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SetDetail
A moment from the production — the distancing and then the

KristineOpolais
close up: Kristine Opolais

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I saw a re-transmission of the Met HD movie broadcast of the now ten year old production by Anthony Minghella (he directed, influenced the design, costumes) of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly movingly acted and sung by its principals, Kristine Opolais (who I’ve now watched and heard as an equally extraordinarily acted utterly different Manon Lescaut and Mimi in La Boheme) as Cio-cio San, and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Cio-cio San’s one loving friend, servant, companion. They were mesmerizing in their earnestness, long-waiting irony, bitterness, and finally absolute pursuit of death:

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We are nowadays used to these pared-down minimalist productions where the inward life of the protagonists is the central action focused upon, so it could not seem as astonishing it is must’ve done 10 years ago. Since I remember one other Madame Butterfly I saw in the 1970s at the City Opera (the usual intricate production design, fussy sets, distracting stage business, objects), I can say this is not a split-second dated. Indeed Minghella’s production is moving to a London theater this summer and I expect will produce several DVDs before the production sees its last performance.

The pared down production and what is left on the stage makes the opera into his utterly inward exploration of a single woman who is deluded into thinking this man loves her:

ActI
Women who were themselves geishas deliver her

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Between Act 1 and 2 three years have gone by. We discover he abandoned her and see what these three years have done to her and her friend-companion. During this act she is pressured to marry a rigid male from her culture. Quietly — and alas not emphasized in this production — we see at core she has rejected the roles her society gave her: to be an obedient geisha and then one woman in a harem of a polygamous man. Who would want that? For a short while she thought she found an alternative in Pinkerton. He turns out to be just such a shit towards women as the men in Japan. When he returns early in Act 3, he discovers what has happened and what is his reaction? to flee, leaving his wife to take her child or his son away from Cio-cio San. He refuses to see her or allow her to see him. There are a few slats on stage to suggest Asian walls and doors, a high stairway wide as the stage, and above a screen for light.

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Flowers are used — the place is littered with petals the way the air is filled with stars and a kind of fluff.

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”  Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
After this rare meditative moment towards the end of Act 3, Pinkerton flees the stage

Although Gary Halverson is again listed as film director (how he works with Carolyn Chaos, Minghella’s widow who listed as director we are not told).

I was just overwhelmed by emotions which the acting and the music projected. These while rooted in this particular story could be exaltation, love, grief, anger, despair over many other experiences. This suggestiveness is deliberate. For example at the end of Act 2 when the Cio-Cio-San thinks Pinkerton’s ship is coming into harbor, she, her friend-servant, Suzuki and the puppet for her boy, the three sit in kneeling way ever so quiet, just sit there and the darkness falls. This after the stark grief, anger at the attempt to get her to marry someone else, and other emotions have made the stage seem so noisy.

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The bunraku puppetry was part of the mesmerizing effect. It’s a form of traditional Japanese puppetry, strange, expressive, plangent. Probably what was used connects to an American version. Butterfly turns into a small fragile puppet buffeted about:

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I would have said well that won’t compare with a real child. I would have been wrong.

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Another incarnation where a photo caught the depth of the art

The child puppet is just so expressive and so yearning and so needy and so loving and eager; the people using sticks and dressed in black make his body and fact aching with emotion. His bald head on this wobbling neck made him all the more poignant. There is something so touching about the puppet’s fragile dignity:

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The puppeteers also danced and manipulated lovely blue paper birds when Cio-cio San is hopeful at the opening of act 3.

Robert Alagno was Pinkerton and the actor showed himself embarrassed or dull when he denied Pinkerton is to be judged (!) and asserted how the character is innocent and needs to be forgiven. He did seem singularly bland in Act 1 but by the time you are into Act 3 and he turns up only to flee. Anything he does in context seems fatuous. He seems to be an ass, and especially an American ass. The music standing for him is American. When the puppet is last seen it has an American flag, waving at us, as on the other side of the stage Cio-Cio-San more than half crazed, stabs herself to death repeatedly. It is a symbolic indictment of the stupidity and cruelty of US colonialist policy far more effective in its starkness than Miss Saigon (thought the explicit connection of the recent production is important and I do not deny its power and detailed stronger relevance).

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The penultimate savage death scene

Since the production is older, there are few reviews of this 2016 staging, which differs significantly only in having Kristine Opolais for the first time, and to her credit, this decade long exposure is said to be revivified because of her presence. The New York Times also reviewed her performance more than anything else. I have the highest respect for Minghella since I read and studied with a class his screenplay out of Michael Ondjaate’s English Patient, which screenplay and film were among several fine works he wrote, directed, created his vision of life through (Truly, Madly, Deeply is another). This older review from 2006 is the best I’ve come across.

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Ellen

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Mr Furnival introducing Lady Mason to his wife (J.E. Millais, from the original illustrations to the novel)

Dear friends and readers,

We’ve just finished reading Orley Farm on Trollope19thCStudies and I feel as if I’ve noticed all sorts of new things I hadn’t before. We said so much and talked of so many aspects in the book I can’t begin to write a coherent not-overlong blog on it (see Yahoo site, under “Orley Farm”). I know that for a long time The Last Chronicle of Barset was regarded as Trollope’s signature book; that which was most characteristic of him in his most brilliant phase. Nowadays the contemporary themes and perspectives (not to omit the influence of Davies’s film adaptations) have replaced it with The Way We Live Now for some, and He Knew He Was Right for others. There is an argument for “the Orley Farm case” too. I’ve included a few brief summaries and evaluations of some good critical essays in the comments.

For the first time I realized it can be read out of a feminist perspective at the same time as it’s a brilliant examination of how law operates in a court, and how the world outside the court impinges on that court and its rules of behavior so that when justice does emerge, it comes out of an interaction of social events and mores. We experience the powerlessness of women when it comes to law, office, property, and their own sexuality. We see their strength resides (alas for Lady Mason) in hiding, in watchful care of what they say or do, in quiet manipulation. Sophia Furnival is a mistress of this, but even she cannot overcome her lack of rank or status when she (at the close of the book) wants to enter the Noningsby circle (whose portrait by Trollope anticipates the Rostovs in War and Peace). As is so common, the illustrations emphasize these subplots.

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Judge Staveley is all that Rostov is not; Madeline a kind of Natasha (Lily James and before her, Morag Hood fit the part). Pierre is transfigured by Trollope’s hard point of view into Felix Graham.

We experience the importance to women of another woman’s true friendship.

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Mrs Orme and Mary, Lady Mason saying goodbye (Millais)

Millais drew pictures of Mary Snowe (treated as owned property for a while by Felix Graham), of Sophia Furnival (one towards the end when she realizes she has lost Augustus Staveley in a manner that anticipates Mabel Grex’s letting slip Lord Silverbridge), but none of Bridget Bolster nor Mrs Moulder. Yes the extant ones are all too pretty, but I would have liked to have a representation of the long-enduring Mrs Moulder.

Human relationships are seen as ever with Trollope seen as a see-sawing between dominance and submission, and Trollope shows the traits that leads a man to flourish in his career or ambition may enable him to dominate his spouse and household (though he need not) and how the impulse to power is a cruel one.

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Mrs Dockwrath (Miriam that was) greeting Mr Kenneby come to see her husband (two characters who have made unwise choices in the book and suffer for these ever after, Millais)

It’s also novel centered on negotiation; the scenes repeatedly show us people in negotiating stances, and what Trollope focuses on is who dominates who, and why. How people to be safe need to hide themselves and much that they think or do from other people — even among those rare spirits who can love another individual fully and loyally, though never (it seems) unconditionally. During our discussion I argued that the hero and heroine of the book are Mary Lady Mason and Mr Furnival. The book’s tragic patterns end quietly, with Mary Lady Mason at last left in peace in Germany, and her disinherited son self-exiled.

