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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn at her wedding to Henry VIII — of course Wolf Hall is not covered in this volume, but it fits into the insights into historical film and fiction (it is Winston’s Graham’s first type, where all major character once existed for real) (2015, from Hilary Mantel, scripted Peter Straughan)

Dear Friends and readers,

After an unavoidable 2-week hiatus I continue my review of this rich volume. The first section was devoted to different approaches to costume drama; this one places the films and mini-series into their place in a history of historical films and fiction, in the heritage industry, among national identifications, and finally recent developments in historical films. I have treated and referred to Katherine Byrne’s “New Developments in Heritage: The Recent Dark Side of Downton Abbey” (Chapter 32); I want to devote a separate blog to Giselle Basin’s high praise for “Upstairs, Downstairs (2010-2012) and Narratives of Domestic and Foreign Appeasement” (Chapter 12) as I’ve watched the first season and am into the second of this mini-series.

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From Robin of Sherwood Forest (HTV/Goldcrest)

Chapter 8, Andrew B. R. Elliot’s “British Historical Drama and the Middles Ages” packs an enormous amount of information and insight plus good bibliography (they all have that) in remarkably few pages. He begins with the common perception that there are few costume dramas set in the middle ages (most are later 19th century, Edwardian, early 20th century), with the occasional leap into another era other than the middle ages (I, Claudius; Poldark). It’s thought the era is not one easily to recreate from these artefacts, literal epitomizing and also itself not “a usable past,” its chaos does not lend itself to mirroring. His essay is an attempt to demonstrate there have been many many historical dramas and loose adaptations set in an imagined European middle ages (from Scott, from 1930s Erol Flynn style movies, from various modern Arthurian and crusade stories).  Some are minimally historical and connect more readily in the way of other costume dramas and mini-series to fantasy and action-adventure or romance or parody today. So his essay is filled with brief descriptions of many series in which he really manages to say a lot about the very occasional (rare) superb one and describe much fantasy, stories of male hegemonic power and sheer dreck or smooth unexamined costume-y stuff (Men in Tights as the Mel Brooks parody has it).

First there are 3 typologies (why does everyone divide their subject into threes?): one Robin Hood-centered, one Crusades, and one Arthur matter. These intermix but they have different emphases. Elliot attempts to show which mini-series and films made a serious effort to make a statement about the period in which the films were made (the 1970s again comes out as a time of better films and mini-series) and those films which are (he would not use this word) drivel. A celebration of male power is seen across them all — the few good men saving the world. The early 1950s on TV (where there was an endless Robin series on popular and commercial TV) had a naive image of heroism and chivalry with lots of nostalgia, but also an image of unchecked male hegemony linked to physical and political power. Then Elliot goes through each subset from 1960 on. I single out a few he thinks worth re-seeing and study.

Robin Hood: Again the 1970s in general has better ones. He names as fine and interesting: Goldcrest’s Robin of Sherwood Forest and Richard Lester’s Robin and Marion (I resaw it this summer and loved it all over again). An inward melancholy piece about a deep sense of hopelessness for good goals. He says the 2006-9 Robin Hood series is about Robin as “an enlightened post-colonal leader suffering from PTSD; the sheriff now lends himself to a Bush-Blair analogy.

The Crusades: the third is the favorite as richest in anomalies and he singles out a 1961 Danziger Richard the Lionhearted with “gritty social realism” and “shabby style locations”. He goes at length into Derek Jarman’s Edward II 1991 movie) where identity issues, race (Ciarhan Hinds as Bois-de-Gilbert from Scott is particularly effective). The film has Ivanhoe choosing Rowena over Rebecca so reinforces English identity. There was a 1997 mini-series where the the heroes fought over an empowered Rebecca. He likes Cadfael: it was a mystery thriller detective with everyone in tights, but Elliot finds in it real examinations of modern ideologies plus good writing, good scripts, tension, well done.

King Arthur: Elliot says there is much less of Arthur nowadays in films than one would expect (given books where there is a lot, given Victorian background, given the Net and fan groups). He says of one 1956-57 Arthur hardly appears; it’s called The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Again of what there is the finest is a 1970s Arthur of the Britons (ITV< 192-73, 24 episodes). Arthur redresses many modern nationalist misdeeds. I add that perhaps we don’t like an ideal hero as much as the Victorians did. Merlin is favored as a fantasy figure according to Elliott.

Recently the demand for high production values leads to a reliance on co-production and with the US in there you cannot have the same exploration of nationalisms, international casts become bland and cannot critique the present the way Arthur of the Britons and Robin of Sherwood once did. So there is a prioritizing of multiculturalism with some criticism of imperial power as such.

Elliot suggests that historical drama a process of selection and reassembly from traditional materials. W should not give up on historical drama set in the middle ages: it may be the reality of the Middle Ages was so dreadful in so many ways a long tradition of fantasy from the 1930s picturesque popular costume dramas got it off to a bad start (I left out Stewart Grainger kind of films in Gainsborough films), but we should not give up on it at all — consider for example, Games of Thrones.

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Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I (1971)

Chapter 9: Sabrina Baron: “Desacralizing the icon: Elizabeth I on Television.” This was a grim account. There have indeed been a large number of films featuring the character or figure of Elizabeth I, but after a thorough review of these from 1938 on, Baron concludes, with a few parts of some series as exceptions (most notably the six-part Elizabeth I in 1971), the depiction of Elizabeth, a woman who was a powerful and effective leader in her day (lived long, stayed in power, overcame a number of attempts to when she was young kill her and older overturn her throne), she is repeatedly shown as a frigid jealous or humiliated sex object. Her icon in her era was manipulated to present an transcendant female figure effectively doing what men did; in the 20th century she was at first a sexualized female stereotype who failed at love and motherhood and did little of consequence. Recently she has taken over Mary Stuart’s role as an enthralled woman (by Leicester, Essex) deeply unhappy because of this. Says Baron, quite a revenge and erasure by a male hegemonic point of view and from women compensatory victimhood for them to cling to.

The essay is so chock-a-block with films and details I just offer a few: If you look at contemporary records, you see to many Elizabeth was a mystery, a curiosity, an anomaly, but not an abomination. What she proceeded to do gradually was showcase her virginity, insist on it as what wedded her to England. In 1596 an order was issued that all unflattering portraits of the queen should be destroyed. As a consequence a very few depictions of Elizabeth for real in her later years have survived. What was one to do with this unmarrying, unreproducting, later undesirable woman? Her relationships with Leicester and Essex (and others) so romanticized were about their desire for financial favor and political preferment (I add though evidence suggests that Leicester was responsible for the death of his wife). Baron briefly covers US films (e.g., especially the influential Bette Davis and Errol Flynn), particularly how they influenced or were the same as the UK. The Cate Blanchett movie is one of those transforming Elizabeth into the vulnerable yearning woman (I remember her dancing most of all) and Mary Stuart (Barbara Flynn) into the thwarted politician.

Cate-Blanchett-as-Elizabeth-I-tudor

I was startled to discover the second BBC film about this queen was an adaptation of Scott’s Kenilworth and starred a very young Jeremy Irons as Leicester and Gemma Jones as Elizabeth. first done in 1956 and then 1967. This is one of those costume dramas wiped out. Irons returned in the same role on HBO in 2005 in a wildly popular version with Helen Mirren (Hugh Dancy, the Essex). (A sad fall away from Jane Tennison.) Alessandra Stanley (who wrote a sequel to GWTW) was a rare critic to dare to write of how this film wallowed in painful pity for this aging woman — none of her public successes made much of, hardly mentioned.

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James Onedin (Peter Gilmore) and his first wife, companion, partner, Anne

Chapter 10: Mark Fryer’s “‘It’s not the navy — we don’t stand back to stand upwards': The Onedin Line adn the Changing Waters of British Maritime Identity.” To me as reader it was telling to have an essay on Elizabeth I where all her real achievements were erased juxtaposed to two essays on depictions of men who are seen as heroes at sea (whether businessmen or at war) where the figures are celebrated: Baron’s essay is grim because the public image is one of intense resentment and dislike of a worthy historical woman; Fryer’s essays is slightly uplifting because the series allowed (as it went on) for a real exploration of at least these characters’ experience of an empire built by the harshness and vagaries of mercantile endeavor. At first it was simply a dramatization of symbols of national identity, as it went on it questioned these.

It’s still okay males to be at the center of an outward story where we see a lot of courage, stoicism, discipline, dignity (remember the brilliant expensive Master and Commander from Patrick O’Brian’s books, by Peter Weir). Fryer goes over a couple of the several seasons and in detail a couple of episodes. We are apparently allowed to see “the harshness of Victorian life” Fryer thinks the departure from conventional unexamined stories might come from its being merchant mariners rather then characters in the Royal Navy. He suggests how the series “did not shy away from depicting the atrocities of establishing capitalist spaces abroad.” He hardly discusses the women but they seem to be in totally conventional roles inflected by making them assertive (within bounds doubtless). So where the gender aspect of reality remains conventional and undisturbed we can have a pleasant history of a film … Since I’m just now reading Poldark and the new mini-series (scripted by Debbie Horsfield) is now airing I thought about the parallels here: Graham does go into the women characters at length and shows us marriage as coerced rape, and as marginalized people and what that does to them.

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Promotional shot for Onedin Line

Fryer’s essay is also about the image of the sea in British films and books — central to Poldark because the sea is central to the area of Cornwall it takes place in; Fryer points out how the film adaptations of Austen’s Persuasion bring the sea in continually; how even Downton Abbey does not neglect it in opening on the Titanic. The sea is central to British mythology even now when it seems to be superceded by other technologies. The sea has and continues to provide sites of collective identity including all sorts of hard labor and experience.

