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episode11
Pierre (Hopkins) attempting to tell the deeply congenial Natasha he feels called to encounter Napoleon (while Moscow burns half-crazed he decides the calling is to kill this pest)

Dear friends and readers,

As promised, I here conclude the two blogs I’ve written on Pulman’s masterpiece mini-series out of Tolstoy’s novel (see Part 1, Episodes 1-10). These come out of a fulfilling experience I had with a group of people on Trollope19thCStudiesw @Yahoo (we read Anthony Trollope and his contemporaries, but also books on the Victorians, NeoVictorian novels, and talk about film adaptations of 19th century novels and films about the 19th century. I’ve posted an appreciatoin of Tolstoy’s novel after nearly a year of reading; more than a year of watching. Then I did a review of the 1955 King Vidor Italian-American Hollywood W&P; and a film study of Bondarchuk’s 1966 visionary epic W&P.

Doing these has enabled me to re-live these fulfilling experiences, and in the case of Pulman’s film I hope to tempt people who love beautifully acted, written, well-done film adaptations to see this nowadays under-rated (hardly spoken of) mini-series.

We left off at the pivotal center of Pulman’s film (Episode 10), Natasha’s (Morag Hood) delusionary nervous seduction by Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker), the thwarted elopement, the rigid Andrei Bolkonsky’s (Alan Dobie) bitter disappointment to where he has broken off with her for good. He has lost what had given him hope again to build a good life and (in effect) throws himself away, re-enlists in the renewed war. She grows closer to Pierre Bezukov (Antony Hopkins), who has wild ideas of stopping Napoleon himself. As Tolstoy says (in words given to Andrei in Episode 11 as he listens to the war counsel of Alexander (Donald Douglas) it seems everyone is helplessly moving into a maelstrom of destruction. Thus the tragic second half of the film.

Unlike the novel, Pierre is never absent for any length of time now. He is in almost every episode. A rare instance is 16 where Natasha and Andrei are central forces as he lays dying, and Sonya grieves for the coming loss of Nikolai and all her hopes.

Episode 11: Men of Destiny

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Napoleon (David Swift) determined to become (in effect) emperor of Europe with Paris as his capitol: the massive hubris of the man is caught in Swift’s stiff face

Much of it was dramatized scenes not in the novel at all. At this point the mini-series is approaching the 1812 and so they were (Pullman of course) confronted with the problem of what to do about Tolstoy’s arguments not just about history (which I see Tyler has commented on and I’m glad and will try to respond to later today) but a view of Napoleon which is essential to under the battles. Also they want to convey how Andrey feels about the battle and why — as that is part of the material.

So we have an astonishing good scene between David Swift as Napleon and Morris Perry (a great actor of the 1970s, then an older man) as Fouchet, the police chief who was an advisor to Napoleon and angered him greatly. Fouchet presents all the arguments against going into Russia that Tolstoy relies to make us understand Napoleon was an aggrandizing pest; Pullman puts in Napoleon’s mouth ideas about his control and direction that are clearly wrong. We then move to the Rostovs in Moscow: again there is much monologue and point of view in the continued desire of Nikolai to marry Sonya (Joanna David) and her intense desire to take him up on it: Pullman invents a very good scene between Natasha and Sonya where Sonya reads aloud a letter from Nikolai so that they discuss the issues. Inbetween these two we have other good scenes: the ball that goes endlessly on oblivious, ironically, the men on the battlefield coming on, and Petya wanting to enlist.

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The ball

We move to Alexander and his council or generals: not in the book this scene but Tolstoy’s idea of how useless and narrow most of their advice; one man does say they must lead the French on, not engage directly in battle and the whole effort itself will destroy the French army. Andrew is listening and in over-voice we get Andrey’s justified rejection of much that he sees as corrupt politics. We move to the Bolkonskys and Andrey is home: again a scene between Marya (Angela Downs) and Andrei about their mean father, a dinner scene where the old prince is a lecher towards Mlle Bourienne and Andrei tells him publicly how he should get rid of that woman and is told get out. A scene where Pierre brings his bible to Natasha and attempts to interest her in the 666 of the Bible and she cannot get it, but is eager to please him. It’s sweet. A swift wipe-out and now Napoleon enters the empty ballroom, exultant. Money was spent and they filmed scenesenough to suggest huge armies being amassed. The words in the dialogues skilfull quiet irony to show us how tragically and horribly wasteful all this is.

Pullman knows has made many invented scenes for this transitional pivotal episode. Snobbery never ceases and as I’ve said there is not one published article about this excellent series. This episode is just magnificent in the old version. David Swift as Napoleon interacting with his underlings, especially the chief of police is superb. . The BBC 1972 film is vitriolically anti-war. How appropriate the now ironic paratexts. We see the golden icons of shield, of tzarism, of imperialism slowly canvassed by the camera, and then cut to the countryside probably of somewhere in the British Isles, but plain and vast enough to stand for land people, real actual people attempt to wrest a life out of. The music is appropriately filled with trumpets until we reach the countryside and then it’s the men marching in the dark over the bridge. Then it quiets down. I don’t recognize it but I am not learned in music so that does not mean it’s an original score. The thematic music of these costume dramas matter: they frame and sandwich the experience as “not like the rest of TV;” cut off to be a special experience.

Episode 12: Fortunes of War; 13: Borodino

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The serfs’ attempted revolt; POV the astonished Marya

I found myself more interested in Episode 13 than 12 since Episode 13 like Episode 11 (Men of Destiny above) confronts the problem that in order for us really to grasp the larger meaning of what we are seeing requires invention of scenes and transposition of Tolstoy’s narrative into dialogues between characters.

As before 12 is distressing for me to watch. Not for the scenes of Napoleon and Murat who are on about strategy, how this group of soldiers will do this or that (thoroughly ironized for us by the dialogues of Episode 11) or Andrei and the servant telling of the father’s death and move of the family: the first again an interpellation from Tolstoy’s narrative monologue, the second dramatizing Andrei’s intense inward grief. The scenes that come straight from the book: the uncomfortable elder, the naïve puzzled princess (meaning so well), the peasants’ attempt to revolt lead up to the arrival of Nikolai (Silvester Morand) and the way he so easily subdues the peasants by bullying them, by simply asserting his authority, two immediately handtie the leader and they hasten to obey. I dislike Nikolai in this scene and feel so helpless at the peasants’ abjection. The BBC means us to see and feel this embarrassment and this film belongs to the 1970s liberal point of view of costume drama. In the book and here it begins Marya’s dependence on and transference of love to Nikolai as a much better, a kindly strong male.

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The deathbed scene of the old man, Marya hides her face

13 is to me a lesson in how to try to convey the horror of battle and the way people respond to it. Just about all we see occurs in the book in some way but not dramatized as large scenes. It begins with the small human dramas: the corrupt Julie come to commiserate and repeat her usual hypcrisies (it’s a sardonic long range comment that it was she Marya used to pour her heart out to) about Moscow’s safety she’s heard — all the while she is there to see if the Rostovs are fleeing. The Countess Rostov (Faith Brooke) says she will not until Petya returns and before we can object to Boris’s doings (told so proudly by Julie) the count and Pierre come in to say Petya is safe and Pierre has had him transferred. Natasha all gratitude, Pierre rushing off lest he take advantage. But then the contrast of the war scenes – the BBC spent a lot of money The men coming, the setting up of Napoleon on the hill and the gravity of it. Pierre does look a fool and out of place. The ridiculous icon carried through which Kutusov (Frank Middlemass) comes to kneel before. We are expected to remember how he and then Andrei (in 11) told the people asking for strategy there can be none. Kutusov looks intensely grief-stricken; he tells Andrei he has to told Andrei he has to do this because everyone wants it. And then this death scenes, the bombs, individual vignettes which does not end when Andrei is hit but pans out to show us all the death (in every which way ) and writhing bodies.

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Kutusov: from here on in he is presented as a contrast to Napoleon — his face filled with pity

Borodino: here is where Pierre gets caught up in the battle too and we experience and see the battle from his POV. Andrea seems to be blown to bits by a bomb — Pulman’s Pierre is not the deeply good man, that Davie’s Pierre is; but he is humane and what is happening on the batttlefield horrifies him. I thought of our own continuing wars and the very dangerous man who is now commander in chief of US military and his “Mad Dog” appt, which newspapers are glad of (that it was not someone far worse).

Episode 14: Escape

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Rostopchin exulting over Pierre: war and power brings out the worst in many peopel

Another superlative episode using invented scenes. In the book Rostopchin (Mayor of Moscow) is made hideous to us by the way he sets up a mob-murder scene of Vereschagin (a once naive idealistic student imprisoned and tortured). Pullman wants to make Rostopchin’ s behavior feel equally anathema. So a fine actor (whose name I could not find) reads the proclamation which declares all is fine and no one need flee Moscow in front a gathering of middle and upper class men: Pierre just returned from the battlefield keeps saying “nonsense.” Whether Rostopchin heard or not, he asks Pierre to come into his office and then deliberately is as vile and threatening to Pierre as he knows how: each act is a comment on our themes. He says how he is imprisoning Vereschagin as a free mason (whether he is or no) and will use and torture him (it’s implied). As a free mason, he regards Pierre as subject to arrest and death and tells him to leave Moscow immediately. He reports on Anatole’s death as Pierre’s brother-in-law; when that doesn’t hurt he tells of Andrei’s supposed death and Pierre begins to cry. This is not Tolstoy’s man who is utterly incompetent most of the time. Never so focused. But it works. A scene of Pierre coming home, given the countess letter and growing incensed, repeating her shallow words and planning to kill Napoleon.

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The Rostovs attempting to pack

The second half are the semi-comi scenes of the Rostov’s incompetence – only Sonya is packing and trying to get the others to work with her. Finally Petya arrives, angry he has been brought back.Then the mother will leave; when Natasha feels for the men and wants to unload the carts, and the father agrees on a few,the countess goes into a rage. It’s his fault they have lost most of their fortune and are leaving so late. The latter is hers we know (reinforced by Petya’s return in this episode so we don’t forget). He then says oh Nikolai will come and fix everything and she agrees. We are supposed to understand the hopelessness of this. Finally just before they get off Pierre is seen going by from the window and says he is staying but won’t say why.

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This encounter is repeated in all four of the W&P films I’ve watched

Sonya tells the countess Andrei is among the wounded. They are disturbed: the countess forbids Sonya to tell Andrei, in her obtuse way trying again to keep them apart. The scene ends with countess wandering through the empty rooms hurrying to carts loaded with viciously bleeding wounded men.

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Filmed slowly so we feel a way of life is ending

The 1970s mini-series did the books they did with care and attention to really reflecting the meaning of their texts. There’s enough time to character Napoleon from his standpoint and yet show what a monster he functioned as and was. Kutusov refusing to kill men uselessly for a symbol is strong and memorable. Paul Dano has nothing to work with in comparison to Hopkins: the family of the Rostovs and how the countess carries on caring only about prestige, objects, her children insofar as the situation will permit; she will not budge an iota in views as the world tumbles about her body.