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Holding on, holding out after she has told her friends she forged the codicil and has lived according to its lie for 20 years …

We didn’t discuss how consciously autobiographical the book is; Trollope told Millais to draw Julians Hill, which his father lost, for Orley Farm:

OFFrontispiece

nor how far the criminal (though Trollope does everything to justify her he can) Lady Mason might indirectly mirror Trollope’s own mother whose efforts to live a full life herself and rescue the family he could not accept and never quite forgave:

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Lucius, the melancholy, socially awkward, perverse son

but that’s all there too.

Much has been written elsewhere on this book (and I wrote for conventional publication part of my chapter on the original illustrations on Millais’s pictures in Trollope on the ‘Net), but I do have one small allusion to elucidate, which I’ve not seen discussed, and which adds real depth to the book’s conception.

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Mrs Furnival’s return: “Tom, I am come back” (Millais)

In the moving depiction of Mrs Furnival’s distress out of loneliness and desertion, where the text becomes dense with suggestivesness that Mr Furnival, bored with his unintellectual uncurious and now aging and unattractive wife has had casual liaisons during business trips, Trollope’s narrator quotes Horace’s Odes, Book 2, No 3 twice. Furnival practices the same kind of quiet brutality to his wife he does to his clerk, Crabwitz: if Crabwitz does not like the terms of their relationship, he can find another job; if Mrs F does not like the terms of their relationship and wants to leave, that’s fine. He will not admit to needing either. While Crabwitz might lose a good steady income, Mrs Furnival loses the very meaning of her existence. But power over her, independence from her means more to him than any corrosion of self-worth she might have to live with.

The allusion is made most visible when the narrator refers to “Delius” and says that Mr Furnival had never had time to read the classics and had he had this time when young it might have done his larger ethical sense of what is valuable in life some good. In context it reinforces the idea that Furnival is hurting himself — the way Mary Lady Mason was led to hurt herself when she was pressured into marrying an old man for status and survival. The larger meaning across the book bring in metaphysical grounds Trollope is rarely credited with registering in his books.

I wish I had a better translation; this is by Joseph Clancy:

Keep this in mind: a steady head on a steep
path; the same holds true when the going is good:
don’t let happiness go to your head,
friend Dellius, for you must die someday,

whether you spend all your time in sorrowing,
or keep yourself happy on festival days
stretched out on the grass in seclusion
with a jar of your best Falernian.

Why do the towering pine and white poplar
love to weave shady welcome by lacing their
branches? Why do the rushing waters
hurry on against the winding river?

Tell them to bring the wines and the perfumes and
sweet rose blossoms that live such a little while,
here, while it still is allowed by luck and
youth, and the dark threads of the three sisters.

You will leave the pastures you bought and your home
and your country place washed by yellow Tiber,
you will leave, and into the hands of
an heir go the riches you piled so high.

Rich, and descended from ancient Inachus,
or poor and from the lowest class, loitering
out in the open, it is all one:
an offering to Death, who has no tears.

All of us are being herded there, for all
lots are tossing in an urn: sooner, later,
out they will come and book our passage
on the boat for everlasting exile.

In this book the relative freedom of the men is consciously contrasted with the imprisoned condition of the women, and the men are trained to keep the ethical instincts of their hearts under control lest they are endangered by them in some way. So although pressured by Mrs Orme not to ask Lady Mason to marry him again, Sir Peregrine Orme does and is once again refused by Mary Lady Mason. And yet here is our promised end. It is through Horace we can see Sarah Gilead’s humanist perspective.

We are told Trollope loved Horace and late in life he makes Mr Whittlestaff (An Old Man’s Love) read Horace regularly. He was particularly fond of Millais’s illustrations for Orley Farm, as showing him aspects of his characters or book he had not thought about until seeing them, and he had a set made separately for himself.

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Caroline Bowles Southey — her drawing of Robert Southey (her husband’s) window from which he wrote most of his poetry, journalism, letters (I like both Caroline and Southey’s poetry, his writing and this drawing of hers; Southey as a conservative Lake District poet turns up in Trollope’s Lady Anna to offer advice such as Mrs Orme would have approved)

Ellen

Afterwards

Oh, my beloved, shall you and I
Ever be young again, be young again?
The people that were resigned said to me
—Peace will come and you will lie
Under the larches up in Sheer,
Sleeping,
And eating strawberries and cream and cakes—
O cakes, O cakes, O cakes, from Fuller’s!
And, quite forgetting there’s a train to town,
Plotting in an afternoon the new curves for the world.

And peace came. And lying in Sheer
I look round at the corpses of the larches
Whom they slew to make pit-props
For mining the coal for the great armies.
And think, a pit-prop cannot move in the wind,
Nor have red manes hanging in spring from its branches,
And sap making the warm air sweet.
Though you planted it out on the hill again it would be dead.
And if these years have made you into a pit-prop,
To carry the twisting galleries of the world’s reconstruction
(Where you may thank God, I suppose
That they set you the sole stay of a nasty corner)
What use is it to you? What use
To have your body lying here
In Sheer, underneath the larches?
Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)

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From the first episode: Ashe (Anthony Andrews) goes down into the pit to defuse a bomb for the first time, the men wait up on the ground; we see Sergeant James (important character, Maurice Roeves) LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) and Corporal Horrocks (Ken Kitson)

Friends and readers,

I thought at this moment — after the bombing of the Brussels airport and central train station, considering what might happen short- and long-term as a result, the turn to the extreme right in South America (Brazil, Argentina) — that it might be appropriate to write about serious anti-war films, of which the 1979 Danger UXB is a mini-series you should not miss. It seems so a propos.

The stories are about a bomb disposal unit in World War Two, where about one-third of the characters we become involved with are blown up in their efforts to defuse bombs planted all over England (it seems) during World War Two. I cannot speak too highly of it — it’s the quietude and lack of melodrama with which it’s done too. One earlier episode called Butterfly Winter is about how Germans littered towns with hundreds of small bombs — how do you cope with these. How find 254 bombs in an area? One man does die when he goes out by himself too quickly, too humane; he should have waited for another member of the team to help. We just see the sudden explosions from slightly afar each time, or as they would have been seen by survivors. Then the unit commander, Brian Ashe (Anthony Andrews in one of the superior roles he enacted) is told, they rush to the spot and identify what’s left of the body. A moving scene in a church not overdone for once brought tears to my eyes.

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LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) listening to his distraught wife after he insists they must leave where they are, which she has made a sort of life for herself in (Digging Out)

Digging out is another I’ll single out (the 9th). It’s semi-famous, written by Paul Wheeler, who wrote episodes 5-8 of the 1975 Poldark series. Here we follow one of the non-officers in a unit whose wife and children live in an area of England just then being bombed heavily by the Germans. He wants leave to go to his wife to persuade her to move which move she is resisting. During the course of the hour he becomes drunk in oe of these corroded awful bathrooms I recognize from Leeds in the later 1960s — the harsh realities of every day life in England are really presented in this series. He comes across a girl caught in a collapse of a building near a bomb and risks his life and that of his mates (against orders) saving her: they are as non-officers and non-trained people not supposed to cope with bombs. He is crushed by what happens in both cases, and then punished for disobeying orders — which our hero, Anthony Andrews, head of the unit tries to mitigate.

I watched, riveted to my chair each time. I’ve found myself beginning to worry with intense anxiety over Brian Ashe, whom I’ve gradually invested so much concern for. The 8th episode they and he alone — are trying to defuse a new kind of trickier bomb — each time the Nazis make them harder to defuse. This time they must freeze the mechanism. Use liquid nitrogen. The focus in the episodes is repeatedly on working the technology right and its trickiness; instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Once the men save a young woman pinned down by a bomb and the only way they can think to save her is pull the bomb up by chains, swing it over her onto a wagon and then rush like crazy with the wagon to the sea and heave it high. The bomb explodes mightily in the water. They were dangering their lives and those of anyone in the factory. The heroine (Judy Geeson plays the part — she is to me drippy, just grates with her upper class mannerisms but she is supposed to be upper class) has a husband who works at Bletchley and he has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills psychologically; it demands an attitude of mind unnatural to people.

