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Archive for the ‘womens' films’ Category


From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories — Thomas Chatterton Williams, a NYTimes Magazine semi-fluff piece on Spike Lee

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.


Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Lucky
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.


Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned, one of my favorite films of all times; as the wordpress search engine does not go back before 2012 I see I shall have to rewrite that blog)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.

It was a sort of shocking experience. To be amidst a group of people where the existence, outlook, experiences of some 2/3s of them were ignored, distorted, marginalized. It was like being in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not that I have not had this experience. I taught for 23 years at George Mason University: in no catalogue was my name ever cited, when I left there was nothing recorded about it. But that was long range, done ever so cleverly, indirectly. However it’s such experiences that make African-American films and their political outlook undersandable to me; often there I can guess how they will vote. The highest ratings I ever had as a teacher occurred when my classes were predominantly African-American. One summer, the summer Barack Obama was running to be nominated for president for the Democratic party for the first time I had a class of 11 students for Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences. I had two European-American (white) students in it. I got a 5.10 out of 6, and my only letter of commendation in all the years I was there signed by Rick Davis, then dean of humanities (or some such title).


Tracy Camilla Jones in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

So a little, however inadequate, and here too women were secondary, basically chorus or scolds, on Do the Right Thing. First the full context I’d give it is bell hooks’s take on She’s Gotta Have It: “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment, Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” See Chatterton’s paragraphs describing this film which is about a promiscuous female who finds herself by finding the right male partner. His great film, said the teacher, is Malcolm X, who in Haley’s rerwrite in acceptable English (readable) of Malcolm’s autobiographical diary notes frequently uses bitch as a synonym for women, though it is reserved especially for white women. It was the English freshman community text for adjuncts to use one term I was teaching at American University (as an adjunct); need I say, I didn’t assign it? You could find a substitute: mine was James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket; now I’d use Ta Nehesi-Coates Between Me and the World.


Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Of the group the most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job (that’s her one function beyond being the mother of his son), but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year, one by a woman: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.


Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …

Ellen

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Claire at Culloden (Caitriona Balfe), third season –a 1950s costume seen through demure 2017 eyes

Dear friends and readers,

I am just now listening to Davina Porter read aloud dramatically (with nuance and appropriate tones) an unabridged text of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber and engaged in rewatching Season 1 of the mini-series (every couple of nights another episode) and Season 3 (on Starz, through Comcast, which while it does not give me access to streaming, plays the weekly episode at least twice daily for some 6 days after a new one airs) and would like to report or record some significant changes from the books to the films, which I cannot find cited anywhere on the Internet or in Gabaldon’s first Outlandish Companion (there have now been two volumes, the first on Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager).

The opening episode (prologue in effect) to Season 2 comes from the third novel, Voyager: scenes in a hospital or recuperation place as Claire makes her transition from a bedraggled, filthy, semi-starved reluctant participant in the 18th century Scottish-Jacobite rebellion against the Hanoverian regime in England to a 20th century pregnant wife of a history professor. The opening (not a prologue but part of the matter proper) five episodes of the third season comes from the second book, Dragonfly in Amber: Claire and Brianna’s (Sophie Skelton) trip to Inverness twenty years after Claire left with Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) for Boston where he became a tenured published respected professor at Harvard and she a physician; they encounter Roger Wakefield, now also (like Frank Randall once was) a history professor at Oxford; there is no interruption of material from what Jamie is doing concurrently in Scotland in the 18th century (as there is in the mini-series which places this material from the later parts of Voyager into an interweave in the first half of the third season).


Claire, Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin), Brianna Randall reading through records, third season

Dragonfly in Amber then proceeds as the second season did — to France. There is a much longer extended dramatization of Claire’s time as a healer working with Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour) in L’Hopital des Anges, a convent hospital in Paris preceding the catastrophe of the march into England by the Jacobite army under Prince Charles (Andrew Gower) and the Earl of Murray (Julian Wadham), and then its subsequent forced retreat (not enough people joined) to momentary victory at Prestonpans and then disaster at Culloden. And then the second season moves abruptly to American in 1967/68 or so, with Claire’s education as surgeon-physician, and Frank’s death in a car accident just as he is about to leave Claire for Oxford, taking Brianna with him; and the plunge into in medias res Claire and Brianna’s visit to Inverness and discovery that Jamie survived Culloden.

The point is to shift the emphasis: in the second book it’s strongly on Claire, her development of herself as a physician and mother, her return to deeply engaged imagined roots to equal or more time to Jamie. Scots clan politics, and the battlefields. In the third book, Voyager, we are reading a woman’s novel for five long superb chapters – and they are long — as Claire gets up the courage to tell her daughter the truth of her parentage and about Claire’s time in 18th century Scotland both at first in Boston, and then as they travel to deeply felt sites de memoires. The episode in the third season (five, “Freedom and Whiskey”) preceding Claire’s journey back reminded me of older classic women’s films like Now Voyager (starring Bette Davis, based on a Olive Prouty novel) and Stella Dallas (starring Barbara Stanwyck, a King Vidor film about a selfless mother devoting herself to a spoilt daughter who is not at fault as she hasn’t been told) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (starring Joan Fontaine, a Max Ophuls film).


Claire pregnant serving Frank (Tobias Menzies), 3rd season

In the concluding features to the DVD for the second season, Ronald Moore, the real creator of this mini-series in the script, in the direction, in the filming, discusses what is changed from book to film. He keeps his discussion on a high level of generality: they cannot film the book because one sentence saying X was riding to Y can take hundreds of dollars and 20 minutes film time. He does tell of how each episode is a unit in itself with its own self-enclosed themes and structure. He conceded a great deal more dramatization of what Jamie was doing in Paris and the battlefields merely told or remembered in the novel occurs in the mini-series. Nonetheless or at the same time the driving inner force of the books is about Claire and through her women’s worlds and that provides framing (however switched), continuity (in say the voice-over) and many sequences in the book within the male action-adventure episodes, for example, to take from all three seasons thus far: the domestic world of Lallybroch, Claire’s quest to find and rescue Jamie working as a dancing gypsy with Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) (Season 1), the French saloniere’s libetine culture, Claire helping Jenny (Laura Donnelly) through childbirth, the coercion of Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day) to marry a much older distasteful man, a rape of her in the streets, and her murderous revenge, her pregnancy by Alexander Randall (younger gentle brother to Jonathan Wolverton), most of all the medical science worlds, Claire’s stillborn child. There is a female gaze, mother-and-daughter and women’s friendship-sisterhood caring narrative at work. The proportion is changed significantly in the mini-series so the woman’s novel is obscured.

All this is suppressed, not only the changes, but any discussion at all of differences between films and books on the Outlander sites on face-book and twitter — this is strange as such discussions occur regularly on the Poldark sites (and many others, Austen sites for example). It’s common on fan sites for people watching the films to talk of the differences in the books and some of the inferences they make. Much worse, I notice ads imposed on these Outlander sites (including the one not controlled by the makers of the films) which model female swoons at the male actors. It repeats over and over. This effectively silences any other approach to the candid sexuality of the women (and here the parallels are the swooning posters over Aidan Turner, only they are not so slickly done, though they use popular promotional material made for just this purpose). This is no surprise as every face-book or other site on the Net I have found (with one significant exception) seems to have been set up and is controlled by the film-makers or Gabaldon herself. But it makes for a great loss of understanding.