Episodes 15: Moscow; 16: Two Meetings

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Pierre wandering through the fire-filled streets

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The woman hysterical over her baby burning to death in the building

15: Filled with memorable moments and beautifully structured within as well. The marching French soldiers, marching marching, camera angle on their feet, implied growing tired, Napoleon surviving, so proud, sidekick about there’s Moscow. He anticipates the great meetings he will have, how good he will be to all, and insists this was not his doing, he didn’t want this but now all shall be in good order under him. (Tolstoy would agree he alone did not do this – -and the point has been made too by dramatized dialogues in previous episodes.) More marching, then Napoleon in one of these vast cathedral types building, pacing waiting but all the officers can find are “riff-raff.” They try to tell Napoleon, but he is not listening; they bring these peasants in, and Napoleon indignant, wrathful kicks them out. Insists still he will set up there.

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The degraded drinking

After Pierre’s meeting with Rastopchin, the despairing exhausted Pierre home again. Real relationship with servant, amazed to see him, you must leave Sir. Hopkins rueful smile. Then the French officer Ramballe enters the house, self-satisfied, taking over — perfectly enacted — a peasant in the household lunges to shoot him, Pierre intervenes, the French man so grateful insists on the meal and in parallel with Napoleon his batman or equivalent to bring up all the wine. The drunken scene not that well done — they don’t let loose enough, but both sodden, Pierre deeply ashamed. Long center. Hopkins ends up drunk with a French officer where we see the frivolity of the latter and despair of the former, both pass out, and Hopkins ends up taken as a murderous aristocrat once he goes down into the streets. Napoleon set up in that space of the Kremlin, an officer to him and he begins to realize no one is coming.

Pierre in the streets, the street scenes, and then the saving of the little girl, he is captured as an incendiary, partly because he is seen to be upper class — so this is what everyone wants (ironic). Finally Kutusov once again stubbornly holding out, bitter now; a last shot of Pierre looking out dungeon window: parallel made of Pierre and Kutusov. Moscow ends up burnt down; we see Napoleon refusing to see what has happened to his plans, that the Russian generals have beat him because of the terrain and insisting on his rigorous rules and strategy which he cannot enforce.

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Natasha and Andrei re-united — it’s like Romeo and Juliet get to wake up

16: Carefully structured as a unit as the others have been it opens with Andrei just coming into consciousness in the hut; his aide rushes to him to help and we see how much in pain he’s in emotionally as well as physically. The actor is superb: Alan Dobie. It closes with Natasha finally coming into the hut, and coming over and starting to weep uncontrollably, him waking, telling her he loves her, nothing to forgive, he was wrong and their hands clasped as they talk. Morag Hood shines here too. Inbetween the stage is held by socially powerful women – or so Tolstoy thinks. The “other” meeting is between Marya and Nikolai and as in the book it comes about indirectly. Nikolai is dancing and flirting away with a married woman at a dance, his hostess breaks this up with ease, and takes him to Marya’s aunt. He confesses his conflicts over Sonya to said saloniere who has little trouble arguing them away. I felt the scene between Angela Down (Marya as I’ve said) and Sylvester Morand (Nikolai) strongly persuasive, because it moved slowly and this time was based on genuine shared history – and yes values.

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High shot of Nikolai hugging Andrei’s son with Marya taking subordinate role

The Countess the voice of calculating prudence, no lie is too much for her: what’s in her interest financially and socially trumps (that’s a verb I have to stop using as it’s horrible so this will be the last use) everyone’s feelings, promises, history. She nags Sonya and never ceases to to get her to write a letter “freeing” Nikolai. The ugly conformist, refusing to acknowledge and thwarting everyone’s deep feelings and needs around her: she is after Sonia to break off with Nikolai so Nikolai can marry money. The ambiguity here is Nikolai emerges as no great man: after the battle he is flirting with a married woman, clearly after her; he is compatible in nature with Maria but not her religion, and the two are brought together by Maria’s aunt and other of these older woman presented by Tolstoy as the makers of personal misery. Tolstoy’s men’s responsibility for the workings of the world are only in the area of war it seems.

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The harassed beyond endurance Sonya

As opposed to the other films, Pulman really gives Sonya room and thoughts again and again and with the countess and again Natasha she is rightly bitter: she is to give up everything that will give her an individual of fulfillment or she is ungrateful and despicable but what do the others give up? Nothing. It is she who offhand tells Natasha Andrei is there. The weak father had tried to persuade the Countess to tell in the second scene of the episode, directly juxtaposed to the with Andrei so as to give most impact – negatively on the countess. Now Natasha does come to tell her mother that was unforgivable but the Countess is unfazed, unrepentant and Natasha does wait until her mother is asleep and hesitates at first to go to Andrei. How hard it is to overcome the hegemonic norms which violates our deepest better nature. The episode ends with Natasha finding out that Andrea was taken in by the family: the actor playing Andre is superb; he has been all along; he is outstarred by Hopkins but the voice-over of his waking and thoughts in the first half and the meeting in the second was deeply moving. We see he is dying while Nastaya thinks there is a good life ahead for him and her.

Episodes 17: Of life and death; 18: The Retreat

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The death of Andrei

17: It opens with Natasha’s loving nursing of Andrei, touching scene between them with two overvoices as he thinks to himself while she speak and her speech heard as from afar. Very effective. It ends with Marya coming just as there is this terrible changed signaled by his having asked for a New Testament at the end of the opening scene. In the close Dobie enacts a man come to terms with death and moving away and out. So Pulman stays with Tolstoy’s interpretation of the inner life of Andrei’s death. By contrast (as I saw it only a week or so ago), Davies’ has Andrei struggling throughout, not the religious gliding into death at all – that’s why I cried so and it seemed to me so real. But Pulman is discreet and so are the actors and this religiosity of presented in muted but there form. Between this we have Pierre dragged before Davout, and the whole scene is his accusation; in the scene (not in the book) Pierre defends himself with a cogent statement (taken from the narrator) that such a city as Moscow would burn and Davout’s argument doesn’t make sense; nonetheless he is marched with other men and we see the shooting of them by firing squad. The death of the boy is not as anguished (or played up) as in the 2016 (and as I recall the 1955 where the political context was anti-totalitarian anti-communist).

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Then back again with the long dialogue with Platon (Harry Locke), the peasant who sees good everywhere, accepts everything, the dog, Pierre does more than listen; he says he feels more himself in this place than he’s felt for ever so long. Now that’s Pulman’s 1970s view of Pierre and of society: it does work in terms of this film. We are not quite convinced though (and I think we are meant to be); Pierre is so articulate, who would want to be Platon.

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Pierre meets Platon who extends his hand

Then back to the countess nagging Sonya who becomes cold and hard on the surface but gives in. A bitter moment. The Pulman film does give Sonya an inner life, one which critiques the world around her – as Pierre’s speech does. Then the coming of Marya with the boy and death of Andrei.

How quiet Episode 17 is. I had thought Danger UXB so unusual for ending quietly, not overstated at all despite central matter of defusing bombs with several of our heroes killed or maimed; this 1972 War and Peace shows a similar avoidance of ratcheted up melodramas.

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Pierre helping Platon — all four films have this sequence

18: All 45 plus minutes cover the retreat (about 6 chapters in Tolstoy’s book). The episode opens with Napoleon squabbling with his top men (Davout, and two others I recognize) where one is urging him to leave Moscow after they hear a report about no food, no hay, the place a shambles, riot. Napoleon says how else can he “make peace” if he leaves: he is told Alexander will not answer his letters. When he is warned Paris is without someone ruling it and to carry on like this risks revolt, he gives in. Switch to the rest of the time: a long duration of us watching phases of the prisoners kicked out to march, the people bullied, kicked and when one dies, he is pulled off, or himself drops and cries not to leave him, and then we hear a shot. Pierre does all he can to keep Platon going and meditates (flashbacks remembering Borodino as they come there and feeling horror as the montage goes on) but (as in the book) when he begin to feel Platon die, he distances himself: we feel a sense of grief in Platon but he gives over in the way of Andrei, and as they march on we hear the shot. The dog disappears.

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Denisov grieving for the life of Petya whom he had not been able to keep safe

Finally we switch to Denisov Gary Watson) and Dolokhov (Donald Burton): they are not presented as marauding quite, but it’s clear they are stealing and Dolokhov just loves it. After Petyra arrives, the scene of the young ensign is dramatized so that Dolokhov goes to have him shot, and Denisov stops him, is sneered at. Back to the retreat, voice over of Pierre walking off by himself (not quite realistic) and meditating darkly (from the book), and suddenly the Russians are upon them, the prisons realize they are saved. Much murder, mayhem, killing of Petya all the while Pierre stands about dazed. (Davies found this too hard and in his 2016 film has Dololkov joyous to save Pierre).

Last scene Napoleon getting into his fine sleigh, he says he does not want to desert his army (which he said I nthe first scene) but there is apparently nothing for it. He slides off in comfort, the pack of officers (now including Murat) wave in the snow.

The last two episodes (19: The Road to Life; 20: Epilogue) and a coda on the last words of all four W&P films I’ll cover here) are placed in the comments. This mini-series is the longest and fullest of the W&P movies thus far: 900 minutes.

Ellen

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The young Sonya and Natasha as we first see them on Natasha and her mother’s name day, Sonya revealing to Natasha how much she loves Nikolai (Episode 1)

Dear friends and readers,

I just loved this mini-series, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov (quietly marvelous); Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova and Joanna David as Sonya Alexandrovna (cousins, both perfect in the roles almost as envisaged by Tolstoy, only Pulman writes for Sonya far more depths of pain and rebellion within); my favorite actress from the 1970s BBCs series, Angela Downs as Marya Bolkonskaya, Alan Dobie slowly melting into a thoughtful conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky, her brother, and perhaps best of all, Frank Middlemas as an unforgettable scene-stealing General Kutusov against the steely-iron egoist Napoleon performed by David Swift. I could go on to name more (Sylvester Morand is a more sensitive Nikolai, brother to Natasha, but perfect as the conventional man, with Gary Watson superbly just your moral effective soldier, Denisov, understandably in love with Natasha). And must not omit the other central controlling creative presence, John Davies as director. There is still such snobbery about TV films that the recent anthology Tolstoy on Screen never discusses it.

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Pierre, young, nervous, puzzled as his father (not legally. and whom he hardly knows but has been all powerful and is enormously rich) lies dying in a nearby room (Episode 1)

It was after my first watch-through of this that I proposed on Trollope19thCStudies that we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace together. Of Tolstoy’s text as translated by the Mauds, and revised by Mandelkera realized: What is so entrancing is how carefully subtly done are all the scenes, how Tolstoy’s philosophical and political thought is gotten into the film by inventing further scenes that frame what’s in the book; how each hour is a unit in its own, with its own mood and juxtapositions fitted so perfectly.

My experience was at first it is hard to get into the story as Pulman is moving naturalistically and not attempting to rivet our attention at all costs. Very like his quietly opening magnificent I, Claudius, this War and Peace series grows on you (like Tolstoy’s book). After a while, you realize you are so involved with the characters and stories and themes. As with my blog on the first two War and Peace movies (going in chronological order of making), the 1955 King Vidor and 1966 Bondarchuk W&Ps, I won’t go over the book’s story line and characters but leave the reader to find a summary or read my first blog on Tolstoy’s novel — or (as I hope) the reader has, or is about to, read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I find the wikipedia page contains minimal cast lists and awards, and no break-down of episodes, no commentary, and there has as yet been not one essay in a published film journal (on-line or off), I’ll proceed episode by episode, 20 in all.