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The group rushes to take Ashe to the hospital (The Pier)

The final episode shows what happens to Brian Ashe as his body recovers from a blast that hits him in episode 12: I know I’ve said I’m one who doesn’t care if someone tells me the ending of whatever the novel or story is — except in some peculiar cases. Well I am that different from others that yesterday I found I couldn’t watch until I finally went over to wikipedia and ascertained that Ashe, my favorite character, did not die at the close of 8, merely very badly wounded ….

In our last hour, he is deeply depressed is the way people would put it, distressed is the word I’d use, angered at the deaths and destruction he’s seen, feeling the futility and failure of what he’s done, blaming himself, also simply in a lot of pain. The problem with series comes out in how he seems to overcome this: he wants to return to bomb disposal, and he’s not up to it. He does manage this with great pain, and the others let him risk his life to do this. They chose a bomb where only one person is needed. Two men offer to be next to him but he won’t let them — against the rules. So he is risking just his life. The problem is the show can’t help but endorse heroism and war at long last by doing this. Also the norm of the “stiff upper lip:” he apologizes to others too often.

We have a conventional toned down marriage where another set of mainstream values is endorsed. Class. The men are all enjoying themselves with working class women in jolly ways that the officers seem not to join in on; no they go off and have an elegant dinner.

It’s a kind of little upstairs (officers) and downstairs (men), with our Sergeant James just looking on at the men. He is the person who got Ashe to return, a liaison individual who belongs no where. Too serious for these working people and not elegant enough for dining. I suppose it reflects a reality but this reality while consciously shown is endorsed.

The quiet, lack of exaggeration and deep impulse to show what the experience of war is, how terrible fills each hour. I find myself having to stand by the door of a room while watching it so I can run away if anyone who I’ve grown attached to is killed — or anyone at all really. Each episode ends so quietly too, no cliff hangers. Just about every show has an important death, and often accompanied by anti-climactic behavior on the part of the people biologically, familially or by where they lived attached to the dead person, sort of flat. The men in the unit are quietly deeply disturbed but move on. Nothing melodramatic so you almost overlook it as sometimes it does not occur at the hour’s every end. It’s brought home to me how bombs are so horrifying, how they are still used — cluster bombs nowadays are used. Bombs laced with poison gas. Think of these drones. No trial to prove someone guilty of anything; a whole group of people hideously hurt, killed, their lives and futures wiped out.

Danger UXB is a work of real integrity. Writers included Jack Pulman (again), Alan Plater, other familiar names from the 1970s I recognized. It is very much told from a man’s point of view. Judy Geeson (Caroline Penvennen in Poldark) is susan, the one repeating woman character and like the others docilely domestic — almost. She has an affair with Andrews thought she’s married to a man working at Bletchley. So here too it breaks taboos: good heroines were not supposed to have affairs like this — without great trauma.

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Susan (Geeson) looking out the window — there are many such quiet stills

It’s usually talked about as having no women. That’s not so; they are not central but they are there, I’d say almost very mainstream values for women are in place. They are shown to have sex themselves and enjoy sex; they drink; our chief heroine is an adulteress. Our heroine is also ever so obedient to Daddy who is this “generous man” but of course knows she should go back to her husband and if he had not had a breakdown (from Bletchley stress) and died, she’d not have been able to become Ashe’s partner/wife at the last. So the sexuality of the programs are not presented to liberate women so much as something that pleases male viewers because of the way it’s presented. They are finally docile sidekicks. The final episode has the girl who early on presented as a manipulative tramp getting involved with Ashe’s batman, and finally pregnant and Brian Ashe’s batman marries her. Ashe has told him he need not, how does he know her baby is his? So no it’s not at all feminist. Women are seen from the outside as men see them.

The overarching struggle of the series is the education, and disillusionment and moral strengthening of Brian Ashe as he learns to be a good commander: he learns about himself and finally has this moral triumph; each episode is show the unit overcomes some technical difficulty — or not. Now Susan the one major character is a woman who does not have a lineal story of triumph; she moves from her father’s daughter, to adulteress deeply in love, back to wife to nurse her husband who kills himself anyway, and then onto becoming Brian’s fiancee; from man to man. She works behind the scenes effectively to help Brian by enlisting her father’s patronage network in the same repeated ways; at the end she’s where she was at the beginning but her emotional and moral life is so much more satisfying. Like Ashe’s batman, Salt (after the death of his wife from a bombing) becomes involved with less respectable woman, a music hall entertainer who we later meet as a prostitute; she is doing the same job for higher fees is her view. He cannot accept that and maybe he’s right. She is living a hollow life. We glimpse women suddenly made widows. Brian’s aunt is a longtime widow who apparently lives a quiet upper class gentry life where she has time to make herself available to Brian as caring stable surrogate mother.

Machinery

The mini-series’ central focus is technology: danger clever deadly device here. Instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Judy Geeson’s husband who works at Bletchley has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills too. What makes Ashe a hero is he can do technology well. Some intuition usually bettered this kind of theme: he leaves engineering school before he can get his degree so in the last program he cannot be promoted to a job higher than he had to keep him in bomb disposal. He doesn’t have the certificate. In fact he had not been at Oxford or Cambridge but was in the Technical Modern school (or whatever they used to call them). It showed up how injustice happens over these certificates and kinds of schools available to people. The paratexts opening and closing each episode show us the noise and strength of the machinery building bombs, firing them, sending them off to be used. The mini-series shows us how frail people are as they used this iron, steel and their electrical killing devices.

Some mini-series have not been re-booted; I suggest perhaps one sign of real superiority is the sense that you cannot reboot. This one cannot be re-booted; it’s not just that sensationalism has invaded and pervades the BBC nowadays but the whole mindset of integrity and true anti-war presentation (somehow not glorifying war at al and yet respectful of those risking their lives, fighting, the civilians.

A comparable work from the later 1980s shows up some flaws in Danger UXB. A Piece of Cake, like Danger UXB, has been admired as an unusual anti-war war film. It was done in the later 1980s and I’ve begun watching it. Only 6 parts it still merits discussion on the level of Danger UXB — or the recent (hardly seen at all, it disappeared in the US so quickly) Kilo Two Bravo. A Piece of Cake is about a flight squadron in WW2. It falls off towards the end, suddenly the incidents become shorter and the themes are not focused. A couple of romances start up where women are hardly distinguished from one another. (They have no coherent story.) It’s as the movie did not have the courage to paint as dark a picture of the human sides of the reality of group combat as it seemed to be moving towards.

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A Piece of Cake surprised me in two ways: first it’s ironic; the characters are presented as these admirable upper class males but as you watch you realize a couple are real shits, the commanding officer who seems so knowing and elegant and competent is a fool who thinks of war as an excuse for adventure and living in French castles where there is luxury and servants. It is unusual for a film to be ironic: to expect us to realize how inadequate awful &c characters are. One I can think of is the 1972 Emma. Its center is an unhandsome intelligence office, the actor who played Hooper (Thomas Hope) in Brideshead Revisited and is now Dr Pascoe in the new Poldark.

There is a technology theme here too: the captain at first insists on following heroic kinds of group behaviors that are not longer applicable and threaten everyone’s lives. The group must fight individually. He loses a number of men to his stubbornness. He wants to control them and be Top Male. Then the use of the technology of the airplane endangers them. There is zenophobia against their allies the French who we see them with. Again and again their own blindnesses, mores (which are after all why they are fighting), make it difficult for them to use the new technologies the way intended.