I do not deny the presence of a counter-force of the patriarchal macho-male culture across the culture in the books: for example, though Claire is having two lovers, two husbands, she is coerced into this, has not two selves but one (for Jamie as the “love of her life”); when serious politics or grim difficulties are to be endured she is told she must go back through the stones (in a scene between Jamie and Claire by the stones oddly reminiscent of the famous Casablanca where Rick teaches Ilsa she must retreat while he stays to endure the risk and serious business, with his deeper companion, the French officer played by Claude Rains – the equivalent figure is Murtagh). No doppelganger here. This is not a stealth woman’s film much like Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel the source) or The Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory) where a not-so-muted protest is made against the treatment of women in the terms of gorgeous costume drama.


Claire mannishly dressed in the 3rd season

As to what commentary my blogs have elicited and I have read in “official recaps” (there is one in the New York Times on-line), I have been startled to discover that the depiction of Claire’s relationship to her daughter, Brianna is seen by all of them as “dysfunctional” and “Claire’s fault.” It seems they “side” with Brianna that the mother lived in “a world of her own” (that is a charge the daughter made) and was somehow inattentive (?) and certainly gave Frank, her husband, a “bad deal.” I can see how her living with Frank can be seen that way: it must be he who paid for her physician’s education; all one can say is he choose this, she did all she could to be a good lover with him but she couldn’t forget the other man. To her daughter too she is all self-sacrifice: with Frank she lives except for the job an utterly 1950s housewife life — no one objects to her job as that’s not socially acceptable any more. To her daughter she is utterly abject; she gives every hour she could — Frank accuses her of “never being there,” reminding me of the implied accusations in The Divine Order: by going to vote, by getting a job our heroine must neglect her function as a mother, and (obedient) wife and sexual lover. And she apologizes to her daughter profusely again and again. To me the portrait was dripping with sentiment. I felt Claire would learn to dislike such a daughter, or just never behave that way. So it was false. In Dragonfly in Amber we see Frank being nasty, resentful, marital bickering; this is removed in the film so he looks put upon and not himself equally supporting against this as is marriage.

Claire had apologized to no one up to the time her daughter grew up and complained. “Self-absorption” is another no-no women face. I suspect I’d be seen as living in a world of my own. How dare you? who do you think you are?

Now I discover that the interpretation of all five of the first episodes of the third season have Claire as villain. I can’t quite see why she is a villain, but so they all assert. Only now in the sixth that she has crossed the stones and become Jamie’s wife in 18th century terms is she heroine again. Her villainy with her daughter and coming son-in-law is strange to me. What is it they resent? Frank has a mistress by this time — who reviles Claire for not “letting Frank go,” and making him have a miserable life when she could have given him great happiness.

The moralizing justification for watching this show meanwhile is its feminism, and the one academic paper I’ve heard emphasized its use of female narrator and over-voice. The speaker also claimed the mini-series satisfies the female gaze — though the NYTimes woman reminds us Claire is continually threatened by rape and there is much male violence, and Jamie takes Claire’s place as victim — I’d add from a sadistic homosexual (however this is denied) perspective thus damning homosexual men. Claire’s POV was dominant in the first season but (once again) Ronald Moore has admitted he has added (the way Davies did for Colin Firth as Darcy) much matching material to make Jamie’s point of view equal and one of the episodes this season was purely him in a fantasy of acceptance in a great country house where he provides the heir and the central woman-mother of this boy conveniently dies. But among these ordinary or common women readers, there are protests against this over-voice — a film studies book I have argues that over-voice is so rarely used because it’s seen as feminine.

As to the first Episodes six through eight of season three (her return, her defense of herself, her resuming her “career” as a physician), we could subtitle the sequence Claire Has Grown Up. A different kind of conflict emerges between Jamie and Claire: she is 20 years older, she is a physician, she is used to controlling her time, place and having a job. After she is (per usual) nearly raped and murdered at the close of episode 6 and opening of 7, she insists on trying to save the man’s life. She is told by Jamie were the body to be discovered no one would believe her story; living in brothel, she’d be at fault; she’d be put in prison or hung. So misogyny made plain. But against his advice she persists. To get the compounds she wants, she has to agree to see another patient — someone buying compounds who she frames as a patient. Going there she discovers they are crooks; the woman mentally deranged and used by her brother to make money — put on laudanum day and night. She can do nothing for her. Come back and she has ideas of moving out of the brothel, get a place of their own you see, from which she could set up her own business as a healer. Or from the printer’s shop. He looks bemused. Then Ian’s son is there and she meets (a moving scene) Ian (Steven Cree), her crippled brother-in-law for the first time in 20 years. She has to account for her absence and lies that she thought Jamie dead and lived in Boston, but lately finding out he was living (Promptly?) returned. Ian does not quite swallow this. Then she sees Jamie lie about Ian’s son and say he doesn’t know where the boy is; in fact he’s at the printing bedding a a very willing girl servant (yes — male wet dreams satisfied here). Claire is appalled: Ian is worried sick, and as a parent Ian should be told. She forgets that Jamie has a son and he begins to speak back about his lack of connection to Brianna and his jealousy of how he felt imagining her relationship with Frank.

She is wanting her own identity, has her own ideas. The new sidekick, Mr Willoughby (Gary Young, an Asian actor) has become her assistant; he refers to her as “honorable wife.” In fact her outfit, which is complained about as so “nurse-like” is right; the film-makers are trying to assert her as a separate identity — probably from the books. Then the thunderbolt in the last minutes of Episode 8 (“First Wife”). The young Ian and a servant girl from a tavern are having sex in the printing shop and come across a spy intent oon exposing Jamie’s seditious activities or smuggling and in the melee the print office is burnt down, with Jamie losing his business — after heroically saving the boy (reminding me of a scene in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton). (What happened to the girl? she doesn’t count?), years of effort and a legitimate profession gone. Now what?; what turn of history have they now? turning to pirates is admitting a lack of suitable organic material, a poverty of invention …


A promotional shot

That films are a key force in our cultural worlds is onereason I study and write about them.

Ellen

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Nora (Marie Leuenberger)

Dear friends and readers,

I saw this delightful serious film about two weeks ago in my local film club at the Cinema Art (Fairfax, a sort of art movie-house), and have been waiting for it to appear either in this theater (which if they are played for the general public usually begin by this time) or in local theaters as it has been nominated for a couple of prestigious awards. I’ve just about given up hope — after the trivializing condescending (“cartoonish” and “clever navigation”) or ho hum reviews (“not exactly breaking new ground,” “a lark”) that I’ve read, and the resolute erasing of its content on wikipedia. Photos of Nora deliberately make sure we see the actress as not conventionally smiling, all pretty; she has a narrow face and is earnest. How off-putting.

A couple of reviews do it justice: Film Journal International; Criterion (but it’s promotional). RogerEbert.com ignores it.