Episodes 1: Name-Day; and 2: Sounds of War

Uncannily (for I doubt Pulman read Tolstoy and his wife’s manuscripts as described by R.F. Christian in his book on the ms’s and sources of Tolstoy’s W&P), uncannily, Pulman reverses the scenes the novel opens with in the way they appeared in an early draft of the book.

The first episode in early drafts of W&P allow us to meet our central Rostov family: the fond weak naive count (Rupert Davies), uxorious over his calculatingly worldly wife, the Countess (Faith Brooke pitch perfect in this part); enjoying themselves by the spectacle now that they won it, all the while they are (clearly) overspending and being sluiced by everyone around them. In this the same limpet-clinger, Anna Mikhailovna (Anne Blake) greedy for money for her slowly emerging worldly son, Boris (Neil Stacy, aptly the same type in The Pallisers, Laurence Fitzgibbon, Phineas’s fair-weather friend). Episode 2 brings us to the first passages of Tolstoy’s novel, “What do you think of this man, Napoleon,” the fake patina of concern, the cant feeling of Anna Scherer (Barbara Young) in talk with the novel’s strongest site of mindless corruption for money and rank, Prince Vassily.

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Anna Scherer and Prince Vassily – the first moments of the novel realized (Episode 2)

Pierre comes in and his candor, intense interest in and sympathy for the “revolution” and Napoleon immediately makes him a pariah, laughing stock, but his equally sincere (if far more polished or cagey) friend, Andrei is there, and we see how bored this intelligent man is with his wife, but also how rough and hard to her. Pierre is as yet flotsam and jetsam and after promising not to go to the debauchery party of the novel’s slimy amoral drone aristocratic male semi-rake, Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker, fitting son for Vassily), Pierre goes and thrusts himself into the drunken feats and cruelty to a bear and police officer that ensue. And then the (for me the first time) the astonishing frank depiction of the fight between Vassily and Princess Katische (cousin to Pierre, stands to inherit a lot if he doesn’t) on the one hand to grasp the money, and Anna Mikhailovna on behalf of Pierre who she hopes will reward her well, over the dying man’s papers & will. The unscrupulous Anna is in fact responsible for Pierre becoming a rich man, a fact that empowers several sets of characters in the book. A fitting contrast to Andrei’s austere, old-fashioned patriarchal home, the rasping tyrannical father, old Prince Bolkonsky (Anthony Jacobs) making life miserable by enforcing geometry on his self-effacing deeply generous puritan of a daughter, Marya.

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From the first scene of Andrei and his sister, Marya, they capture the implicit depths of bonding and communication of this pair (Episode 2)

Andrei unburdening himself of his wife by setting off for the “heroism” and honor of war duty. Andrei will be disillusioned slowly. The different worlds of the upper classes, gender faultlines, feeding off war of “le monde” that form the novel.

And then our first battle: Episode 3: Skirmish at Schongraben

This is a remarkable hour. The BBC people had to film real people, crowds of them in formations, real animals, gotten real canons and shot out from them. They tried for historical accuracy with weaponry and uniforms. They burn down a real bridge they had built. The scenes of masses of men must be there. I wondered what park they were using :). They were not able to project and show the carnage Tolstoy’s language can do so efficiently but it enough was done to be suggestive. The whole hour was given over to these hard war scenes, and an anti-war bias of the film has begun. Frank Middlemass particularly believable, effective — as when they learn of a massacre of the whole army of General Mack, and Andrei appalled to see how little seriously many people take this.

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POV Kutusov hurrying out of his room to Mack to register his sense of the horror the man has known, from the back Andrei

It helps clarify the novel for someone reading this part of it. David Swift starts up the character of Napoleon quietly; Tolstoy begins with the man as nasty, as numinously strong in his manipulative letters, cunning and bold: Swift and Pulman’s Napoleon only gradually shows himself centrally egoistic. But note how we are now in a historical film. And at the close Nikolai’s first experience of battle: his shock at the real danger, at people actually wanting to kill him (though he had wanted to kill them and hadn’t thought about it); when they blow up the bridge it seems to him a game (not so to Denisov)

Episode 4: A letter and two proposals; 5: Austerlitz; 6: Reunions

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Now the spillages begin as well as clear structuring: as the scene opens the Count is weeping over a letter; it’s from Nikolai telling of how he was wounded, the family’s characteristic half-comical over-responses and mode of re-assuring themselves. The unvarnished sincere emotionalism is then contrasted to the worldly cunning which despoils lives: Vassily maneuvers Pierre into marrying his daughter, Helene (Fiona Gaunt, a thankless role), shown to be utterly hollow, embarrassingly sexy, and after wealth of a man she hardly knows and despises, but Pierre unable to extract himself (not for the last time).

The pain to come of this contrasts to the pain experienced when the plain Marya finds herself courted for the first time by Vassily for his son, Anatole.

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She cannot but welcome the possible escape

But the complex old man maneuvers the situation to leave Marya distraught over Anatole’s hypocrisy, and chasing of the French companion-semi-mistress, Mlle Bourienne. The old prince is saving Marya a lifetime of grief, but she is so hemmed in by him she can meet no one naturally. Contrasting close-ups of Pierre desperately pressured and allured and Marya in bed brooding

caughtbecauseattracted (Episode 4)

And again a full episode of war: Austerlitz pivotal in the book, for at its close Andrei seems to have been killed, and the Russians permanently defeated. Long war scenes which show incompetence, scores of people dying for nothing (the book shows this), Napoleon emerges multi-sided, powerful man with an attempt to explain (he’s not at all like the characters seeking true friends, he’d laugh), a man strongly controlled on battlefields and seeming enigmatic political performances.

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Nikolai maturing (Episode 5)

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One of many moments in the battle landscape (Episode 5)

By the end of Episode 5 all the characters are dispersed and then in 6, Reunion, they are brought back to where they started: grief as Andrei’s death is understood from uncertain letters; Nikolai’s home-coming to love; Pierre’s to cool indifference; Helene now having an affair with Dolokov (Donald Burton), a bright cunning amoral rakish and sadistic side-kick of Anatole’s; the death of the princess in childbirth just as Andrei does return. What’s plotted is a cyclical repetitive structuring, a return to the same character in the same situation but older, there’s been intervening experience

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Far shots, odd angles, landscapes each make a different statement: this is a courtyard modeled on typical Russian country mansions of the early 19th century (Episode 5)

I am impressed by how: how brilliantly and convincingly Pulman conveys Tolstoy’s depiction of nervous distress in a nuanced way so as to show it in public situations. The explorations of the miseries of these arranged marriages by showing someone marrying badly and how he’s engineered into it: Pierre with Helene. Pierre has a rich good nature and is thus taken advantage of by Vassily who forestalls his holding off by just pretending that Pierre has asked for Ellen’s hand. Yet Vassily does not succeed with Prince Bolkonsky: Vassily having garnered Pierre’s fortune into his family, makes a move on Maria, the homely Bolkonsky daughter, and ironically the ill-natured man are much better able to fend off this than the semi-trusting instinctive one: Anatole is precisely wrong for Maria who is fooled by him: he would have had an affair with the French governess before he left the mansion. Ironically we see how the foolishly aptly-worldly Andre’s wife, the little Princess does just fine with the hypocritical shits like Anatole and Vassily. Yet she’s become poor in health; she needs society, Andrei as her husband with brains, or her pregnancy will destroy her. Anthony Hopkins’s performance: young then and calibrated just right, with no embarrassment. People individually; in “le monde,” in war.

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

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Walking and Talking (Episode 7)

Episodes 7: New Beginnings; 8: A Beautiful Tale

The first ironically titled; the second (unusual for any book or film) uses a surge of idealism and hope first to undermine Andrei’s bitterness and losses. Andrei is pulled by Pierre’s visits from his retirement and meditatiom, meets and is “recalled to life” (a Dickensian phrase for a man come out of prison) by the intensity of Natasha’s youthful hopefulness and joy in all the sensuality and thoughts, plans of existence found in Natasha at a ball.

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Andrei asking Natasha to dance (Episode 8)

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The sun on his eyes (Episode 8)

Pulman, together with stunning performances by the actors, did justice to Tolstoy’s book. After Austerlitz, after a dual, a death from pregnancy, disease, we see a turn to meaninglessness as the good characters cannot get others to act seriously, usefully, lives not realized, gifts thrown away, the absurd lack of thought and also how the man given big honors knows this (Frank Middlemas as Kutusov got that across at this table). Pierre is driven by needling and insults from Doloknov at the same dinner party to duel with him as his wife’s lover and shoots to kill — an act of naivete (I bond with this aspect of Pierre.) Luckily Doloknov does not die as he in his apparent last breath tries to kill in turn, and then grieves over how his mother will miss him.

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Dolohkov, Nikolai, Denisov Laughing at Pierr, his POV (Episode 7)

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Pierre fleeing the scene of the duel (Episode 7)

Then we have the scene of Pierre shouting hysterically at his awful wife (the portrait in Tolstoy is misogynistic and Pulman keeps to it) to get out. He can’t stand the sight of her. She says oh yes, she can hardly wait, but he is going to pay.
 
Very moving were too long dialogues you’d never see today. The first Pierre on his way to his estate, in retreat from the corrupt society, meets with a Mason and they talk deeply about life’s meaning: whether one should believe in God or an afterlife and what if you don’t. He becomes a Mason. Pullman shows the ceremonies to be absurd (modeled on some performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute either Pulman or Davies saw. 
 
He visits Andrei and now we have another more enlightenment type discourse where Andrea is the atheistic view and more or less wins as probable and Andrei proposes another way to get through life – -you don’t need to believe in this overarching pattern at all. It seems more or less you muddle through. Don’t even try to do good – -which is what Pierre has been trying on his estate. We do get views of the peasants where are deeply class-ridden but the film means seriously
 
A wholly invented scene for Napoleon in council conveys Tolstoy’s views on history (how it works), philosophy (what is the meaning of life even) in ways relevant to politics today. It’s a relief for em to re-watch this film over and over.

Episode 9: Leave of Absence

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Natasha dancing to a folk violin played by her uncle

The title is utterly inadequate: this hour includes the beautiful renditon of the Rostovs’ Christmas embedded inside the family pathologies and tensions and misunderstandings of the Bolkonskys (the old prince’s biting cruelty to Andrey, the countess’s hysterical tirades at Nikolai, his at the stewards) and the desolation of Pierre as with over-voice he tells us of his life with whores/flunkies in his wife’s salon (the Masons have not helped). To me nothing comes near this rendition of War and Peace. From the point of view of moving the story forward, or about the character’s coming fates, the film “wasted” the whole hour. This was a splendid full scale elaboration of a Christmas interlude at the Rostovs in the country just after we are told their finances are in a wretched state – we’ve seen how Nikolai gambled away a huge sum in the previous episode. All the characters are in character: the dinner, the dancing, the hunt with another family; it was atmospheric, the idea Talleyrand’s about how sweet such lives were before the tumbrils began to roar through Paris. it is a high point in the novel too.

Episode 10: Madness

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Natasha trying to explain her vulnerability to such a seduction/attack.

