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The translator, like the original poet, is a Narcissa, who chooses to contemplate [reality, herself] not in the spring of nature, but in the pool of art — Renato Poggioli, On Translation

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I heard a conversation (sort of) between Jhumpa Lahiri and Nicoletta Pereddu on Lahiri’s latest book — so it was about translation. It came from a building once a synagogue, now a community center for the arts, via zoom, under the auspices of Politics and Prose bookstore. Despite my being irresistibly drawn to her, I didn’t expect much since the last talk I heard her give was so evasive and stilted (so it seems to me because I find the compelling nature of her texts for me inexplicable). She is a very guarded presence in her books too, more than ever in her new identity as an writer in Italian, writing in the tradition of intensely subjective women’s novellas and mostly concise memoirs.

This latest book, according to John Self of The Guardian, is another with holes in it: like Dove Mi Trovo and In Altre Parole she does not explain why she threw off English, her previous post-colonial and diasporic content, moved to Italy, became (as far as she can) Italian. They reminded me of Joan Didion in her Blue Nights: why write about something if you’ve no intention of writing about it (her daughter’s death from alcoholism, a condition she partly picked from Joan as mother and the father, both of whom drank heavily).

I’m writing this blog because I was very pleasantly surprised. She attempted to be candid, and when offered questions whose assumptions were unexamined reactionary-isms, she went to the trouble to undermine them and produce a humane reason for writing and reading good books. She was tactful and kind: it was a marvelous talk.

She said that for her translation is an origin story, an art that brings the writer back to her origins. The point of origin for her was once and still is Bengali/American. The book is a collection of essays of what she was thinking about translation while translating and writing originally in Italian. She feels you engage most deeply with an author when you translate him or her. She has been drawn by what Italo Calvino wrote of translation, Gramschi, and Ovid (strangely I thought to myself in this context — these are ceaseless stories of rape). Translators are transforming texts, says she. Echo and Narcissus provide central metaphors Narcissus is the first self, self-centered, and Eco the stronger re-producer. She quoted Borges on the idea that it’s the original that’s unfaithful to the translation — he’s giving translation priority and treating it as an original imaginative work.


Daffodils are narcissus flowers — from my very own garden on the front lawn

By moving onto Italian, it seemed she was re-alienating herself because in writing in Italian she is said to be using someone else’s language, as people claim ownership of a language if they grow up speaking it. Only if it’s your mother tongue (note the metaphor) are you free and deep with it automatically. So by doing this she made her identity an open question. In the case of the language she chose (for love of it, she says in In Altre Parole, from sound to world view), the reality is Italian is so diverse. Even now there are many dialects beyond the Tuscan, which has become standard Italian. In any case she never felt she owned English (or Bengali) — these are questions that belong to discourses in nationalism (imagined delusions in part I’d add).

She was naturally asked the question about whether she had the right to translate another language with one that was not her own. Of course the person had fallen into the trap Lahiri said she denied or was avoiding. She answered that by saying, when you ask the question, Who has the right, you are flying in the face of all she believes as a writer, reader, teacher. A text (when incandescent? — that’s Woolf’s term) transcends such categories; they are irrelevant, we are all human beings together, it seems.


A recent photo

Here I would have liked to challenge her: she insisted that when she translates a man, say Domenico Starnone whose Ties (Englished version) she has translated, it does not matter that she is a woman. Implied here is there is no gender fault-line in texts. This argument is why I am putting this talk on this blog rather than my Austen Reveries one. She is wrong, and having myself read her translation of Ties, I know she’s turned it into a feelingful woman’s book despite the story being one about a man who easily drops one wife and picks up another. (His book is in dialogue with his wife, Elena Ferrante’s, or a kind of refutation of them.) By making this claim, she escapes the accusation (at the time) that when in her first book she made the center of it a traditional older woman and then a young man, she avoided delving into herself at the time, for in The Namesake we now see she was Moushumi whose identity in the end is French through the language she studied, and country and culture she went to live in. Self is probably correct to say her latest book shows curious self-blindnesses. I have bought it (from ebay) and await it eagerly.

