all the actors and actresses project real feelings fully that we can enter into, but the whole ambience of the situations. Thes= prologues often focus on characters other than Lenu or Lila so in this way that part of the novels is brought into play. Or we see an incidents or strings of incidents that are to the side of the main plot-narrative. Only by having many more episodes than the company was willing to fund can you bring in these “minor” characters. They are often suggestively complex about characters falling to pieces by the system.

After said prologue, we first see them on Ischia as they trudge down the beach. In an other film it would be all surface, glamor, here we feel how tiresome beaches also are, how heavy the umbrella, how weary the walk, hot the sun, and a sense of sticky sand. I put it down to not magazin-ing everything. The house is like a house I would stay in, the curtains thin, the stone steps hard, the doors ugly and off-center, painted in such a way that the shades are not perfect. All the surroundings are like this — a boat is not super expensive, perfect in way but messy, slosh slosh.

Their dialogues are what people might say: not elevated into top wit or reflection, but such wit and reflection as comes out is from offhand, slightly spiteful distrustful talk, the way people do ever one-upping one another — a real sense of contingent interaction

The fights every one has, the ambiguity of positions only once in a while made explicit: Lenu who is treated as a servant and yet is the educated person there with books with her. The mother says I’ll be blamed. When a quarrel happens, the debris and then how sordid
things can be — yet the beauty of the air, light. When they swim, they swim as awkwardly as I do — I mean the girls, as feeble in the sea and yet moving along. What the film does is give us in a way what book can’t — the viscera through sound, music, real presences — the series fulfills the book.

Yet OTOH, it has to simplify so the central story line stays with Lenu/Lila in conflict, Lila and her husband’s inadequate (I’ll call it and for both) relationship, and the entry of Nino into this mix. Lila begins an affair with Nino when he chooses her over Lenu (who is profoundly hurt and turns to Nino’s father and allows him to have sex with her one night on the beach) Another parallel is Pinu’s relationship with Lila’s brother, Rino — it’s too based on sex for her taste and now she’s found someone who she likes better and treats her as a person more, Bruno, and she wants to escape the conflict but also Nino. Almost she’d rather have neither man, but she is not permitted that choice of no man.

In the book other more minor characters are also developed: especially Pasquale Peluso. That he’s a communist bricklayer matters. The book and series wants to present Italy as it’s felt through the class system with all its nuances. Pasquale has no chance whatsover of getting to the beach. He gets his books from the library or cheaply made ones, and rag newspapers. So this stream-lined season (only 8 episodes) would or could be so much richer

From the sixth: Rage

One of many moments where it’s apparent Stefano has beat up Lila in his rage


Enzo picking Lila up to take her home (to Stefano) when Nino has abandoned her

Lila has been in a repressed rage since she was a young child and thrown out of a window by her father, and not allowed to go on to school beyond the most basic primary learning. The rage comes out again and again, mostly in the form of what’s called bad behavior. She is often mean to people, says things that hurt others very much, spiteful, mocking.

The episode opens with Lenu doing spectacularly well with another of these public questionings in front of all her classmates and all the teachers, told she should go on to university, demurring but urged by the teachers, and then when she tells her parents and her mother goes into a rage and forbids it (she is getting above them, where will she get the money from), defying them, going by train, arriving at this pretty looking city and off to take the exams, which if she does well she will be supported. She then says the hardest thing to tell now is what happened to Lila during this time.

We see fleetingly Lila give Lenu a box of notebooks; these are Lila’s life story, and then we see Lenu walking by a canal with them — in the book you are told what she does — and thus are prepared for why Lenu when she is in her sixties writes these 4 books after (the opening scene of the whole series), Lila in her mid-sixties disappears.

In this episode — for the rest of it — we see Lila in probably the first year or so of the marriage to Stefano defies the deeply entrenched norm of these people and leaves her husband for Nino. They live in a slum in a broken down apartment; only very briefly and from afar do we see their 23 days of joy. That’s all they have because suddenly without much preparation, Nino turns on her, and begins to complain ever bitterly about her lack of middle class manners, nuance, that she does break out and say what she thinks, she is an embarrassment to him. He packs and leaves.

