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

Dear friends and readers,

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

Ansthruther
She puts hand into Jimmy’s waistcoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FirstshotLadyMary

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

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Lady Edith (first shot) watching

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

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

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

LordGrantham (2)

LordGrantham (1)

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

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

Bransom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Derek Jacobi as Alan Turning being interviewed (1996 Breaking the Code, directed by Herbert Wise, script by Hugh Whitmore)

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Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan (1935 The Informer, directed by John Ford, script by Dudley Nichols)

Dear friends and readers,

While I bought in New Year’s Eve quietly, alone with my cats, I watched two films: both unexpectedly great: Breaking the Code, a 1996 90 minute British TV film, based on Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography of Alan Turning, and John Ford’s The Informer which was so powerful, a piece of German expressionist art turned to popular movie account I was astonished.

You can watch all of Breaking the Code on line instead of (wasting your time) seeing The Imitation Game:

I hope you took the hour and one half out. If not, here are a few notes which perhaps might tempt you. Instead of presenting Alan Turing as a kind of (freakish) autistic person never getting long with anyone after a brief youthful friendship in school with a young man who died of TB, Derek Jacobi plays a complex man who has a number of relationships, but is unable to fulfill himself as centrally part of his life because of the cruelties of the anti-homosexuality of English culture, the lack of understanding of a sensitive unconventional mind.

Breaking the Code is set mostly in the 1950s. There are flashbacks to the 1930s in school (a young Blake Ritson plays the friend who died from TB) and then to 1940s when Turing is hired (no atmosphere of paranoia or heroism; no justifications of murdering people to protect the “enigma code,” no silly team of a few men saving the world who also happen to be spies); in the 1996 film we see a slow building of relationship with his immediate boss (who is not crazily hostile, but half-sympathetic, played by Richard Johnson), and the woman he engaged himself to who did love him and he loved (played by Amanda Root), but he did not want a sexless or false-front marriage. I found very touching the depiction of Jacobi as a homosexual man trying to find companionship and the lack of dignity and threat, the sordidness and contempt of what he had to endure in the one person he could find to spend time with him.

breaking the code

I could understand deeply how someone brought up in the 1950s looking at homosexuality might say I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to know that and hide away. He is seen having an affair on Corfu (where he could have some safety). Equally gripping was the way he was treated in 1951. Pinter plays the M16 person who begins to have Turing monitored and put pressure on him after the trial: yes for national security it’s said. As we look at the desk where he slowly he gathered the drugs he used to kill himself we have a sense of how this came from a process across his life. Prunella Scales is brilliant as his genteel mother who has no understanding of her son and repeats the world’s cant to him but loves him; Alun Armstrong as the relentless narrow police officer (he reprised a verision of this as Inspector Bucket in Andrew Davies’s mini-series Bleak House).

Here is an account of the staged play and the awards it won. Herbert Wise’s work includes I, Claudius; High Whitemore many different stints writing one-time plays for British TV, and 1970s to today’s mini-series (including Stevie [Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith], A Dance to the Music Of Time, recently The Gathering Storm.

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Then I turned my attention to a novel, by Liam O’Flaherty, DVD, a redigitalized The Informer with a feature describing the filming (means, cost, people involved, goals, first reception), George Bluestone’s famous essay comparing the book and film (Novels into Films). Unfortunately this film is not on the Net, but a thorough defense and explication of in lucid terms (it has been attacked) is:

A Ford Crucible by Blake Lucas. It’s long interested me as an exploration of a role once regarded as abhorrent to all people fighting oppressive gov’ts, tyrannies, wars (when E. M. Forster said he hoped he’d betray “his country” before his friend”), informing for monetary or other rewards on friends, colleagues, family to powerful people. The opposite of the today reviled and hounded-down and punished “whistleblower.”