Then as a translator, she said, face with your text you are translating: you are always just arriving, upon arrival. I thought of Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, a beautiful book about his time spent near Stonehenge in a cottage, deeply burying himself in the English world he wants to be part of. So the act of translating is an enactment of the diasporic condition after all. For her in the act of two languages coming together in her head, there is an intensely compelling experience, a crucible. She re-enacting the intensely passionate stories of her Bengali-American career by acting out language in a different way. It emerged that she has also been studying Latin, and she is not just reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but translating the text — presumably into Italian! What she finds, even in two tongues so close in linguistic forms, is the text resists her, it resists her modern substitution. Getting inside a new language challenges your/her reality. She cannot learn to talk it as she has Italian, for there is no world where people are talking Latin any more.

There was a modesty and humility in some of her comments and tone. She said each translation is an attempt and so an original text can be re-attempted, and it is is as ages pass — the mystery of how an original text remains itself but when you are translating it, somehow you need to put it in contemporary target language or it’s pastiche. This line of thought of course would seem to move in direct opposition to Borges’s claim. Still translation remains transformation and what happens is the previous text (the original) disappears, or at best, lies behind the translated text and only someone who knows the original language can see the previous peeping out as it strains against the translated language.


I’m reading Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth in the Italian version/translation for the sake of Anita Raja’s (Elena Ferrante) postscript …

But Borges was there again in her idea that translations erode the idea of authorship, especially when they are masterpieces in their own right or occasionally better than the original text — I saw that in the Italian translation I read of Goncharov’s Oblonsky. To this day I don’t know the name of that Italian translator but dolce vita values of Italian itself made the Russian book lyrical. She offered the idea that the translator is liberating the original text from its first author. (For myself I think some literary critics do that for primary imaginative texts and great movies for great books.) She came out with this idea in response to someone who in her question has talked about how a translator must “honor” the original author (reminding me of the demand people sometimes make of movies that they be “faithful” to the original source book).

Lahiri’s idea is that there are a range of ways of translating — of course there are. This brings us back to Dryden with his distinguishing the metaphrase (very close, nearly word for word, the danger here is the translator can fall into translationese), the paraphrase (free enough to write in the target language in a creative way appropriate to the genius of that language) and the imitation (or freer adaptation we might say, the appropriations of modern transposed into other times movies and 18th century satires called Imitations). The writer-translator is paying attention to the original text for the sake of the readers who want to reach that original insofar as it’s possible. The translator has to allow the text to read the reader or the reader to find in the text what he or she can read.

She did talk in abstract ways and showed that she has led a privileged life — there was an austerity and idealism about her approach which suggested someone who has not had to bend to the commercial world or the limits of understanding in undergraduates, or average readers. But I suppose that was refreshing in itself — the professor questioning her produced these roundabout self-grandiose commentaries filled with flattery of her. I thought it admirable that Lahiri could pick out of Pereddu’s gobbledyguk a clear point or points and questions. Pereddu’s hair (so I’m catty) was a vast mop of overdone curls obscuring her face; her clothes ever-so-elegant. The present style for tenured women faculty who want to look young is sexy-fashionableness. So here was a European version.

At one point Lahiri compared the translator’s encounter with a new or other language to an encounter with a landscape: as you learn the language through translating into it, and deeply study, become your text through translating faithfully. I liked that idea very much you see. I translated 600 of Vittoria Colonna’s sonnets and poems into English, 90 of Veronica Gambara’s (see my essay from many years ago), some twenty years of my life in study — using French as an intermediary sometimes.


A reimagined land- and seascape of the island Procida, Italy

I’ll never actually meet this woman (Lahiri) nor would she offer me the respect I’d like, but I have myself followed a similar path (even to ending in the same language) to create an identity of sorts for myself.