What’s remarkable about the film is how it shows how difficult it is for women embedded in their daily culture to rebel. As the story opens, Nora is spending her life hanging up wet socks in her basement, waiting on her father-in-law hand-and-foot; a comic rendition of a stultifying life. She apparently loves her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek); he has just gotten a raise in his factory in a scene where we see another male made fun of for not fitting in, for being ineffectual (effeminate). But although they don’t need the money, she would like to have a more interesting life of genuine achievement. She has sufficient education to apply for a job in an office, but he does not want her to go. And he can forbid her; in Swiss law she has to have his permission (he tells her flat-out) to sign this contract. Meanwhile in her brother- and sister-in-law’s house, her niece (Ella Rumpf) is sent (not to reform school as one review has it), but to a punitive detention center (a prison) because she is refusing to obey her parents’ daily orders and going out with a young man.


Theresa

She watches her sister-in-law, Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) rage at the girl after she runs away, only she won’t tell Nora where the bruises on the side of her face come from: her sullen angry husband whose masculinity is as threatened as Hans’s and takes his frustration out on her. The daughter has no recourse, but true to life, her rhetoric is anything but sensible. At each point Nora tries to do something for herself, it seems to be pointed out to her how this person is suffering (the father-in-law who keep porn magazines under his pillow), or that (her two sons whose luxurious breakfasts and daily routine are disrupted). Her desire causes them to lose out somewhere because she is serving them but her hurt and her needs don’t matter and they won’t compromise.

Meanwhile the woman’s suffrage movement is reaching a height once again in the towns where there is going to be a vote on whether women should vote (of course they are dependent on the men to decide) and Nora is caught up in the excitement, call for fairness and justice, and makes friends with an older woman, Vroni (Sybille Brunner) who has lived a frustrated life and now is supposed to reside meekly with her daughter-in-law (caring for grandchildren).


Vroni

The fourth central women is an Italian restaurant owner, Graziella (Marta Zoffoli).

Daringly the three, eventually with the sister-in-law set up a house for meetings, and when ridiculed and thwarted by the men, go on strike. Shades of Lysistrata. They go live apart in this house until the day of the vote and gradually many women join them. The most powerful scenes are where Nora defies a majority of people who heckle her or don’t support her even if they (the women especially) want to agree but don’t dare to speak up. She tries to give a speech and is mocked by the men; one woman who is fiercely against the vote (and is the boss at the husband’s factory) gloats in triumph when Nora loses control of the microphone (reminding me of how clever Reagan was decades ago when Bush senior tried to prevent third party candidates from using the mike, and Reagan grabbed it and said he had paid for this and decreed all would talk). There are numerous failures. At one point a group of more thuggish men break into the house and drag their wives away. Discouraged, Nora takes the signs down — her husband is intensely mortified by her picture everywhere and begins to say he would have voted for her to have the vote but not now.

Towards the end and before the vote can take place, Vroni in a moment of intensity, has a heart attack and dies. At her funeral the priest gives an account of her life and personality that make her into a pious contented woman, and Nora again gets up and protests and tells a little of what Vroni was and what was her life. How many times in life I’ve had to sit and listen to half- and full lies. Group pressure this time does not win out as decorum makes everyone sit quietly as she speaks.

The film has nuanced quieter and sad moments. The Italian woman’s husband follows her to Switzerland and she takes him in. Nora finds her embracing him on the night she is driven to leave Hans and takes up residence in the attic as she goes about to write away and seek that job. Graziella says she does not want to be alone when she is old: he needs her. But at another point she says as she stands in a shadow one can be married and feel very alone. Realism: the story is set in one of the two most conservative areas of Switzerland. Hans and the sons give in and start to make their own food, care for themselves. Theresa works to have her daughter released; permitted to have her own life, the first thing the girl does is jump on the motorcycle of her insouciant lover. Theresa’s husband leaves her, and we see even if he at first falls apart (he drinks heavily), he may eventually be happier because he hated the life on the farm and was bad at it — the father-in-law would needle him. Vroni did not live to see the women get the vote nor the gains they had afterwards.

It has faults too. It is conceived broadly and offers few details. It offers no backstory to explain why in 1974 the men this time (they did not in 1959 but claimed women didn’t want it) gave the women the vote. We only see the women openly standing there as a group the men have to walk through. There is a 1970s style feminism “raising consciousness” scene where the women are urged to love their vaginas, encouraged to look at their clitoris. There is some serious talk and it emerges that Nora has never had an orgasm — nor have several of the women. But it is over-the-top, a caricature, complete with a copy of Betty Friedan in Swiss. I found the ending grating. Of course Hans and Nora get together again, but did we have to end on a scene of him sucking her between her legs (her nightgown over them) with her all in ecstasy. In the theater I was in, we had a discussion afterwards and (wouldn’t you know?) the first things said to be “good” about the film is how there is sympathy for the husband. This last scene was laying on the reassurance thickly. Not to worry guys, she’ll still be this great sex partner.


Supposed to be month later, with him walking behind as she votes too

Petra wants to reach people today, to make an upbeat film, to energize us too — for, as she knows, feminism has had some bad losses in these decades since 1974 — and has a long way to go. I loved the soundtrack that used “You don’t own me” and remembered the ad for voting for Obama: all that the ad says — the Republicans will do all they can to kill Roe v Wade, shut down Planned Parenthood, repeal the ACA is now coming to pass:

Aretha Franklin’s demand for Respect is also heard.

So if you should see this film advertised, don’t be put off by the enigmatic title, which makes it sound like a religious film re-affirming changelessness, patriarchal tyranny. I wondered who gave it that title. Go see it. And while you’re at it, refuse to go see films which beat women up, show them as sheerly prettified sex objects (no matter how much the gloss is see this empowered woman) or nurse-mothers.

Ellen

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Claire grieving over her stillborn child, POV Mother superior (Caitrionia Balfe, Frances de la Tour, Episode 7, Faith)


Jamie (Sam Heughan), one of the last shots of the season (he has told Claire she must leave and he return to Culloden)

Jamie: “I’ll have Ross and Fergus take you home to Lallybroch.”
Claire: “No.”
He: “Claire.”
She: “I can’t do that either. Listen to me. If I if I go back, then it will just be like lying in that ditch again, helpless and powerless to move, like a dragonfly in amber except this time it will be worse, because I’ll know that the people out there dying alone are people I know People I love.I can’t do that, Jamie. I won’t lie in that ditch again. I can’t be helpless and alone ever again. Do you hear me? ”
He: “I hear ye. I promise whatever happens, you’ll never be alone again.”
She: “I’m going to hold you to that, James Fraser.”
He: “You have my word Claire Fraser”
— a wholly characteristic dialogue of woman’s romances, variations on which repeat throughout seasons 1 and 2:

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been eight months since I last blogged on Outlander; thirteen months since I first blogged on the first episode: Sassenach: Radcliffe Redivida.

In the first season or first year I was at first enthralled, then deterred (bored when Claire began to be much less the focus of the story); and then, suddenly returning to become deeply engaged by the mini-series to the point I blogged twelve times; and in the last compared the book (which I listened to as read aloud beautifully by Davina Porter). For this second season or year I’m posting but once for all because I haven’t found the time to blog as often, but I found the same pattern in my reaction: at first riveted, then deterred (this time grated upon by the pruriency of the sequences in France); and then, returning I don’t know quite why, found the last section in Paris and the whole of the close in Scotland resonating deeply and irresistibly in my psyche.