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I was deeply moved by McLaghlen’s performance of a non-thinking hulk of a man driven by poverty, a desire to stop his girlfriend from selling herself on the streets as a prostitute, a momentary blindness to all the consequences of his act (not just the immediate murder of the man he informs on, but the results on the organization of which they are part, the man’s family) and unawareness of his own feelings. Yes the movie is a lot more sentimental: in the novel the characters are far harder, selfish, his girlfriend is treacherous, the man he informs on a treacherous murderer himself; to make the movie more widely appealing Ford turns ordinary people into exemplary heroes and heroines, but this does not detract from the central fable of the awakening of this man’s remorse and the relentlessness of others around him to his act. The use of fog, of mist, the black-and-white interfused medium of the few streets, and rooms and archetypal direction is daring — Gypo Nolan is a sort of Frankenstein monster rejected by all a seething and bewildered humanity. He cumulatively gains dignity and forgets what he has done because it is too unendurable.

Since this past summer when I began once again to watch American-made movies from the 1930s to 40s, I have been so startled at how many were superb, not because of the Hays Code but in spite of it. These were pre-1950s, pre- the successful attempt of reactionary and rightist groups in the US to remove all pro-social feeling, all history from a working class point of view honestly represented. This is tale of Irish people as they seek, violently, crudely, to achieve political independence. O’Flaherty’s Famine, a novel set in the the 1840s is part of this history, and John Ford and Dudley Nichols committed to making films of integrity and intelligent art.

On one of my listservs, a member argued how important it is to pay more attention to how history is rewritten. What is erased and subsituted. Look at the difference between The Imitation Game and Breaking the Code, at The Informer versus Zero Dark Thirty.

Ellen

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Emily Blunt as the Baker’s wife going it alone …

The way is dark
The light is dim
But now there’s you, her and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help you when you return there.
— from the Choral Into the Woods

Dear friends and readers,

Jim loved Sondheim’s musicals, and I’ve just spent an hour or so perusing my and Yvette’s Christmas gift to him one year, the tall beautifully bound, Look, I made a Hat! (covering the years 1981-2011),

Cover

most of which is by Stephen Sondheim, and contains full and partial accounts of many musicals (not all produced, some just in the idea stage, some extant just as a coupe of songs, a costume design), but for Into the Woods enough of the dialogues, most of the songs, and thinking and ideas behind the stage productions to enable the reader to re-enjoy and understand what he or she has just seen and heard.

Of Into the Woods Sondheim begins by writing that the first act is farce and the second tragedy. As many people know by now, the matter consists of at least 6 folk and fairy tale figures conceived as ordinary people who (like Six Characters in Search of an Author) must enact quests, all of which require them to go into the woods where they collide with one another, and do not exactly live happily ever after by the end. Many may not know Sondheim and James Lapine also saw the characters as “first achieving their goals, and then dealing with the consequences of what they did there.”

They did not follow Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment: Sondheim says this book is cited as their source by many people because it’s so well-known. Sondheim seems to dislike Bettelheim’s book and refers to Bettelheim’s terrible behavior at his aslyum. He says what James (who wrote the book) was interested in: “the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings;” he was “sceptical about the possibility of ‘happy ever after'” (so could not be a Bettelheim person as Bettelheim justified the cruelty of the tales by the happy endings, which he insisted children believed in).

James’s play, Twelve Dreams, shows he was drawn to Carl Jung; they talked to a Jungian psychiatrist; learnt all the tales they chose were known in versions virtually around the world. The exception is “Jack and the Beanstalk” which seems to be a British Isles folk tale. Sondheim much preferred Grimm versions to those of Perrault (and says Disney and US school vesions come from the French). The gimmick was to mash the tales together. Sondheim gives Lapine credit for the elegance of the interweave. They ended up giving 3 midnights for the Baker and his wife to supply the witch’s demands before she’d give them a child:

The cow as white as milk,
The cape as red as blood.
The hair as yellow as corn —
The slipper as pure as gold.

As to himself (he writes the lyrics and music, the core of all opera), he sees the result as a musical about parents and children, about their relationships. Songs are about the experience of learning and gently ironic about what’s learnt. Sondheim remarks that the Baker and his wife are a contemporary urban couple trying to survive and to have a baby. What remains in my memory from Disney’s version is the Baker’s wife seeing Rapunzel’s hair rushing madly to the tower to wrest it, climb up and scissor it off. So Disney captures a current US obsession one finds in married women (they must become mothers).