Ellen

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Untitled (Still Life) — Alma Thomas


[Pine] Trees [from Maine series] — David Driskell

Today I saw with a friend, a dual exhibit at the Phillips Collection of the marvelously luminous and comforting paintings, puppets, costume, and prints of Alma Thomas and the visionary, sorrowful, African American paintings, prints and stained glass window work of David Driskell


Alma W. Thomas, 1963


David Driskell, recently

I’ve been to the Phillips many times before, the last time to see the exhibit made from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. This earlier one was on the theme of global displacement. Here we concentrated on the work of two individual geniuses, African-American both, lifelong teachers of art both, with Driskell, a student of Thomas’s. I didn’t buy the heavy expensive catalogue books, so cannot share images except those I’ve found here on the Net. No matter. If you live close by, you can go, and the two exhibits have been traveling about the US for some time now.

It includes two excellent movies, the one about Alma Thomas focusing more on her life and how her work emerged form that; the one about David Driskell focusing on details of his art, how he did the prints, his religion. She found great solace and fulfillment in her 35 years in one classroom; he spoke of the ugly things he saw in social worlds in his experience and sought to escape. One of the most frightening moments in the two exhibits was a clip from his film showing a gang of Ku Klux Klan people in white sheets in the dark of night setting on fire icons on the grounds of the traditionally Negro college Driskell attended. One of the most poignant moments of of hers was her gladness at never having married, at having been a Miss Thomas all her life, and the independence that meant; at one point late in life she had a bad case of arthritis and was bedridden for two years; when she started painting again, she used pillows and whatever came to hand to paint huge canvases (some seen at the exhibit).

I’ve linked in the two excellent wikipedia and Phillips’ articles about their lives and work. I will find articles and more modest books, obtain them and add to this blog.

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Two of the galleries with Alma Thomas’s art

For now what I’d like to emphasize about Alma Thomas, is she lived a long life as an African-American, with all its hardships and painful experiences, but also embedded in communities of Black people in DC and of artists (once she grew older and had gone to Howard University), these gradually including the finest artists of the century. So when she says “everything is beautiful,” and declares so roundly on the joys of creativity and how much she rejoiced in teaching and her experiences of life, she is speaking from the heart. Her art developed from a quiet realism, some of it a kind of naive school,


Alma Thomas’s Mandolin

to her own brand of abstract expressionism — thousands of squares of color making figures and designs her titles give concrete allusive meaning to. This is from her Journey to Abstraction:

This is just a gorgeous pink when literally seen on the wall:

From her Flower Garden:

The many circles are a transposition of deeply rooted memories of a garden she saw as a child; she loves controlled precise forms too

I like realism more and wish I could share with you her pictures of her grandfather’s house, of a neighborhood of quiet private houses seen from the POV of their back yards (you see above her mandolin). Each of her drawings has a consistency with the others in mood and tone. Her mother was a dressmaker, she participated in putting on plays, making costumes herself, drawing some figures that looked like dreams of historical romance, and made a puppet set once:


Clown and woman marionettes, Fabric, wood, paint, and strings

The touching qualities of these, with their hints of African-American life in enslavement must be seen live.

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Here is David Driskell, surrounded by his paintings in his studio

Driskell’s art is a lot more aggressive, and troubling, much more African motifs, strong contrasting colors:

He presents his own image here and there, very somber:

He seems to love trees:


Winter Trees, this is called

Here is Driskell’s obituary with hard pictures of African-American men, far angrier than anything seen in the Phillips. In the Phillips’ exhibit there were a number of modern versions of writhing Christs and the film showed stained glass windows with modern Church imagery in African-American churches

Here he is surrounded by his work once again, this time in a Maine Contemporary Center for Art

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What to say? how to conclude, now that I know the history of lynching and repeated massacres and arson burn-outs of African American people and communities — Thomas’s grandfather was born enslaved, and as a girl she lived in Georgia where she could not progress in school past the 9th grade. That was one reason her parents moved with her and her sisters to DC. Here is what she wrote in 1970:

“Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged.”
-Alma Thomas

Here is his hopeful strong statement:

“I was not looking for a unified theme,” he told The Times in 1977. “And this, of course, usually upsets the critics because they want to see a continuous kind of thing. I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years, and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone.”

Both went to Howard University; for both education, what happened to them in schools and then churches (though she was not herself personally religious at all) were central to achieving, and pride of recognition and belonging to a world of superior spirits. And all that the Civil Rights Era has won for all of us which groups of deeply harm-driven people are trying to undermine.