Piece of Cake shows up Danger UXB in two ways. First A Piece of Cake brought home to me how improbably nice and kind are most of the men in Danger UXB (one episode is about a shit commander, petty, enjoys tormenting the men with the “rules,” but he is outed quickly because all conspire together to get rid of him), how well meaning, how respectful between classes. In Piece of Cake they are more real — nasty some of them, use class to put down the men below, corrosive. In Danger UXB the survivors are technically very good (not physically brave or heroic necessarily at all, not conventionally), but in Piece of Cake you also have to have the kind of personality that survives corrosive competition, put downs; you must not be the person in the playground recognized to have coolies — and the second person to die was the type who others bullied and he tried to do a stunt in his plane. This level of human nature is kept out of Danger UXB for the most part. It is responsible for some of the deaths, and then having funerals conducted in ways that grate on people because too much class distinction is observed.

And far more people die in this series. I did realize that of the 12 we become really attached to in Danger UXB only 4 died and 2 we don’t know. That’s softening too. Almost everyone dies in A Piece of Cake; by the end we have a whole new bunch going up, and we feel they are not going to last much longer either — flying war planes is not a piece of cake. Churchill’s speech about their “sacrifice” registered this. Some of the actors who had individual stories and were grieved over when dead were almost nobodies when they were in it and went on to become stars (though it took time): — Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker are among them. I did think the quiet bitterness of the film superb.

***************************
After watching all 20 episodes of Jack Pulman’s 1972 BBC brilliant, moving and complex, War and Peace, I’m convinced this is another such mini-series, taking its considered quietly tragic vision from Tolstoy’s book.

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Anthony Hopkins as the young Pierre, come to be there as his father dies, stalked Anne Blake by the Countess Drubetskoya, anxious lest the letter which leaves the estate to him is snatched out of his hands (Pulman’s first episode)

Notably powerful were Frank Middlemas as General Kutusov, David Swift as Napoleon.

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Angela Down as Maria Bolkonsky (another of my favorite actresses from this era) – we watch our princpals age, learn, become sober thinking adults and yet ironically remain what they were when they started, learning in effect very little in a deeper way, or unable to change or take in what happened to behave differently

As I love movies so and think watching them can be as reading a book, I’m going to watch alternatively with this (thanks to a friend), the 1966 Russian epic War and Peace by Bondarchuk, and the sadly abbreviated but intelligent and well-shaped Andrew Davies’s 2016 version. We have agreed to read this book over the summer on Trollope19thStudies @ Yahoo (hoping the site remains), starting probably sometime in June and ending September. My project for it is going to include books on Tolstoy’s book, and I’ve gotten myself an older good translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, as revised and edited by Amy Mandelker; as well as a novel focusing on Sofay, Parini’s The Last Station, and Rimvydas Silbajoris’s War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Mirror of the World. I’ll at long last listen to all of David Case’s reading aloud of this book which I gave up on twice because I was trying to listen while my husband was dying of cancer.

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Recently revived as a film, Journey’s End with James Norton (who plays Andrei Bolkonsky in Davies’ War and Peace film)

REGENERATION, Tanya Allen, Jonny Lee Miller, 1997. Tanya Allen and (a favorite actor for me) Jonny Lee Miller (Regeneration, 1997)

I had registered for a Smithsonian course in World War One supposedly centered on a group of books, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, R. C. Sherriff’s frightening play, Journey’s End (I experienced it with Jim – the whole theater is made to feel as if you are in a bomb field), but when I saw how superficially All Quiet on the Western Front was treated (out of three hours, no more than 20 minutes — if that — of discussion) and how the history was presented as top down and about elites quarreling — and how upbeat the presentations I lost heart. So I am going to try Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (short-listed for the Man Booker), Sebastien Japrisot’s Un long dimache de fiancailles (I’ve got the translation too, by Linda Coverdale and I saw the film with Izzy when it came out) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration on my own (a film here too). When I don’t know: I hope to get to them this summer. I almost hope a proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (which I have prepared an edition of for Valancourt Press, and the editor-publisher is stalling on) to be given at a conference at Chawton Library is rejected, so I can do this.

What can I do better in the world as a reader and writer than read and write about and maybe teach such books?

behind-the-linesRegeneration
A landscape still from Regeneration

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

I’ll close on two more poems written during World War One, both by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

war-and-peace-ep1-battle-horse
In battle scenes from Davies’s 2016 War and Peace we see the horses dying too

As the Team’s Head-Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
    The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

castposing (Medium)
The cast or crew in Danger UXB acting out posing as the Bomb disposal unit posing for photos in a town they are trying to rid of planted landmines – we see how awkward it is to pose as heroes in the expected way — the mini-series has endless nuances of this type in all sorts of situations

Ellen

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From the frontispiece: Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza with Garrick

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Just one of many many meditative stills: Aidan Turner as Ross looking out at the world with a characteristic expression

Mem’ries like voices that call on the wind.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Whispered and tossed on the tide coming in.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Voices like songs that are heard in the dawn,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Singing the secrets if children unborn.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Songs like the dream that the bal maidens spin,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
T#aving the song if the cry if the tin.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Dreams, like the castles that sleep in the sand,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Slip through the fingers or held in the hand.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Dreams like the memories once borne on the wind.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Lovers and children and copper and tin,
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Secrets like stories that no one has told.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Stronger than silver and brighter than gold.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.
— M. J. O’Connor [sung as voice-over by Eleanor Tomlinson]

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been some eight months since my handy list, Poldark: the new incarnation and the Old. I’ve not forgotten Graham’s roman fleuve as a historical turn as this past fall I repeated a course on the first four novels I’d given the previous spring, and over the winter break wrote another paper for a panel on 18th century films, this time on “Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years on.” I finished that a couple of nights ago and when the ASECS conference is over will be publishing it, probably here on the Net on a blog part academic and part popular on 18th century topics.

To some extent I found out what many already knew: I studied the Onedin Line, a companion book as well as watched the first years’ series; and I read Diana Gabaldon’s first Outlander book and watched the first years’ series too. Yes the 1970s Poldark is partly modeled on Onedin Line; some of the departures from Graham’s book form parallels to Onedin. It’s no coincidence that a chief heroine of the first or 1971 season of The Onedin Line (often cited as a model for the 1975 Poldarks) also gets pregnant outside marriage, refuses to marry the father of her coming baby, and offered the choice of abortion, the streets or the baby’s father, marries a man not the father of the baby. The spiritualized landscape and mythic identity of Outlander is at least comparable (if not a source) to the new Poldark. An 18th century Scottish Laird and 20th century English nurse are repeatedly filmed in one horse against spiritualized landscapes of castles where megalithic stones are magical; so too the new Poldark has countless montages of Ross alone or with Demelza horse-riding against meaningfully heightened landscapes:

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The actors are quoted and we see the whole cast rehearsing too:

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I found enormously enlightening Lez Cooke’s history of British TV film. All four series fit into patterns Cooke describes. 40 Year re-bootings are all the rage. There has been an astonishing revival of respect for historical fiction and historical film, one adumbrated in the original Poldark series. There is a kind of thrill in watching the “old” Ross (previously the chivalrous Stewart Grainger type turned Che Guevara) turn up as the fiercely authoritarian judge standing off against, seriously threatening the “new Ross, e.g., where Horsfield reworks a scene using lines from the book to have a different feel where Robin Ellis now returned to play the Reverend Halse, an aging icy magistrate responds bitingly, ominously to Turner as Ross:

“Halse: “No doubt the common people you mix with have blunted your faculties as to what may or may not be said in polite society.”
Ross: “No I agree they alter one’s perspective, sir … have you ever been in a jail sir it’s surprising the stench thirty or forty of God’s creatures can give off when confined to a squalid pit without drains, water, physicians care.”
Halse: “The matter of your performance at Bodmin jail has not gone unnoticed, sir. There will be shortly be a meeting of the justices of whom I should say I am one … You offensive young drunkard. You’ll be hearing from us presently.”