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Anthony Andrews takes on realistic role (he was an Ivanhoe) in Danger UXB

Chapter 11: Bowdoin Van Riper, “Goodbye to All That: Piece of Cake, Danger UXB, and the second world war.” The title alludes to Graves’s famous book of course. Van Riper talks of how British costume dramas have embraced the interwar years (“the long weekend”) between WW! and 2, with settings that isolate them from modernity – Gosford Park, by Altman was such a film. Two extraordinary series: Danger USX (ITV, 1979: what a decade that was) and Piece of Cake (ITV, 1988). Characters heavily male focusing on work, centering on public life: tales of men defined by their knowledge and skills rather than wealth and social position. Inattentive, incompetent and inflexible characters fall and die. Individuals are framed as heroes or villains in accordance with whether they can get a job done, so characters marginalized or banished usually in costume dramas move to the center. Forget innocence, wit, virtue, charm, social graces.

These differ from previous films in their focus on combat and precise historical accuracy. Danger UXB focuses on the blitz, 9 out of 13 episodes. Piece of Cake is about the RAF Hornet Squadron transferred to France in 1939; the “phony war” comes to an end in 1939 and the Battle of Britain is the focus; few of the characters are left by the end and they do not see themselves as heroes. These mini-series then challenge aspects of the mythologies of the era. These groups of mend did not save the Old Britain but symbolize a new cultural order. Danger UBX shows characters continually pulled away from leisure time. One man goes AWOL in one episode to persuade his family to leave their bombed out house in Manchester and go live I the countryside; minutes after his arrival this house and his wife are destroyed, indistinguishable in the rubble.

Chris Hart and “Fanny” Barton treat war as a serious business (the others persist in apparent joking), something to be studied, worked at, practiced with clinical efficiency Hart is a wealthy American who flew for the loyalists in Spain; Barton mistakenly shot down a British aircraft; Hart teaches Barton how not to miss; he sneers at the self-congratulations of one kill and wreck which he claims was so easy. Hart instructs a mechanic in defiance of RAF practice to install a steel plate behind the seat of his aircraft to protect himself; someone without it comes out with shrapnel wounds in his back. Hart, Barton, “Flash” Gordon and Moggy are deeply dissatisfied with their leader’s adherence to RAF rules; it’s not important to have tight formations and the rest of the heroic claptrap as it is to look out for one another. Change comes from attrition rather than enlightenment. What matters is adapting; we see this in an Australian character; the language used is ruthless; “hammer the buggers hard;” after one inciden they are called “real killers” approvingly.

Enlisted soldiers in UXB are outsiders because they are the manual laborers and manual labor is deemed menial and despised. But they have to uncover the bombs (very dangerous) and their weapons/tools are spades, pickaxes, wheelbarrows; they have to shift hundreds of pounds of earth. Most of the time they are in working class and ordinary settings; when they do have to go to the stately country house where one of the few females in the series lives, Susan Mount (Judy Geeson yes she was the restoration lady wit who married Enys in Poldark), and her father, Gillespie, they are uncomfortable. Gillespie a man who earned his money, explosives expert, background in engineering and applied science. We see a vast network of people behind the heroes who are engaged with complexes of machines. So Susan assists her father; her husband is a cryptomanalyst and elsewhere (thus enabling her affair with Ash)

Anthony Andrews had a major role in Danger UXB; as Brian Ash, he is there to learn; it’s a story of his education. There is a guilt of comprehension between pre and post war worlds, junior from senior officers, English soldiers from people who have gone further abroad. People are lost and befuddle emotionally: Captain Francais, an executive officer incites a near mutiny by insisting his men follow a time-consuming polishing and social rituals.

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Neil Dudgeon in Piece of Cake

In Piece of Cake after a while Hart is no longer so formidable. ”Skull” Skelton uses gun camera footage to see what has happened in each case (numbers of enemy destroyed, what damaged). Here it’s the senior officers who are out of touch with realities of modern warfare. Want to preserve gentility; Rex offers fine food and wine and must pay for it;he requisitions a country estate as barracks in France. Skelton the intelligence officer describes his leadership style as “feudal” – he dispenses largesse but demands absolute loyalty. Another older man, Kellaway insists using gun camera footage is an insult: people ought to be taken at their word as gentlemen. Bletchley too (so there’s that name) wants to deny war realities, describe the war as a football match. When the men go to the country house, they say this is one kind of war for one class of people and another for another. Moggy Cattermole the most effective as he casts aside rules (sho down unarmed German rescue planes, berates a squeamish man for not doing the same), Bletchley commends him for initiation but says never mention how he did what he did. Moggy bailed out of his Spitfire regardless of civilians and says he does not intend to get himself killed. Women and children cannot fly spitfires, can they? He says – he is seen as a callous self-centered bully but (says Van Riper) he is the character who speaks” the most unvarnished truth”. But there is a deeply poignant scene where Barton murders a dog who stands waiting for its dead master because there is no room on the plane.

Britain, emerged, says Van Riper, determined to hold power by developing high technologies and using them.Early warning radar, jet engines, digital computers. Pursuit of that dream seen in “Boffin” films (Sound Barrier,1947, Dambusters`1954) and novels like Shute’s No Highway (1948) and Clarke’s Prelude to space (1951). Reality far more complicated and Britain emerges in the shadow of the US, and global influence (ironically?) rests on its culture, new and old. Leading cultural figures who made Britain’s influence felt outside Britain were these technologically expert outsiders (is this so?)

Van Riper sees these films as products of Thatcher’s era, she grocer’s daughter and university trained scientist who became a politician. The men of these series embody Thatcherite virtues, Iron people because uncompromising. I remember Jim mocking a speech of Prime Minister Wilson’s which was famous at one time; it was in praise of technology as the great savior for everyone.

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Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens’s towards the end of the last novel (by Ford Madox Ford, adapted by Tom Stoppard)

Chapter 14: Stella Hockenhull’s “Experimentation and Postheritage in Contemporary TV Drama: Parade’s End.” This mini-series (scripted by Tom Stoppard) failed with the public, which Hockenhull attributes to its departures from traditional heritage aesthetic techniques. I watched and read some of the screenplay (like his Anna Karenina screenplay published by Stoppard), and would counter that despite the increase in sexual scenes, the filmic techniques of this series are not unconventional; fancy camera work does not make this a post-heritage drama. The problem with the mini-series is Stoppard is (unlike Ford) not interested in the politics of the war and destruction of old England except as fodder for ironies; the characters are not enough developed believably (as in Fellowes’s thematically inferior Downton Abbey); the departures from Heritage drama that matter are found much earlier in mini-series e.g, The Jewel in the Crown (for politics, ethnicity, exposure of the realities of heterosexual romance) or Tipping the Velvet (focusing on lesbian sexuality). What the mini-series seemed to me was an exposure of the falseness in characters’ miseries, motives, lives, of the world of Downton Abbey — the real ugly behavior of the people upstairs and their variously desperate existences under the pressure of the break-up of the old aristocratic order (or so it seemed in WW1; it has returned in a new form since 1970). It was (as opposed to DA), often deeply hostile to its women characters — as was Ford as far as I can tell — the central heroine is utterly treacherous, disloyal, other women characters are weak, go mad, turn inward and walk away — and this is not sympathized with.

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Rebecca Hall as the frivolous adn treacherous Sylvia

This hostility could account for the mini-series’ failure.  As with Stoppard’s Anna Karenina, you have to have read the book to enjoy the film adaptation, itself a response to other film adaptations of this kind of novel. But Hockenhull’s perspective teaches the reader much about film and mini-series on TV today.

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Viewers, critics and scholars of historical film and historical fiction have a feast before them in this part of the book, as each essay itself has a rich bibliography in the form of footnotes.

Ellen

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall 3)

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Natasha Little as Elizabeth Wykys Cromwell, Thomas’s wife, who dies of sleeping sickness early in the series

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza rescued from an abject life by Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (2015 Poldark 1): she is facing down Heidi Reed Elizabeth while Ross turns away

Dear friends and readers,

I acknowledge the unfairness of comparing these two mini-series airing at the same time on the UK BBC and US PBS, about which much fuss is being made. Wolf Hall as written by Peter Straughan (with the acknowledged presence of Hilary Mantel) is a throwback to true quality drama of the 1970s through say 2009 on PBS. It may carry on on BBC TV in Britain as many of their serial dramas do not make it over to the US. Wolf Hall has (relatively) long scenes between characters, longer utterances and dialogue weighty with meaning and wit, its model is ironic drama on the stage and great care has been taken with mise-en-scene, culled juxtaposition, flashbacks, and literal accuracies. The new Poldark as written by Debbie Horsfield follows the recent trend in mini-series to reach a wider audience (apparently 7.0 million no longer makes the cut) with short scenes, only rare excursions into longer developed scenes (but they are there, as in the long sequence at the close of Episode 4 from the time of Ross and Demelza’s love-making, marriage, and first time together through to the end of the Christmas visit); its model is action-adventure TV dramas (Master and Commander and Outlanders as the 1970s kept in mind The Oneddin Line and costume drama from the 1940s Gainsborough swashbuckling school),and cost-saving measures which make for crude and abrupt movements between shots, confused chronology and (without Graham there) irritating anachronisms.

I’ve been reading Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture — spurred on by some panels at the recent ASECS  and what interests me here is how these two mini-series are presented as historical fiction films, based on history as well as particular novels De Groot writing about the resurgence of history in popular culture. At the same time as academics get ever more sceptical (post-modern) about what we can know of the past, and insist on disillusion and almost disbelief in documentary source, at least “interrogating” them, and self-reflexivity before they will give prizes to anyone; popular culture is devouring historical fiction and it is now respectable, making and going to historical dramas, costume dramas trying to make a comeback (if not based on older great books, based on recent very good ones).