The photos chosen are from a 2011 production done in Regent’s Park, London. The pages include sample scores, and handwritten notes and songs first written out in fairish copies reproduced. One of the photos is so large but scrumptious because of the park setting; the witch’s outfit is superb. There were no children in any of the parts; adults give the roles more depth.

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“Our Little World:” Rapunzel and her mother-witch clinging and rocking

Onto this year’s Disney movie: I didn’t need to read the the songs and dialogues and outline to recognize that Sondheim and Lapine’s stage play had been changed well beyond the needs of a film. the movie is directed by Rob Marshall, and the credits for writing are to James Lapine. There is a name given to someone else for the screenplay on the film credits, but it does not appear on IMDB. So like a translator a central person responsible for the movie is not named — perhaps he worked his screenplay from Lapine’s to Disneyfy it, and then they collaborated?

When we got out of the theater, Yvette recounted to me all the many literal large literal changes: while on stage and in the movie the baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) and Jack’s mother both die, in the movie Rapunzel (Macknzie Mauzy) does not kill herself after having a nervous breakdown from those years in the tower, but rather has a short episode of PTSD and is rescued by one of the princes.

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The Disney film Rapunzel is at least not altogether well

In the movie the evil witch (Meryl Streep) self-destructs rather spectacularly; in the play she lives on. Each of the changes has the effect of making for more (however serendipitious) justice and less misery. The play is further disneyfied by an over-production that overpowers, prettifies, drowns out the striking moments of exceptional embodiments of some of the characters (e.g., Johnny Depp as the wolf capering into nothingness) and the singing and acting of the lyrics smooths out to make neutral witty lyrics that mock heterosexual romance.

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Promotional still of Johnny Depp as the wolf, and Lilla Crawford as Little Red

As I watched the movie reminded me of our last year’s time with the Disney Saving Mr Banks: two child stars at the center; the anguish of frustrated husband-hero (here the Baker, James Corden, last year Mr Banks).

SophiasShows
At Regent’s Park an adult actor played Jack

There was not one seat unfilled in the auditorium (and yet the movie was playing on two screens) of this house meant for a mass audience I don’t usually sit among so the laughter at inanities further got in the way, not to omit an opening nerve-wracking full half-hour of tremendously noisy, flashing trailers for action-adventure fantasies and crude teenage sequels.

Nonetheless, not all disquiet could be removed, and this masterpiece retains some of its power and intense vivacity: by the middle of the second hour, I was sufficiently intensely engaged that I was surprised by grief when Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) burst into the song lyrics of “No one is alone:”

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone …
Cinderella to the Baker (in original version sung to Little Red who suddenly misses her grandmother)

Jim has left us halfway through the wood. At the moment of that song, of the plangent music, I was reminded of how strangely filled with his absence the world everywhere now is, the very air I see registers he’d not there by its color, wherever I go I wish what even this fairy tale wouldn’t grant, wipe away death, the past year and one half and return to the comfort of his presence. He would not have liked this movie adaptation but would have gone for the sake of the day’s togetherness.

I began to cry and Yvette & I held hands. She felt and knew too. This is not the only passionate adult number. There’s the witch’s sudden appeal to Rapunzel, “Stay with me:” “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world? … Stay at home … Who out there could love you more than I? …

Stay with me
The world is dark and wild
Stay a child while you can be a child …

Or the “Agony” of the two princes (Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen). What can have caused this “disdain”? or her vanishing? Not every thing in life revolves around love and human need for company. Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) worries about starving; Jack (Daniel Hutttlestone) is attached to his cow:

Exclusive... Tracey Ullman Films "Into The Woods"
Jack is fonder of the cow than his mother

The “indecisive” Cinderella (the wittiest moment of the whole experience) does not trust to anyone, “The skies are strange/The winds are strong.”

Into-The-Woods-Anna-Kendrick
She realizes her dress and shoes are stuck in sticky-pitch the prince has laid across the steps to halt her nightly flights

Even the plucky Little Red is not unflappable. Indeed the the sky’s air is filled with a fearful giant who stands for whatever you want. Sondheim’s characteristic staccato rhythms keep interrupting with aphoristic fragments that linger in the mind: “how do you say to a child who’s in flight./Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight.” “Children will listen,” and the lyrics from the musical’s secondary big and repeating number, are justly famous:

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you.