“Have a care, sir [from an earlier scene].”

It seemed to me from reading Cooke the Rosses symbolize different eras.

I don’t want to go over my paper’s theses or various detailed comparisons until I’ve returned from said conference so thought I’d mark this occasion by bypassing the film so to speak to recommend a book I found a great help: Emma Marriot’s The World of Poldark, one of these “companion” books sometimes published alongside respected and popular TV mini-series. Like others, this one functions as a substitute screenplay: the story of the film is told chapter by chapter.

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The real scripts the actors studied

These are not synopses of the books as they often change the emphasis from the original text, as well as literal details. Each section of the book though corresponds to some phase of the two novels following their order (more or less).

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From the mini-series: Dr Choake (Robert Dawes), the banker Pascoe (Richard Hope) and Ross

The actors told of their conception of their character: a couple appear to have read the books, but particulars repeatedly follow a line of behavior in the film or changed conception of a character as distinct from the books which are nonetheless the source. They also invoke their own understanding of the relationships between character: Turner says that Ross likes Demelza because he trusts her (thus her deceit over Verity shakes him intensely), she doesn’t perform a role, and he sees himself as taking care of her.

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The originating relationship

Heidi Reed’s talk of Elizabeth Poldark’s relationship to Demelza is revealing not so much because it’s so unlike the book but because she reveals how she cannot resist seeing these historical characters as somehow unreal: like a fan of a Jane Austen book she talks about Elizabeth “as just perfect.” Reynolds’ portrait of Emma Hamilton was the model for her as a type. Biographies of actors and filmographies suggest an attempt was made to find fresh faces, people not well known or associated with too many famous and similar characters. While Ruby Bentall as Verity talked about the character as found in the film she was one of several who seem to me to have read the books.

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Verity and Demelza, becoming friends (from the book)

Learningtodance
This is from the mini-series itself: a favorite moment for me: as I loved the section of the book Ross Poldark where Verity and Demelza bonded so I enjoyed this scene (I have myself danced these dances, first learned, practiced and then enjoyed them)

Everyone was then to fit in as an ensemble, only the costumes for Margaret were “over-the-top.” Each person reading will have his or her favorite portrait and section: I liked Luke Norris’s ideas about his character (he “attends to the poor and whoever is in need, and is tireless in his work”), and feel better about the replacement for Richard Morante than I had

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There is a strongly progresssive agenda at the same time as high romancing. Like others, the book is also a kind of scenario offering the vision of the story: through pictures (drawings made by the staff, contemporary prints and paintings); using long suggestive quotations & passsages from contemporary histories (18th century histories of Cornwall, with citations, titles, dates); contemporary proclamations. There are genuine mini-historical essays on issues dramatized in the series: the criminal justice system, poaching, mining (from Roman to 18th century times, with emphasis on large economic forces), prisons. They will print an 18th century painting of the seashore, then a large clip from one of the paratexts of sweeping cinema views and then we see the cast [photographed on the same seashore cliff (colors enhanced by computer technologies)

marriotseashore

Essays on “Domestic medicine” (items called “putrid sore throat”), how money worked (again issues itemized in bullet fashion with explanations) and gambling too; smugglingv(how widespread). Many photographs of the locations and buildings used. An sort of essay by the composer about the music he created. Chapters from the production and costume design people, wigs, characters portraits with a cornucopia of photographs of the actors and actresses in and out of costume. I’ve picked out just a few representative examples of plethora of materials generously (the book is not enormously expensive) made available:

marriotoiepeasantfamily
John Opie, The Peasant Family, said to have provided inspiration for Demelza’s costumes — there are a number of reprints of less-well known (French, Italian, prints of soldiers in uniform) and famous paintings (by Gainsborough, Reynolds) which served as models for visuals of costume and character representation.

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Contemporary fortune-telling cards — some of the contemporary visual paraphernalia used

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Some of the drawing boards

This particular companion shows respect for history and Marriot tells a great deal about the film-maker’s aims, the teams’s sources, the genre of the film as envisaged for an audience. Marriot’s text explained a number of features of the first season that puzzled me: why these new Poldark episodes, individually so much longer than the 1970s films seemed to have much less time for the secondary stories: the idea was to establish a group identity and have many scenes of ritual and local work, three weddings replace complicated individually psychologized stories.

marriotdance

many silent sequences with some incantatory speech, Phil Davis as Jud warning Turner as Ross who determines not to listen:

Tis in the blood your father‘d say mining tis in the blood … the vein of copper ‘tis the bread of life  . . . eat sleep live and breathe it, she’s your salvation and your downfall, make you bold, many a friend did break and many more will follow … Tis a fool’s game … twill end in tears … your father died before his time … So his mining did for him… Well he won’t be the last neither, if he were here today he’d tell you not to make the same mistake

There is in this new series use of epitomizing dramas in order to project an archetypal reality, with an emphasis on folk culture (as in the original poem spoke by Tomlinson above). They didn’t want to make a film which would be seen as a re-make of the previous.

marriotnampara
The new Nampara

marriotsurfacemining
Recreation of surface mining

marriotinterior2
Interiors re-done at Corsham, the town used for Truro

I learned the names of all the different creative people, their past history, conception of their role and how they went about making their materials.

My experience of this book has made me appreciate the series much more; after reading it and re-watching the new series, I found I understood and liked it much better

marriotnap
A cross-section map invented for (the fictional) Wheal Leisure which we see Ross (Aidan Turner) poring over

marriotcloak
Demelza’s cloak, whose color fits into the color palette of the series

Ellen

thehouseisnow
Final shot of the series: Highclere Castle depicted as in snow, night falling — it is dark note

lastcharactersseen
Antepenultimate shot: we glimpse Violet, Dowager Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) with Mrs Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) —

Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville): “We never know what’s coming of course, who does?” (his last words)

Friends and readers,

What can one say about 90 minutes of scenes presented as about real human beings where except for the two over-the-top caricatures of Lord Merton’s eldest son and daughter-in-law (Charles Anson returned with his horrible fiancee, now wife, Amelia, an actress whose name I cannot find), everyone is actuated by the kindest concern for everyone else? and they cave so easily: “If reason fails, try force,” says Violet and she and Mrs Crawley snatch Lord Merton (Douglas Reith: “Marvelous!” says he) back. It’s again scene after scene of the usual intense emotionalism, with wry sayings transitioning into complacent on-goingness.

withmasterGeorge

Thomas (Rob James-Collier): “I think I might try to be someone else when I get to my new position … “

Yes Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is tart to Bertie (Henry Haddon-Patton) when they meet again: he hurt her. Lady Pelham (Patricia Hodge grown old) put up a protest against Bertie, her heir and son, marrying “damaged goods” aka Lady Edith Crawley who comes with her daughter, Marigold, born out of wedlock (because Michael Grigson disappeared in the conflagration of Nazi Germany), on the ridiculous grounds they have to keep the “highest moral standards up” since Bertie’s cousin, the man he inherited from may have been homosexual, and didn’t lead a mainstream life; but the unbelievable stilted reasoning soon collapses under the weight of her desire to be central to her son’s on-going life. This desire of all of them (except maybe Mr Carson, see just below) to not be rejected by anyone, not to hurt anyone’s feelings controlled the behavior of all by all.

I was reminded of an essay I tried to read by D.A. Miller where he asked why there were no police in Trollope’s Barchester Towers?