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Is there a difference among historical fiction, historic novels (older written in the 18th century, say Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), and films and “real” narrative history. Yes – especially thoroughly researched history which is often thematic as well as narrative and well-documented. But for readers: do you read an older or historic novel differently from the way you read a historical fiction? More is it not so that historical fiction influences the average person’s conception the past and forces into reactionary historical narratives modern concerns.

Do these historical fictions then become part of the fabric of historical knowledge. Yes. In the case of Graham, he is bringing to bear also the strong pro-revolutionary currents of the 1780s and 1790s into discourse – that’s why the books still matter in some ways (also the proto-feminism and some other themes), Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a revision of common understanding of the Tudor era skewed by Bolt’s and the 1960s desire to worship Thomas More. Morrison’s Beloved is now part of our understanding of the effects of slavery – and the horrific reconstruction period for black people down south. I reviewed Heffer’s High Minds – historian writing popular narrative and it is Tory paternalism that is brought before us despite all his research.

Historical fictions, these 20th and 21st century books, the first four Poldarks and Wolf Hall —  on face of it differ considerably from one another and from fictions actually written in the era they are set; yet both are created from imitating these earlier fictions, what is familiar about the earlier literature of the era, and recent other historical fictions and films. There are long traditions in the representation of the Renaissance and the 18th century. Just to begin with the 1960s on (who has not seen Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, with Orson Wells, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller) they imitate Jacobean drama and what is felt is true of the 16th century classics (Machiavelli, Montaigne, More) we get these Elizabethan/Tudor political types as seething with subtexts, as all of them ever so intelligent, witty, ironic, guarded, making killing remarks that are funny. Similarly not to go back to Kitty (Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland) but just the two Tom Joneses (1960s and 1998), the 18th century is a time of sexual transgression, rebellions and riots, country life, manliness as building a world. The source here are also the 18th century novels, from Clarissa to Austen, and the French soft-corn porn too (who has not seen Stephen Frears’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with the smoldering eyes of John Malkovich), and recently movies centering on traditionally heroic masculine males. (When a person writes a novel set in the 19th century today he imitates novels set in the 19th century and conventions about the 19th century that are found in historical fictions set in the 19th century; so Byatt’s Possession imitates George Eliot as seen through the Brontes.)

Now common sense tells us there were as many witty seething ironic and subtextual people about in say the 18th century as the 16th and just as many dullards, obtuse dense people at the court of Henry VIII as at the philistine court of George III who never made an interesting remark in their lives. Documents easily bear me out that Charles James Fox and Sheridan were far more into wit than Thomas Cromwell or Wolseley. In fact that is part of the power of say Thomas Middleton’s plays (a contemporary of Shakespeare): in Middleton’s famous The Changeling the man who is the evil cente of the play, Deflores (played brilliantly in the 1980s by Bob Hoskins in a BBC production) is not articulate and not very bright; worse yet is the silly heroine (played by a young Elizabeth McGovern in the same production) while the smart people (one played by Hugh Grant before he gave up on serious acting) are done in by Deflores. Deflores can’t and doesn’t want to make smart remarks. They are dangerous.

The great delight for those who delight in this sort of thing of Wolf Hall is the myth that everyone was supersubtle in talk and thought. It gave Hilary Mantel a terrific remit. Her novel (which I acknowledge I did not finish nor even start her Bring Up the Bodies, but which like some watchers I am now intent on rereading to where I left off and now finishing so as to enjoy the film adaptation the more). Her book imitates James Joyce in its self-conscious use of stream of consciousness, fills in with the expected rich furniture and strange doings of the Renaissance as seen in films, other historical fictions, “real” historical narrative, not to omit Shakespearean plays. She has also re-seen the paradigm given us by Bolt and the 1960s so now the ruthless thug politician (Leo McKern) is now true ordinary man, no better (though smarter and with more kindness and braver before the king) than the rest of us. It must be a winner.

The Poldark people have to make do with 1940s novels that mirror the dark times just after World War Two, and to give them credit, they are doing this far more authentically with the central characters than the progressive 1970s mini-series. And as Graham did, they are given voice to the marginalized and powerless, the abject, the lowest of the low, in a wide ranging perspective which includes underlying economic realities. The crime of poaching which leads to the death of one of the characters from epidemic typhus in prison was a disguised war of the propertied against the 99% of the era. Everyone knew it was a victimless crime, punished highly unevenly, the equivalent of Jean Valjean put away in prison for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread in Les Miserables. We see the stranglehold of monopolies as Ross fails to make a go of it smelting and selling copper himself at prices that will keep the mine going and becomes a free trader (smuggler). So we need vast scenes of peoples not tight encounters of individuals.

I’ve written a more detailed comparison of one episode from each (the fourth Poldark, the first Wolf Hall) on my Sylvia blog (scroll down to the concluding three paragraphs) and so won’t go on at length — until that is, I’ve read Mantel’s books and seen all 8 Poldark episodes, but here would like to turn the depiction of the women in the new Poldark and Wolf Hall. For now I want to talk just about heroines of each. According to De Groot and Miriam Burstein the archetypes across historical fiction repeat themselves – whether the character is called Demelza, Anne Boleyn, or some version of Elizabeth. In short the heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity (Katherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn). Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty and then punishes her hard. Elizabeth seeking a life outside her family and ending up dead; Verity escaping to a kind of solitude of two in Falmouth.

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Hero and heroine scenes from both

For the supposed heroine of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the great and important book on Anne Boleyn is Retha Warnike’s The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn,– she shows the false constructions, where they came from, tries to disentangle this woman from myths, but go look at the popular historical fiction (The Other Boleyn Girl or Mantel’s Wolf Hall – I’ve not yet read Bring up the bodies). In Mantel’s presentation of Anne it’s as if Warnicke never wrote her accurate and moving portrayal of this woman,  caught up in a world of totally male hegemonic world where her family was out to sell first her sister and then herself corrupt coteries, a totally male and we are back with Boleyn as sly, amoral, wrongly ambitious, untrustworthy, deserving almost to be beheaded. I should bring up how in the 18th century Elizabeth Tollett wrote one of these Ovidian narratives deeply sympathetic to Anne, and full of the terror of beheading, but she sentimentalizes her.

We are hearing about the terrific performances of Rylance, Damien Lewis, watching Anton Lesser as More. But what of the women of Wolf Hall? Since she left off Amy Dorrit (Bleak House, scripted by Andrew Davies), Claire Foy has taken on ‘evil’ shallow ‘spoilt’ women — she did this kind of role for the 2010 Upstairs Downstairs, the pro-Nazi, Lady Percy, sexually exploiting the chauffeur. Angel face. But Foy is overdoing it, standing there stiffly; and Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is mawkish (apart from the historical reality Mary was not acceptable at court once she had had a son by Henry who remained illegitimate — has no one read the recent history on these women?). The presentation of these women is not feminist — it’s typical historical fiction across the board. The heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity. Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty but then the structure of the novel and everyone around her punishes her hard for trespass. She was not supposed to rescue Verity to choose her own life. And the actresses can’t do as well. Liz, More’s wife, has depth — but she’s all caution and prudence, won’t even read the Bible, sticks the prayer book as safer but she’s killed off by a dread disease of the era (sleeping or sweating sickness) — so Natasha Little (the great actress of the 1998 Vanity Fair) goes to waste — unless she’s brought back in flashbacks later in the series. By contrast, Eleanor Tomlinson has a complex role to play as did Jill Townsend for Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan in the 1970s. Elizabeth has a real ambition, for society, to rise in life; Caroline Penvenon has agency. The real sin among these women is the same as Anne Boleyn’s: when they are not loyal first and foremost. I admit my bonding thus far from the films is Demelza as played by Tomlinson and Liz Cromwell as play by Natasha Little. The books are different: I deeply enter into Verity’s case, bond with the intelligent Elizabeth but have not gone far enough for a second time into Wolf Hall or its sequel to grasp where I can find some purchase.

What is the definition of manliness in such films or their books? the heroes are Thomas Cromwell who takes More’s old place as the tolerant man of integrity; Ross Poldark who builds a home and world.  It’s curious to see how physicians, Dwight Enys (Poldark), Stephen Maturin (O’Brien’s sea-stories — to me Paul Bettany is perfect) are held in high repute in historical fiction and merchants (Stephen Vaughn of Antwerp, Antonio Bonvisi from Lucca, friends to Cromwell) in Wolf Hall.

For myself I still haven’t enjoyed a costume drama mini-series in the way I am thus far Wolf Hall and also only intermittently the new Poldark since some of Andrew Davies’ film adaptations in the first decade of the 21st century. Bar none (perhaps exceptimg Breaking Bad, better in its depiction of women, probably much more thematically important and relevant), Wolf Hall is absorbing, entertaining most of the time, usually intelligent (though not Anne or Mary Boleyn). Certainly Downton Abbey was problematic even in the first two years. The new Poldark’s closer reading of Graham’s depiction of the sources of Demelza and Ross’s relationship is teaching me why I so bond with these recurring two characters, Wolf Hall is pulling me into strange violent terrors of the 16th century, religious — you can’t mock the way Clive Francis as Francis Poldark or Paul Curran as Jud dared — a world without any individual rights. The savagery reflects our own era.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Way back in December 2014 I announced the publication of this volume, edited by James Leggott and Julie Ann Taddeo, in which my own essay on “Epistolarity and Masculinity in Davies’s Trollope Adaptations” appeared. I’ve now read the whole of the volume and had a chance to view some of the films I knew nothing about before reading it. In the Foreword, Jerome De Groot makes a strong argument for regarding costume drama as a central export of British TV, and when done as film adaptations of great books, truly fine movies; at the same time he brings up why and how they are dissed continually. I thought a review of its sections and individual essays would be of interest to those who love these mini-series as I do. Since the volume is quite rich (see the Table of Contents), I’ve divided this blog in three parts following the divisions of the collection. This review is of the essays in Part One: Approaches to Costume Drama.