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The five characters left to leave the wood and live together at the close: Baker, new baby, Cinderella (who doesn’t mind some cleaning she suddenly says), Jack and Little Red

There is much sheer situation comedy too: the vexed characters argue at cross-purposes, accusing one another of being at fault.

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The Baker attempts to reason Little Red into giving up her red cloak

As to romance, it seems Chris Pine is a new heart-throb (Disney people know what they are doing when they cast roles):

INTO-THE-WOODS-Chris-Pine

It’s significant to note that there is not one African-American actor on the screen who is visible — except perhaps fleetingly in non-speaking walk-on roles.

I thought Disney ruined Streep’s ability to perform when her aging face was transformed into a youthful mask of such thick wrinkle-free flesh it was clear they didn’t want anyone to identify her as a 50+ year old woman who has some realities of aging. Can’t have that. Of all the performers she seemed least able to overcome the Disneyfying all around her. Maybe she was trying too hard.

Still, especially if you’ve never seen the musical before, or haven’t seen it for a long time (my case), I recommend going, perhaps on off-hours and with a determined attempt to come in just as the actual movie is starting (avoiding attached trailers).

Like so many people in my area (and as far as I could see from the TV news across the US), Christmas day has become a day to go to a movie. The parking lot of our local huge 12 screen movie-house was filled by the time Yvette and I left at 3:30 pm.” Two movies were sold out: The Imitation Game (I do mean to go by myself next week) and Unbroken. If the holiday is still centered in the family, the family no longer spends the whole day home together. Probably wise. Hard to say how many do this as the roads were fairly empty. The streets quiet. I like the quiet of the streets, few people about, later in the day in pairs or little groups or alone, walking with pets.

It may be becoming commoner to do “a Jewish Christmas:” She and I went to an Chinese restaurant I remember going to nearly 30 years ago (not on Christmas), a small one which has Peking duck and well-cooked other dishes at a reasonable price; and while we didn’t need a reservation, by the time we left (after 5 pm) there was a 20 minute wait for a table. We enjoyed talking of the movie afterwards: Yvette has a good memory and regaled me with the details of a production she said she, I and Jim had seen some years ago at Mason University and we talked of the individual actors’ careers and performances.

In the evening my cousin just my age (woman, like me, many years married) phoned me and I was good hour on the phone with her catching up. A planned tentative Boxing Day with my other daughter, Caroline, at the National Gallery (the museums in DC on the day after Christmas are most of them open and crowded with shows mounted for just this holiday time) did not come off today. Among other things, I had the time wrong: Georgian Cinema begins January 12th. But the place will have this unusual early film exhibit, which I will go to in a couple of weeks.

I will ever remember the summer the Kennedy Center allowed Eric Schaeffer to take over the place with his direction of some 8 Sondheim musicals. How Jim, I and Yvette went to 6 (at a high price). How at the end of the summer, the day of the last performance of A Little Night Music (the last of all the performances), there were acts going on all over the building, some seemed spontaneous. How Jim loved best Passion and A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along (not enough well known, a bitterer one about the cost of a successful career whose gimmick is to tell the story backwards). Jim nonetheless wanted to see them all and if any came into our area, or we were in any place where one was showing, he’d choose it as one of the theatrical events we’d go to.

As I read the book last night I found myself regretting I had not sat down and read it with him, nor the one I bought him the year later for Christmas, Finishing the Hat (covering the years 195-1981),

finishing-the-hat

more and earlier musicals told of, younger photos of him, with an essay on Rhyme and Its Reasons, which I will today.

I regret all the time I spent at my computer, on the Net, and not with him. I feel an irony in that I deluded myself I had company, made myself not so alone by my time here; well here I am condemned to do it for life, or until I can’t any more when I’m too old. Like some fairy tale.

Once in a while he’d say “you don’t pay attention to me,” half-teasing. I have to tell myself if he had wanted me to spend more time with him, he’d have asked for it and because he had a way of putting things that compelled my immediate assent if the utterance was serious, I would have. Sometimes I think he didn’t want me all that close. Anyway that’s what I tell myself (the little dishonesties the characters tell themselves in the tales) in this great absence I must live with everywhere and all the time.