Meanwhile upon her leaving — in a scene where Stefano is stunned, astonished, finally tells her how he loves her and has done all he can give her everything. She begins her telling him by saying she will no longer go to the shoe store, the grocery, hates staying home, hates him. He does not believe she will leave and goes to work and when he comes back she is gone. He weeps, and goes to the family, they are horrified and accuse one another of knowing where she is. They decide she has gone to stay with Lenu because they can’t bear any of the alternatives. What happens is the gangster type threatens Antonio, home from conscription and emotionally destroyed when Antonio asks for a job, then threatens him to go find Lila but not tell anyone. This mode of threatening is Mafia stuff – just what we see nightly on TV in the killing criminal Trump.

Antonio promises, but wandering near where Lenu has gone can’t find Lila; he goes to a neighborhood spectacle and tells Pasquale, who loves Lila and he and Enzo say she must be found. They do find her after Nino has left her. She is writing on a typewriter. After some
talk Enzo persuades her she must return to her husband, she is starving in this dump.

She does return, and there is Stefano all rejoicing. She tells him she is pregnant, and he is delighted until she says it is not his Now this is cruel: not only is there no need to tell him but she was pregnant before going off with Nino, and in the book it’s obvious she flees because the pregnancy is a final nail on the coffin. How can she now ever escape.

I’ve heard that phrase many a time from my father — a nail on the coffin that kept me here … What’s missing is the inwardness for you are through Lenu as narrative in the subjective consciousness of Lila at last.

From the seventh: Ghosts


Lenu studying


Lenu’s mother while caring for Lenu

We fast forward to Lenu being integrated into the university (Pisa, Normale superieure); she is the girlfriend of a wealthy young man who tries to buck the exam system where we are shown “orals” are a form of bullying or humiliation (if you don’t produce the right answers). We have seen Lenu go through this 3 times. The young man refuses; says what we are leaning is divorced of all social, economic, political context, he is excoriated, mocked, dismissed from college. She realizes when she goes off with him and he tells her he must leave now (deprived of all income) that she has not integrated socially into the college. She has spent her time in the library studying — so now he’s gone she is alone — not part of some group

She grows ill and very touching her mother shows up and takes care of you. The rough hard selfish seeming woman loves her daughter. Lenu slowly gets better. We get flashback where Lenu and Lila are together after the birth of Rino and where Stefano has asserted himself to the point he control her body and her movements. She fears her notebooks will be found and destroyed. She gives them to Lenu but Lenu sees them as Lila’s way to dominate and control her and make her choices seem inferior, lousy. There is truth to this: Lila has acted as a kind of DuMaurier’s Rebecca to Lenu with Lenu the submissive second Mrs DeWinter.

Lenu has to get rid of them — and she stunningly throws them into the river. These are all that Lila has created that’s worth while. They are better than anything Lenu can write since Lenu has been educated out of telling such direct truths.

OF course we are to infer that these four novels are Lenu’s way of retelling her friend’s story which she did read.

While reading Lila’s story is dramatized: from her first refusal to come out of the apartment and let all these people use her, to her giving birth, to her trying to educate her boy to be something quite different from a fascist male. At first Stefano is submissive and loves her but slowly he becomes enraged. He has a relationship that satisfies him with Ada (I think she might be Paaquale’s sister) and Lila knows that Ada represents a direct threat to her, for she needs the set up she has to bring her boy up. She comes out to mingle and of course finds there is no good choice for her. She won’t go live with Solaro — just another fascist relationship based on sex and money.

It is time to go and she gives Lenu a letter to give to Enzo — in the book we are expected to understand this is Enzo who promised to care for her absolutely. But Enzo is not someone who has either a degree or business from his family.

We return to Lenu and see her mother leaving. The film of her walking away to the train and finding her way with difficulty was so touching to me. I know I may not be able to do online teaching because I may find they are lying and will not give me the support and direction they pretend. Getting on a train if you have never done it is hard.

When I finished I found myself wishing Ferrrante could have won the Mann Booker or some such prestigious prize or that her oeuvre would be given a Nobel – never happen because the focus is on women, women’s lives and the aesthetic l’ecriture-femme.

I’ve joined a tiny group of 4 to read or discuss these books together but do not know if it will come off – it’s online. Without benefit of a listserv

The last for the season, the 8th The Blue Fairy Book: This was a powerful episode. A wonderful finale to the book which ends just as the movie shows.