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From Shoulder to Shoulder, a young Sian Phillips played Emmeline Pankhurst

Clare Monk’s “Pageantry and Populism: Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 190s,” is on the power, the liberal outlook, and variety of themes and art of the mini-series and costume dramas of the 1970s. She opens with an excellent demonstration (convincing) that the costume drama of the 1970s has been ignored, partly because it had a number of centrally influential highly liberal mini-series, only one of which has appeared on DVD, Days of Hope (it’s upbeat at last). Shoulder to Shoulder a significant contribution to the history of suffragettes and how they were treated is not wiped out but obstacles are still put in the way of re-digitalizing. Monk demonstrates the richness of the 1990s and a type of structure, pattern, cinematography, historiography is a development of the 1970s and lasted until 2003-4 when (alas) Mobil Exxon withdrew its support. She does not say but Eaton tells you that was when the bottom fell out of PBS. She also shows (I’ve know this for years as does anyone with some access to British TV) that only a small number of British mini-series came over to the US, the type that Downton Abbey comes out of.

The second essay by Thomas Bragg, “History’s Drama: Narrative Space in ‘Golden Age’ British TV Drama, also examines the 1970s, as a seminal period of costume drama: the sixties began it, and it was serious because of the simultaneous presence of the play of the week (Wednesday nights) and the reality that the people on the London stage were the same people on the TV in these plays. They began to cross over to the mini-series in the 1980s when British film having collapsed in the movie-houses (due to Hollywood’s popularity) moves into TV (e.g., My Beautiful Laundrette), writers and all.) Bragg’s thesis is not so admiring of the 70s, is a corrective. The 1970s have been credited with going-out-of-doors and several of the famous mini-series are repeatedly said to be photographed on location, out of doors, most famously Poldark. Bragg demonstrates that while the film-makers did indeed go on location and film some sequences there, these are few and far between. The central space remained the studio and built versions of rooms. At the same time though the uses of camera work changed: in the 1967 Forsyte Saga, a filmed stage play, the camera becomes a narrator, moving in and out of spaces; the rooms themselves are highly appointed visual versions of the era (made to seem accurate by specifically elaborate props). A strong use of mirrors, windows, and angles made the viewer aware there was an outside which was redolent of wide open spaces. Bragg argues this is the equivalent of how historical fiction works or had worked since Scott; the important scene within a confined area, carefully described objects and houses from the era, with occasional forays out to descriptive landscapes. This is interesting: how does one give the effect of a past time in a written fiction.

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A scene of the family group in the 1967 Forsyte Sage (early on, Episode 1)

Bragg suggests this way of filming changed again in the 1990s when TV film-makers no longer had to rely on older film techniques to film out of doors but could take their computer equipment, moving cameras, one tied to the waist of the cinematographers. Then he makes the point that in Downton Abbey, the one standing heir to all these older dramas, focuses on the outside. The way the characters are filmed, walking, talking, interacting the effect is that of a group of people say in a courtyard (as in Poldark when Ross when to market they filmed in a courtyard in Ealing Studios) — but the great emphasis is the house, the lands, the dominating wealth. Where in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs do we see the grand houses, the outsides, the gardens? we don’t. Some film-makers wanted to give the impression of landscape more than others; I’ve been thinking about the 1972 BBC Emma: this would be one much less concerned to make it seems as if the story is filmed in a landscape but I can see how the disposition, way of filming, where arrangement of scenes is that of the 1970s Poldark, and Upstairs Downstairs.

James Leggott’s “‘It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!': Costume Comedy and British TV” makes this an unusual volume. Leggott is a BBC person; he teaches film and TV at Northumbria University and is chief editor (he started it) of the Journal of Popular TV. It’s on a topic I’m not qualified to evaluate: a kind of BBC and (in a way) elite costume drama that rarely comes over to the US: Blackadder was a rare cross-over and it appeared later at night on PBS; I watched maybe one or two. Jim used to like them when he was watching TV. He’d laugh and laugh.

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A remembered moment from Blackadder

Blackadder belongs to a sub-genre of hour-long and mini-series which make fun of serious costume drama; He mentions Upstairs Downstairs Abbey and Lark Pies to Cranchesterford (a mocking title). These types include Monty Python’s Holy Grail, on the one side, and Benny Hill on the other: low humor pretending not to recognize its own salaciousness, boy’s stuff. The Carry On movies come out of this: Carry on Cleo for example (mocking the Cleopatra movie). Leggott covers sitcoms: Brass, Dad’s Army, and others which are anti-war, anti-hierarchy. For those of us who didn’t see the full panoply of the 1970s costume drama we won’t recognize what’s rejected and made fun of. Leggott shows these deconstruct and expose the fallacies and harm; they are often attacked — as “not clever, not funny and anachronistic.” So what? Well, as he proceeds he shows that some viewers begin to believe the history they see in these programs; they really do and instead of getting the parody or critique the original shows ideas are reinforced. And some come out of a reactionary point of view very strongly. Apparently you can find British people who believe in the medieval period they see in these or the 18th century mock-ups. Not so much the Victorian.

Marc Napolitano’s “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion: British Costume Drama, Dickens and Serialization,” attempts to show that the costume serial drama embraces many of the attributes of soap opera by looking at the techniques of serialization. Napolitano says the incessant reiteration of Dickens’s name as what early films were like because Dickens is so cinematic was an attempt to gain respectability; yes Dickens published in installments but his installments were words. What was influential was not so much the vaunted pictorialism of his texts but their open segmented narratives. Napolitano says Dickens’s novels are open-ended; and what we have in costume dramas from Upstairs Downstairs on is an open-ended story that can keep going. In fact, the continuity and themes are grounded in character and setting not story. They use a limited number of sets while an overarching story narrative which ties the season together. By contrast there are older film adaptations of specific books that no longer how long do have an ending because the books have an ending: Forsyte Saga and Pallisers. By chosing this open-ended structure, the writers and film-makers can respond to audiences and experiment. He’s really describing and defineing a television novel: that we have television novels nowadays. He writes in detail about The Foryste Saga, and Duchess of Duke Street. He mentions in a note Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan had a general idea where he was going but at any point at the end of a season he could have pulled the curtain down; and he did pay attention to audience response and grew far more daring as he goes along. It’s the daring experiment that makes for the innovation. They dare not do that anywhere near as much on PBS, and we in the US get only a limited range of what goes on on British TV.

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A lesser known moving moment towards the end of Davies’s Bleak House: Sergeant George (Hugo Speers) caring for Sir Leicester (Timothy West)

Benjamin Poore develops Napolitano’s essay further — “Never-ending Stories: the paradise and the Period Drama series.” Beyond an analysis of structure he pointed to features we see after 2005 or so. The lead writer who becomes an executive producer and is the linchpin was in place by the mid-1980s. An emphasis on the workplace which makes the workplace a substitute for family (and not said in the essay remains pro-establishment utterly); source texts which are relatively unknown (like Zola’s novel, Gaskell’s short stories — My Lady Ludlow is narrated by a crippled servant in the book); production practices: the fully built complicated set and precinct (the house or department store and land or streets around it); a “warm bath” atmosphere — everyone kindly, communitarian — the new reassurance factor is strikingly different from the 1970s. He discusses Davies’s Bleak House as a half-way between the older forms and this newer one — alas it did not get enough audience and so now the BBC and ITV people want a “springboard’ rather than a classic book. Poore discusses pragmatic practicalities and how decisions are made based on commercial considerations and audience numbers.

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One of the quieter and feminine of the many epistolary scenes in The Way We Live Now, Georgiana Longestaffe (Anne-Marie Duff) writing to her Jewish lover while she is in the London house of the Melmottes

Mine comes next — “Epistolarity and masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope films. Here rather than summarize or evaluate my own essay, and in order not to interfere with copyright (so I won’t put my essay on the Net), I offer Taddeo and Leggott’s summary of my paper in the volume’s introduction:

Perhaps the most subversive writer to examine, Ellen Moody argues, is Andrew Davies whose two BBC adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s novels, He Knew He Was Right (2004) and The Way We Live Now (2001), offer a liberal feminist interpretation of Victorian domesticity and masculinity. Moody closely analyzes Davies’s televisual techniques of filmic epistolary sequences, montage, flashbacks, and voice-over, critiquing and shedding light on the relationship between the original source texts and their adaptations. Davies not only undercuts the conservatism of these novels while exploiting conservative tendencies in heritage films, but also freely adapts Trollope’s male characters’ psychological experience as they cope with the demands the characters make upon themselves while they attempt to enact sexual ideals of manliness and achieve financial and social success.