Thomas’s depiction of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King uttered his famous “I have dream” speech

Ellen

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Ada (Tara Fitzgerald, the Alice Roland of film story) and Flora (Anna Paquin, the Asia of the film story) — from Jane Campion’s 1993 The Piano, a very free appropriation of Mander’s 1920 novel)

Dear friends and readers,

I do not remember what year it was when I first came across Jane Mander’s traditional novel of the trials and ordeals of colonialism for the European colonizers, credited as one of the first true New Zealand novels (a product of this new culture), The Story of a New Zealand River. I found it in the Second Story bookstore in Alexandria, one of two such used book stores: one in DC (Georgetown); and this one in Alexandria, which took up a whole block, all sides and was two floors high. Long gone now such attics of “used” literature where I could rummage in past ages through their left-over books. I might have been attracted by the cover.

I recall being wholly absorbed by it, and recognizing it (not Emily Bronte, as was suggested by some film critics) as a central story source for a movie that made quite a splash with its teasing erotic content. Campion’s English heroine, a mute, coerced into marriage, with a white timber man in New Zealand, is persuaded to go through a slow strip-tease by his assistant, a white man gone native — she removes an item of clothing and in return gets to “own” a small part of her piano until she owns the whole thing), Jane Campion’s The Piano. My reaction to the movie this summer has been very different.

This summer when I decided to try to teach a course in colonialist writings, it leapt to mind as the one book I must do. As I told the people in the zoom space with me, this, together with her Allen Adair, are as worthy to be taught as regularly as the over-rated Heart of Darkness by Conrad and a couple of other favorites by men as classic colonialist books. Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is on record more than once inveighing against the deep racism of Conrad’s book. Mander at least meant not to be, and you can learn a lot more about colonialism from her for real than you can from Conrad’s mystic pompous vague ominousness. I am writing this blog in the same spirit as I taught the book: I would like more people to know about it and its contexts.

Its plot-design tells two stories. On the level of primary action, it tells of an epic romantic journey through time, experience, a river and hard adventures (including giving birth many times in a cabin in the rural woods of Nothern New Zealand in the 1870s through 80s) by Alice Roland. She is a woman whose stiff-necked estrangement from others (later understandable), narrow-minded class-based puritanism, the same suspicious authoritarianism towards others that in the book she allows to spoil her life, is in the book changed to assimilation, a broader minded toleration and understanding, an acceptance of her own and others’ sexual love life. The context for this is the difficulty of living with Tom Roland, a white timber man with whom she has little sympathy, himself creating a successful timber business from the ground up (literally) in the wilderness. When we meet her, she has married him to escape her lot as a widow with three children living in Australia (with a piano in tow — she had tried to make a living as a music teacher). She had hoped comradeship. Instead she falls in love with David Bruce, his gentlemanly assistant (also a physician), who does not go native, but becomes her friend and support of her and whole white community. The three, man, wife, friend, are at the center of all that happens. The inner core of this Campion took for her stark but (contradictorily) pessimistic movie; the outer is about people coping with the situations of colonial life and winning, just.

On the level of structure and character relationships, it is the story of a mother and daughter. The first two of the four books dramatize Asia’s growing up, struggling with and loving her mother. The third and fourth books occur ten and then fourteen years later where Asia, now grown up, turns round to teach this same mother as she achieves independence and a far more free fulfilling life than her mother is capable of. It’s a bifurcated tale. Asia is a kind of Jo March modernized — I am morally convinced the novel Mander was most influenced by was Little Women. Asia falls in love with a man married but unable to divorce, and her mother has to accept Asia’s going to live with him as the source of her happiness and life’s strength. This structure and these themes mark The Story of a New Zealand River as very much a woman’s novel. Many of the inward recognitions both women go through are the kind of thing one finds in subjective novels by women which have nothing to do with where they are particularly.