Jamie and Murtagh confronting so many deaths of comrades after pyrrhic victory at Prestonpans (Sam Heughan, Duncan Lacroix, Episode 10, Prestonpans)

In the first season I account for the deep appeal of series by its the dream-archetypes and their relationship to other romances (I was reviewing Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley at the time), by its increasingly emotional use romance tropes (the series moves from Border Lord stuff to a spirit or encompassing tone like that of the best Arthurian romance); and then I compare the mini-series to the source book, Outlander, to show how a centrally woman’s book has been altered to make a male the central agon victim, and the book’s loving portrayal of Scottish home life replaced by thrilling and traumatized and gypsy adventure. This time again I’ll compare book, the second one, Dragonfly in Amber, to the mini-series, and then my concentration for this single blog will be how once either real history, or women’s real traumatic experiences are dramatized, the mini-series grips us once again.

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Claire waking 200 years later to find them “all gone” (Episode 1, Through a Glass Darkly)

The framing is much changed from the book. The framing of Dragonfly in Amber which begins in Scotland 20 years after Brianna was born, with the Reverend Wakefield’s adopted son, Roger Mackenzie, having returned to Inverness to clear out his father’s papers with an idea never to return is altered, softened and switched to become part of the first and second episodes of the third season (The Battle Joined and Surrender). Instead Claire is seen bewildered and grieving after she has passed through the stones without herself experiencing Culloden itself.

The great power of this episode and each one which juxtaposes the present in the 20th century, whether Scotland or Boston, to which Claire and Frank (Tobias Menzies) move, is that the past, Scotland in the 18th century becomes a metaphor for death. Everyone so vivid and shivering with flesh-y life is dust, dead, once Claire crosses over, and her longing to go back, is a longing to beat death. She longs to be with Jamie who is in real time dead 200 years. I identity and bond with her then.

The action in Scotland gradually turns into maddened gothic (the behavior of the French aristocratic king), neurotic fantasy (the behavior of Bonnie Prince Charlie so brilliantly caught by the performance of Andrew Gower), or deep loss (the death of the first child of Claire and Jamie, the whole hospital scene in the first half), and finally barbaric and tragic deaths of most of the principals. It’s this insight into death and a longing to beat death (the center of Shakespeare’s late tragic and Greek romances) made the core of the second mini-series by Roger Moore (producer, developer, often screenplay writer and director that has turned Diana Gabaldon’s romancing into a serious experience in and through modern film.


Frank contemplating the 18th century clothes Claire was wearing (Tobias Menzies)

Episode 1 (“Through a Glass Darkly”) Claire finds herself hurtled onto the ground in 1948, her cry is they are “all gone,” and she asks a passerby (astonished at her outfit): “‘Who won?’ ‘Who Won?” He cannot understand how she doesn’t know the Allies won WW2 early in autumn in Poland. With Frank, she is playing a part, however grudgingly. Her happiness is telling Mrs Graham of what was — or is in the recent past.


Mrs Graham (Tracey Wilkinson) listening to Claire in the garden

Whenever we are in this liminal time in the TV program, moving between the present and 18th century past, there is such an increase in unease and longing. Frank demands she promise to forget Jamie; he wants no third in his bed. She promises but later cannot. They have sudden quarrels: he uses the word “flog” for the way the newspapers are treating her disappearance and she demands he never use that word in her presence. Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) enacts the role of adopted father and Frank follows suit:

By the end Claire’s outstretched hand to reach Frank has reached Jamie, and the series switched to one of the port cities of France. with Murtagh in tow. Here we meet the evil Count de St Germain (Stanley Weber) who is hiding a small pox epidemic. At this point the mini-series begins closely to dramatize all the incidents in the novel, and mostly in the order these occurred.

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Charles (Bonnie Prince) Stuart (Andrew Gowan)

Episodes 2 – 7. It is true the French court mid-century was licentious openly and probably vulgarly bawdy but not the way they were doing it — they were trying for bawdy comedy and I’m not sure it came off. Virtuoso acting manages to overcome the feel of voyeurism. There is much that can be labelled bizarre in what literally happened, the stage business. Nonethless or because my attention was riveted for a span, from the king trying his courtiers for treason and having one of his ruthless supporters murdered in cold blood right in front of them. I found the apothecary and his shop, Master Raymond (Dominique Pinon) fascinating: the thread throughout the novels is medicine then and now. The boy they pick up as a son-pickpocket, Fergus (Romann Berrux) is humanely appealing. Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day), raped in the streets and later taking her revenge on her rapist is a satisfying character. I was especially moved by Claire’s miscarriage and her relationship with Mother Hildegarde, who encourages her to train as a physician insofar as she can. The plangent tone was to me irresistible, as well as the beauty of the burial.


Louise de Rohan, Charles’s pregnant mistress (Claire Sermonne)

I did have to force myself through the prurient sex — though it is true to say that the French court at this point practiced this. I also find all the plot-arrangements that come out of what-if stories — how Jamie and Claire are trying to avoid Culloden and yet not get in the way of other history ludicrous. But again this central erotic romance is the deep key to the series feeling; the two actors have this very well and I am now convinced as I was in the first season, the writers and directors and all film-makers produce hours superior to those in Poldark when it comes to embodying a range of emotional expressionism usually taboo.

Against that we had again what seemed to me this hatred of homosexuality in Episode 6 (“Best Laid Scheme”). Jamie challenges Randall because Randall buggers Fergus cruelly. I can understand some of the retrograde implications, all the while feeling this. Another anti-homosexual event is intertwined. I’ve now become aware that the hero of her second sequence of novels, Lord John (David Berry), is a homosexual and presented as the best of men: loyal, kind, decent, and that Gabaldon has said it’s a misunderstanding to focus on Randall’s infliction of pain on men: he’s “an equal opportunity sadist” she is said to have written. But there is such a stress on anal intercourse as a painful perversion. It’s a horrible scene between him and the boy, and surely encourages viewers to regard all gay men as vicious this way. This fita a deeply conservative bias in the depiction of religion too. Claire has a miscarriage because she follows them to the duelling spot and tries to stop the duel.

Episode 7 (“Faith”– the name of the stillborn child) was just astonishing; it’s what Daphne DuMaurier and l’ecriture-femme try for and rarely hit. It includes a very late miscarriage so a baby born dead and Claire’s intense grief — the half-crazed behavior captures something rarely seen. They again have some great supporting actors/actresses: this time Frances de la Tour as the mother superior. To get Jamie freed from prison after his duelling with (once again) black Jack Randall, Claire must have sex with Louis XV in Episode 8 (“The Fox’s Lair”) and this one reminded me of scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale the way Balfe presented herself and experienced the sex. It was even filmed similarly — but it must be coincidence. They caught in Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince) his insanities, his stupidities, delusions, egotism. Also how Louis XV murdered people on a whim.


Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour)

Elaboration: Faith is the name the Mother Superior gives Clare’s baby who is born dead. Clare had been overworking herself and bleeding and not resting enough. The stress of watching Jamie duel with Black Jack Randall after he has promised not to (lest the modern Frank not be born) was too much and she began to bleed a lot. Rushed to the nun hospital, she gives birth to a dead baby girl. She nearly dies because she is running a high fever and only an apothecary Clare has made a friend of realizes her placenta needs to come out. In a flashback memory scene we see she was allowed to hold the dead baby in her arms and wept intensely. She gives it up to Louise to take away. She at the present moment is being asked by Jamie to forgive him and she tells him she hated him at first – there is much dialogue about how we need to forgive people because God tells us to. Well in this episode there’s a lot to forgive: very evil events ordered by King Louis XV (Lionel Lingelser) whom everyone obeys.