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In Small Island, the mentally distressed Uncle Arthur (Karl Johnson) coming upon the Jamaican British solider, Gilbert (David Oyelowo)

The section concludes with Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M. Strovas on “music in the British Serialized Drama,” the first half of whose title is “What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur?” It’s more than an allusion to a music hall song and dance Sarah the servant does in the 1970s Upstairs/downstairs,” but is a trope: in Small Island, there is an aging working class man called Arthur, and the joke his while others around him regard him as a simpleton or treat him like one (as in the older programs; Mr Weston in the 1972 Emma is made into a sort of semi-salacious genial simpleton), Arthur is rather cunning, and more sophisticated in his tolerance and observation than any one gives him credit for. There are few essays on music in film of any usefulness — so few have the technical knowledge and those who do can’t write to make themselves understood and anyway write on classical music and history (musicologists). This pair of people manage to describe pieces of music with concrete words that yet eschew technical language. New terms have evolved: source music for music that the characters in the film are making, and underscore music for the music we hear but the characters do not. The thesis is that music is so important to all film, and even in the 1970s ones where it seems it was not used to provoke emotional response the way it is today. The mini-series used the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs, the 2003 Forsyte Saga and again Downton Abbey. (Before people cry out against this obsession with DA, the people doing it make their materials available for study. The composers for DA have published material that is usable — the way Fellowes’ scripts and 2 of his companion books are scenarios and of real use.) These three mini-series can be used to analyse others — so here again we have a rare instance of the editors and write managing to produce an essay that those outside costume drama might find useful and general.

The Strovas show that what developed is a use of music beyond the opening and close themes. All three have theme music that begins and ends the show each hour, and is brought back in particular different ways to make emotional and thematic points. In the 1970s music was a tool to define and intensity the class conflicts of upstairs and downstairs — and conflicts were much much stronger, it was a polarization. Eventually upstairs took over when the hero became the son and heir, James as a tragic figure, but not so before that. What happened was a development whereby source material states explicitly some of the themes or underscore but in key scenes the two interact so as to musically enact emotions and thoughts and what’s happened. It is much more developed in Downton Abbey because they are more conscious of what they are doing and have more money than U/D did. DA uses music more psychologically and very effective it is — much more lush, but not drooling because of pace. Those who have watched the 2003 Forsyte Saga will know that operatic music is used a lot; the book and film take advantage of Irene being a piano teacher, musical and the wealth of the family leads to soirees and going to opera. The Strovas analyses the first encounter, sex and rapes scene to show our source and underscore music is used as a counterpoint. Sarah in U/D loves music hall and we see contrasts of her singing and dancing downstairs as the upstairs ones sit composedly. A scene at the close of the 2nd season of DA has Mary and Matthew playing the gramophone with a haunting love song at the time and an underscore that stops and starts as well as allusions to a show that flopped. The 4th season of DA used music a lot: Dame Nellie Melba came and sang Puccini; the black Jazz singer of course sang his songs and there was dancing. In both Forsyte Saga and Downton Abbey when a woman is raped, all music ceases where she is.

Paratexts
Poldark 1975-76: one of four sets of paratexts that opened and closed the mini-series, each having images epitomizing the actions of the four episoces and accompanied by the same memorable alluring music

Ellen

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Final shot of the house in darkness: the trajectory of the episode: unfolding before us its crowded life

Dear friends and readers,

So here we are, another season. What you notice the first time watching is how the film-makers hit the ground running. Speed: most scenes far less than a minute long. This costs. They were concerned people would say ho-hum, this is getting tiring, are we going to have this again? They do have to keep the characters in character. So a couple of strong star types were brought in: Anna Chancellor as the lecherous widow (she’s even eager for a drink before dinner) Lady Anstruther after the handsome young — harried anxious — Jimmy, 2nd footman (Ed Speleers)

Ansthruther
She puts hand into Jimmy’s waistcoat

And Harriet Walter as the widowed Lady Shackleton who steals every scene she’s in, adding a grace note of real melancholy as she conveys something of the conditions of her widowhood to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith): relegated to a cottage she didn’t want to go into, she bears up:

Shackleton
She’s telling him she’s warm for the first time in her life

They returned to the old wittiness and sense of quiet routine of the first 5 episodes of the first season (where they were not worried about further seasons or setting up arching stories of melodrama). There are numerous funny dialogues, arresting quips, and not all are Maggie Smith’s (though some are). At the same time there is strong melodrama, ending in a climactic fire.

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That’s Thomas (Rob James-Collier) rescuing Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) in fetching nightgown: she fell asleep after throwing a book of poems left her by her beloved Grigson over towards the fire (a death-wish it seems)

For a suggestive recap of the plot, see I should have been a blogger (Ani Bundel).

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Watch a second time, though, and you see something else, something many have noticed before: The mini-series goes on to develop some of the same patterns and in a realistic enough way that three minutes thought ought to bring to mind the troubles and miseries of the servants and women. Each story line that matters and is melodramatic treats of some real cruelty in the lives of servants and women at the same time as it obscures the real motives for it and why the treatment of the person is so unfair.

Confessing
The excruciatingly painful scene of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) confessing her crime, with only a proviso of

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“I’ll see what I decide,” from that site of power, Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern)

Is there any more painful depiction of abjection than Miss Baxter confessing her theft to Cora, Lady Grantham? As with Mr Bates in the first season (where he is discovered), there was a prison sentence; also like Mr Bates the story of explanation, she is anguished, can make no excuse but something evil in her (in Episode 2 we find it was a seductive male servant who “drove her to it” and was “no good”), not that servants were paid so abysmally, exploited so harshly with long hours and severe disciplined patterns, and expected to live among these luxurious super-rich. Who would not steal these fabulously wealthy people’s things? Far from being driven by others, you’d be almost superhuman not to want the comfortable warm beautiful things around you. Today too those who commit crimes are depicted with savage lack of empathy (I don’t know sheer statistics of petty robbery, whether it has gone up with the on going depression in the US with terrible or no jobs for vast numbers of people).

Downton Abbey repeatedly touches on these real subjects but always from the employers’ point of view — the question is how Cora, Lady Grantham, feels is the issue; and if she will see if she can endure to have such a low “felon” in her intimate room. Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) it was who counseled Miss Baxter to confess in order to stop the fierce bullying of Thomas (once aqain playing his part of the spiteful gay) so it’s patriarchy which may save poor Miss Baxter, if Cora condescends to keep her. One almost longs for Miss Obrien’s strong sarcasms (Siobhan Finneran): we later hear she lost her place when the Marchioness of Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls) got her comeuppance (not enough money to keep a lady’s maid). Not that Thomas is immune from the power-lady of this hour: when he goes to snitch on Miss Baxter, he finds he is too late: Cora, Lady Grantham tells him, she knows, and uses the opportunity to threaten to sack him too, for what what she doing recommending such a person to her? She so dim over Lady Edith has guessed Thomas was using his power over Miss Baxter to find things out.

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She’ll think about what she’ll do to him (remember he needs a “character”)

Well, yes there is another, a second an equally painful depiction of abjection. As the series begins again, wesee that privileged ice-princess who makes it a hobby to throw corrosive darts at Edith, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) riding on her bike away from Downton:

FirstshotLadyMary

who turns into Lady Edith careening near an old deserted church(where she will meet Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), that super-loyal and therefore impeccable tenant-farmer. There they plan and plot how they will find a way for her to live as if she is child’s mother without telling, all the while using Mrs Drewe as their front. Before it was Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), a servant, driven to prostitution, driven to give up her child, whom we watched pacing everywhere with her baby clutched to her bosom; now (as a third watch-through proves) it will be Lady Edith, similarly holding tight to her child and near hysterical tears.

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Lady Edith (first shot) watching

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Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) playing with Lady Edith’s baby, Marigold (uncredited)

As Anibundel pointed out, Mrs Drewe is our latest dimwit not to pick up the obvious: Edith is the baby’s mother (well, duh): it must be Mr Drewe Lady Edith is drawn to, or she is very sick indeed (well something somewhere is sick). Wouldn’t the natural inference be this child is Edith’s by Mr Drewe? This pattern of a mother giving birth out of wedlock is seen in later 19th & early to mid-20th century novels (Bronte’s Shirley to East Lynn to Poor Cow); here it is presented in such as a way as to make exceptional a pattern of deprivation and grief.

Anibundel also feels for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville): on the second time round, he certainly seems to be the figure everyone else can ignore or look askance at. He is “donk” to his grandchildren because he once played “pin the tail on the donkey” and apparently was the donkey. He is not wanted to head the installation of a memorial on his own land (!), and is given a position as patron only because his butler, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) makes it a condition of Mr Carter’s accepting as chair. Lord Grantham is told off by the village schoolteacher, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis), and knows he looks bad for bullying her in his indignation that she should have the temerity to disagree with him — most strongly on the issue of the WW1 memorial

LordGrantham (2)

LordGrantham (1)

Let us stop at the memorial. Some of the loyal older viewers of Downton Abbey may remember the 1970s To Serve Them all My Days (scripted Andrew Davies, with that salt of the earth good man-teacher, David Powlett-Jones), based on the arch Tory Delderfield’s 1950s novel of the same title, a nostalgic look at the upper class schoolboy hood of the 1930s. The terms in which this memorial is debated in 2014 is precisely that of the 1950s novel. Miss Bunting is against spending money for a memorial to a war that uselessly killed millions and left the establishment in power; says she we can do something but not waste money on that. Lord Grantham’s allies around the table (Lord Gillingham, Tom Cullen) has produced the usual pieties about comfort for those who died and a symbol of gratitude. Even in the 1970s Andrew Davies did more justice to the Miss Bunting point of view as creditable and even right. Of course people have to be rude to voice it. But Miss Bunting does not have Tom’s approval; she is not exactly welcomed by the kitchen staff whom she hen wants to thank (ostentatiously) — though her coming downstairs does lead to Daisy, now a cook-kitchen maid (Sophia McShera), finding a teacher to help her with her self-improvement studies.