A paraphrase: everyone polices one another and themselves … we are invited to sit around and fret about how to take how a character given hardly any of life’s real alternatives is acting … thus are we drilled into accepting our lot …

MrsHughes
Mrs Hughes-Carson thinking about what she has seen

As usual Fellowes has a knack for surface realism: so we see that aging men sicken and move towards death much earlier than women. The “golden years” of Mrs Hughes-Carson (Phyllis Logan) and Mr Carson (Jim Carter) are going to consist of her selfless pragmatic and sceptical functioning as the friend, wise adviser and nurse of this rigidly martinet reactionary disciplinarian, worshipper of Debret’s as he subsides into Parkinson’s disease. Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) is not near death from pernicious anemia but he does have a serious case of anemia and will need his new second wife, Isobel Crawley, now Lady Merton, to care for and protect him.

dickie-and-isobel

Robert, Earl of Grantham did not die of a hemorrhage from his ulcers in the antepenultimate episode, and now has a new puppy dog to lavish affection on,

withdog

but he still clutches his chest in a worrying way that suggests angina pectoris, so it may be a good thing that (unlike her husband), Cora has found her metier in local politics at last: she is a soothing Lady Bountiful presiding over a remarkably anachronistically organized hospital system there in Yorkshire (it was Yorkshire the series began in?) where all will be taken care of. In their last conversation they acknowledge we cannot know what is to come.

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It was well-calibrated not to make this last episode into a tear-jerker.

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A few liberal joke-y notes. It turns out we are to see Spratt (Jeremy Swift) as another gay butler — that’s appears to fuel part of the Dowager’s delight when our resident (thwarted) witch lady’s maid, Dencker (Sue Johnston) carries on her thankless task of attempting to get him fired backfires.

Spratt
Spratt’s stamp album now a cover-up for his notebook writing of his daily column of advice for young ladies love-lorn and wanting to know what to wear

Mr Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is just dew-y all episode long with gratitude to all for their concern for him when he tried to slit his wrists, and with determined sweet love for all. Lady Mary engineers Lady Edith’s marriage with so little ease I cringed to hear Lady Edith’s return to abjection: “you gave me my life back” — could she have done nothing? The actors did remarkably well under this perpetual pressure. I thought some of the lines downright corny and Michelle Dockery had some trouble in her dialogue with her new beloved. Rob James-Collier managed a little better because he was given fewer lines: if he couldn’t be married, he could smile at being included and replace Mr Carter at long last. If there have been any lesbians (say the lady’s maids) over the years, we were not permitted to glimpse this, though now and again we came across individuals who ended up going it alone.

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Does anyone remember Alun Armstrong as Stowell the butler in Scotland? — Durkheim says elderly men alone are a population most susceptible to suicide

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Or how Violet attempted to secure Lord Merton for Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walters)? — but alas she was too old for his taste (I thought I glimpsed her for a split second at the back at Edith’s wedding but perhaps it was Henry’s as she is his family)

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

Why break a butterfly on a wheel at this point?

theladysmaidfixesthejuniorcookshair
The scullery maid the first season opened with now has her hair fixed by the housemaid now privileged lady’s maid and companion — Daisy (Sophie McShea) who saved a farm place for Mr Mason by her protests is all set to become Queen there, with Andy her tender-hearted king

Fixingtheroof
Andy Parker (Michael Fox) fixing the house roof

I direct my readers to two of several long-time bloggers on this series who offer the equivalent of Trollope’s ironically titled final chapter of Framley Parsonage: “How they all were married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever After:” Jane Austen’s world appeared to take it all solemnly, though she called it a “sugar spun bow;” Anibundel provided some salt while she went through it bullet-style: I add that even Mr Mason (Paul Copley) grins at Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol), and Edith’s editor catches the bouquet and so we know that soon she and Tom will be getting together. “All have won and all must have husbands after all.” Two children? Lady Mary is pregnant again, now that she’s got a Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) who is working out to be another submissive male, and in this episode is a woman who mends and heals and takes care of all. At first Henry seems depressed over this turn of events, but there is Tom to buck him up, and with effortless ease they start a Daimler business. His only worry is lest Mary be ashamed of him, but not in this episode where she is all calm beneficence:

lookingup (2)

lookingup (1)

There were years where I became intensely involved and bonded with some of the characters, Anna and Bates in the early years (Joanne Froggart and Brendan Coyle),

Inthechurch
In the church watching Lady Edith getting married

more recently Mr Moseley and Miss Baxter (Kevin Doyle and Raquel Cassidy). Servants on occasion educated themselves out of servitude: after all Moseley is not going to be a university professor.

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The punctum (as the piercing feel of the image is called) was there for me

It did happen that children of people outside the family could be brought up in the family nursery: Here it’s enough to see Lady Mary bend down to take off Anna’s shoes to force Anna into her own bed to give birth:

LadymaryremovingAnnasShoes

And when the childbirth agon is over (hardly felt at all, hardly took any time) the new Bates son will be put in the nursery during the day with the Grantham children to be “followed by a young Talbot:” Lady Mary decrees:

Baby

baby2

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akitchenscene
A typical kitchen scene, preparing food for the groups

In this last episode those still capable of being moved were so by the long years of “slow television” (individual scenes were not overlong but not a few seconds and broken up with interweaving with others as they played out), the images and dialogues repeatedly embedded in dramatised explorations of the neurosis of everyday life not gone into too deeply. In a world today where shallow relationships sustain daily communication in places where at any moment anyone may be ejected with no recourse, there can be no denying that finally the attraction was to this story of a group of people privileged to remain in a fractured-pastoral refuge. Community, safety, kindness is what is longed for after all.

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So it feels inappropriate to dwell on close-up images of pairs or single individuals at this last: the episode is larded with scenes where the characters support one another and self-reflexively discuss their relationships, the past, and gently lament they like ordinary mortals must move into future time.

Isobel: “What else could we drink to. We’re going forward to the future, not back into the past.”
Violet: “If only we had the choice.”

Dec29th
The house was photographed again and again, three times in snow

This is but a blog, but it is mine own and effective soap operas weave themselves into our lives over time. When Downton Abbey began I was happily married after many years and at first did not watch, my husband did not care for TV in his last years, and I did not want to take over the front room where an old television was stationed. I succumbed to find common ground with Anibundel, caught up, became hooked, and over the years events, images, lines in these various seasons intertwined with what was happening with my life. My husband died as I watched the fourth season of mourning; now the quiet “exultation” at the close of this sixth saddened me, since I have no future I want to go forward into as do these “precious winners all.”

‘The only thing I’m not ready for is a life without you’ — Bertie to Edith

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Judi Dench as Paulina (The Winter’s Tale)

Ellen

ManonLescautfinalscene
Final Scene, DesGrieux (Roberto Alagno) and Manon dying (Christine Opolais)

Friends and readers,

As a lover of Prevost’s famous story (as written by him), and having been moved by an intelligent and powerful European production of Massenet’s Manon (5 years ago now), Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as produced by the Met was something of a disappointment. It reminded me of an early 19th century French operatic version of Romeo and Juliet Jim, I, and Izzy, saw years ago at Glimmerglass, where until the last act I felt almost nothing and then suddenly at the long death scene where the lover awaken and dying grieve at length I was overcome with emotion at the lyrical beauty, acting, even words (subtitles though they were) of this opera. In this new production at the Met, the very last scene of Manon dying at length in Des Grieux’s arms sent through me waves of identification as I felt them experience her dying, with the music and singing heart-breakingly beautiful as inch-by-inch she despaired and died, and he enacted a deep form of empathy with her.