In this episode as Pulman presents this supposedly nadir of Natasha’s young life, she succumbs to her nervous distress at having to wait for a year for a man to return to her and then decide if he wants her, the disdain of his family, and falls for anyone who says he values her. I know outwardly this kind of incident — the young girl eloping with a cad or looking at him so idiotically happens; in the book Tolstoy finds less explanation for it than Pullman in this BBC movie. Davies (BBC, 2015, Lily James as Natasha) has the Freudian erotic enthrallment paradigm in mind more (for Tolstoy that seems to be the whole matter). Sonya saves her and Pierre comforts her. Probably because I now know of the opera playing on Broadway with the title, Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, for the first time I took note of Pierre’s pointing to it as an omen. I didn’t note it much when I listened or read either. Especially the 2007 mini-series made for TV of W&P focuses precisely on this particular incident: that film turns the book into a soap opera heroine-centered Victorian melodrama (idiot girl fooled by vicious young man ends up punished but is comforted by good young man). Pulman’s shows how the same literal material can make a viewer/reader soar as these beautifully natured characters begin to recognize a life’s companion.

Since the characters have been given so much time to develop, the awakening relationship because of this incident between Pierre and Natasya is believable and touching. Beatrice Lehmann is superb as the aunt who rescues Natasha from eloping with the shit Kuragin male, Antoine (married to someone else) on Sonya’s say-so then castigates Natasha for “disgusting” (read sexual) behavior. Unlike Tolstoy’s or Davies, Pulman’s Andrei is hurt but also relieved — he was about to make another mistake, marry another girl far too young for him. Pierre is the site of consolation in the book and this mini-series. No one comes near him in moral understanding. Though he hasn’t got the strength of character to withstand the society around him when he confronts evil, and he certainly hasn’t the power to change much, he is getting better at it. The episode ends with him comforting Natasha

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It is not hard when experiencing this mini-series or reading the book to understand that this core is not the whole even to a limited extent what shapes the experience (which is the mistake of both the Vidor 1955 and the 2007 mini-series). The moment would not have the larger meaning it does without our exploration of the larger corrupt society, the worlds of Russia, the family lives, how so many types find different meaning and loss in their interactions, and how politics by military violence, the top pest males (Alexander I played by the quiet David Douglas is as selfish and uncomprehending of anything beyond himself as Napoleon in the film), and their imitators at all levels impinges on everything. In this scenario, Helene, Anna Mikhailovna, Anna Scherer, Countess Rostov, Katische are the female servants of this order. Those major characters resisting are Pierre, Natasha, Sonya, those upholding but with decent values Nikolai, Denisov, Count Rostov (though he’s been sluiced)

As Borodino is the pivotal moment for “the war” and larger history parts of the book, so Natasha’s enthrallment out of weakness, shame and her near-abduction incident is the pivotal climax for the “le monde” part of the novel. Pulman imitates this structure.

Tomorrow the second 10 episodes.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Not quite the familiar kind of title. I’d been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maud, revised, edited by Amy Mandelker, with Elisabeth Guertik’s superb La Guerre at la Paix just beneath for comparison since July;

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and began to listen to David Case reading an unabridged text by Constance Garnett last May.

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Frederick Davidson (David Case) reading aloud Constance Garnet’s translation unabridged

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An appealing small photo of Garnett

I finished book and mini-series about a week before Christmas. So 9 months. Translated texts by four women. Mini-series by men.

But if you count that I began to watch (and fell in love with) Jack Pulman’s 20 part 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins as Pierre), last January and have gone through it at least 3 times; and then went on to watch Bondarchuk’s Russian 1966 War and Peace (it’s 5 disks lasting something like 9 hours, Bondarchuk himself is Pierre; and I’ve gone through the whole thing nearly twice); Andrew Davies’s 6 part 2016 BBC War and Peace (Paul Dano, Pierre; watching at least twice, the last time weeping throughout the whole of the sixth episode) with one time for the Vidor 1955 War and Peace (once, Henry Fonda, Pierre, John Mills as Platon, Audrey Hepburn Natasha) — this experience might count for two years perpetual engagement.

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Fonda as Pierre and Hepburn as Natasha

I probably proposed to the listserv at Trollope19thCStudies @ Yahoo to read Tolstoy together because I so loved the Pulman mini-series and wanted to understand it much better, see what depths it was drawing on, attempting faithfully to dramatize. Now I’d like to know so much more about Sophia as it was she was who copied out Tolstoy’s endless drafts and she who put together a final version of the book different from the one Tolstoy first published and the one translated and read today (except for those like Christian who read all the drafts). We have agreed that sometime next summer the group of us (whoever is there) will read and discuss Anna Karenina together.

You could say I immersed myself as I also read over the 9 months about 2/3s of A.N. Wilson’s biography, two old fashioned interpretive books (F. R. Christian and Rimvydas Silbajoris, close readers and real source students of the 1960s and 70s types), three of the chapters of John Bayley’s Tolstoy and the Novel, about one half of Alexandra Popoff’s book on the man who may be said to have preyed on Tolstoy in the last part of his life, his “false” disciple, Vladmir Chertkov, watched The Last Station and read Michael Hoffman’s shooting script (though not the book by Jay Parini), and now am one third into Alexandra Popoff’s life of Sophia Tolstoy.

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A superb shooting script gives a reading on the very old Tolstoy and his wife: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as Sophia

I posted about all this too (to a small Yahoo listserv called Trollope19thCStudies), at least twice a week, sometimes more.

Has Tolstoy changed my life? or view of the world? No. Did the texts and films out of his book affect my existence? Well if you look at time taken yes. I agree it’s one of the world’s great novels, though Tolstoy would not like to hear it called a novel, and its reach is even severely limited by Tolstoy’s aristocratic and masculinist outlook. It absorbed me; often the text felt packed vivid with life, provided such compelling reading — the exception is after a while his repetitive chapters on what real history is, how events in history come about, how to write about these, and attacks on historians for great writing as if history were the result of a handful of powerful individual’s choices at any given time. But because Tolstoy is alert to genre and other books, this book speaks to what is in others, and contextualizes these others with itself.

Probably for me what this book most taught me was about other books because of its conscious relationship to them, especially historical fiction, the more typical 19th century realistic novels. Since reading his book I’ve become aware how much his double-structure, of one half richly individual stories, and the other larger political (war is politics by other means) contexts, taught other historical novelists since him. They imitate him, from say (to cite two recent books I’ve read in the past) Adhaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (individual Egyptian and British characters contextualized with the larger Arab-Israel conflicts since 1948) to Virginia Woolf’s The Years.

If this seems dry, it isn’t to me for whom books have meant so much.

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A significant book — it includes historical films and adaptations

I read books as deeply reflective of the author and his or her life so that the book may be read as a disguised family history gives it another sort of meaning as a site of memory.

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I hope to read this when we get to Anna Karenina

It’s easiest to fall back on the characters to grasp the book’s meaning in itself. Most of the characters are so convincing in terms of 19th century novels (the women less so than the men’ Tolstoy said early on he was imitating the English novel); what was happening in the “war” part of the novel and its politics so relevant. When I thought I would be bored say after a week’s hiatus (sometimes more), I’d fall back into the text and find myself engaged all over again. I felt that the characters could carry on almost without Tolstoy, and he ended where he did because one must end somewhere. 1317 pages (the Maud text) is enough. But this is absurd: the characters are given life by him, reflect and are shaped by his inner life, and the story comes to an end because what he wanted to say about them, where bring them to, has been accomplished. Silbajoris is particularly lucid on why the worlds of perceptions in War and Peace feel possessed by some real person (Chapter 5).

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Hopkins as Pierre in the Moscow burning episode

Since the male characters are those given most depth and reality, the females kept much more to stereotypes that males (Tolstoy specifically) see and understand, to enjoy War and Peace you must enter into a male-centered approach. At first this feels less gender- and class-driven (most of those we travel any time with are a tiny highly privileged group within larger Russia) because of the way Tolstoy shapes their conflicts as innate and generic to any private self. I bonded strongly with the central male character, Pierre Bezhukhov: the book is his journey from early adulthood as he gradually and with much emotional pain, and many divagations, decisions which hurt him, adjusts to living in and alongside his society in a way worthy of him, yet never gives scope to what his high intelligence and noble nature could do, were he given real room. I loved him for his kindness to others too.

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James Norton as Andrei dancing with Lily James as Natasha at her first ball (2016 W&P)

By contrast, the more secondary, normative, and higher ranking male, Andrei Bolkonsky, behaved in alienating ways, but I grieved for his self-deprivation and early death, brought on by his efforts to please conventional powerful authority figures whose corruption, blindness and narrow egoism he never fully comprehends. Nikolai Rostov, not quite tertiary, incapable of any self-examination or criticism of his society chance, yet so well-meaning, ends doing well from luck (though Tolstoy discounts chance repeatedly and his tenacious instinct for self-preservation.

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Thomas Arnold as Denisov entranced with Natasha at a home party (the same 2016 W&P)

A whole continuum of male characters contextualizes them, from their peers in years, the evil-committing pair, smart, effective and spiteful (he enjoys inflicting violence) Dolokhov and his mate (until he is killed) the utterly selfish, grasping, male animal Anatole Kuragin (apparently his rake-gambler type was in an original draft intended to be the central character) to the good-natured characters, the slightly obtuse (all the more survivable), Denisov (who I loved), the selfless conscientious yielder-soldier Tushin (who saves lives risking his own), and the half-mad uneducated pesant Platon Karataev (who his society throws away with his blessing). Then there are the older corrupted, the hollow-courtier of a man, Prince Vasily, the deeply humane (paradoxically) wise in experience general Kutusov. I could go on to add so many who come alive for one scene, one moment, one or a set of chapters, giving us this or that experience of life through their story-event.

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Frank Middlemass as General Kutusov (1972 BBC W&P)

For the men a group of issues emerges from the “le monde” chapters. The same public versus private, ethical (which has to do with doing right to others and to one’s gifts) versus amoral behavior (anti-social, inhumane). These feed into profoundly anti-killing, anti-war paradigms as senseless in the “war” chapters. Tolstoy’s answers are not satisfactory (sometimes perverse because of his religiosity), but he asks the candid questions without cant for his era and these questions and some of his answers are transferable. He says repeatedly that a war takes the willingness of thousands of men to spend huge amounts of time killing one another. The commanders care about their place in the organization first and their theories about how to plan for war show few consider its realities. People do not respond sensibly to crises, rarely acknowledge a coming disaster before it’s upon them.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Part 3: 1812

With the women he does not ask the crucial questions but he shows them suffering from powerlessness, so circumscribed and hemmed in, and with an added strong sexual standard (they are judged according to their sexual chastity and obedience to norms of marriage), lack of agency (under the thumb of a parent or authority figure): the saving element is their relationships with one another are detailed so believably and movingly, that what lies outside this seems almost unimportant.

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Morag Hood as Natasha trying to explain to draw sympathy from Sonya (Joanna David) why she finds Anatole’s offer to flee so irresistible (1972 W&P, “Madness” episode)

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Sonya bitter at what has been demanded of her, tells Natasha (against the countess’ orders not to) that Andrei lies very sick in the convoy (1972 W&P, “Life and Death”)

The central women characters are the ingenue heroine, Natasha Rostov, said to be modeled in part by Tolstoy’s (mis-)perception of his wife (who wrote an autobiographical story under this name, which she burned). Bondarchuk believed in the existence of this type and took her story and made it the center of the second part of his family so it becomes a sentimental heroine’s text within a heroic yet damning story of war. There’s the family dependent, semi-servant, Sonya (whose last name we never learn) and Marya, the cruelly abused sister (by her father) of Andrei. Most important throughout is the Countess Rostov who (like Pierre’s cousin, Katische) whatever it has taken from her, whatever she may have to demand of others, stands tenaciously and resolutely for obeying hegemonic hierarchical norms so as to stay wealthy — while her husband, the hopelessly non-competitive lazy amiable Count Rostov cannot hold onto even a wagon during a siege.