And note Lord Grantham’s misinterpretation of what is happening between Jimmy and Lady Anstruther is the one that decides what happens to Jimmy: having seen Jimmy in bed with the lady, Grantham sacks Jimmy because he cannot accommodate Jimmy’s ambitions. There is no guarantee whatsoever that Lady Anstruther will do anything for Jimmy but use him. If Jimmy could find it in himself (he can’t) Thomas would be the better partner (as he recognizes). Lord Grantham, like Cora, gets to decide who will be sacked; in discussions over the land, it is Lord Grantham Lady Mary and Tom must convince to build houses on the land for more rent. And it is Lord Grantham who leads everyone to put out the fire, who congratulates Thomas (who thus wins back Cora, Lady Grantham’s favor — too easily), and Tom Bransom (Allen Leech): back again as this deeply remorseful muddled liberal Irishman who seems to believe that leftism is a movement based on hatred, and has to ask permission to have his friends stay. He does still see to the cars (Lady Anstruther); maybe he does need to get out more.

Bransom

So paradigms of abjection and looking askance at those who are powerful still.

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Watch a third time (preferrably after having watched all 8 episodes) and you see: several overarching storylines are set up: the first, whose emphasis is not lost from sight throughout: Edith’s need to build a life for herself: the study of Edith: yes just such an environment would foster her kind of dependence and love and despair when the one attempt for liberty she grasped at was destroyed. Parallel is Tom’s need to separate himself from these people, find himself.

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Daisy striking out to become personally emotionally by knowledge gained independent. She has become an artist of a cook, and now she wants to ready herself for a life outside the house, perhaps in charge of Mr Mason’s farm. (And ho-hum who will Lady Mary marry in the end. Does it matter? as she might herself say ever so coolly. Later her grandmother will tell her she’s overdoing it.)

The sub-stories attached which are used to create feeling states, the communitarian ideal that is projected is that of Mr Molesley who emerges as a reader: we did see signs of this when long ago he gave Anna Smith, now Mrs Bates (Joanne Froggart), a copy of Von Armin’s Elizabeth and her German Garden (which true to her anti-intellectual practical spirit she never found time to read). Mr M is champion of good feeling. Mrs Patmore’s (Lesley Nichols) concern for Daisy’s self-esteem — like Edith’s character, this makes sense given Mrs Patmore’s background, where you learn you will be hurt more by the failure because the trying may get you nowhere.

As yet we only see Mr (Brendan Coyle) Bates and Anna marginally (they live in another house), enough to see the aftermath and results of the rape are not at all gotten past. They remain wary, she aware how vulnerable they both are, he on the alert for anyone suspicious of them who can hurt either. Why haven’t they had a child he asks; she doesn’t know. They fear Miss Baxter as a weak informer.

downstairs

Secrets, many of the characters have secrets to keep to themselves (for some stills of them much later in the series at home [from Episode 7]).

A new note: we do see Barrow’s real loneliness and lack of life — a rare case where we see what happens from the exploited and marginalized person’s point of view — he cannot make a life for himself that he wants to live he tells Jimmy. And Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) is considerably softened: she is as pessimistic and wry as ever, but more willing to admit her need of others, e.g., Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton’s) friendship

walkingthroughthegraveyard
How many widows this series has had … they walk through a graveyard as they discuss Mrs Crawley’s relationship with Lord Merton: it’s a matter of companionship

Characters are cast aside to make room for the new feeling states and developments of over-arching stories across the seasons: Dr Clarkson (David Robb) who will not now marry Mrs Crawley; and characters are brought to the front, the supposed amusement of the snobbery of Violet, Lady Grantham’s butler, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) who Violet, Lady Grantham is supposedly ruled by — not very.

And in each episode we’ll have self-contained stories of characters not seen again (as here, Anstruther and Jimmy, Lady Shackleton), or stories which last 2-3 episodes and conclude (TBA). Even Isis, the dog, is being readied to play her role when the time comes.

There is a darker palette this time: I have enlarged several stills because unless I do that you won’t be able to make out the guarded people.

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Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the last shot of someone in the opening: she knows Lady Edith has a painful secret she has shared with Mr Drewe (now fireman he makes an appt with Lady Edith to discuss matters)

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

If you are into historical films, costume dramas, mini-series, TV films, 19th to early 20th century classic and serious novels as adapted by British TV, this book should be just your thing.

Cover

I, for one, find Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham’s outfit irresistible: that soft blue color, the light velvety texture of the dress, the pearls, the long white gloves, not to omit the pearls peeking out of her bun matching her long strand and her tiara and that worried consulting look on her face as she talks to Jim Carter as the eternal butler-steward, solver of all problems, Mr Carson — perfectly poised as epitomizing costume drama.

Here is The Table of Contents:

Yes mine is among the essays — on Andrew Davies’s adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now — but note this is a collection that begins in the 1960s, covers costume drama, British TV and thematic British issues generally across the second half of the 20th century; and the Edwardian and post World War I novel. It’s not just Poldark to Downton Abbey:

Foreword
Jerome de Groot
Acknowledgments
Introduction
James Leggott and Julie Anne Taddeo

Part I: Approaches to the Costume Drama

1 Pageantry and Populism, Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 1970s — Claire Monk
2 History’s Drama: Narrative Space in “Golden Age” British Television Drama — Tom Bragg
3 “It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!”: Costume Comedy and British Television — James Leggott
4 “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion”: British Costume Drama, Dickens, and Serialization — Marc Napolitano
5 Never-Ending Stories?: The Paradise and the Period Drama Series — Benjamin Poore
6 Epistolarity and Masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope Adaptations — Ellen Moody
7 “What Are We Going to Do with Uncle Arthur?”: Music in the British Serialized Period Drama — Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M Strovas

Part II: The Costume Drama, History, and Heritage

8 British Historical Drama and the Middle Ages — Andrew B. R. Elliott
9 Desacralizing the Icon: Elizabeth I on Television — Sabrina Alcorn Baron
10 “It’s not the navy-we don’t stand back to stand upwards”: The
Onedin Line and the Changing Waters of British Maritime Identity —
Mark Fryers
11 Good-Bye to All That: Piece of Cake, Danger UXB, and the Second World War — A. Bowdoin Van Riper
12 Upstairs, Downstairs (2010-2012) and Narratives of Domestic and Foreign Appeasement — Giselle Bastin
13 New Developments in Heritage: The Recent Dark Side of Downton “Downer” Abbey — Katherine Byrne
14 Experimentation and Postheritage in Contemporary TV Drama:
Parade’s End — Stella Hockenhull

Part III: The Costume Drama, Sexual Politics, and Fandom

15 “Why don’t you take her?”: Rape in the Poldark Narrative — Julie Anne Taddeo
16 The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction — Andrea Schmidt
17 This Wonderful Commercial Machine: Gender, Class, and the Pleasures and Spectacle of Shopping in The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge — Andrea Wright
18 Taking a Pregnant Pause: Interrogating the Feminist Potential of
Call the Midwife — Louise FitzGerald
19 Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey — Lucy Brown
20 Troubled by Violence: Transnational Complexity and the Critique of Masculinity in Ripper Street –Elke Weissmann

Index
About the Editors and Contributors

I could wish there were more here, more on the intermediary stages, the important film adaptations of the 1980s (Brideshead was typical of that decade), and the movement into TV at the time of serious cinema film-makers (e.g., My Beautiful Laundrette), but the way to read more books on this area, is by buying and or reviewing this one. I can’t as an interested party. But as I did for my essay on “Intertexuality in Simon Raven’s The Pallisers and other Trollope films” in Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, edd. Abigail Burnham Bloom and Mary Sanders Pollock, I’ll keep an eye out for reviews and link them in as well as myself read this collection and report back anything which seems to call out for special attention.

Ellen

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Laura Poitras, photo by James Day

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Jon Stewart with the male star of Rosewater, Gael Garcia Bernal

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past few weeks I’ve watched a series of documentaries about what might be called the state of the political world and military actions conducted by the Bush and succeeding US administration (Obama) in reaction to 9/11; this includes the present omnipresent use of surveillance over (I suppose) everyone by various US and UK (and other states’) agencies, imprisonment often w/o trial of literally countless individuals, the use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture. Quite an agenda.

I began with CitizenFour, led to go to a local movie-house at 2 in the afternoon to catch the movie by the crucial interest of the subject (while in the event the auditorium was remarkably crowded for that time of day, nonetheless the movie disappeared in less than 3 weekends), but then drawn by Poitras as a film-maker. I wanted a comparison so went for what was available, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater (also disappeared quickly); understanding that CitizenFour is the third of a trilogy, I used Netflix to watch the second movie, The Oath, and then (unaccountably I suppose going backwards), the first, My Country, My Country. I wanted to see Kill the Messenger, but it played in but one movie-house in all the DC area that I could find, a theater not easy for me to get and by the time my schedule permitted it, Kill the Messenger had been killed (never got to DC where the powerful politicians, their committees and aides, the media, and reporters it exposed work from). Kill the Messenger did last longer than CitizenFour and Rosewater, but then it was at just this one theater — in Ballston, Arlington, by the way, for those who know this area, a place of apartments houses, where in the mall Jim and I have seen startlingly original plays now and again, one of Rameau’s Nephew I still remember).

I’m here to tell you that Poitras is a great documentary film-maker, and her subject being what it is, you should make the effort to see her trilogy, which has been reviewed fairly by David Bromwich in NYRB, with an emphasis on CitizenFour (“The Question of Snowden”), and much less neutrally (hostilely, with snide remarks aimed at Poitras and sudden turn-abouts, such as out of nowhere “Snowden is of course a traitor”) by George Packer (the New Yorker, Holder of Secrets). I’ve already written about CitizenFour (almost upon getting home from the movie), as “A Win” (scroll down to the last third of blog).

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I wish there were a recognized tradition of documentaries in the US as there are in the UK (where they regularly play on TV); the best comparison I can come up with is My Country, My Country is as good as any of Frederick Wiseman’s best.