Lila as dressed for hard work in freezing environment of meat-packing factory


Lenu uncomfortably listening to disdainful criticism of her book at her book launching

An unexpected direct parallel to today — when Lila pays the price of freeing herself from her violent husband and the comfortable way of life he can provide her and her child, she cannot do this alone, not in this dangerous patriarchal society. So she accepts Enzo’s offer but that means helping support herself and she descends rapidly. We find her where? in a meat-packing factory, yes. The movie version does not begin to describe the filth, noise (screams of killed animals), the blood, the disgusting techniques for making sausages, the cold the people must endure, how they are cut, their skins bruised, the word hard and long.

So while the US meat packing workers are probably more comfortable because of improvements in technology, my guess is the rest — low pay, low status, long hard hours, coercion as a way of dealing with workers – is all there. Nowadays on top of that you can catch a lethal virus, but don’t expect unemployment insurance if you don’t come in. There are very high numbers of people sickening and then proportionately dying.

Ferrante is no fascist and last night’s concluding episode showed us how Lenu was being led to stay in the longer rungs of the upper class — be a teacher in a high school because you haven’t got the accent or the generations of family to justify putting you in a university level academic job. The way she nearly reaches that is to marry in. She has recognized this is also her path to getting her novel published. Piero Airota introduces her to his family and she is found acceptable, so he produces a ring. They will have to wait two years for him to get the position he needs to support them as upper middle people — there is no worry in his voice he won’t get that position, and as the next novel opens he has it.

We see Lenu come home and how she has been educated out of belonging and yet still belongs because at a gut level she understand. The scenes with her family and her mother seen now as a denizen of this pitch perfect. Their pride in her too.

The story of Lila’s replacement by Ada is told by Ada in the book as it is here. We see in both that Stefano’s way of coping is still to beat up a woman, and his deepest impulses conformity. Had Ada not gotten pregnant, not had the nerve to come to Lila, and Very Important, Lila accepted her, let her into the apartment and start just living there, it is possible she would not have been able to take her place as Stefano’s new woman. She does have to work long hours in the grocery store, and then a new baby to care for and also obey this man. A look in her eyes shows she knows the price of the ticket.

One of the beauties of the book is how the working class women can band together and recognize one another. So too the middle class but the middle class does not recognize those beneath them. We see that in the teachers’ behavior, women even more than men.

One interesting aspect of the price of refusing to conform to the role of wife in Lila is we see that in Enzo there is no violence, no forced sex so at night. She likes him for that. I feel we are to feel both our heroines capable of liking sex, but the way it’s practiced (so to speak) makes it a chore or betrayal after a while. Lila has some liberty to study, albeit supposedly with Enzo and for him — though as to talent for mathematics we will discover in the next book that Enzo doesn’t have much. She does remain grateful to him.

I was very touched by the closing scene. How both girls say let us not be lost to one another — because they could be. I knew that Lila would burn that child’s book — we have had in the series all the scenes between Lila and Signora Oliviera to know how Lila knows now how little er talent mattered once she did not go on to the conventional trajectory of schooling.

The concluding scene where the novel is published and Lenu is unable to commandeer the room or present a presence that is intimidating so the male reviewer gets up and condescends. Pietro had told Lenu to “remove the racy bits” and this guy makes fun of the presentations of the scenes of sex. They are so necessary to the women’s stories (see above). But suddenly our ambiguous hero stands up and defends Lenu. There he is, Nino, also part of this upper middle class, and he’s read Lenu’s book

I left out the touching flashbacks, especially of the two girls as very small, reading Little Women. Lila curled up in Lenu’s arms, the thinner one, dressed in a cheap sack dress. There are others and they correspond to moments of flashback in the book


As children, Lila in Lenu’s arms, reading Little Women

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

Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theater

I recommend watching as strongly as one can — there may be as good productions as this one but probably since A&C is not that often done, it’s unlikely to get to see one better.


A playful moment

What impressed me is how the the actors (Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo, Tim McMullan, Tunji Kasim) and director (Simon Godwin) did not flinch from Shakespeare’s un-idealized Antony and Cleopatra. He is an older man, old, declining, spends a lot of his time drunk and befuddled, lascivious and lazy; she is a continually grating sort of mate, continually teasing, asking for validation, giving Antony a sort of hard time as a version of fun. Samuel Johnson endlessly claims Shakespeare’s real strength is the true characters. That’s one of the strengths of production. They had the uncomfortable comedy and the ridiculous.