Ellen

Dear friends,

It’s said they recorded this in 1971 when the war in Vietnam was not over: the US gov’t was bombing hospitals in Vietnam; they thought, What could they do about it? they decided to sing and record a song in which they pretended “the war is over:”

A hundred and ten years ago, this short French film, “The Christmas Angel” was made, and thanks to a friend on one of my listservs I watched it last night and can share it here:

An early film adaptation.

Ellen

VivienLeigh
Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951 Kazan/Williams Streetcar Named Desire)

Dear friends and readers,

Another announcement of a publication. (Rest assured very soon this will stop and I will return to our regularly scheduled programming mostly about films and books.) I’m happy to say my review of Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films and the Benefits of Censorship is now published on-line in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

Those who read this blog more than occasionally may recognize a few of the films I’ve written blog reviews of: Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Street, Cukor’s Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve been enjoying myself mightily watching (and re-watching) a selection of the films covered by this book and also reading for the first time (Thackeray’s Catherine: A Story) and rereading (Bronte’s Villette) a selection of its Victorian novels, not to omit material on actresses and other people centrally involved in film-making.

The book is significant because aspects of its thesis, its assumptions may be found in many recent and older publications. Perhaps among the more interesting of the secondary books I read was the collection by Kucich and Sadoff called Victorian Afterlife (about historical fiction too), and some of the individual screenplays and books on these films; also James Chandler’s The Archeaology of Sympathy comparing 18th century sentimental novels with (among other film-makers) Capra.

I would not have thought comparable Austen’s Mansfield Park with Cukor’s Gaslight:

BergmanGaslight
Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist readying herself virtuously for bed (1944 Cukor/John Van Druten Gaslight).

I also liked following trails away from the main movies and books under consideration; one of these I’ve seen before included a commentary on the famous scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront where in the make-believe cab seat we and Charlie Malloy (Steiger) are made to feel Charlie’s terrible betrayal of Terry Malloy (Brando)

onthewaterfront\
(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

I wish I had made more time to develop separate blogs on these books and films but do urge my readers to read and to watch or re-watch these books & films.

itsaWonderfulifeforblog
See some Christmas commentary coming out of It’s a Wonderful Life this year – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey pleading with the inexorable banker to give him more time (it’s the banker who has been able to steal the money George had been saving to pay his debt).

Ellen

Dear friends and readers,

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

Cover

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

Here is The Table of Contents:

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

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

Part I: Approaches to the Costume Drama

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

Part II: The Costume Drama, History, and Heritage

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

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

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

Index
About the Editors and Contributors

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

Ellen

Anothercast
Michael Volle as Hans Sachs (with a different soprano in the role of Eva than the production we saw today)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d record that Yvette and I spent 6 long hours watching Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (to give Wagner’s opera its full title) today at our local HD movie-theater. Neither of us hardly ever drowsed off — I observed a number of people half-dozing at times. Two people in our row left after the second act. It was an utterly unimaginative production not quite rescued by the intelligent acting and realism and singing of Michael Volle.

OperaMichael Volle

Speaking for myself I found the second act charmed me by the touching and human psychological interactions of the principle characters, especially the Volle as the older intelligent witty passionate complex character of a cobbler Hans Sachs genuinely in love with Eva (Anne Dasch in the production we saw), the daughter of his friend) who herself seems torn between Sachs and the lifeless stiltedly acted and (it mattered) unattractive Johan Botha as a supposed dazzling Knight-poet Walther von Stolzino.

village

The scene is a street in a picturesque fairy tale German-like town, Hans is making shoes for the coming wedding of Eva and whoever wins her as a prize in a coming singing contest, and along comes a master-singer, Johannes Martin Kranzle as an emasculated over-sensitive and therefore mocked suitor-contestant Sixtus Beckmasser intending to serenade Eva at a window. Some of the wall of music in this and the third act swooningly as well as some of the comic singing and hammering away by Volle appealed to me, was amusing. Also the overt theme of how valuable original poetry which does not follow rules or conventions is (Wagner thinking of himself) appealed to me as well as some of the romantic lyrics (a leider-like song attributed to and sung by the Knight-Poet Walther).