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Angela Downs as Marya crushed by her father’s jeering cruelty over a proposal of marriage for her money — Anatole cannot even be faithful or interested in her for two days (1972 W&P, “Two Proposals”)

Equally central to the story (though not gone into psychologically very much) are Pierre’s (to Tolstoy and in the book), vicious and corrupt wife, Helene Kuragin; the semi-mistress (or sexually used) dependent of the Bolkonskys and companion-maid to Marya, Mlle Bourienne, and the female equivalents of Prince Vassily, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, the hollow saloniere, the parrot of what it is socially acceptable to say and do, with whom the novel begins, and the mother of the trained-to-be heartless Boris Durbetskoy (ever rising in rank and wealth), Anna Mikhilaovna, sycophant extraordinaire.

I found the readings of Natasha found in Pulman and Davies of great help in coming to terms with Tolstoy’s central anticipatory Freudian account of the “enthrallment” of Natasha to the sadistic Anatole: after her engagement to Andrei, she is in considerable distress from how Andrei’s family has rejected, mortified her, her self-esteem badly wounded by Andrei’s leaving her, the very sheltered nature of her life a risk. About four of us felt similarly that we were not given anywhere near the insight into Sonya’s feelings her plight as lover (physcial too) of Nikolai and pillow-like confidante of Natasha when she is harassed into allowing herself to lose chance of personal fulfillment because she lacks sufficient money to make up for the Rostovs’ coming bankruptcy. Helene is a monster in the novel because she’s sexually promiscuous, has no understanding of what integrity or virtues might mean, in Tolstoy’s ms incestuous with her brother; as with Dolokhov Davies tries to humanize her as wanting pleasure, adulation, and independence at any price (many human beings are cool towards one another, use one another).

I particularly admired how Tolstoy could move from such large perspectives, vast battles made sense of so that they are de-mystified, seiges, how human beings behave so barbarically in mobs, and as particular individuals (the mayor of Moscow scapegoating a miserably abused once idealistic middle class young man so that he is torn to bits after weeks of mental and physical torture and abuse in the czar’s prisons) to paying attention and bringing to life the smallest details in a scene (Platon’s dog howling at his death but then trotting after someone else), the most seemingly unimportant creatures (down to insects), and how beautiful with acutely felt life he could make a landscape. This is compensation: the joy some human beings feel at a hunt (competition in killing, the thrill of this some feel) and how sometimes he seemed to break taboos over what one can show about human beings even today. The death scenes are startling: from the fights over who gets what once the agonized or nearly unconscious presence vanishes, to the process of death itself going on all that while.

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Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna holding fiercely onto the will; Fenella Woolgar as Katische, Pierre’s cousin, has tried to steal in order to destroy it, Stephen Rea as Count Vassily looking on (2016 War and Peace)

Ellen

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The LA and Kennedy Center cast

Dear friends and readers,

I’m told that Ivo Van Hove’s New York City production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which rightly received rave reviews as a production, though not as a play, when it played in New York is not attracting the full house it should at the Kennedy Center. Granted, I was row H on the side (next to a friendly couple who had also bought at the last moment); but all around us were empty seats. So I write to urge everyone who has a chance to see this production (no matter if other actors, at any rate in this case all superb), if it comes near to you. It speaks to our dire situation in the US gov’t today.

It’s not that the play concerns immigrants but its core depiction of Eddie, as a rawly emotional deeply resentful sexually sick white male (Mark Strong in NYC, here Frederick Weller of Center Theater, LA repertoire group) at the center. The story is this: Eddie’s childless wife, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols, Center Theater) has invited two male relatives from a starving place in Sicily, Marco (Alex Escola, Center Theater) and Rodolpho (Dave Register, Russell Tovey did this part in NYC) to sneak illegally into the USA to do hard labor on the waterfront. Eddie is all generosity, offering bedding (a place on the floor of an extra small room), meals, but is more concerned with his niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs) who wants to take a job outside the home. He claims to want her to stick to her studies, but since these are not college, but stenography and typing alone, whose intention is to enable her to take a job, he is on weak ground. She wants to work for money badly, to be independent.

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The London production

A fierce struggle ensues in which she wins but we see with many concessions to his male pride: he is in a continual vigilant posture towards her: why is that skirt so short, why wear high heels. She is continually trying to placate him. Marco is there to get money to send home to a wife and four children, which he duly does, but Rodolpho is unattached, and he and Catherine begin to go out and fall in love. Eddie is incensed, and becomes aggressively hostile at first just to his niece and wife, sowing doubt about the man’s motives and character. He loathes that Rodolpho can sing like rock star, that he can cook, he sews, and begins to say explicitly Rodolpho is there to marry Catherine so he can become a citizen and then desert her “for the big time.” That’s why Rodolpho wants to take Catherine to Broadway, not because the movies there are fun, or plays, or lively street life. He insinuates that Rodolpho is gay, “not right” (he does not use the word pervert but we feel it in the air). He becomes ugly before Rodolpho. Beatrice moves from mild expostulation over his trying to keep Catherine a baby and without a job, to withering insinuations that Eddie is “in love with” his niece. Eddie does not appear to register this until near the end of the play when he gasps out in intense insult that Beatrice thinks he has incestuous (he does not use that word either — having a limited sexual vocabulary) longings.

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New York City

What makes for the two hours of emotional turmoil and anguish is how everyone in the play is so chary of Eddie’s feelings, so respectful of him who by the second is bitterly complaining he is not respected in his home, and making life a misery for them all. A horrible scene occurs where Eddie coming upon Rodolpho and Catherine alone in the house after they have obviously been half-naked physically assaults them both – by first hugging Catherine painfully and kissing her, and then doing the same to Rodolpho. The latter is taken as an ultimate insult; but Eddie jeers that since Rodolpho didn’t throw Eddie off successfully that proves “he is not right.” He will not hear of an engagement; he becomes livid when Catherine wants to leave; when the marriage is set, he will not come and forbids his wife to go out of the house or he will never let her in again (this harks back to before the later 19th century when husbands had a legal right to throw a wife out). We have an intense scene where she begs to be let to go to the wedding and when he will not give permission, tells Catherine after Catherine urges her to come, she will not. Not that she dare not. But she will not disrespect or hurt this man, something Catherine is continually telling him she does not want to do. Also how grateful she is to him as his niece for all the years of fatherly tender affection and care (which he did not owe her). She also half-believes his suspicions about Rodolpho.

The play is framed as a play. It’s done inside a kind of arena on both sides of which are audience members. There is an intermittent narrator-storyteller confiding male who speaks to the audience, the lawyer, Alfieri, whom Eddie comes to consult at intervals. The second form of suspense emerges when half-way through Eddie begins to think he will inform the immigration authorities in order to get the two young men sent back to Sicily. But he goes to Alfieri to consult about more than that: the point of their dialogues is Eddie continually wants Alfieri to do by law what the law refuses to condemn, or even pay any attention to. The law will not act to prevent Rodolpho from marrying Catherine. It will not act to prevent Catherine from leaving his home or make her obey him. The law will not punish Rodolpho for being “not right.” Nor Marco either — for anything but being illegal immigrants. The point these dialogues bring out is how this white male wants things as his right he has no legal right to. I leave it to my reader who will remember the election of a deeply corrupt white male for president whose major constituency was just such people as Eddie (and probably Beatrice too). The lawyer as a role functions very much like (anticipates) Robert Bolt’s The Common Man in his A Man for All Seasons (another play to read and watch this winter of our distress; Michael Gould reminded me of Corin Redgrave.)

Things are brought to an explosion when Eddie does inform the authorities and an official comes to the house to take Marco and Rodolpho to jail. Eddie has needled Marco that if he does not go home soon, he will find his wife has more children than she had when he left. A ridiculous contest over who can lift a chair with one arm from one leg has gone on where Eddie cannot do it, but Marco can. Marco then emerges viscerally as he calls Eddie a “rat” and tells him he is responsible for the starvation of his children. He leaps to murder Eddie. He is prevented and taken to jail. Alfieri plays the reasonable voice: he comes to jail to pay bail and enables Rodolpho to go out and (if he wants) marry Catherine before his hearing comes up; but he will only help Marco is Marco promises not to murder Eddie. Again he must tell Marco that the law will not help him either.

The play starts slowly and the actors say their lines so slowly I thought they were actors playing actors playing New York City 1950s parts, getting the accent right, the gestures, the time. But if this is so, it moves more rapidly and becomes smoulderingly emotional with the actors becoming the people and the pace becoming frantically emotional by the end.

The play is peculiarly significant for this terrifying political moment where we now see how easy it is for the US republic to slide into a dictatorship because at the grief-stricken final moment, the lawyer – however reluctantly, however ruefully — justifies Eddie. Alfieri says he mourns for Eddie, he feels for him, everyone was so right to care. A tableau of Beatrice holding onto Eddie like a Madonna with Christ in her lap with all the characters in intensely held characteristic postures all around her is the play’s final moment. In the language of conventional normalizing cant criticism, even including the dripping condescension of critics towards Death of a Salesman in the earliest productions, Ben Brantley intones that finally “Bridge is an imperfect work, awkward in its aspirations to timeless grandeur. After all, it is framed by the self-conscious recollections of a Brooklyn lawyer, who speaks as ponderously of inexorable fate as any Greek chorus ever did.” But not a word about what is wrong in words meaningful to viewers or readers today.

Lyn Gardner of The Guardian comes closer: “This is not just somebody else’s family tragedy. It speaks directly to us and suggests that there is an Eddie Carbone lurking in all of us, just as there is a vengeful Electra and a blind Oedipus.” Really? in women too? How is Catherine a vengeful Electra? Jordan Riefe of the LATimes gets yet closer: “While as his brother Marco, Esola is a brute at rest for most of the play until finally stirred to action. In the end he becomes Eddie’s match — the roaring embodiment of injured ego masquerading as paternal (or in Marco’s case, fraternal) protection.” There is an acknowledgement that it has not been Marco all play long causing the problem, but none that the ego is white male.

We should not be surprised at the lifting of a veil in another direction. After all, what do some people say the very central concern of Death of a Salesman is? Avoiding the insistent explicit economic message that Willie Loman is being thrown away after a lifetime of hard work, with barely enough to survive on (that social security that Paul Ryan is now exulting he will at long last privatize, hand over to Wall Street and thus destroy), people quote Linda’s pathos: “He was so wonderful with his hands,” the ne’er do well rake son, “He was a happy man with a batch of cement; Biff at least tries: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” But again and again I’ve heard the play summed up as “Attention must be paid,” we are not paying enough respect and attention to this man.

Well we are paying attention now. He is getting back at last. what is remarkable and important about this production is the lawyer’s remarks feel so perverse.

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Mark Strong as Eddie (who also played the torturer in George Clooney’s Syriana, a political recreation of wildly savage Jacobean drama as film) at Lincoln Center fierce with dark rage, lecturing everyone else

See it. Feel it. Then think about it (see my Post-mortem). I read that what happened in a New York City theater when our present gay-hating vice-president elect provocatively came to see Hamilton found himself unsurprisingly lectured and told he is supposed to represent all the diverse peoples of the US. This is a clever distraction on the part of Trump (who does not meet with reporters now, only issues lying distorting demanding tweets) so that the top story is not how he had paid $25 million to squash the suit of the defrauded students who went to his university. He is now making money hand-over-foot in his hotels, and will probably rake in enough in the next weeks to cover that easily.