The set of scenes over the childbirth, death, and then grieving I found very moving, and a concluding ritualized burial which reminded me of the ending of David Nokes’s film adaptation of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa where Clary is similarly buried. The music in the background was very like that in Clarissa in the brothel and other dark places; in movie association it’s gothic.

The hard delivery, pregnancy, childbirth and death told in the way they do mark this as a woman’s romance.

The season picks up terrifically when they return to Scotland (8 into 9). I returned to the series because I am now aware how central the defeat at Culloden was for the Scottish people; this crushing enabled a horrific slaughter by the colonializing power (the English), then ruthless ethnic cleansing, followed by utter betrayal of the chieftains turned into landlords emptying the land of people and then exploiting it in such a way as to render it further barren. Scotland in the 19th century is comparable to the middle east in the 21st with the US in the role of the landlords and English imperialism. And it seemed to me that once the actors returned to Scotland all the resonances of memory, history, deep feeling gave the hours an intensity it lacked in the French sequences (much more “made up”). The series is enormously popular in Scotland, the last three episodes of the second season the battles and defeats leading up to Culloden.


The Jacobite army on the march ….

At the end of episode 9 (“Je suis prest” — I am ready), there are two Scots songs sung from the period, one rousing military — the theme song of the paratexts of all the episodes is an old tune from the Isle of Skye, the “Skyeboat song” — I can’t find words for the intensity of the atmosphere as they line up to march to meet with Prince Charles before Prestonpans. They have automatic intense irony as we watch the men make preparations, and the women provide for them, all train because we know it ended in a tremendous defeat. So here is a good instance of where knowing not only how it ended but the aftermath was is central. Gabaldon and her script writers emphasize all the disadvantages (hindsight working), how the men are sparsely armed; how many of them had to be forced; their technological awkwardness, lack of heavy canon, the conflicts (so some Scots are for the Hanoverians); Jamie’s grandfather is careful to look as if he’s for both sides.

It’s this kind of thing historical novels can do well, films of course — and makes them implicitly political if realistic. Poldark loses out on both counts: there is no crucial historical incident and the script is inferior. Whatever may be the faults of Outlander the series (they have absurd conniptions about this or that), the scripts are remarkably literate and naturalistic and often subtle in language and idea.


Both Rupert Mackenzie and Angus (two close Scots friends, semi-comic roles until now) die

A good deal of the deep feeling in Episode 10 (“Prestonpans”) depended on the viewer remembering what happened at Prestonpans and how the Scots won that particular battle. We see how they managed to win when they did: absolute surprise in the dead of night, coming on smallish band of Hanoverian men utterly unprepared for a savage relentless attack from axes, swords. What makes this anti-war beyond the barbaric ferocity of what we watch is characters we have affection for do get killed — and we see some barbaric acts. A secondary subtheme is Claire’s memories of World War 2 (her post-traumatic stress disorder) which this experience ignites — we have flashbacks in her mind as she remembers back. The episode succeeds because of the emphasis on death, and the deaths of beloved characters.

Elaboration: it is so passionate it electrifies: this central real battle which the Scots won using the element of surprise attack in the dead of night just got everyone intensely over the top. It’s acceptable because the beat is (paradoxically) not on the win, but on death. Council scenes where everyone bitterly quarrels and especially Murray — who was against that ridiculous “assault” on the Hanoverians at Culloden. What we see at length is a couple of our “friends” die miserably and horribly and great grief. When Dougal Mackenzie kills savagely and this is presented,he is framed as barbaric, having lost it,and is condemned by Prince Charlie (who is an idiot but persists in wanting not to slaughter the English wantonly thinking they will then accept him — no they wouldn’t have and anyway they weren’t all English). I have a hunch Gabaldon does not present it this way. In the feature films she comes on as just thinking of characters and nothing more — an act. Fergus picked up as an effective pickpocket has killed someone and is upset by himself having killed the man. Later (season 3) he will have his hand chopped off by a Scot who he needles for betraying the Jacobites; his character is forming slowly

There is left room also to see the Hanoverian or southern English point of view; that is, that these tribal people are a dangerous nuisance. I know since 9/11 the term terrorist has spread ridiculously (it began be used extensively in the Reagan era when his govn’t sent murderous squads into Latin and South America) but if language were used truthfuly I think these nation states (groups of people who have legitimacy over others, because of an accepted monopoly on violence and imprisonment) regard terrorist as a dangerous nuisance. Neither nation-state has any interest in understanding what is driving the tribal and individual violence against them.

This connection to history, quite direct, gives the program a seriousness. I can see it’s using the usual “delaying” techniques since the Episode 13 (“Dragonfly in Amber”) is not Culloden but Claire returned to the 20th century with her daughter grown up and telling her who her biological father was. The season opened with her return before the battle got underway and returns to the same scenes in Inverness with Roger and her daughter, Brianna.


The Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow)

Episodes 11 & 12 (“Vengeance is Mine” and “The Hail Mary”). The turning back of the Jacobite army from where they had gotten in significant. Historians have debated why the Scots did this when they were getting so close and in the dialogue the reasons surface: Julian Wadham is playing General Murray (he’s aged — what a superb actor) talks of how much they are outnumbered; we hear the local places they have passed have seen no major uprising with them; there are 3 British armies in the field. The British have cavalry, much better artillery. Still Jamie (knowing about what Culloden will bring) says let us try to it or we lose whatever we have gained. Again the foolish prince says no, and refers himself to God. His talk continually shows him living in an unreal universe, not seeing the people in front of him.

Retribution occurs spectacularly. A horrible death by beheading inflicted on Sandringham (Simon Callow, a brilliant actor in this) by Murtagh. These episodes mount up the dead. Two parallel deaths — through juxtaposition. Column Mackenzie (Gary Lewis) comes to die, to hand his clan to Jamie, to warn against fighting for the Jacobite cause and there is a moving scene between him and his brother, Dougald (Graham MccTavish), a great actor who acts like a barbarian in the field. Contrastingly, we have Alex Randall (Laurence Dobiesz) discovered in a nearby town dying with Mary Hawkins caring for him (she escapes her uncle Sandringham’s clutches to sell her in marriage), and powerfully Tobias Mendez as Black Jack shows up – a man driven by “dark” forces, angry, violent, partly in a rage because his good brother is dying and he lives. Alex is dying a painful death from TB and it is shown what TB was, how felt, and the methods used to alleviate the inability to breathe somewhat. Black Jack is intensely reluctantly persuaded to marry Mary who is pregnant by Alex — to give her his pension, status. Clare having suggested to Jamie they kill the prince to stop Culloden is overheard by Dougal, and Jamie is driven to murder hjis uncle. Murtagh is spared for next season as Jamie has him march their band of men off home rather than see them slaughtered.

When this second season ended I had no idea what can be the substance or content of season 3 beyond Culloden (not yet dramatized) because so many characters have now been killed off. Sometimes audiences can really like a character in one season and what do you do if they are not equally taken by the replacement in the next? that is the problem the Poldark novels face.