The whole of this Manon Lescaut exists to get us to this long many phase final scene. Puccini has stripped Prevost’s story of much of its rational or content. All he is interested in are the lovers when they are anguished; how they got there, is irrelevant it seems. Prevost’s original lovers are desperately trying to escape the norms and demands of the ancien regime: Des Grieux’s father wants him to become a priest, and doesn’t care if it would be utterly hypocritical of him. When Des Grieux refuses, the father uses lettres de cachet to imprison him. Prevost’s Manon is much lower in rank than Des Grieux and so unsuitable as far as the father is concerned, first seen in chains, being sent out of France as prisoner. In Massenet Manon is simply lower middle, without dowry, her brother is attempting to force her into a nunnery, but beyond that much of the original 18th century context is kept. In Prevost and Massenet, the two flee together; they are no paragons: he gambles to live, drinks, has had other women, and she deserts him more than for rich old man, but they do want to live lives true to their emotional realities and desires. They fall lower and lower, become thieves, crooks, in and out of trouble with the police, in Prevost finally ending in a desert in Louisiana, looking out on a meaningless horizon (the story is fideist), starved, exhausted, with her falling ill and dying. Massenet has a substitute setting in France for the last gouging into death.

Puccini cut all this out, and we begin with Manon as a beautifully innocent young woman, utterly stereotypical non-entity, Des Grieux, a chivalrous male student (anticipating La Boheme) who fall in love,

kristine-opolais-and-roberto-alagna

though her successful flight from her brother is engineered by Geronte (Brindley Sherratt), a vicious old man who turns up in the first scene (taking the place of Prevost’s father figure). In other words, Puccini robbed the characters of their content, context, complexity, their interest, leaving us with archetypes. The first scene of this production put me to sleep. Everyone was dressed in World War Two clothes and the soldiers were Nazis, but beyond that it looked and felt like some bland cheerful group of tourists at a cafe beneath museum steps.

Act1

Only Sherratt’s acting of a seething resentful old man and fine dark voice gave the scene any bite. If Puccini did this because the 19th century audience would not tolerate overt amorality, it didn’t work, as the program notes and wikipedia informed us the opera was thought scandalous and censored.

The production came alive in the second act. Genuinely funny in a self-reflexive way was Eyre’s original way of presenting a now rich and vulgar Manon and her brother, Lescaut (Massimo Cavalletti) as bored silly by the operatic songs and music of her aging and as we have felt mean, spiteful, (and as we discover) vengeful ancient lover-keeper, Geronte (Brindley Sherratt):

Presentan-la-Ópera-Manon-Lescautmocking

When Grieux rushes in and he and Manon become lovers once again,

ManonLescautAct2

only to be caught and threatened by said old man, the action on stage was compelling enough. There is even a suddenly evocative song between them. The stage seemed to me modeled on Lulu as there was again a long stairway down with a prison-like door out of which came first the old man, and then a group of Nazi officers who arrested Manon at the orders of her ex-protector. Maybe it was the same set with different accoutrements? (A penny saved is a penny got.) The furniture was all similarly tasteless vulgarly show-offy, though nowhere as graphic or meaningful as in Lulu (which had pictures to go with the setting). Christine Opolais’s dress evoked Marilyn Monroe on a particularly egregiously sexy day.

This use of sets to mirror the later 20th century continued in the third act and last scene. The prison looked like places where people are kept in solitary confinement, not gothic so much as places where senseless injustice is going on. (Welcome to the US or Egypt or a dozen or more other countries in the world, 2016.) Puccini’s Lescaut has tried to bribe a soldier to release Manon to Des Grieux and in this act the soldier fails to help them.

Prison

And at this point the opera moved into doing what it was there to do. Our lovers become desperately clinging anguished figures:

manonlescautloversbyprison

They did sing so movingly, and the music began to soar. I recognized in the second act and again here music I’ve heard before. Lescaut is shot (and looks like he is dying), Manon taken aboard a ship for the colonies with other women prisoners (prostitutes, poor women), with Des Grieux succeeding by begging to get the captain to let him come aboard. So now we are with refugees.

And then we are in our last scene, which appears to be a bombed out world. It looks like gigantic pillars of some iron building have fallen this way and that. There is a building still standing where all the glass has been shattered, and our lovers have to stumble their way up and down the columns. Here Des Grieux raises himself to cry out against what is happening (since the empty horizon and desert are gone it cannot be against some Godless wasteland)

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He then runs off to find help. She thinks he has deserted her and Opolais’s acting and singing were unbearably despairing, plangent. I lost it and began to cry. And when he returned, we were set for our Romeo and Juliet close.

The reviews of the production have not been generous. Justin Davidson of the Vulture saw the sets as preposterous, making no sense and the second transposition from Puccini’s gutting to WW2 adding nothing. Anthony Tomassini of the New York Times came closer when he suggested the production was trying for a a noir twist. To be fair to Puccini, I found the Met HD Massenet Manon similarly misconceived. Both critics, though, made the same point that my daughter, Izzy, dwelt on as what made the opera finally an extraordinary experience despite the useless transposition, distracting sets, and simplification into shallowness:

The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can. The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them. Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him. The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.

During one of the (long) intermissions, we were shown Eyre talking to Gelb, chief director at the Met (responsible for these HD broadcasts and central in choosing what’s produced at the Met and how). I gathered Eyre was aware that Puccini’s operatic story lacks any raison d’etre that makes sense, and he brought in the Nazi regime in order to give us some outward explanation for the scenes and make the opera relevant to day. Certainly today we see all around us flagrant injustice in the way prisons are run, mocking immorality, worship of luxury, indifference to suffering. The trouble is the content of the characters’ story has little to do with this as we experience it today. I take it the original error in Puccini’s concoction of several strung together scenes was to erase the ancien regime and romanticize, or sentimentalize the characters. What Puccini was moving towards was a realization of his masterpiece La Boheme, and he did that in the following year.

The experience though determined me to be sure and get my tickets for Madame Butterfly, the Met’s next production, exchanged for the re-airing of the HD-film later on a weekday night. I will be away the day Madame Butterfly is broadcast and would like not to miss this pair of effective actors and singers get together once again. I can’t find a still of him acting on the floor, crawling around, letting go utterly, but there is one of her at such a moment:

Manon-LescautOpolais

Ellen

Mooregoingonquest
Michael Moore sets out on his quest

Prologue:

BushGunTweet
Jeb Bush tweeted: [this is] America [and he’s proud to belong to a country epitomized by this image]

Donald Trump: he will cut billions in taxes from the wealthy, eliminate the Affordable Care Act; he is for privatizing everything possible, but he will not let anyone die in the streets; he seems not to understand the nuclear deterrent system of the US; he will re-institute systematic torture; he will gut the 4th and 8th amendment; he will limit free speech, control the internet; he will invade Iraq and take “the oil;” he would shoot Muslims with bullets covered with pig’s blood and require all Muslims to wear a sign identifying themselves as Muslim (if he cannot forbid them entry); he derides a disabled reporter, wants to punch in the face someone in the auditorium who has dissented from his views; he has the police throw out protesters; he sues anyone who exposes him …. here are the values and norms he will inculcate and follow if he becomes the United States president ….

Friends,

It’s uncanny how often Michael Moore’s films are spot on timely because he must plan them ahead. Maybe the public political scene in media does not move as fast as we assume it does. Or perhaps given a limited budget he pitches, writes, directs, and shoots his films in quick time.

The quest of Moore’s fictional adventures this time is: The Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon call Moore in to ask him to invade aany other country around the globe he wants in order to take from the people whatever they have of value to the US. We see him set forth in a boat with an American flag determined to visit countries we as US citizens have some knowledge of, share a linguistic base (we can pronounce the names) and enough common customs (like school lunches in elementary schools, family vacations), and less so but enough cultural assumptions to grasp analogies with our way of life and theirs. This is a ploy or allegory by which Moore delivers such a stinging critique of US norms and what our gov’t doesn’t do and does in the last fifty years that if he stood and made a sermon out of it, most people would walk out. He does point out or has his subjects point out how the idea they are now following, or the good lawyer they are using comes from the US. But it’s clear the idea has no purchase in the US today widely (or at all) and the lawyer rarely exercises his knowhow in the direction he is using say for Iceland in the US.