To parse the bifurcation:

Book 1 sets our scene and the themes and character paradigms that will be developed. The arrival. Alice, Asia, two small children and piano ferried deep into bush on the river by David Bruce; Asia falls overboard and Bruce saves her life. Alice’s first impulse to snub Bruce (he not being dressed as the gentlemen). She finds herself very afraid, very alone, has to give birth – this marks the woman’s birth and it’s David Bruce who is there in intimate moments. Her antagonism, her aversion turns to dependency on her part and his pity for her to love, which is acknowledged at the end of Book I. Tom takes a mistress (on the side, in town). She makes friends with a Mrs Brayton, a cultivated and wise woman who helps her learn to live in a rough environment; she clashes with her daughter at each stage in which the daughter asserts a separate and questioning identity. She learns everything she needs she must make herself. One of the things our characters are doing is “clearing the bush” and making a new society mostly in imitation of what they knew in England only shaped by the different climate, flora, fauna, kinds of foods available and grown.

Book 2 includes a gale-level storm, a flood which threaten and almost destroys Tom’s hard-built business site; David Bruce’s drinking bouts (he is a depressive). Tom Roland thinking he is facing ruin, takes poison, and is saved by David and Alice’s united efforts – tremendous inward scene between Alice and Bruce as they are tempted to let him die. Bruce becomes an uncle-father to Asia. Alice’s deep self-repression, guilty, rigidity over sex, and wanting to own her children, her Victorianism, the attitude so reprehended by Bloomsbury is also reprehended by Mander but through a Victorian fiction.

The problem throughout all this is our heroine, Alice Roland, is persistently in the wrong. She needs the putative hero, David Bruce, continually to teach her better values, among these to be nicer to her husband. It seems it’s her fault the husband treats her badly; her fault he goes into these drinking bouts (as does David himself but she cannot be blamed for that). She is told she is intolerant when he visits his mistress. And she is to consider how much of the whole encampment (all the people working for him, their families) is riding on his strength of character; it’s due to his physical and moral stamina that the timber mill is succeeding and creating wealth for him and her and money for all. Ironically what makes the book unpalatable to some readers today, scandalized her New Zealand readership until the 1930s because what Alice is being taught and Asia lives out are modern attitudes towards sex, class, parent-child relationships, work.

Books 3 & 4 (more briefly): 10 years later, Asia 18 and insists on independent life for herself, a terrible wrench for Alice. At first Alice cannot accept this modern way of life for her daughter. Bruce and Mrs Brayton enable Asia to leave, to become a sort of concert pianist going round New Zealand, but Alice again pregnant and now ill (endures yet another stillbirth), Asia returns home for a few months to nurse her. Then 2 and 1/2 years later, we find Asia now living at home (not explained) and she falls in love with Allen Ross. This part of the novel contains the most extensive descriptions of the realities of colonial life, the people who come as failures elsewhere and fail again; the landscape. Here we find the only mentions of the Maoris in the book (very traditional to leave the indigenous peoples out).

The novel’s non-modern techniques: back stories emerge. Alice had Asia as illegitimate child and punished herself all her life by his marriage; Mrs Brayton had rejected daughter who married someone Mrs B didn’t approve of, w/o help daughter died. Bruce himself did not save a man whose wife he loved and blames himself as a passive murderer (this reminded me of George Eliot, and Bruce seemed to me a Daniel Deronda).

Roland finally catches Bruce and Alice in compromising position and it emerges he thought they were lovers all these years –- especially after Bruce told him to leave Alice alone, for these pregnancies were killing her. A sub-textual argument of the book is on behalf of contraception (for which it was attacked). Does she want a divorce? No! but our noble lovers are saved when Tom dies in an accident nobly trying to save others. At novel’s end Asia and Ross have gone to live in Sidney where they hope to do good in politics. Alice and Bruce leave for Auckland to marry and find contentment as older adults together.

The book brings you into its world deeply; it is rich in description of New Zealand at the time. The characters are convincing (if contrived because of the romantic lesson-learning structuring). I find it to be melancholy: life is little to be enjoyed and much to be endured (there are various utterances which are variations on Samuel Johnson, mostly when Alice is thinking of what is to come. What is most striking to me is how the daughter is presented as more reasonable, more able to function in modern society, more daring than the mother, and they get into hard conflicts over opposed values — including directly sexual (against her daughter’s deep pleasures with Ross) as well as about a daughter’s independence.