Renee Fleming’s interview of Volle showed him to be a deep feeling singer who had given a lot of thought to his role as a man in love with a much younger woman who gives her up (as he foresees he will be a Mark to her Isolde). The interview of the production design person who talked of this 1990s pre-computer set, watching it put up, and then a rehearsal of the dancing (Kelli O’Hara as lead, Deborah Voight interviewer):

MerryWidow

and an interview with a costume designer for the coming new production of The Merry Widow starring Fleming were entertaining.

Had Jim been alive he’d have certainly been there; I remember half-sleeping through a Meistersinger next to him where he stayed up for all of it I’m not sure where. He would have understood and listened to the music as Yvette seemed to.

Jim joined the Wagner Society of Washington DC here in DC shortly after he retired and envisaged us going to its lectures and concerts and yearly full weekend get-aways; and was bitterly hurt when after a second year of going to all its events, supporting it with money, we were clearly at the last moment excluded from their weekend (they held onto his check for it, some $500 until a week before when he said they must have at last had enough people for this event so they need not include us). He had thought here was a semi-popular cultural group we could attend, pretend to belong to. What was wrong with us I’ll never know — I did talk a lot on the one weekend we attended to a hired photographer-historian who shared my political outlook; maybe this was frowned upon. Maybe we weren’t important enough in any way. The snobbery of this society and the way the leaders behaved sycophantically to the supposed civic or political or cultural leaders of this or that place was without awareness. I was aware of how the fascism of Wagner, his anti-feminism (by the women there) was just ignored in all the talks about Wagner operas. I bring this experience up to expose this Wagner Society of Washington DC for doing that to him, and also show how much he was willing to endure to participate in the music of Wagner with the occasional person who knew something about it.

I’d like to think he might have agreed this production was hopelessly dull; the first act of the masters arguing over the coming contest was without drama — even Renee Fleming, the hostess could find nothing beyond vague hype about how “special” and “wonderful” this Wagnerian production was as she talked to the dull Kranzle and at least honest Dasch (she admitted the part was small, the psychology simple). In his filmed interview Levine kept going using the same contentless words. The third act went on for an interminable 2 hours: each of the major characters visits Sachs before the contest begins and while the interaction leads to the climax, each phase not only went on repetitively, but predicted the over-long heavy-handed climax with its gestures of gaiety, priggish self-righteousness at someone not wanting to join something, scorn of weakness and then insistence of how important it was to respect even conventional guilds and Germanness.

For me the HD film close-ups and surtitles made this another first time to see and understand an opera I’ve watched before and really gotten little out of. I was surprised to discover that Yvette didn’t like the second act: she thought it could have been a lot funnier. Very “uninventive.” She too felt it could have been half as long.

Not that anyone who matters in making new productions of this opera will pay attention to this blog, but I’ll still make the suggestion it needs not only to be wholly re-designed using modern symbolic staging but someone needs to take seriously its riveting interest is the erotic relationship between Eva and Hans. Wagner’s words do not call for Hans to act avuncular; and she asks him to marry her more than once and seems to prefer him to this suitor of hers in the third. Almost the whole of the first act could be eliminated, whole sections of the third, and if it cannot be cut, at least the mockery of Beckmesser could be cut down, made less snarky (he’s a kind of Mr Moseley character for anyone who watched Downton Abbey). There was no undercutting of the intense patriarchy of the male roles, but Karen Cargill, an Irish soprano as Magdalene, sister to Eva, showed some comic gifts:

nuremburgtwosisters

Yvette and I caught sight of the dress circle we sat in when we were at the Met in mid-November, and she said she liked that she could now imagine where the various places filmed were in relation to what we had walked through.

I wonder when these opera companies who broadcast through HD will admit that filming for audiences makes them change how these operas are directed. The one person never interviewed in any of these productions is the person called “the live HD director,” this time Matthew Diamond. It is egregiously obvious that blocking and entrances and exits and choreography is done with movie needs as well as in-house stage limitations and sets in mind.

Ellen

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