No, go see and then read this play instead. it made me and some around me tremble.

Ellen

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Opening short, high camera shot to down below of Claire (Caitronia Balfe) off to marry Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies)

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First switch now Black Jack Randal (Tobias Menzies) is sadistically flogging Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan)

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The Wedding: Claire marrying the man her husband Frank said she’d never do

Claire’s voice: My husband.
Frank’s: Nothing you could ever do could stop my loving you.
Reverend Wakefield: Jonathan, Jonathan Wolverton Randall, finally. Captain of Dragoons in the British Army, and your direct ancestor.Otherwise known as Black Jack.
Claire’s in retrospect: I heard stories of a place called Craigh Na Dun.
Claire in present-past: I was no longer in the 20th century. What was Frank going through? Claire? Perhaps I was abducted. Perhaps I was dead Or perhaps, worst of all, I had left him for another man =- prologue to Both Sides Now

Dear friends and readers,

The brilliance of this episode derives solely from the capabilities of film. Further the uses of film here to make the same actor appear as diametrically opposed people, Tobias Menzies as Claire’s mid-century husband, Frank, tenderly loving, deeply non-violent, swiftly become in the next scene the sadistic, manipulative, ruthless, distrustful Black Jack whoe proceeds to flog Jamie, the 18th century Scots laird whom Claire falls in love with and has married, or threaten to torture and maim Claire’s face and body. We melt from a setting and film type like those of the 1940s Brief Encounter, drab, quiet, grey and brown, kind, quiet, seemingly non-violent (though not wholly) into the extravaganzas of costume drama with its theatrical flair for the presentation of utter misery (in the person of a beggar, Hugh Munro whose tongue was cut out and legs forever burnt by Muslims who enslaved him in Algiers) and wild landscape places and castes. Both sets suggestive, one character, Randall has buried in him the other and he acts against the central pair of lovers, Jamie and Claire now Randall Fraser, only Randall is a lover too and agonzied lonely victim. The result a multi-directional thrill and expansion only film can do, one whose basic notes are plangency, mystery, desperation and love and intense rivalry, hate.

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The vicarage cum boarding house near Inverness where Frank and Claire stayed with Rev Wakefield and Mrs Graham

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Frank bent over seeking help in Scottish police station

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Jamie and Claire greeting Hugh Munro

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The prison fortress to which Claire is taken

Back and forth, forth and back, and there’s no set verbalization for these effects that I know of. One of the goals of this blog is to try to describe and capture the effect of switching back-and-forth in time and using the same actor in the present and past (where the past becomes the present and the present the past): the power of Outlander as a film comes from these juxtapositions and use of the same actor in reversed roles: I’ve be grateful if anyone who has read film studies could supply me with terms or a book (theoretical or not) which supplies them. The best book I know about the use of drab 1940s realism v the Gainsborough-costume drama descendants as liberation is Pam Cook’s Fashioning the Nation: Costume and identity in British Cinema. The first title of the blog was: Back and forth, forth and back, and there’s no set verbalization for these effects that I know of

Gabaldon’s book does not simultaneously with Claire and Jamie’s wedding (Gabaldon could have had an interweaving interlude as is done in Quixote) revert to Black Jack flogging Jamie. Nor upon that, immediately, Claire hearing Frank just then really there by the stones of Craig Na Dune (as was she). Claire is then captured by the British colonials soldiers. We know Jamie has not gone far because he is seeking, after encountering the half-mad (Dickensian character) Hugh Munro (Simon Meacock) (his tongue cut out by Muslims in the Adriatic, his body weakened and frail by years of imprisonment and all that brings inside as well as outside, the vicious British deserters. Nothing worse than a man who betrays and exploits the power of a uniform of an deeply inhumane occupying colonialist force. Gabaldon injects (I want that word with its sense of seepage) the horrors of slavery, cruelty of religions (Munro’s tongue was cut out and his lower legs’ skin burnt 3 degrees), in this plangent, poignant gothic figure:

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Jamie to Claire: Aye, well, Munro’s a special case, you see. He was captured by the Turks at sea. Spent a good many years as a slave in Algiers. That’s where he lost his tongue. Cut it out? And poured boiling oil on his legs. It’s how they forced captive Christians to convert to Mussulman religion. Said you came with news, [speaks Gaelic] Ah.
[Grunting] Who? [Grunting] Why would he know? [Grunts] Can he be trusted? [Grunting] What’s his name? Haharack.
Harack? [Grunts] Horrock. [Grunts] Horrocks.[Grunts] When and where does this Horrocks want to meet? [Grunting] All right. All right. [Grunts] Thank you, thank you kindly, Hugh.
Jamie back to Claire: There’s a chance, I can get the price lifted from my head. There’s a witness who can prove my innocence. Claims he was there during my escape from Fort William, saw who actually killed the sergeant.
But I’m not sure I can trust him.
Claire: Is this Horrocks?
Claire: Aye, a redcoat deserter.

Munro is at the mercy of all and one can suggestively parallel him to Frank Randall in 1948. But the redcoat deserter will make Jamie at his mercy in a following episode. All intertwined and interwoven again. In 1948 we watch Frank humiliated by the police whom he drives to the point that they tell him to accept his wife had fled of her own accord, and perhaps with another man. In 1943 Menzies as Frank desperately tries to get the police, anyone, to find and locate her, and Menzies as Black Jack slips into 1743, where he threatens Claire. The effect is that of dream material or nightmare. My point about the value of reading framed texts and no questioning of a point of view.

The meaning is conveyed through the juxtapositions. I suggest we are intended to be moved by the opening of the episode. The film-makers told the return to the kind of black-and-white desperate realism found in the mid-1940s Brief Encounter. We see the Reverend Wakefield (James Fleet) doing all he can to help his boarder-now-friend Frank accept that Claire has left him for good.

The good reverend at his map with its lines: She leaves Craigh Na Dun, gets lost, turns back, tries to follow the Findhorn River, takes a misstep, and then is swept away by the current, all the way down to the Darnaway Forest. Darnaway Forest is 20 miles from where the car was found. Ah, the river is fast, and it was swift that night.She could’ve been carried twice that far. These maps of the area, they’re poor. Looks as though there are bends in the river here where she might have made it to shore, and then found shelter along this ridge, maybe, maybe in a cave.
So she’s tired, she’s lost, she doesn’t know where to turn. So she hunkers down in this cave to keep warm, and lives on fish and frogs while waiting to be found.
Frank: Fish and frogs for seven weeks?

He is thwarted by Frank’s yearnings as well as his housekeeper, Mrs Graham (Tracey Wilkinson), who finally breaks through the Reverend’s taboos against superstitions to tell of the stones, of others who have experienced this transformation. Frank is sceptical and thus disappointed (he had perhaps hoped for an explanation that made sense).

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Mrs Graham: The stories are old. Some say as old as the stones themselves, passed down from generation to generation through ballads and songs. I first heard them from my grandmother, and she from hers. The songs tell stories about people who travel through the stones.
Frank: Travel through stone? I’m not sure I take your meaning.
Mrs Graham: Not literally through the stone itself. You see the circle at Craigh Na Dun marks a a place on the earth where the powers of nature come together.
Wakefield: Superstition and twiddletwaddle.
Frank: Go on.
Mrs Graham: The stones gather the powers, and give it focus, like a glass, ye ken? And for certain people, on certain days, it allows them to pierce the veil of time. Mr.Randall, you know your wife went up that hill the day she vanished. I believe she didn’t come back down that hill, at least not in 1945. I believe that she traveled to some other time.
Frank: Where or when would that be? I don’t know.
Mrs Graham: Every traveler is different. They must make their own journey on their own path, but the songs do say that the travelers often return.
Frank: I see.

Frank does not believe in the stones, but ironically when the police officer says that Claire must have gone off with the highlander ghost Frank saw, Frank shouts my wife is not with another man, and the film moves to Claire in Jamie’s arms.

Police officer, officer on the phone: When did you first notice the items were missing? (to sergeant coming in) He’s back.
Sergeant: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I think today’s the day.
Officer on phone: Today, sir?
Sergeant: I have let this go on long enough.
Officer: Today, sergeant. Good luck.
Back to phone: Yes, ma’am, I heard every word you said. I’m gonna send a man over straightaway.
Sergant to Frank Randall: I am sorry, Mr. Randall, you know, I’m very, very sorry. Please believe me when I say I wish there was more that we could do.
Frank: Well, there’s your job, perhaps you could do that.
Sergeant: I know this must be disappointing to you.
Frank: Disappointing? That’s an interesting word.
It suggests expectations that were unmet. My expectations of your department were were low to begin with, and I can assure you that you have met those expectations at every turn.
Sergeant: We have spent the past six weeks searching over 100 square miles of rugged terrain, conducted 175 interviews, invest- Invested over 1,000 man hours.
Frank: I know the litany detective, but tell me, what do you have to show for these for these efforts? My wife has disappeared. Do you have any idea at all what might have happened to her?
Sergeant: We haven’t found a body. Now, that tells me that she’s probably still alive. No blood in the car, no sign of a struggle, Now, that tells me that she probably wasn’t taken against her will.
Frank: Yeah, your favorite theory.
Sergeant: You personally witnessed a man staring up at her window the night before she disappeared.
Frank: I have said from the very beginning that the highlander is certainly involved in some way.
Sergeant: Of course he’s involved, you fool. He’s her lover, and the two of them left together.
Frank in a rage: My wife is not with another man.

Frank however credits the story a prostitute tells him to lure him to a dark place at night where thugs attempt to beat the thousand pound reward for Claire’s reappearance out of him. Here the parallel is made between middle class respectability caught up in street life and the savage murderous fighting of the British and Scots.

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Frank seduced by street-walker-prostitute, Rosie Day (Mary Hawkins)

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Claire taught to use a dagger

All this done in the woven back-and-forth manner with the matter of Claire’s first days as Jamie’s wife in the Scottish landscape, first assailed by a deeply damaged man, and then attacked brutally. Jamie and the other men teach Claire how to use a dagger and she uses it in another ambush. Claire is so shaken by the experience, angry at herself for having forgotten the life she had led, the quiet man she had known, that she wants to return,

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and magically (the right words), there are the stones. In 1947 Frank is making his way towards them after Mrs Graham’s story; he calls to Claire, she hears, she calls back, and rushes to the stone, only to be captured once again and brought to a fortress to be interrogated and tortured by the invulnerable Black Jack.