When Antony is at that party roaring drunk with his fellows, we see (first time I’ve seen this), which the language allows, homosexual sex as part of Antony’s make-up and tastes. He’s false at times – he knows very well he won’t stay with Octavia. He takes the easy way out. She acts senselessly too — badgering her messenger. He also is too self-glorified. His strength is as a soldier, on land, but no he will fight at sea – and then lose. He is jealous of Octavius as this young effective man. Similarly the actor who played Enorbarbus is not done heroically (the way I once saw Patrick Stewart do it) but as a flawed human being whose flaws fit Antony’s but sees (as Antony does not) Antony’s self-destructiveness; when he hates himself for deserting it’s all the more effective.

But they have another side, and they do love one another, like their Egyptian life together; and as the play went on gained in stature based on being what they are, true to it, non-politicians, warm passionate, as opposed to the prig Caesar who is part of a long line of politicians in Shakespeare, starting with Bolingbroke in R2, Claudius in Hamlet. Antony owes a lot to Richard II, the development of this figure of a non-politicians, not a wheeler-dealer, a Hamlet, can’t be bothered to fit in, like the young Hal; also to Henry VI – aspects of these characters. It’s a very hard part to play. Cleopatra has no progenitor that I can see in Shakespeare except maybe some of the women in the history plays — those who love, those who are politicians; she played Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife in Hollow Crown. A flaw (it must be admitted) is the actor playing Octavius is too sweet, too young, not hard, mean, dense determined for power in the way of Shakespeare’s politicians.

Until they begin to fail and then as actors they can soar – – I was very moved by the ending. See how they both botched it and yet were just the embodiments of what love can be – sometimes so stupid — why did she flee and he flee after her during the sea fights? As he died in her arms, I remembered Jim dying in mine.


I also saw Frankenstein last week with Jonny Lee Miller as a powerful Frankenstein and Bernard Cumberbatch an astonishing creature; next week at the National Theater is Streetcar Named Desire; and if you want an alternative, or more traditional Shakespeare, the Globe is also on YouTube, for free for now (I spoke of Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry and others on a Sylvia II blog,scroll down)

So there you have it — how to wile away your hours in the evening (after work from home is done) with deep pleasure and growth in understanding and life

Ellen

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Cover illustration: an image of a painting by Felice Casorati, a favorite painter of Natalia’s (whom her father presented as a not-so-comic tyrant then naturally abhors)

Of one of the Nazi functionaries Levi meets in Periodic Table, he writes: “, “è nostro dovere giudicarlo, non perdonarlo” [it is our duty to judge him, not forgive him].

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

copy War and Peace
cyrillic type
(fading, spine bent)

cashmere scarf,
arm length
(dirty, white, torn)

photographs of a girl,
two boys
and a woman (frayed at the edges)

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

lined spiral notebook
(nine pages left,
yellowed, blank)

pair of wire-rimmed glasses
(left lens shattered,
nose support gone)

— from Peg Boyers’ Hard Bread, a poetic autobiography for Natalia, this poem the imagined box of things she could have gotten after her husband, Leone, had been tortured to death

“See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” — Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe’s play

Gentle readers and friends,

Perhaps not altogether by chance, I’ve been reading a series of Northern Italian and Jewish writers tragically directly relevant to what is happening in the US and elsewhere today — slowly before our very eyes, keeping at this point millions of people quarantined at home with no testing for said virus, or humane exit plan (except death for millions). This in a course I’m taking with Judith Plotz at the OLLI at AU (as after all she picked the books and authors); most of them written between the mid-1930s and not long after WW2; you see the assigned books above. I’ve not been content with these, but added to them Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (with her rightly much admired “Winter in Abruzzi”), a book of essays on her and Peg Boyer’s extraordinarily good recreation of her autobiography; I went back to Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (which I read in Italian in the early 1990s), about If not now, when?, and Carlo Levi’s Fear of Freedom, in William Weaver’s Open City (an account of his relationship with post-war writers in Rome (these three and Ignazione Silone, Alberto Moravio, Elsa Morante).