What interested me — what I’ve been paying attention — is the script writer was for the first time Diana Gabaldon herself. Thus far she had written the scripts for none of them though she was endlessly listed as advisor – that is not the same as script editor for example. What was striking was a strong mixture of wild humor — sometimes just jok-y in the way of her books, but sometimes self-consciously over-the-top, almost but not quite campy — I feel the director stopped the trivialization that would have occurred. This partly confirms me in my idea that the books have this vein of frivolousness, or snarky laughter that I had not seen before. It didn’t hurt the program because the actors were their usual deeply dramatic selves; a tone has been established.


Mary Gowan, POV Claire (an earlier episode occurring in France)

But now we know Frank’s true heritage! Black Jack had been told (the first season) by Claire he will die April 16, 1745 — in a few days (we will witness this bitter fight to the death between him and Jamie at Culloden in the third season). Again there is much prejudice fomented against homosexuals through the way this man is presented: he balks at marrying because he says he could beat Mary; as a boy he beat Alex (it comes out). Of course the novelists “secret” comes out that th gentle generous Frank, Claire’s English seeming 20th century husband is descended from Alex, not the bad man John Wolveton Randall (as we had supposed). Jamie proposes a raid, the kind of surprise attack that won them Prestonpans, but Prince Charles gets lost and then turns back. So Culloden must happen. The last moment of the twelfth episode is Sam Heughan as Jamie standing in the coming dawn so still. He has emerged as a fine actor in this second year.


Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin) and Brianna Randall (Sophie Skelton)

Episode 13 (“Dragonfly in Amber”): I found this one very moving. deeply feelingful. Each time the mini-series returns to present time and we are in retrospective I find it so — here it’s the use of time-traveling over death. Claire longs to beat death again to join Jamie. In Episode 1 the present time Vicar Wakefield (James Fleet, with an allusion to Goldsmith I’ve pointed out before) has died but he left papers and this leads to Clare having to tell her skeptical daughter about this past, and Brianna at first deeply resentful comes to feel less anger, but does not believe her mother is telling a truth, or all this happened. During the 13th episode Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek) turns up (she does age) and returns to the past through the stones — after having immolated her husband by fire as a sacrifice.


Geillis is for devolution

But this last episode is flawed: it is too much coincidence to make the adopted son of Wakefield the descendant of the son Geillis had by Dougal (who we are told was born before she was burnt – only she cannot have been burnt) and then have him fall in love with Briana the direct child of Jamie and Clare. Incommensurate time scales here too, and the young couple are too bright, too without trauma. Again and again first Gabaldon and then Roger Moore show they have no feel for middle class life in the 1950s or they are confusing what was put on TV with the way people really lived in the 1950s in the US: closer to The Honeymooners than Ozzie and Harriet (which is alluded to). The utter self-sacrificing love of Claire for the embittered daughter strikes me as too sentimental in that we are in efect urged as women to enact Claire. I can believe the spoiled daughter. The episode ends on Claire with too overtly shining eyes dreaming of returning to Jamie because Roger has found evidence that Jamie did not die at Culloden. The writing and over-voice of Caitronia Balfe, melancholy, longing, real, as Claire, carries us over for now.

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Claire as last seen in Scotland

I asked myself, Are we to have a third novel registering the highland clearances? I have since learned (by watching the third season and reading The Outlandish Companion, Volume 1) that this does not happen; rather the novel switches to the US and the prologue to the American revolution in the 1760s. And the problem in the third season is the feeling of fakeness in the scenes from middle class life in the US in Boston.

Nonetheless, I’m deeply engaged by this mini-series now — maybe it is very like what I felt after reading the Poldark books and watched the 1970s mini-series. I did see the flaws in the Poldark mini-series: too softened, too sentimental. In my own exoneration (before myself) with Poldark it was the books first, but now it is this mini-series first, and I do believe that Ronald Moore is responsible, he is the executive producers, producer for each too, writes a numbers, directs a number, does all the features. He saw in this material potential. I’ve gone on long enough and will save the brilliance he shows in his features, discussions of these (on the DVDs) and deleted scenes for a separate blog.

Ellen

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Agatha Poldark: this is from one of her earnest conversations with Ross; but she has the same expression when she urges Morwenna that she cannot marry Drake (2015 Episode 6)


Agatha now near death, muttering, asking Elizabeth’s now frightened forgiveness because she knows she should not have responded to George’s tormenting of her with tormenting him (2015 Episode 7)

Dear friends and readers,

My header this time refers more or as much to Graham’s books, The Black Moon and The Four Swans, and the 1977 second season episodes 6-7 as it does to this new third season episodes 6 & 7. Horsfield has begun to depart as radically and anachronistically from Graham’s books as Jack Pullman did in the first season of the 1975 Poldark Episodes 1-4, which so incensed Winston Graham. She is not merely taking liberties but she is changing the meaning of the events crucially.

It will be said that if this pleases and is understood by the TV audience of 2017 (much larger than the numbers of people who will read the Poldark books in question), so what? I answer the original presentation is understandable by a contemporary audience and would teach them much more about the history of women, which sheds light on their present condition. The new sensational dramas where remarkably contrivance has replaced plausibility may excite an audience more, but if the reaction of the online and paper press is any measure, the reaction is increasing mockery (see the in-house Guardian snark of Viv Goskop, on Episode 6 and Episode 7).


George’s contrived question: what would you give, Morwenna, to see Drake acquitted


Morwenna as a frightened animal caught in headlights in a traffic accident (2015 Episode 6)

Take how Morwenna Chynoweth (Elise Chappell/Jane Wymark) is pressured into marrying the sadistic hypocritical vicar Osborne Whitworth (Christian Brassington;Christopher Biggins): in the book and in the 1970s series it is a slow application of pressure; from Elizabeth (Heida Reed/Jill Townsend) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing/Ralph Bates), from her mother, and from her sense of what her class status demands, what the norms of her society demand of her. Several scenes. As Verity wanting Captain Blamey and the abused penniless Demelza leaping at a chance to be a landowner’s wife in Ross Poldark; the widowed harasssed Elizabeth in Warleggan, so Morwenna has no “right” to “a choice of life;: subdued and oppressed by loaded phrases like “your natural place,” “your bounden duty,” “a false and romantic idea,” “obduracy” rather than the “gratitude” due someone (BM II:4, 276, III:12, 519), Morwenna falls back on vague mutterings like “I cannot see myself . . . I cannot think that this is [to be my life]”. In the book and the 1970s Elizabeth genuinely hesitates and feels unable openly to countermand her husband George’s plans for Morwenna, asking herself “why she was not more afraid of him.”. “Flight” is not an option. Instead we are given the improbable swift bargain that Morwenna agrees to marry Drake to stop George from hanging him for having Geoffrey Charles’s Bible in his cabin. In both the book and the 1970s, the threat of another riot is what gives him pause — plus he knows GC did give Drake the Bible as a gift. Is this weak of Morwenna? how do women fare up against laws and customs against abortion, supporting male rape, smaller incomes, men with power and property, the demand they marry successfully, have children? instead as re-told by Horsfield the story becames fodder for a joke.

I enjoyed the new episode 6 and 7, for all the reasons of the 2017 art (uses of montage, fine acting, the costumes, setting), but the book and the 1970s versions are in this case superior and in my summary and evaluations of these in my comments I do the two earlier episodes the respect and justice of serious recapping before we go any further. This for those who’d like to remember and for those who’ve never seen these. Then I’ll proceed to comparison.