The story-line: Moore goes and talks to ordinary or significant people in European countries, mostly western and northern, a couple in Africa (Tunisia) who tell him how wonderful this or that set of customs, norms, laws the people enjoy as a matter of course — from decent vacation time, to wages high enough so no one need work more than one job, to health care, to humane prison sentences, programs for rehabilitation in prisons; we see disciplined policing contrasted to videos showing (many of these, so many) US policemen beating Americans as they assembly, as they protest, savagely destroying the bodies of black people, humiliating them, killing them. So many of these scenes — montages of them.

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A few quiet ones, like of the continual evictions of US people all over the US (engineered by banks, nothing whatever done to help these people: “Kicked out in America,” Jason DeParle’s review of Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, NYRB, March 10, 2016 issue). We see beautiful lunches served children in schools in France. Women in charge in Iceland. CEOs of banks sent to jail. One particular reality comes across repeatedly: high violence, especially of police towards blacks, but also towards any protester, and gun violence of US citizens. We see abysmal slums across the US, prisons into which refugees are placed.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’

The problem is the conversations Moore has with the people he has set up meetings with is not believable: they just go on in this exemplary way praising their own country as if it were just this pastoral paradise. Is it true that this rich French factory owner is glad that his workers are getting good incomes? We do hear from some union representatives who say if the unions were not strong and did not strike, they would not have this decent way of life but that’s not connected back to what we just heard. These are such simple minded dialogues, the watcher wonders if the people are just saying that for the sake of the cameras. It’s clear this is not the whole truth about their country. And it’s done in this jocular manner. A kind of goofus or faux naive stance. He would say “wow!” how can this be? How can your country afford this? Do people like this? I found it grating, and felt at first the whole movie was misconceived. He was leaving himself open for mockery and understandable dismissal. As with other of his movies, these scenes are all set up; they are not someone filming life as it goes on (Frederick Wiseman does this).

But as time (the film is two hours) went on 1) I began to see the audience was amused. Whether laughing at the conversations or Moore or I don’t know what. Myself I dislike people laughing at what is not funny in a movie audience, but if this important message he has to put before us, brings them in, all power to him. 2) the tone turned more somber and towards the end he had clearly mounted up a list of all sorts of needed things US people could do and need and do not (like have decent trains). He repeated and showed by tapes we used to honor these ideas and that some of what these foreign countries do we used to do.

A friend of mine, Diane Reynolds, summed the content up succinctly:

I also appreciated “Where to Invade Next,” a male-directed film but one that leaned heavily on women’s contributions in building more humane societies, especially in Tunisia and Iceland. As most probably know, Moore’s conceit is to “invade” countries that are doing social welfare well and take away their best ideas. His cornball antics can irritate, such as planting an American flag in countries he was “invading,” as can his distortions, but I very much resonated with his focus on the humane legislation and working conditions in other countries: ample vacation time in Italy, a law in Germany that forbids employers from e-mailing or calling employees when they are off, plus the civilized 36.5 hour work week which leaves people time to meet for coffee and enjoy leisure, the excellent education system in Finland, the chef cooked school lunches in France served on china, the extraordinarily humane prison system in Norway. We saw all these countries at their best–but their best is what s hould be celebrated and highlighted. I felt more dismayed than ever over what has happened here, especially the shots of prison and police brutality juxtaposed with talk from Portuguese police and Norwegian prison guards about no death penalty, humane treatment of prisoners, etc. I feel more impelled to get involved in prison reform, as it really is unutterably shameful here. Moore ended with noting what many of the people interviewed said: that their “best” ideas originally came from America. I hope this country get somehow gets back to normal … what I saw were countries that don’t loathe their own people and that are willing to spend a little extra money and time to make life better for people.

The question is, what happened? How did we get here? If we originally followed humane ideals or norms to some extent, where did they go? Moore doesn’t much say. He makes a couple of connections: at the time of the civil rights bill to extend voting rights to African Americans and all minorities, to stop systematic discrimination, the war on drugs began and with that the first mass incarceration of black men. No coincidence he says. In the 1990s the punitive system by the courts was set up. A sizable percentage of black men now can’t vote since in most states once declared a felon you lose your right to vote forever. He offers a map whereby if black men down south could vote more places would go liberal democrat.

Berllnwall

The film ends symbolically by the wall in Berlin today (interspersed with footage of it in the past and when it was crossed, the celebrations too). Moore is walking alongside the wall with a friend who was with Moore in Berlin in 1989 when the wall between East and West Berlin was broached, and the people around it stopped killing those who tried to cross. It is now a site for grafitti; a site de memoire, in places a crumbling hulk. The allegorical inference: at one time people said this wall would never come down. Well in a few days its power vanished. So maybe things can change back or again too. This is feeble as a solution. The ending feels so melancholy. Moore looks grim, unshaven, not in good health as he and his now aging friend walk together.

Where to Invade Next has a cumulative effect. Moore says to his audience, Look at these places where ordinary people live good lives, have good things of all sorts, where criminals are treated humanly and helped to rehabilitate when they can. He asks, What’s wrong with us? He says explicitly there is no reason we could not behave like these other countries. The wealth is here (if now kept in a few hands). The knowhow (if now mis-used). He has pictures of unsafe bridges and people protesting for good drinking water. Alas, there are very few longer reviews: Harry Barnes of The Guardian understands and praises it.

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Epilogue:

Trump
This recent photo of Donald Trump running for President is strongly reminiscent of Adolph Hitler rallying his fan-mobs — it fronts a periodical containing an article from the Southern Poverty Law Center “The Year in Hate and Extemism”

We are at a serious junction in US politics today: a fascistic, hate-mongering intolerate ignorant man who advocates violence, overthrowing the constitution in effect, may win the Republican nomination for president. (Read Roger Cohen’s Trump’s Il Duce Routine, the New York Times, Feb 29, 2016) Four score and seven years ago Lincoln said some 150 years ago can a nation so conceived — come together in this rational planned way, not something grown slowly over centuries — long endure? It seems to me we are again at a breaking point. The Republicans will not disqualify a man who openly says he will not obey law, will not obey his constitutional controls — while they are disobeying the constitution themselves: they will not allow Obama to exercise his constitutional power to appoint another member of the supreme court (they have abrogated and thwarted him for 7 years now). They want to destroy the gov’t; they don’t want it to work except for the 1% and themselves. They have come to power based on exploitation of bigotry (racism heavily) using hidden billionaires, and are beginning in various states to dismantle democracy altogether (see my Flint Redux, Snyder’s war on the public, Scalia’s enabling role and the Koch Dark Money). Read Juan Cole in Bill Moyers’ Journal.

Michael Moore does not make the argument that engineered poverty or imposed violence is leading to majorities of the Republican electorate voting for Trump. He insists we look at the values behind what we do. His insistence that American values lie behind some of the good things he sees in other countries seems to me a front which helps enable him make a superficially cheerful (and therefore possibly widely-seen) film. He is suggesting to us the actuating core of what’s happening in in the US come out of US values and norms. The countries he visits have alternative values and norms and he asks us, do we not want these? The grim heart of the film, never acknowledged, is maybe not. Moore does not say maybe we don’t want decent prisons which try to rehabilitate people. he avoids saying maybe this is a deeply religiously punitive, violent (see film on “aggravated assault and rape” in the US today) and racist society by not giving us history, by not making the connections of how we got here in 2016 (see Richard Steigman-Gall’s “It’s Not Just Trump”).

To turn to the timeliness of the film: Moore never mentions the current election: we could infer that majorities in the primary electorate of the Republican party vote for Trump because they share his values, norms, and aims and approve of violent punitive harsh religiously exclusionary, want racist institutionally-backed behavior.

Ellen

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