I’ve seen this in a number of women’s books. I cite 18th century books: Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, with two volumes each about the different heroine; Charlotte Smith’s Young Philosopher — at the time I thought of so many others where the mother-daughter paradigm was presented in just this way. In the 19th century there’s Gaskell’s work, Margaret Oliphant has several — Oliphant had her most important relationship with her mother. Oliphant’s greatest grief was the loss of a 9 year old daughter. This dual view enables a dual perspective in such books: here in Mander early colonial experience and then 20 years later where so many changes as the white settlers succeed have been made. Marianne Hirsh’s insightful and important book (still) The Mother-Daughter Plot begins with the idea that for many women, they read as mothers (this is Gaskell) or daughters (say Austen and Bronte and Alcott). Mander begins with the mother as central and crosses over to the daughter (as do Inchbald and Smith).

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Jane Mander, 1923, one of her emigration documents

She was born in 1877, so close in age to Virginia Woolf. Mander grew up in New Zealand, part of its middle class. There is a good literary biography by Dorothy Tucker. Like Asia in the novel, she had little official schooling. Mander’s father was a member of the early New Zealand parliament, a pioneer, sawmill owner, who purchased a newspaper, The Northern Advocate where Jane first wrote as a journalist. There was little audience or opportunity for a modern novelist; so first she went to Sydney and in 1912 traveled thousands of miles to New York City, to go to Columbia University. She joined the suffrage movement. She was politically active as feminist and socialist labor all her life.

It was in New York City she wrote The New Zealand River. 1923 she moves to London and gets involved with familiar names of literature today (and some less familiar) from Bloomsbury to writers of the 1920s; then she works for Harrison Press in Paris. She is fluent in French. She wrote three other novels. She had a very lively life and enjoyed it but there were bad pressures. There are parallels with Katherine Mansfield, also from the upper class of New Zealand, but much much wealthier (whom Mander still resembles in startling ways and who was one of the first reviewers of Mander’s first book). Mander might have been bisexual too — there is no record of heterosexual romance.

She seems to have missed New Zealand, and her parents in were in bad health too, so in 1932 she returned home and stayed. A long trip. She became friendly with New Zealand writer whose work is more widely known than hers: Ngaio Marsh – whose great passion was theater direction though she also wrote the detective stories for which her name is more widely known.

Having been attacked by the local community for this and subsequent books, and for not living conventionally (she never married), Mander grew depressed yet stayed on. She was part of the local higher literary culture of her country – but just could not get her act together for another novel or long work. She wrote reviews; people suggested she return to London, that she write autobiographically. She would not. She produced magazine pieces — very fresh vivid accounts you could call regional writing. Her mother had died and her father became very ill. That she lived with her father in her later years reminds me of Louisa May Alcott who lived with Bronson Alcott and died with in a few months of his death.

She lived through WW2 – and New Zealand, like Australia, was very involved. New Zealand was an independent commonwealth country by 1947. The present enlightened fine PM, Jacinda Ardern, a social democratic progressive, is no surprise; women had the vote in New Zealand in 1893; unions protected, and with an outlook like that of the British labor party after war & Australia’s progressive party, New Zealand throve.

In this first novel one can see many autobiographical connections. It’s in the 1870s when our story begins – there are a few references now and again to situate the narrative. Mander was born in 1877, so from her grand-parents and what she knew of her great-grandparents she remembers an earlier world. Jane Mander lived in the very area she brings her characters to when she was around the age of Asia -– three years before she was 12. This is period of childhood where deepest memories are etched and she continually in her imagination (according to Tucker) returns to this landscape in all her novel writing. Here Asia is she, a bridge into this novel.

Part of the reason for the book’s impact was its authenticity – it is described in books about New Zealand literature as among the first genuine culturally New Zealand books written – like Nathanial Hawthorne in the US, Emerson, Alcott – they don’t sound British any more. The places named all existed and the description of the timber industry is said to be accurate. There was never a mill at Pukekaroro or township but there was one in Puhipuhi near Kaiwaka (Maori names) a town, access in the 1970s when Dorothy Turner wrote her book on Mander was still through waterways. You can trace where the owner of the timber company (Roland) lived; there was a real wealthy Englishwoman living there, Mrs Clayton – and she had a house like Mrs Brayton’s and doubtless a fine book collection. Its specific setting is an obscure smaller arm in Kaipara Harbour, which Mander sailed into and out of herself (like Asia).