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

The longer texts assigned were all ultimately forms of life-writing. In The Periodic Table Primo Levi retells his life through a series of ironic essay-stories which take their immediate inspiration from 21 different chemical elements, each of which allows him to tell of aspects of his life more or less chronologically, as boy and man in Northern Italy, before, during and after WW2, often seen from the aspect of him practicing his profession as a chemical engineer (this helped save him from death in the extermination camps). We meet his family, friends (Sandro and Rita who help him resist fascist culture), people he loved, whimsical utopian dreams, and (in one case) now exposes for committing without ever with understanding or acknowledging the evil enacted. We are led to see how central to our lives is chemistry. Personal stories filled with life’s troubles, philosophical reflections, whimsical irrational doings, often intertwined with his sense of an imposed alienation and stigmatizing as a Jew lead to our seeing a collective experience of humiliation and oppression lightly presented. Unusual and elusive accounts of life in a laboratory or chemist’s shop often ending in a characteristic sobering gesture. I liked especially the individual scenes, with their unexpected turns. This is a kind book by a kind man who has endured much.


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (another translation of the book’s title) feels de-centered: she hardly ever gives us her or her family’s thoughts hidden from the collective outward life; the anecdotes are mostly about others, with her as the quietly presiding POV. Yet the book is about her life, starting with the time she has consecutive memories at age 5 to near the end of her life when she visited England with her second husband, and now somehow freed of her immediate Italian world can spill out what happened the intimate events and calamities inflicted on her family and close friends and associates as well as their relationships, achievements, losses. Family sayings are repeated phrases, words, sentences that the family uses as collective comic glue for themselves. And we can track them (as they add and subtract people) from one place to another as they move around Italy, or are forced to move, hide, become imprisoned, escape (her brother swam across a part of the Mediterranean in winter to reach unoccupied France). Part of the reason for her reticence is this is a memoir, all the people are real, and the events really happened, so she must protect them and herself. I suggest frustration at this led Boyers to write the feelings and thoughts we do surmise (we are given enough to extrapolate) in poems that give Natalia’s repressed reactions and only partly expressed critiques and celebrations full play. I loved her plain matter-of-fact style: simple sentences expect us to provide in-depth understanding as when she says of Jewish and other displaced now vulnerable peoples they are “without a country.” While the surface is prosaic, quietly telling about all sorts of interesting people (many involved in politics and literature), the underlying pattern is tragic. Boyers calls her style and tone “astringent yet passionate.” The refrain: I never saw him again (of her husband); they never saw one another again. Like Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room, she produces a portrait of humanity as seen through the lens of a personal rich Italian secular-Jewish culture — during a time of aggressive fascism.


Natalia Ginzburg

One of the unexpected pleasures of Boyers’ poems is that in elaborating, imagining Ginzburg’s relationships to a number of Italian writers mentioned and central to her book (e.g., Pavese), we get close to these.


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

Christ Stopped at Eboli is more than a poetic masterpiece; it is a political argument and ethnographic study. It covers the year he spent in internal exile — a peculiarly Italian form of imprisonment descending from the Roman period, where a person is cut off, exiled from his or her community, isolated in a remote spot and watched to keep him or her from any kind of political activity, news of the world he or she understands. (A number of the Jewish and socialist/communist literati in Italy were treated this way: Ginzburg’s memoir includes a couple of years in Abruzzi.) Carlo Levi may be said to have thoroughly internalized his exterior culture — he acts as physician (he was trained to be a doctor), paints (his vocation), writes, joins in tangentially — which culture during his sojourn expands to sympathize with these strange and victimized (for centuries) people he finds himself among, whom since the Northerners know little of them, he is determined to bring before the world of his readers (the book was written in 1946 after Mussolini fell from power). I think his conclusion that these people live in a timeless realm they cannot be plucked from wrong: they have been given no opportunity, no good choices (like the working class whites of the US), exploited by every group that has taken power over them, and the result has been seething just repressed destructive violence. (The lesson for our era is more direct in Carlo Levi’s book’s conclusions than the above books.) He compels our attention by the riveted and insightful nature of the chronological settling in and living alongside story he tells. His sister visits him at one point, and we see this world from her experienced sophisticated compassionate eyes.