The 1977 Episode 6


Dr Behenna pitying Elizabeth stuck with George, but giving bad advice for Valentine’s rickets


George like some dark spirit unreasonable, harassing Elizabeth (1977 Episode 6)

The 1977 Poldark Episode 7


At Tehidy Demelza charmed by Armitage


Caroline disappointed in Dwight (bored), also charmed (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Morwenna’s and now Elizabeth’s is not the only coerced relationship. In the book and 1970s Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson/Angarhad Rees) falls in love with Armitage because he is the first young man ever to court her, the first time she is romanced, offered poetry, valued for her singing: Ross was much older than she, and took her as his servant; his marrying her was ethical of him, and he has learned to value her sexually and as a wife from a realistic relationship. She couldn’t care less if he accepts a political position or not. She does see that if he did, he would do some good, and says this but she is not disgusted with him for his lack of ambition for status. Demelza? Importantly left out of this new iteration is Bassett’s (John Hopkins/Mike Hall) support of William Pitt in the book (a deep reactionary, who made of the 1790s a kind of McCarthy era) and his voiced expectation that Ross would support Pitt. This is not brought into the 1970s series, but not as much is made of either refusal.

It is to Horsfield’s credit that she sees that the trajectory of the three books is to pressure Ross into compromise, into accepting the patronage system and working within it, but she is using it to present Delmelza as falling in love with a callow romantic young man. In the book and the 1970s series Demelza says she loves Ross still and after sex on the shore, much more than Armitage. People have complicated adult conflicting emotions. Certainly Ross does.


Invented scene of high anger between Ross and Demelza (not in book or 1970s) where she is disgusted because he won’t obey the world’s ways and he is angry she wants him to follow her advice because it’s hers (2015 Poldark Episode 7)

In the book and the 1970s Ross says he cannot forget his love for Elizabeth but he at the same time loves Demelza and differently, as his wife. I’ve read that the film-makers are hesitating over going on to a fifth season because Turner and Tomlinson will ask too much money. Hitherto it was also said that would demand they move forward ten years (Stranger from the Sea is set in 1810, with Jeremy and Clowance grown into young adults): should they “age” Turner and Tomlinson (a lot of trouble) or hire new actors (and lose the audience they hope is into worship for this pair of people). If so, why invent Ross’s suspicion Elizabeth’s baby is his. Why have him and Demelza give one another pointed looks over his refusal to accept any responsibility for what is happening to baby and soon young boy Valentine? The tragic results of this in a twisted personality emerges in The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (Poldarks 8 and 9) and the catastrophic dark conclusion of Bella (Poldark 12). why prepare for what you don’t intend to film, especially if in the book Ross has no suspicion the child could be his and is not an 8th month baby (why would he? he hardly ever has seen the baby) until the scene in the churchyard with Elizabeth in The Angry Tide. The treatment of this in this new series is ludicrous. If you don’t want to comb or brush Ross’s hair and leave his black curls all awry (but in the era he would care for his hair or, as in Ross Poldark, he’d fear lice), don’t give this to the baby as a sign.


Obligatory romance scene between Dwight and Caroline (2015 Poldark Episode 6)

Enough is the same as in the books and the 1970s episodes to give the new drama and interpretations depth, interest, passion. Yes when Dwight Enys (Luke Norris/ Richard Morant/Michael Cadman) comes home, he is depressed and guilty that he survived; he cannot lend himself to sexual passion at first; Caroline (Gabriella Wilde/Judy Geeson) wants an aristocratic idle prestigious life and he yearns to return to his profession. Theirs is another reluctant relationship, a half mismatch. Yes there is a beautiful romance between Drake (Harry Richardson/Kevin McNally) and Morwenna, the boy Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus/Stephan Gates) values the inner spirit of Drake, who is very young and risks bodily harm to spite George with toads; who when he loses Demelza falls into a deep depression. Yes Sam (Tom York/David Delve) falls in love inappropriately with the wanton Emma (Ciara Charteris/Trudie Styler). Yes at the end of The Black Moon George is incensed at Agatha (Caroline Blakiston/Eileen Way) and refuses to allow her to have her 100th party, and she retaliates by planting suspicion in his mind that Valentine was a full term baby, after which as she lays dying she regrets having hurt Elizabeth for life this way.


Tholly Tregirls (not Jud) (Sean Gilder) is the gravedigger but when Agatha’s plain coffin is brought with no ceremony, Ross buries her — this is a moving moment

But why must we have these debasing exaggerations. At no point in the book or the 1970s does Demelza mock Sam’s religion. Emma is a daughter of Tholly but she is kindly. In the book and 1970s George does not openly rejoice at war because he is hoping to make more money; Farthing is made into a cardboard silly (transparently so) villain. Although George is deeply suspicious once Agatha alerts him, and does go about to question people (Drs Choake, Richard Daws, Behenna Hugh Dickson/ and Enys), it is not until The Angry Tide that he feels he has evidence to demonstrate that Elizabeth’s child is Ross’s son — which at that point brings ends the book in great tragedy. And neither Elizabeth nor Ross is really sure — how could they be? Horsfield disrespects her audience in many of the changes of these two episodes — or she is desperate for very high ratings (and a budget to support a fifth season).


Like Demelza Drake takes on a dog for a companion (there is a pro-animal theme in Graham, 1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Most of all what is hard to take is the violation of the characters as Graham conceived them and in the second season of the 1970s Poldarks (1977-78), to which Alexander Baron and John Wiles remained true. Demelza has made Ross the center of her meaning; he deeply bonds with her. They do not bicker; the sex she knows with Armitage is not fundamentally serious; his love for Elizabeth is vestigial. This core of validation of a marriage for love despite life’s ordeals is lost. A eecondary one is the defiance of the world’s perverse values; as in the first season, Horsfield again reverses and reinforces deep compromise (though how seriously we are to take this here it’s hard to say except we can see in her scripts art as saleable commodity).

Not that Turner and Tomlinson do not play their roles with what depths they are offered from the script and direction. Elizabeth is an interesting character as is George; he is the world’s successful man, she the woman caught up because she has twice been for sale. There is opportunity for Drake to come back (as a man he is given a profession to develop his talents as a blacksmith; he gets himself a dog), but for Morwenna she is rescued too late, and is forever shattered. Sam and Emma are a contrasting pair, with Emma as a hard well-meaning (she is well-meaning in the book, not a slut) and Sam a kind idealist, who church officials want to put down as revolutionary (this is lost altogether as his religion is turned into bigoted fanaticism over sex when it is also about all souls being equal before God). The lowest are the desperate Rowella (who sees in the Vicar an opportunity to rise somehow) and the vicious state clergyman given a big income and status. She does not have sex with Whitworth for her sister’s sake (what nonsense): her sister, Rowella, does not have sex with the Vicar for her sister’s sake, but for herself — as eventually will be seen unless Horsfield changes the story line altogether in the fourth season and I can’t see how they can (I see the librarian to whom Rowella is married off is in the coming cast)


Rowella (Julia Dawn Cole) and Whitworth about to use one another sexually (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

My reader should read the books and watch the previous Poldarks which are available in good digitialized versions. See my blog on “Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years On,” and Graham’s Four Swans and The Angry Tide.