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She running in one era to the stones, he turning in another era running us to her

Again the hour ends on back and forth:

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Frank’s despair

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turns into Black Jack Randall almost fooled by Claire’s ruse she knows Duke of Sandringham and can harm Jack but he catches her out – note back-and-forth to flashback and then into present-past again:

Black Jack: (we get this double view again hit upon): You still wear your old wedding ring? Sentimental attachment.
I doubt you have a sentimental bone in your body. But the more interesting question is why would Dougal MacKenzie consider you of such value, that he would rather adopt you as one of his own than allow me to question you? I am sure Claire: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Black Jack (prposing a toast) Really? The king.
Claire: The king.
Glack Jack: [Clink] I’m glad to hear that you still consider him your sovereign.
Claire: We MacKenzies are all loyal subjects.
Black Jack: [laughs] That is the single most amusing thing I’ve heard all week.
Claire: So I take it you haven’t been amusing yourself by flogging some innocent prisoners then?
Black Jack: Amusing myself? What an odd thing to say. As you know from our previous meeting, I consider flogging a very serious matter indeed. [Wind howling, fire crackling] [Scraping] Madam, you need to understand your position.
In this hour, our third encounter, I fully intend by any means necessary to discover both your true nature and the secrets that you hold.
Claire: Perhaps you should ask the Duke of Sandringham. [Coughs] Oh, dear me, I do hope that won’t stain. Overvoice of Claire: A dangerous gambit to be sure, but his reaction told me that Frank and the Reverend were right in their speculation.
Flashback to Reverend Wakefield: I suspect your ancestor had a patron, a prominent and powerful man who could protect him from the censure of his superiors.
Frank: Possibly, but it would have to have been someone very high up in the hierarchy of the day to exert that kind of influence. The Duke of Sandringham? The Duke of Sandringham? Black Jack was able to commit his various crimes in the highlands because he was being protected by a powerful man, and the cost of such protection was always silence and fidelity.
Forward to present, Black Jack: What do you know of the duke? [Scoffs]
Claire: Really, captain, must you be so obtuse? Is it not clear by now that you and I are both in the employ of the same great and powerful man?
Black Jack: That is impossible. He would’ve told me.
Claire: [Chuckles] Because he tells you all his secrets? You must be a very special officer indeed.
Black Jack: [Murmurs] I will simply send a message to Sandringham asking him.
Claire: Excellent idea. I’m sure he’ll be most pleased at your skill and acumen at uncovering my identity, or perhaps your disruption of the duke’s carefully laid plans will not be rewarded. Perhaps he will be displeased, and take measures to terminate your special relationship, withdraw the protection to which you’ve become accustomed, and thus leave you at the mercy of your superior officers and local authorities. No, the wisest course of action would be to allow me to continue my mission and give the duke no indication of how close you came to disrupting his efforts on behalf of the king.
Black Jack: You mean, of course, his, uh, his wife’s efforts.
Claire: His wife?
Black Jack: The duchess (references to duchesses are ever self-referential parodic — from LeCarre on). You’ve met her?
Claire: Oh, I’ve never had the pleasure.
Black Jack: Really? An agent of the duke is an agent of the duchess.
Claire (backing down, careful) Well, we have been in communication.
Black Jack: Communication by letter?
Claire: By messenger, yes.
Black Jack: With the duchess?
Claire: That’s who we’re talking about, isn’t it? Yes.
Black Jack: That is, uh that is who we’re talking about. But, of course, um the duke has never been married.
Turning to man at door, pushing him out, close the door: Corporal.
Corporal: I’m sorry, madam.

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her terror because the young officer will not risk his job to help her

Yet I know much as the pairing of Jamie and Claire to gain its luminous intensely arousing sexuality depends on the alternation of the drab 1940s quiet relationships of Frank, Claire, the Reverence, Mrs Graham, even their adopted little boy, the strength of the film series as electrifying moments is in the couple Claire and Jamie making love to one another, just before they are set up by killers, and then afterward, after she knifes one on the back and he shots the other dead, clinging to one another

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One must pull these images out of the story-grid and see the plot-design as producing these moments, some strengthening within a time frame intense emotions which then flow over to the other time frame and are reversed emotions

I have now received Tara Bennett’s The Making of Outlander, Season 1 and 2, from Amazon.uk, and hope to read it within this coming week, and then post again with the knowledge of what was said about this film-making part of the context. This is 18th century historical material descended from Waverley by way of DuMaurier and time-traveling historical romance-fiction.

Ellen

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Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield when we first see him, cavalierly, knowingly, giving an inadequate rendition of one of Hamlet’s speeches before his wife comes on stage

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Meryl Streep as Florence singing ecstatically (2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Nicolas Martin)

Dear friends and readers,

Just as I began to give up hoping for a truly good absorbing film for cinemas this summer, along came three: in July Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words urging us to give over unreal ethnicities; in early August Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in rural impoverished worlds, and now the extraordinary Stephen Frears and Nicolas Turner’s Florence Foster Jenkins, with a little help from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep.

At first the film seems to be about an over-dressed, naively happy, fatuously absurd Florence, a wealthy woman kept apart from most other people by her somewhat younger, carefully preserved coolly impossibly husband: since she is a philanthropist most institutions are prepared to indulge her in whatever she wants in the way of concerts, no matter how corny, creaking or badly done. St Clair has hired a voice coach and we watch him hire Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) a piano-player musician to play and give her voice lessons. When Florence is not around, St Clair’s face goes hard and asks brief cynical questions about what we’ve seen him smile pleasantly and coo over. We begin to suspect a pervasive underlying studied hypocrisy when at night St Clair wishes Florence a good night’s rest, and himself goes to a Greenwich village or lower Manhattan slum block where he finds his mistress a young beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Fergusson) waiting for him. He lives another different life with this mistress: wild modern dancing, late night parties, strong drinking promiscuous sex going on around him. He is then just so sweetly affectionate to her, so controlled, hiding from her life’s unpleasant truths that it feels like a performance. Then we discover Florence cannot sing, her voice is reedy, awful, she can’t hold a tune.

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As the movie progresses we begin to see that this steely-performance of St Clair where he protects this wife of his from every adverse criticism made of her is not hollow. It cannot be as he gives over his whole being to it: he has to work very hard to prevent anyone who would laugh at or heckle her from coming to any of her performances. He does not have to do any of this to remain rich; she need not perform to be worshipped. Her singing lessons do keep the two of them busy, and her pre-occupied, seeing herself as endlessly working at something beautiful. To silence or get people to cooperate, he hand white envelopes stuffed with cash to people. Those who will not cooperate are excluded from performances and their drawing-room.

Their back story emerges as he, and then she, confide in McMoon: as a 19 year old she married a cad who had syphilus, the cad de-camped, died, and one day in an audience she spotted St Clair who she says had the kindest most generous smile she’d ever seen on a face. They abstained from sex lest he become diseased or she have a diseased child. There’s an intense pathos to the story as she tells it to Cosme whom she has visited on one of St Clair’s golf weekends (we know he has gone to the Hamptons with Kathleen). Cosme is continually on the edge of quitting lest he lose all respect as a serious musician, and when Florence comes up with the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall to thousands, balks; in response St Clair tells Cosme he must not obey the tyranny of ambition to be great, or respected as wonderful, or his art even understood — all egoistic delusions in probability: he found himself a failed stage actor when he met St Clair, and when she married him, he liberated himself from ambition to live this comfortable life.

But is it? is it comfortable? is he in a prison of performances to get his hands on her will (which she carries about her in a briefcase). The movie asks, how far is all life a performance? what are worthy goals?

If the mark of a summer movie is non-seriousness underlying the performance, Frears has never in all the films I’ve seen by him resorted to such obvious broad caricatures: the sexy blonde vulgar noisy young wife is just one. OTOH: when St Claire reads aloud to Florence Shakespeare’s cliched 116th sonnet (“Let me to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), the joke is Shakespeare was ironic (most readers seem not to know this), making fun. Anyhow Florence falls asleep before he’s finished the first eight lines. Late in the movie he reads aloud Keat’s “Bright Star” sonnet: same response from Florence, pathetically grateful but in actuality bored so falls asleep.

Streep and Grant deliver as exquisitely perfect performances as I remember Grant doing as a young man in Remains of the Day (where Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins were the pitch perfect people who missed out). Grant is underrated as an actor since he made his place in Hollywood films as a fine comic actor in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and in beloved costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility or Maurice. I first saw him and Bob Hoskins in a filmed version of Thomas Middleton’s brilliant Jacobean play, The Changeling. Grant was corrupt weakling duke who nonetheless becomes a relentless murder out of sexual jealousy; Hoskins the hired thug killer who himself lives out seething resentments. I felt Grant saw some of his own choices in his role. He left the serious stage for Hollywood and has not looked back.

Streep’s role was harder to play” as Grant melts into tenderness, opens his face up to recognize “Bunny’s” dependency on him to her, she has to seem mostly obtuse and yet capable of the finest feeling, at once ridiculous and courageous. She is our American version of the British grand-dame actresses (e.g., Lindsay Duncan, Emma Thompson).

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Reviews have been generous, noting the sentimentality at the close: far too forgiving and benign, sliding over after pointing to the cruelty of crowds, the stupidity of audience mob-like reactions, how no one really cares what this music is. The New York Times reminds us these were a real couple in the 1940s and that Helberg stole the show with his shock, distress, and at the end sparkling identification with his two bosses. We are left in two minds about the principals: how far was she fooled? she has a wise desperate look on her worn face as she lies dying in her closing moments. Did or how far did St Clair Bayfield love her and his life as her tender protector? he seems never to hurt her which is way beyond probable if it was just the money. The credits afterward included photos of the real original people. Cosme never became a great musician; his reached his heights in venues at Carnegie hall with Florence. St Claire late in life looks utterly non-pretentious; after that last performance and her illness killed her, he never remarried.

To return to my first paragraph: there is something delightful in all three, Kind Words, Wilderpeople, Florence, and we are badly in need of delight this August.

Ellen

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Norwegian Wood

Friends and readers,

I braved or endured a 7 hour trip (counting to and fro from my house in Alexandria, Va, on July 16th, to the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall) to enjoy the (as I discovered) privilege of listen to Saul Lilienstein for some 6 hours and 45 minutes. A tough travel experience (it was one of these supremely super-hot days in DC with humidity making the experience of difficulty breathing) amid crowds not decently serviced (not the fault of the Metro staff who actually drive and are on the stations of the Metro). See what goes unreported: mass prayer meeting in DC July 16th. But all this seemed no trouble at all in comparison to what this unusual man was able to say, convey, teach a small group of people willing to sit and learn.

He talked of the original and continuing British sources of Beatles’s music, its then immersion in American white and black music), accompanied by videos and sound tracks that moved me deeply for themselves and taught me generally how the Beatles came to have power over vast general audience, not only of young people.

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Lilienstein’s ostensible plot-design was not chronological and throughout he used tapes, videos, UTubes made since the 1990s technological revolution to exemplify themes. But there was an ever-inching forward in time across a life-story in time, which seems to be inevitable when one tries to account for works of signally high genius.

For the first half of the day, morning before lunch (at 12:30) he covered the sources of the Beatles’ deep early appeal, what was original and yet so utterly British and traditional in their music, and how they began to break away musically and thematically.

It’s easiest to tell something of their joint career. Music comes from 1957/68 when Lennon and MacCartney first met and started to play. They brought into their pair, Harrison at age 14 late in 1958. They played everywhere in Liverpool and back and forth in Hamburg. They had trouble finding a drummer once they wanted someone for a commercial style recording, and it was 1962 when Ringo Starr joined them

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Photo from early phase: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul MacCartney

For the first hour he showed us how the earliest Beatles music in Liverpool and Hamburg was rooted in Irish, Scottish and music hall English aesthetic traditions and ethical-class outlooks. This hour-long part of Lilienstein's talk was the least accompanied by vocal tapes, and visual videos and at the same time the most startling. The cheerful music of acceptance of one's lot in the mainstream working class culture of later 19th and early 20th century entertainment is conveyed, but also how one belonged to this milieu captured once for all by Richard Hoggart in his famous The Uses of Literacy. Lilienstein would play a rendition of familiar early Beatles hits (before they came to the US), then an Irish/Scottish ballad or musical hall song. Lilienstein pointed out that “It was 20 years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the bland to play”constitutes an innovative reprieve of the deeply male upper class suave dominated music of the the later half of the 20th and into the 21st century by working class, soft shoe (American black) and effeminate plangent elements.