Carlo Levi

Late in life both Carlo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg became directly politically involved, both as independents in the parliament with ties to the socialist parties. They wrote journalism, she worked for Einaudi all her life. Both seem to have been known by other much respected writers and artists — from Croce to Pavese and Elsa Morante. It is a small and elite world these people belong to, but one with a pro-social democracy tradition – now under threat too.

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


Movie poster

I’ve now begun the fourth author for this term, Giorgio Bassani whose Garden of the Finzi-Continis (I have the Isabel Quigly translation) has some wider fame because there was a popular movie adapted from the book. I began this autobiographical novel after reading an apparently famous meditation: “A Memorial Tablet in the Via Mazzini.” He differs from the other three by his name (no Levi), because he comes from Ferrara (the others Turin and Rome), and because his tale is of fascists. This epitomizes one of Bassani’s central themes: the moral problem of assimilation. A man whose has suffered unspeakably from the camps and seen so many friends worked to death, outright killed (probably raped — this is only very recently recorded as on Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin) sees his name as having died on a memorial plaque on a wall where there was once a synagogue. He wants to inform all that he is still living, but they are willing (good of them) to acknowledge the mistake and seemingly welcome him back, seemingly sorry for all that has happened, in fact they want him to be silent about what happened, to enable their own forgetting of the roles they played in betraying neighbors, often enough taking their furniture, their things, their property, their positions. It seems to be his moral duty to assimilate in the way demanded in order that the society can return to functioning. But is it? What happens is the one survivor refuses to pretend nothing happened, refuses to forget, demands his house and furniture back. And we see that the others (outright fascists and those who supported the fascists) want to return to the status quo that favored them after the war as well as before. They want to carry on wearing fascist costumes, acting like fascists (the partisans with their machine guns are behaving like fascists).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis seems to be about how uUnlike the Levis in Turn), Bassani’s family in Ferrara, surrounded by fascists and sometimes fascists themselves, were not aware that they could and would be destroyed — they thought their insulated wealth protected them. This naivete is found in Olivia Manning’s depiction of a wealthy Jewish family in Bucharest in her Balkan Trilogy: with what ease the father is imprisoned, personally crushed, his property taken from his family whose best option is flight (if they can manage it).


Giorgio Bassani

The relevance here works a little differently. With the increased monopolization of all trade by a few giant corporations, the film has become one of these unaffordable super-expensive DVDS, no longer on Prime Video on Amazon (gradually such films are being removed) and available only as a blu-ray, merely now very high-priced. A 4 part film of Christ Stopped at Eboli is available only in Italian (as who would get a profit from this, so why provide translations) and at astronomical prices.

While I have my own long-time favorites in Italian poetry from the Renaissance and again the later 19th century to our own time, I’ve been introduced to new poets I hadn’t read or known about. Bassani’s style in his novel seems to be long sinewy sentences moving back and forth in time, drenched with an edgy-raw sort of nostalgia, but here is a poem by him where the emphasis falls on the here and now. The problem is what do you do when fascistic groups have taken over the land you live in and are working to do all they can to impoverish (so as to enrichen themselves) and terrify you into submission. (I cannot reprint the stanzaic form, which you can see here.)

The Racial Laws

The magnolia smack in the middle
of our Ferrara house’s garden is the very
same that reappears in almost every
book of mine

We planted it in’39
ceremoniously
just a few months after
the Racial Laws were brought to bear
it was a solemn-comical affair all of us
fairly lighthearted God permitting despite
being encumbered with the dull historical appendix
Judaism

Walled-in by four walls forewarned
Soon enough it grew
black luminous wide-rimmed
pointing decisively up towards the imminent
sky
full day
and night with grey
sparrows dusky blackbirds
unflaggingly scanned from below by pregnant
cats and by my
mother—
she too confined defenceless behind
the windowsill forever brimming
with her crumbs

Straight as a sword from its base to its tip
twenty-some years on
it overtops the neighboring roofs
beholding every bit of the city and the infinite
green space that circles it
but now somehow stumped I can guess
how it feels unsure
of a stretch up there in the heights a narrow space
in the sun
like someone at a loss
after a long journey
as to which road to take or
what to do
Giorgio Bassani, tr. James McKendrick


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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