Ellen

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Florence Lacey, Kaleidoscope (A review)

Friends and readers,

Probably a coincidence which I’m noticing because I’m aging, but aging was and is the topic of the two plays and films I’ve gone to or been watching this week: this past Thursday, Matt Connor and Stephen Gregory Smith’s moving musical (a world premiere at Creative Cauldron, an Arlington night-club, place for musical and other events), Kaleidoscope, about an aging successful (Broadway?) singer now degenerating because of Alzheimer’s. Florence Lacey, the central singer-actress, had a long distinguished enough career on Broadway and now works in the DC area: it began strong with her singing effectively in a musical, and takes us through the early stages of a journey into loss of her memory, mind, abilities. An especially moving number came from the character’s memory of her mother: Mother Stayed Home Alone. The audience had a lot of older people and I saw tears on faces. A friend was ushering; that’s how I heard about the production.


A rehearsal photo of Foucheux as Lear, Magee as Gloucester, Sara Barker Edgar

Tonight, Saturday, I’ve just come back from Gunston Center, a local American pair of theaters set in a local junior high, where I saw a bare and simple and all the more powerful acting out of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The acting company now call themselves Avant Barde, another Arlington group, who have a long history (30 years), going back to theaters around DC, then a theater in a garage on Clarke Street, then briefly in an arts building where an arts center is slowly filling the place, coming to life now and again. they once called themselves the Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC). I was sitting next to another older woman who became friendly and we shared memories, reminiscences of the WSC over the years.

I assume I need say nothing about the story and characters. This is another quiet (non-spectacular) winner: sheer acting, appropriate costumes and a minimal set (using lighting and music effectively). The great local older actor, Rick Foucheux was Lear, Christopher Henley was there as the fool and one of the kings suing for Cordelia’s hand. I was struck by what a gentle soul he is. Dylan Morrison Myers (Edmund) and Sara Barker (Edgar) could have memorable careers ahead of them. Some of the most effective black actors from this winter’s The Gospel at Colonnus, provided ensemble interchanges of characters. Myers grinned at me, we exchanged eye contact when I stood up to clap. They all worked very hard. I was very touched by the older actress, Cam Magee (she’s been in 19 Avant Bard productions now) played Gloucester (now Duchess); the change of gender fit very well in this production. Alas, the auditorium was less than half full. You had to want to listen to Shakespeare’s words and this time (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Lear) I felt comforted towards the end by Gloucester’s occasional stoic lines:

This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out

And over the past week and one half, I’ve watched the five episodes of the first season of the deeply effective, rich, nuanced, beautifully acted, costumed, written, BBC mini-series, Cranford Chronicles (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed by Simon Curtis, adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvelous book of short stories of the same novel, little known but superb novella, My Lady Ludlow, and thrown in to have a love romance interest swirling about a young man, Gaskell’s long short story, Mr Harrison’s Confession), illustrated by my favorite Posy Simmons (yes I have The Cranford Companion). Although there are several story lines, and two are about young men beginning life, with some hope of success, pride, self-esteem (Alex Etel as Harry Gregson has to break through Lady Ludlow’s prejudice against an agricultural poacher’s son learning to read; Simon Woods as Dr Harrison establishing himself in the community, gaining his love, succeeding in medicine), much of the production is about aging single women. Not that I do not bond with Philip Glenister as Lady Ludlow’s wise well-meaning, powerless steward and Emma Fielding as Lady Ludlow’s milliner, Miss Galindo (the couch-ridden narrator of Lady Ludlow, another disabled person). Thomas is aware of how central disability is to Gaskell as she had Lady Ludlow declare she is supporting a mute person by keeping her household very large (justifying expenditure to her steward). Cranford Chronicles is not only woman-centered but aging-centered. Matty (Judi Dench) and the poetic soul, Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) begin to become a couple too late: he dies before they can marry.


A favorite moment: Gambon as Holbrook, Dench as Matty, Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith (our narrator in the text)

All three gain their focal strength from their depiction of aging in society. I fancy though that the choice of all three to concentrate on crises de-emphasizes but cannot omit what is hardest about being old, looking at time past, with limited choices forward. Judy Dench is particularly effective capturing that in her still contemplative face she sits in her parlor after her sister, Deborah (Eileen Atkins)’s death. In all the works several characters die. A story about aging is a story about the irretrievable. Thomas has softened this by bringing all the characters who left back to the knit community at journey’s (mini-series) end.

I’ve written about this mini-series elsewhere and more than once (Return to Cranford). I began re-watching it because I’ve had another proposal for a paper accepted, giving me a summer project: this one for a volume on Animals in Victorian Literature: my contribution will be “On the interdependence of people and animals in Elizabeth Gaskell”

Several still unusual and dominant concerns across Gaskell’s fiction come together when we study her fiction from the point of view of her depiction of the interdependence of people and animals. Scholars have written about disability in a few of Gaskell’s fictions, but not its pervasive presence (part of her awareness of our continual risk of death), from blindness to illness, from birth conditions and a baby’s needs and aging, to specific variations of need or limitation, to a condition of mind or body brought about by economic and social causes. Similarly, readers have noticed her exquisite humor when it comes to how people treat beloved animals or (conversely), her appalled horror at Emily Bronte’s wildly brutal reaction to her dog having dirtied a clean counterpane on a bed, but not her characteristic awareness of the presence of animals, of startling abuse and (conversely), and their valued place in human (often single women’s) economy. Nor has it been brought out how the two are present together because Gaskell views our culture from her woman’s experience. Martha Stoddard Holmes has suggested an intransigent discomfort with investigating human dependency is one reason for the silence; another might be trepidation at re-stigmatizing Gaskell’s fiction as “feminine.” I propose to write an analysis of Cranford, Cousin Phillis, and Gaskell’s lesser known fiction and characters to show that this triangular interest is central to Gaskell’s achievement and important in understanding why 19th century texts seem to speak so crucially to us today.

There are some exquisitely funny incidents involving animals in Cranford: the cow whose life is saved by covering her in flannel, the cat who swallows a piece of lace and has gently to be made to barf it up. I had tried to find something beyond fox-hunting in Trollope (as “horses” was taken by someone else) but could not find he ever took an interest in animals for their own sakes; on the contrary, shows an indifference bordering on utter dismissal (he makes jokes of breeding foxes), except an occasional deeply felt metaphoric use (then he is creating pity for or criticizing a character). He is also not interested in disability.


Claudie Blakeley as the strong servant girl, Martha, and her loving “follower,” Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan)

So I will continue my love affair with Gaskell and read yet more of her fiction and in a new way; I’ve listened to all of Graham’s Black Moon read aloud in my car and am near the end of The Four Swans. I delight in Claude Berry’s extraordinarily sensitive effective Portrait of Cornwall and can hardly wait for the BBC to begin the third season of Poldark.

Today was a hard day for me to live through: more or less solitary, not yet up to, unable able to travel alone (go on a Road Scholar tour which is what I shall have to steel myself to learn to do if I want to see any more of the world), bereft of the very basis of my security, and my “enabler” (Jim), I ought to have avoided the happy pictures on face-book, but could not, so much do I need to be in contact with friends. Gentle reader, I remember the woman at the window across the way from Mrs Dalloway’s party, glimpsed by her at the end of her novel.

Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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