Lilienstein put a large image of a poster of a circus coming to a local music hall pre-WW1 and showed us how lines of the song “For the benefit of Mr Kite” are all taken from this poster. “The Long winding road” is another startlingly innovative harking back. The tune of “It was 20 years ago today” is from an earlier time utterly re-orchestrated. If we would listen to the lyrics of their songs, these tell us these truths: “I read in the news today, oh boy ..” If you begin to trace these lines, you find a genuine radical critique of history. One song about 40,000 holes takes us back to WW1 and horizontally to the number of seats in the Royal Albert Music Hall. Lilienstein played an early parody by Paul of this kind of music in a song my notes tell me ran “She was just a working class girl from the north.” I cannot over-estimate how startling and unknown to me all this was.

The second phase (another hour) was to trace the American roots of their songs. Americans had no trouble connecting with the Beatles as their songs imitated, were re-creations in a urban idiom of famous songs by Buddy Holly and his Crickets (whence the name Beatles), Little Richard, Chuck Berry. He would play an originally deeply American black song popular on black stations in the 1950s, then a semi-white rendition for a more widely-popular rendition on mainstream white radio, and then the Beatles, re-injecting black American words and rhythms. “Peggy Sue” became “P.S. I love You”. Mo-Town Smoky Robinson songs were re-injected into Beatles “This boy wants you back again.” They loved Chuck Berry, and combined his song with Blue Grass from white country music, giving it an urban edge either by imagery or quick pace. He played for us the Beatles’ rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Mr Postman.”

They had an ear to pick up the most remarkable of American songs: Barnett’s “Give me Money, that’s what I want,” adding to that their own personal intensities (Lennon screamed at a wild moment the lines about “give me money”), using darker chords. Wilbur Harrison trying to make some money re-made his “Kansas city,” rubbing out all black and Detroit references; the Beatles put these back in with lines about a “black beat” which referred to their imitation of music coming out of Detroit and Negro Spirituals. Lilienstein ended this section of his talk with “A Ticket to Ride” and “Day Tripper.”

Lilienstein’s talk was not just a matter of showing likeness and repetition of lyrics and tunes. He also showed transformation of blues structure quite early on in their music. 12 bars, each subdivided into 4, from C major into subdominant F and back to major C. They broke this up, turning to minor keys, bringing in sudden other unexpected chords (Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” became “You’re gonna lose that girl”). They never tried to hide what they were doing so you can use names and titles and lines to discover affinities and transformations. An early name for Lennon, MacCartney and Harrison was “Johnny and the Moondogs,” a term which has reference to performers of blues in the US. He discussed “She’s a woman” and “Help!” — for the first time I noticed the plangent nature of the words

Then a much shorter phase was “In a rebellious generation.” While towards the end Lilienstein played some of the music the Beatles recorded specifically against the Vietnam War, his subject was their rebellion against the musical forms they had been tinkering with, imitating, urbanizing. They began genuinely to expand what was meant by the term “rock’n’roll”. Norwegian Wood (which my daughter, Izzy, recorded a version of) was among these; also “Tomorrow never Knows” where they begin to bring in the drug culture through a psychedelic sound.

They imitate the sounds of technological machines, include lots of extraneous sounds, the point was to be haphazard. The song about the LSD experience was called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in order not to be too much in your face.

At this point Paul MacCartney began to pull back, and we see him returning to Western modes, and in Victorian stories like “She’s leaving home,” about grief and loss with the music leaving traditional cadences in a way expressive of descending sorrow. “All you need is love” is memorable because it’s rhythms are off-kilter. By contrast, experiment for John Lennon meant embodying his troubled spirit, his angst in quick moving rhythms, modern songs whose lyrics showed a deep critique of the society they were living in as in “Revolution.”

Asked whether “Revolution” was an anti-war song, Lennon replied all their songs are anti-war.
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In the first half, the long morning, Lilienstein brought in how their career as a group developed, telling of their first successes with a British audience, the coming to the US, the first TV appearances and concerts (Shea Stadium). The second half, he moved into showing us the inward musicians: the composition process as recorded on pirated tapes of sessions where we see them move from a first version of a song (mostly brought in either by Paul or John, sometimes as a lyric and sometimes as a song without words), and how they hammered at these to develop a full sound with all four playing, altered the lyrics and often the very character or mood they began with. This reminded me of how Jane Austen’s few ms’s show she often began with something very coarse and conventional (in her case burlesque) and gradually revising, turned the passage to something with an almost diametrically opposed mood and character, though some core in the original idea is brought out memorably.

It’s not true that they didn’t know musical notation; MacCartney and Lennon both studied music in college. Lilienstein showed them bringing in a line from Hal Arlen’s “Somewhere over the rainbow” in one of their songs, and how they began to softly linger at a song’s end. George Martin had taught them much: how to use a recording studio; he brought in discipline and “cleaned” up songs, but Lilienstein maintained that someone else could have contributed what Martin did, and by the end (1966-69) he was just standing there recording expertly.

In this hour and one half about process we listened to at least 3-4 versions of each song. A first and last, and two intermediary. “Get Back” started out (possibly dismayingly) as an anti-immigrant song with Pakistani people told to “get back to where they once belonged: we heard them free-wheeling with chords sounds, and that Jo-Jo was originally aimed at “Yoko Ono” whom John had begun to bring to recording sessions

At the same time, Lilienstein began to show us the distinct differences in the type of music each of the two major creators, Lennon and MacCartney did, and the growing conflicts and clashes of outlook, how they wanted the group to develop, attitudes towards life (Paul was the more upbeat person, adjusted to realities, imagining stories of families, while John projected anger and despair, and self-doubt). They were fighting over who would dominant, over “ownership” of themselves and the group. In the Abbey Road album we have a group breaking apart: they can make joyful music while they are at one another’s throats. Songs combine the wild despair with the story element as in “She came through the bathroom window.”

Some of their best work came out of this period of raucous interaction. Lennon had become increasingly dependent on drugs; at least he used them to the point he’d come in stoned; he protested against the bowing to commercial demands; MacCartney was more controlled and began to write astonishingly beautiful ballads: “Yesterday,” “All the Lonely People,” “Eleanor Rigby.” “You think she needs you” could be by Brahms. We listened to the evolution of “Let it Be” (one of my favorites) which began with the essential familiar lines but it took a long while for the three who had not made the lyric to accept it, and develop it into a kind of hymn. In their earlier phases.

Lilienstein said single were often the two opposing points of view: one one you had Paul’s “Penny Lane” on the one side (pictorial, surreal reality, memories of happiness as a child, nostalgia for the past, hopeful)

On the other John’s “Strawberry Fields” where he doesn’t want to get out of bed, where life is hopeless and to be avoided, nothing to get “hung about,” easy to live with eyes closed, “It doesn’t matter much to me,”as in his song “Nowhere:”

Sometimes an album would end with a song by Lennon and characteristic of his depression, to be contradicted by the first song on the other side by MacCartney. Lennon’s “I am The walrus” (see below) makes no literal sense, an ode to personal doubt and lack of identity, and is followed by MacCarthney’s “Yes no stop go goodbye hello,” making fun of Lennon as posturing. They were not only increasingly disenchanted with one another, but their careers. George Harrison had up until this point followed these two as a guitarist; as they withdrew he began to fill the gap with a few remarkably great songs (“My guitar gently weeps”). He began with ABA structures, but soon we hear unusual things brought in: Spanish or flamingo music (“I me mine”). He wrote much less than these two, but a couple are among the best songs of the 20th century, like “Something:”

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I am aware I may not have conveyed the excitement, and cannot begin to get down the passing remarks Lilienstein made about the music as we went along. Remarkably the four went from “I wanna hold your hand” and “Love love me do” to “Hey, Jude” and “Here comes the sun” in 7 short years. It’s about what happened during these 7 years in the music that Lilienstein accounted for, went into deeply. He has all sorts of tapes, among the more moving was a beautiful tape of “Love is all you need” as surreal; the song not one of those I’ve favored as until now all the renditions I’ve heard were so sentimentalized.

As literary and art so musical creation comes of the author’s lives — how could it be otherwise? Lilienstein told of how individual songs were events in these four people’s lives — he did discuss Ringo Starr less, saying Starr said of himself, he had been so lucky to come along for the ride because he was a very good drummer and worked well with the other three. He told mainly of Lennon and MacCartney’s personalities.

Here Lilienstein seemed to me to be too critical of Lennon’s outlook as if it were wrong but as he talked I realized for the first time that Lennon abused his first wife and other women. Lilienstein played a song, rarely heard, by Lennon about his male jealousy where he says remorselessly he’d rather murder the woman he is with than see her with another man, and he was (I had not known this) violent, ruthless towards people, and domineering over women until he met Yoko Ono. (This is not necessarily a tribute to her moral nature;she was part of the reason for the break-up of the quartet.) I saw Lilienstein meant to register that Lennon never fulfilled his gifts; he was still finding himself when he was gunned down (as so many are in the US). I was after all glad of the condemnation however brief.

He then showed Lennon’s work was the more continually interesting and troubling. His description of “I am The Walrus” as filled with nonsense phrases, unreal words, and just sounds thrown in that Lennon heard as he was composing made the song into a kind of small Finnegan’s Wake:

Almost inevitably then MacCartney came in for the highest praise: he sustained himself, lived longer, as far as we know lived more ethically with regard to other people, kept writing and singing, and a few of his songs are among many people never tire of hearing: Lilienstein seemed to feel Hey Jude was a favorite for re-hearing for most people.

Lilienstein did not go into this but implicit in his talk was the idea the Beatles utterly transformed what rock-n-roll was thought to be, its potentials, its possibilities. At the time there were other highly original groups — who I’d say came out of the ferment of new ideas, radical, and liberating of the 60s: folk (Peter, Paul and Mary), more soft versions of rock-n-roll (Simon and Garfunckel), new kinds of country (Willie Nelson and the groups pf Austin, Texas), music coming from Nashville. So like Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater, they came out of and were part of a movement, but they were a leading force. Their records sold tremendously, they topped all charts continually. Popular music has not been the same since. The only successful parody I know is from Love Actually: Bill Nighy’s inimitable, irreverent, mock-on-the-sexism, “Christmas is All Around Us” (it’s telling the original YouTube was pulled and there is now a much tamer one, minus the electrifyingly stupifyingly-sexualized girls and salacious gestures of Nighy).

Left out by Lilienstein except at split second moments, was the band’s sexism. They’d never have a woman singing with them one of them said. It’s a strongly masculinist point of view; the stories of young girls fleeing parents are done from the parental point of view. What the girl might have been feeling in her escape beyond a desire to “have fun,” and how she would feel years later when she was thoroughly punished by her society there are no songs about. As I listen to these I feel such sorrow over what I was as a teenager at age 16. My parents had no idea how to help me, nor did I how to help myself.

Ellen

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