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There is an audiobook, LibriVox, so unabridged and for free

The Story of a New Zealand River is a woman’s novel as well as good and important colonialist writing — as some of the classics of colonialist writing, where the man has won a Nobel prize are arguably misogynist and racist: this is true of some of V. S. Naipaul’s novels: A Bend in the River has the hero beating up his female partner and there is no real criticism of this. Action-adventure stories characterize a good deal of Kipling (who is painfully racist and prejudice against non-white cultures). I just loved how Mander showed the way women were part of the colonialist project, central to it, and what they endured, their friendships, networks, deeper relationships with female relatives.

Mander does neglect the Maoris: they are seen only from afar when the reality is in this period a series of wars had been concluded, but feeling between the indigenous people and the interlopers was hostile, with outbreaks of violence on all sides. I discussed in the class and encouraged everyone to see The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, to be sure about an aborigine man in Australia, but a rare movie for depicting the horrifying treatment of indigenous people. Mander’s brother marred a Maori woman.

I’ll end on the use of the piano in The Story of a New Zealand River. It’s not a chance move by Campion to focus so on this symbol of middle class, settled, white upper class life, gentility. In “The Piano as Symbolic Capital in New Zealand Fiction, 1860-1940,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL) 28 (2010):34-60, Kristine Moffat shows the depiction of the piano in most novels and movies in the later 19th and most of the first half of the 20th century is as particularly a woman’s instrument, an instrument through which women can express deeper and unconventional longings, as her symbolic capital, her status, distorts the history of the piano.  It’s partly false. Evidence shows that the piano was played by men and it functioned not just in the home where there was no radio. Historical records shows that pubs, music halls, clubs, brothels, working men as part of music making groups – it is a versatile percussive instrument (a harp on its side) – means of entertainment; in the first decades of the 20th century Maori people took to having pianos, military camps, concerts.

Towards the end of Moffat’s essay, she focuses on Mander’s novels; in New Zealand River, for Alice the piano is also a symbol of “home,” which is of course England. In one of Alice’s first visits to Mrs Brayton she is drawn irresistibly to this Broadview Grand and starts playing Beethoven’s sonatas with deep feeling and is embarrassed to have let go so – how much had been repressed – the journey is so difficult. She had tried to make a living teaching music; when Asia grows up we are told that she succeeds as a concert pianist in an orchestra that travels around Australia and New Zealand, to places of entertainment. I was not that surprised to read about that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (Mander’s first reviewer as I said) fit into this paradigm.

Ellen

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


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


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


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

Friends and readers,

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Returning home together on the train

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

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


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

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

And now my words:

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


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

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


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

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

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

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

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

I recognize the types and themes  elsewhere in Anglo-Indian art (novels and films): people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety.

This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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Early in the partnership

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

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

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

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


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

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

Ellen

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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


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

Friends and readers,

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half-way through reading the play:

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

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

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

Upon finishing the play:

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

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

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


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

The 1961 movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

The critics:


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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


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


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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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What a relief is Luxor.


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

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

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

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

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

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


Oliver Sacks as a child.

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


Oliver Sacks, 1961.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Fiennes’ presence helps make The Dig


Riseborough pitch perfect in silent grief


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

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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


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


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

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

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

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The rest is marvelous.

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

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

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

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


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


Brianne realizing

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Ellen

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


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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


Another montage, this time with Jamie …

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


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

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

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


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

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

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A quick synopsis:


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

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


Claire at work with women around her

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


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

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


Marsali learning from and discussing procedures with Claire

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Ellen

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


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


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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


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


Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect): DCI

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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


A 1970 version of a Nancy Drew — girl sleuth

Ellen

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Sarah Hendrickx


Laura James

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

And her well-worth while book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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