DrRiya

Several things make it as good as it is: first her art, in a quiet way she juxtaposes the right scenes against one another; like Wiseman, she tries to erase herself so you are listening to others and watching them (there are little vignettes of people passing the time of day in the way of Wiseman, bits of weather); she photographs landscapes aptly and gets the feel of the place (from driving a cab in Somalia, to the dreadful quiet of Guantanamo, to the destruction of the cities of Iraq as well as life lived inside a house without electricity, or communication lines outside). She wins the trust of those she interviews insofar as they are willing to open up in all three films: the central figure of The Oath, Abu Jandal (complex, sensitive man who has led a brutal existence) seems to be doing this and in a way he does show himself; Edward Snowden is a man being interviewed until near the end in a dangerous situation (in the Hong Kong hotel), and the central figure of My Country, My Country, Dr Riyahd al-Adhadh, an Iraqi doctor, upper class male who runs for office during an election in 2005, acts out his daily routine (he works as a doctor) and seems to say what he intended to say or do wherever he is regardless of Poitras’s camera. She’s not as aggressive as Wiseman or as pointed in what she shows, and she gets an intimate feel as she films people making their tea, unexpected gestures that are revealing.

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A campaign manager telling the people what Bush wants

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People listening

The central story of the My Country, My Country is this election of 2005: all the people we see, soldiers, mercenaries (buying as cheap as they can get them, deadly weapons in order to “monitor” the sites and make sure they go the way wanted), the campaign managers (often from Australia) are there to make this election look right. Riyadh cooperates because he is hoping to help his Sunni brethren in his area of Baghdad and around the country (Falluja) to have some sort of say (however hopeless the attempt) At one point to some prisoners he visits in a supposed opening up who have been held for months without trial, put into solitary confinement, sometimes tortured in other ways, underfed, miserable in heated tents), he bursts forth, so frustrated is he in his inability to do anything to help any of them: “We are an occupied country with a puppet government.”

atopenairprison

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Soldier insisting a 9 year old is dangerous, that the people are decently treated, will be fairly tried …

One sequences of images shows an Iraqi man appealing to a committee to stop spending money this way, asking them what is the use of this (phony) election amid this slaughter; this destruction of needed services like electricity and water, these prisons? Well, Bush wanted it. As with the putting the challenger into space in 1987 done at the worst possible time weather-wise was done (as Feynman shows) because Reagon wanted it, so everyone is following the Big man and His men. Bush is the equivalent of the absent Henry VIII in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. (Obama cannot escape this kind of numinous power from patronage that people still organize themselves around.)

The speakers and their plights make this a poignant movie.

Poitras basically follows Dr Riyahd around; she is in his house at all hours of day and night and we watch conversations of the women inside the house, sometimes with Riiyadh answering. We see a wedding held. We get to recognize the wife, the mother, older female relatives, his daughters one of whom cries out “we have no life and can have no life, have had no life for ever so long.”

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The film’s hold and the respect it commands comes from this man who is reasonable, holding out, though at the close when the election gives Sunni hardly any seats, he is suddenly embittered and talks of how they must move (Where?); it’s touching how much care he will take over this or that specific individual as if each person matters. That speaks the values of this film against which we see the bombing and killing now and again.

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High fat cat at mike, urging them on their “mission”

You have to use your brains and recognize what are obvious lies; the film exposes the absurdity and cruelty of what was being done — we don’t see the actors who are making money of course — the Haliburtons, but in a way you can’t film that; as Alexander Pope said in the 18th century how do you dramatize the corruption of money and how it’s used and works silently so that’s it’s seen only in the people hired to work jobs, the boardrooms and dinners where things are decided. The conversations we might like to hear, money changing hands, moving digitally cannot be filmed.

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A street scene (there are also scenes of Falluja and other towns and houses gutted out from bombs)

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

My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary of the year. You’d think Poitras would have gone on to make even better films. But this has not happened. The Oath and CitizenFour are made on much cheaper budgets; she does not get to films interviews of or talks to the same kinds of important people after My Country, My Country. It was after this film, she began to be so harassed at every border crossing she passed, searched and stopped 40+ times at airports, her precious things taken from her more than once (returned most of them, but not always); after this film she moved to Berlin. Packer calls her paranoid — in one of his unfair dismissive descriptions of her. Yes she’s a privileged person, comes from people with wealth, went to fine schools (including New School of social research), lived in Manhattan, frequents nice bars. Does he want her to stay in sordid ones? she’s a woman.
(Packer also indulges in snide cracks at Julian Assange . The man is not cooperative,says Packer as if this were surprising or a sin. Well, duh. Not clubbable like Packer is, eh?)

In the case of The Oath, she wanted to make a film about the taxi-driver of Bin Laden who was captured, put in a black hole, tortured, taken to Guantanomo and (astonishingly to many), with the help of two military lawyers (we watch in the film giving public interviews) won a supreme court case where they declared that one could not call a man a terrorist for supplying daily aid (like a car, like services included in being a chauffeau in effect), so congress passed a law saying to give material aid to a terrorist was enough to make someone a terrorist. The case again was adjudicated and this time he was guilty as charged (according to the new law), but the sentence was time served plus four months so a slap at congress was administered. The Hamdan cases are now used in arguments about terrorism. Promising material, no?

But after giving one interview to a BBC reporter in London, after returning home, Hamdan will give no interviews. So Poitras uses a man close to him, who “recruited” him (got him a needed job as a driver), Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law.

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Abu Jandal the focus of her second film, The Oath

She discovered that Jandal is a revealing and intelligent person in his own right. So Poirtras’s film centers on Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law, what footage she has found of one of Hamdan’s “interrogation” (under a hood, and his body all cringed and terrified in some hideous prison),

interrogation

then the trial (just outside with sketches and drawings of what is happening inside the courtroom), the trial lawyers and congressional hearings; she has also footage of Guantanamo, and she films places in Afghanistan and where Abu Jandal now works as a cab driver.

Jandal is a fascinating person: he is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. Also of great interest is Swift, the lawyers working for Hamdan:

Swift
Charles Swift, one of Hamdan’s lawyers

there is also a military officer who says he does this to keep the constitution alive and well.

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Neal Catyal, another defending lawyer

It has depths of a different kind from My County My Country. Jandal is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. He was someone who administered oaths of loyalty. Abu Jandal is an intense believer — in his religion, we see him bringing up his boy continually — and among other things he believes in is the Arab way of life he saw personified in Bin Laden; he presents his wife and sister-in-law (in burkas). We see him teaching his son:

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son
Father and son

He followed Bin Laden out of a personal identification. People who get followers do sometimes do that.

The film merits comparison with CitizenFour — done on a similar budget, similarly centrally focused without much story line (Snowden escapes to the Russian airport near the end of the film and at the close he is interviewed briefly from an unknown place in Russia by Greenwald with Poitras as film-maker). See my A Win (blog — scroll down to last 3rd).

CitizenFour

She keeps her distance says Packer from Abu Jandal as she does not in Citizen Four. He seems to feel she identified so closely with Snowden that accounts for her taking what he said at face value. I wonder — Packer says we are watching a man being interviewed, not the inner man; well the same happened with Jandal (who is not revealing “all”). She also couldn’t get past the mask (as sophisticated people we want to know the pyschological and personal sociological reasons for his giving up a good life to risk life in solitary confinement and worse, or in Russia meagrely tolerated) becUse he was in danger at those moments as Jandal no longer is.

What we do see in Snowden is revulsion. He felt intense revulsion at what he was seeing going on around, him, at the secret life he was living, at its privileges. I think he’s an austere guy — e has not yet been apprehended because he has files of just this nature that will drop the minute he disappears–and people in power know it. He has not released much of what he has. Why Assange remains safely (tenuous safety) inside the Equadoran embass. The for how Snowden’s girlfriend got from their apartment in wherever it was to now live with Snowden in his Russia and cook spaghetti together. People may also think some of these files are known to Greenwald and Poitras. The repugnance (revulsion I called it) was not just for the way of life he saw in the high tech firms and their employees’ home life but personally, a feeling of how at risk they all were from one another.

Snowden no sentimentalist but he does seem to have acted out of a deep feeling of what is decent and indecent. What he saw happening where he worked, he felt was indecent — Imagine him watching people looking into files of just anyone or someone they wanted to hurt or were paid to find things out about. In comparison Abu Jandal has beliefs that are deeply optimistic (from his religion which is real), though he fears snatching and killing. At the end of The Oath he has lost his job and is worried about having lost his cab but doesn’t say why these events have occurred.

It’s no coincidence that decency also actuates Poirtras’s chosen Iraqi doctor. This sort of emotion outraged, and an idealism as well as intense curiosity about the people who involve themselves fuels Poitras’s films. Her film on Snowden is more careful — it seems apolitical and that’s to enable her to make another.
Films can be a source of real information and insight — like so much in our culture, because their power and abilities are often so wasted and thrown away and wrongly exploited that does not mean the medium is not one of the most powerful we have today.

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David Denby of the New Yorker tells about the incident on Stewart’s comedy program which Denby thinks helped lead to Rosewater.

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Maziar Bahari interviewed comically by Stewart

At the time of this real life incident on TV, Stewart’s interview of a reporter named Bahari that led (circuitously) to Bahari being snatched, kidnapped, imprisoned, held in solitary confinement for months and emotionally tortured, terrified and also beat up hard a couple of times, I was not watching TV at all so can say nothing (I still don’t watch TV much.) The important element was this gave Stewart a justificaion, a raison d’etre beyond the actuating purposes of the film (similar to Poitras) — to expose what the war on terror, surveillance, and torture in imprisonment, specifically solitary confinement inflicts on individuals.

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Bernal as the British reporter captured by Egyptian nationalists, being harassed by one of his interrogators

Bernal is a powerful actor and this is not the first political film he’s been in; he was superb in After the Rain, about the attempt in a South American country by a corporation to take over the water supply and start charging money for it (see my blog, Even the Rain).

It’s a good not a great film, and part of the flaw is its fiction and sentimentalized (we don’t get deep pain at all). He’s also careful to be mainstream and he does this by suggesting all political movements and leaders are shits. Bahari’s father was high in politics and gov’t in 1953-54 when the only attempt thus far was made to set up a secular democracy, socialist in thrust: the US and UK with their CIA and M15 moved in and overthrew them, imprisoned, tortured (probably) and destroyed it. In the movie Bahari’s father is implicitly criticized as a deluded communist with the implication all communists are tyrants, deluded people follow them. As if they are more evil than fascists, totalitarians, religious fanatics. In fact they were trying to set up a neutral secular state with the socialists; a real election had put a democracy in place. The US staged a coup. The happy ending of the film also seems to justify the American state as a sane one: but the real topic of the movie, solitary confinement (to which much of the movie is given over and is an stunning feat), is more widespread in US prisons than European ones, and political imprisonment has grown to visible public dimensions. The film did not stay long in theaters anyway.

Rosewater (cont’d in comments).

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Some tentative conclusions:

That Poitras comes from wealthy people tells us more than how she affords her traveling, her living in Berlin, and see her earlier privileged life (New School in NYC); more importantly (from my studies of liberty and reading Mill and Berlin and others), her sense of her self, her background, upbringing makes her feel she can exercise her liberty. It is as important to feel you have the right to exercise your liberty, which comes from background (upbringing, class, gender, education, habitas) as to have it. Like Penelope Fitzgerald (an article by James Wood in the same New Yorker as Packer on Poitras), her quiet sense she need not explain, her concision and other aspects of her film making come from this background. Their nerve, they have the nerve.

The non-fiction trilogy is by a woman — there’s a cyclical feel; we end where we began in The Oath, poor Jandal now has lost his cab and job. We are not told why — nor exactly who provided the money for the cab in the first place. We go back to white letters on black in CitizenFour. There’s little superfluous violence, hardly any at all, it’s just menacing us at the corners of the screen – all the people we see interview Jandal (she includes film clips) and the film clips of the defense atttorneys for Hamdan and of course the narrative line telling us accurately what happened to him (sold to the Americans, put into black hole, &c&c) and we feel it in her overvoice of Citizen Four. We see it in the silent pictures of the cities and landscapes (Guantanomo, Afghanistan, places not identified where people are meeting in tents and being interviewed or talked at by reporters and high officials.) Now she’s not an official. She’s just a woman.

As to the issues, there is passing discussion of liberty which one lawyer says is now unfortunately defined as privacy: that’s a real loss as what’s at stake is more than privacy. A friend writes: “The issue of free speech was also addressed. What this surveillance means is that the notion of free speech is essentially meaningless. In invading your privacy, your civil liberties have been suspended. For example, should you try to organize a protest, the government will know what you are up to. If they consider the action a treat, they can stop it. I guess this is when the swat team arrives at your door.” The 8th amendment is also gutted as your money can be stopped from getting to you. The US government and others too (the UK perhaps in its decades old GCHQ), has records of all our business transactions, such as our public transit card, and our credit cards, and our banking info, as well as everything we do on the computer and every phone call we make. They can access these files at any time and go through them retroactively.

Stewart is a deeply compassionate man but without the “license” of non-fiction curtailed what he could have dramatized.

Ellen

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TilerPeckMarievanGoethem
Tiler Peck enacting the famous Degas statue: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Dear friends and readers,

I did not realize I was going to see a mainstream Broadway musical circa 1950s when I bought my ticket to go to The Little Dancer this past Sunday. A man I had talked to a couple of times at the Film Club at Cinemart had recommended it, saying it was having its “world premiere” here in DC rather than NYC. I thought only of the famous statue, and did not foresee there’d be Ethel Merman like numbers sung by Marie’s mother, Martine (Karen Ziema), played as your robust but downtrodden and heavy-drinking laundress who does a little prostituting on the side.

Balletdancing

But as the musical began and I heard some of the corny language – at its climax Degas (Boyd Gaines) actually cries more than once: “My God! what have I done?” and runs about — and saw what was supposed to be desperate poverty and maginalized aspiration sung about in this super-cheerful way, with choral numbers of men dressed as abonnés (exploitative upper class men who hung around these theaters, sometimes supporting them for a time) and girls alternatively dressed as ballerinas and laundresses gyrating rhythmically or in parallel formation, I knew what I was in for. (The director and choreographer is Susan Strohman.) Still I was a little surprised at the standing ovation and strong cheering the full auditorium gave the people on stage since at no point were there shouts of bravo or high sudden applause of the type showing spontaneous deep accord or pleasure or emotion. I had heard a couple of people during intermission saying this was an “old-fashioned musical” in a way that showed approval, but in fact it lacked the stand-still kind of singing and full crew dancing numbers that characterized Oscar and Hammerstein or My Fair Lady. And the story was implicitly much darker than these mid-century vehicles (Carousel let us recall makes up for misery by asserting one never walks alone and then showing us heaven watching out for Julie).

I’ve been spoilt. What Jim did was buy half-price tickets to see unusual plays, original musicals (and or operas) in local repertory theaters around the area, so the conventionalism of the 3 hours blared out at me. I don’t watch the Net, pay attention to what’s on everywhere, and haven’t the intuition to recognize what will be worth the time as he did — though once I get there I recognize what’s in front of me. I’m not the only one. Charles Isherwood was less than overwhelmed. The Washington Post article by Philip Kennicott is more about the genuinely relevant material to us today that makes up the circumstances of the story than the musical itself.

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One of the replicas of this statue now in the National Gallery in DC

I don’t mean to be too hard on this musical. It was as much a ballet as a musical.

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There was effective expressive dancing by Peck continually and with Harris and the chorus, and male and female ballet and ballroom dancing ensembles. The books and lyrics were clearly by a woman, Lynn Ahrens; the structure was cyclical and empathetic to central female figures — Mary Cassatt (Janet Dickinson) was represented as Degas’s great friend. Central female figures, the issue of abonnés show the women-authored nature of the piece. There was a woman voiceover-narrator, the adult Marie who has come to visit Cassatt after the death of Degas. I didn’t realize that the actress-singer, Rebecca Luker, was a known favorite of this audience until I read in the playbook Luker is famous for her performance on Broadway of Mary Poppins: I fear a benignly strong saccharine version of Julie Andrews’ role, and then heard the applause for her at the musical’s end and recognized she was dressed to recall her previous role.

MaryPoppins
Luker is to the left and Mary Cassatt as old to the right, with Degas and the devastated young Marie (he’s ruined her career by his daring statue!) at center

Nonetheless, the music (by Stephen Flaherty) was disappointing — maybe the apparently necessary continual rhythmic background for the dancing numbers precluded individuation, the way one could not ask Peck and the other ballerinas also to be a nuanced actress (they were not, it was soft caricature all the way). It was a kind of cross between a weak version of lyricism of The Secret Garden (book, lyrics, screenplay, all by women) where what is being remembered criss-crosses with what is happening now, an interlace; and a weak version of Sondheim’s self-reflexive wittiness. You could feel Sondheim in the talk rhythms and staging, as well obviously in the bringing forth from actors on the stage simulacrums of works of art. But to remind one of Sondheim had the unfortunate effect of comparison and the lines were so utterly banal, and to remind one of The Secret Garden is to invoke music more like The Pearl Fishermen: The Secret Garden has dual tenor duets, a strong mezzo-soprano singing with bell-like barritone, quirky rhythms as well as melancholy lingering. None of that here.

I was very moved at moments, and tears came to my eyes (not hard to do with me nowadays) at some of the trials and disappointments of Marie. The refrains of a couple of songs were about how one’s future is sometimes determined on the chance of a single event. I got caught up intensely when in the second act it seemed as if Marie was going to be raped by the abonné, who kept Antoinette (Jenny Powers) her sister, though this being a musical which ultimately doesn’t question or disturb, she is saved by poor but honest loving musician, appropriately named Christian (Kyle Harris), just in the nick of time.

Little Dancer  Susan Stroman: Director and Choreographer Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik studio@paulkolnik.com nyc 212-362-7778

Since nothing disquieting here, our Marie does not experience much conflict over not eloping with the poor violinist when he is fired for saving her: she is ever prudent, looking out for her career, supporting her feckless mother (made violent towards Marie doubtless to match the men of course). The real ballerina Degas sculpted did not go on to a successful career and that is here explained by showing that Degas offended the contemporary audience, something that one must not do (according to the thrust of this piece) or one will be punished. Marie becomes a pariah and the theater manager fears being made a laughing stock by a statue not made of bronze but of material and wax, and real or simulated hair: he told her (manager scolds) “to stay away from Degas.” Musical as warning lesson to any Bohemians out there. While the book and vignettes include the types of the commercial world of art (patrons, “rats” — cattle call, workmen, cataloguers, patrons), it is very naively invoked. (The Kennedy Center audience included mother-daughter pairs with the daughters in dancing or ballet outfits!) The dialogue did at least show an awareness of what Jim used to say about Degas: that his paintings of downtrodden hard-worked women were cold and distanced, somehow voyeuristic and that was reflected in the treatment of the abonnés.

But hey you didn’t have to go all the way to NYC, pay extravagant hotel fees and the price was less than it would have been in NYC. It had its moments, real talented people on the stage giving it their all, seemingly engaged by this simple material about art.

MarieChristian

Ellen

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