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Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) after listening to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) attempts to investigate the poisoned farm land, water and miserably dying animals

Dear friends and readers,

The word gratitude refers to a feeling of thankfulness and obligation to a specific person who has done something for you, with the implication causing the person significant sacrifice. Robert Bilott had no specific individual in mind, not even the seemingly mad ignorant impoverished West Virginia farmer who with another neighbor barged into Bilott’s office with cardboard boxes of papers and gruesome evidence of abnormal frightening deformities in local fish and animal life. But when Dupont reneged on a bargain to admit fault in a case-action suit and pay an enormous sum, Bilott (after the shock) went on to fight individual case after case, with bigger and bigger money damages until the company relented, and, using  formula that avoids conceding guilt, paid a huge fine, and agreed to clean up in (alas limited) designated ways. The actor Mark Ruffalo and the director wanted to thank this “dogged Cincinnati lawyer” and tell his and the story he managed to convey to the public.

According to Todd Haynes (director) and Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (script-writers)’s movie, Dark Waters, as Robert Bilott gradually and against considerable obstacles (the company provided a room filled with boxes filled with papers for Bilott to study first, the reluctance of Bilott’s own lawyer firm, to say nothing of Dupont and other involved corporations, scientist teams, gov’t agencies, brought before the courts and then a large public the truth that Dupont knowingly for decades continued to market PFOA after they discovered it, together with a complex of other non-regulated substances, were poisoning the water supply and blood stream of people coming into contact with their products. In this case one of the products being marketed was teflon on pots, which the public seemed to be able to remember and grasp. As with the movie, All the President’s Men, we see the long hard slog that begins with tiny ambiguous but troubling evidence, the difficult gathering of hard information, the many meetings with all sorts of people in all sorts of venues, many of whom don’t want to know about this. This movie has something the previous muck-raking movie lacks: it shows the cost to Ruffalo in his private life that years takes, and it shows something beyond a single criminal syndicate (under Nixon in effect): the allowing of crucial poisoning of our environment and bodies by corporations, bought up gov’t agencies, ruthless and indifferent individuals. We also see the gaps in the law that permit unregulated substances to be marketed.

Don’t miss it. Go see it — the more people watch, the more agencies and corporations become wary of an informed pro-active public.


A scene where the farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) explains to Bilott what he is seeing

It’s also an absorbing movie, very well done — no idiotic action-adventure, no excessive violence to lure us (apparently this lures) in. The thriller element (the genre the movie is advertised as) is small. The movie is rather a protest movie, an expose in the manner of Chernobyl, only done in a way that enables it to play to large audiences in movie-theaters. At one point Bilott gets scared because he’s told to park at the bottom of a many floored garage to go to a confrontation meeting with a group of corporate officials. His is the only car way down there. As he returns to his car remembering the angry faces he contended with, he begins to feel scared, and the film hesitates as he hesitates before turning the key in his car — we and he fear he will be blown up. In fact he was just experiencing the way the ordinary people is treated in the heavily reserved and charged-for garage spaces beneath corporate buildings nowadays.


Sarah Bilott (Anna Hathaway) comforts her husband — he is very weary — she defends him as someone who is not a failure except if you use a false definition of what is meaningful success in life

It is not a brilliant original indie film: production values are high (it’s a presentable high quality commodity product) so we get beautiful or horrible looking landscapes, city scenes for codas. The presentation of Bilott’s wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway) is done in a heavily clichéd manner: her middle class assumptions, and behavior, the three sons, the home, her protests are out of Donna Reed. There is also too much cliché in the presentation of the wretched impoverished people of West Virginia and other places, all down-trodden and when not quietly virtuous, angry sullen (sometimes at Bilott for not producing quicker results and money while they are losing jobs). It’s forgivable — if you showed the truth of average lives (a lack of coherent pattern), people might not come or critics could chose to complain about this or that subsidiary point and the main themes of the movie be lost. When there are wins in court, the presentation of Bilott and his wife is somewhat sentimental. But real hard life is immersed in sentiment; we just don’t show it on cue. And Mark Ruffalo (known for his roles in Kenneth Lonergan films) carries most of the weight of the film. We meet various people along the way who have lost their jobs upon being whistle-blowers; people with cancer; people who have had deformed children; the deformed baby all grown up now and working in a gas station as an attendant.

The Observer gave the movie a rave review (Rex Reed). Other reviews are more qualified, in The Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan basically praised the movie for not pretending to be what it’s not; it is a clearly informed passionate outrage machine. In Variety, though, Owen Gleiberman demonstrates that this is not your “usual” protest movie but original in a stunningly real way (the slow building court case): you do really feel like these are situations you have been involved in or know people who have been. Common Sense Media, Jeffrey Anderson breaks down the different elements into a “must see.”

I thought of Flint, Michigan (no official has been put in jail as yet, not one); a movie I saw a few years ago about  an attempt to put water under the control of corporations in a Latin American  country; cancer-poisoned places everywhere. Among sobering thoughts was the realization today since Trump and the criminal syndicate he is putting in place everywhere (his sycophants, patsies, profound reactionaries), Bilott would not even have gotten to first base. He had to begin with the EPA. He also had to have wins in courts with fair judges. The movie urges on us the necessity of removing Trump and his corporate bough; taking out evangelical-fanatic patsies from US offices; work to begin to reverse the calculated putting into power in courts with reactionaries and thugs like Kavanagh (as judges). Agencies there to help the public are run by people who mission in life is to destroy their effectiveness (appointees downsize refuse to allow employees to do the job they are supposed to.

It is scary in the sense Elena Nicolaou says (Entertainment): at its close, the inter-titles remind us that this stuff is in the blood of 99% of all of  us, and our animals too. I thought of my unknowing pussycats.

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See this Intercept article by Sharon Lerner, the Case against DuPont: it includes a video by Tennant showing the continual contamination of the waters near his and another farm discussing how the state gave permission to DuPont to unload this poison into the state’s water streams. The article tells of other individuals who fought the company and how the company fought back, using among other things a statute of limitations. Joe Kiger, a Parkersburg elementary school gym teacher and former field coordinator for the AFL-CIO, was central to Bilott’s case and an actor playing him is in the film

Papers, fine print, using laws and courts against people are central methods of large corporations; they also pay individuals off.

Ellen

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The four principals of the film: JRR Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Q Gilson, Christopher Wiseman — at leisure, sports and war

Friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a brief review of the biopic film about Tolkien’s life that is just now leaving most movie theaters after a fairly successful run. The reviews have been mixed, and most resembling John Tuttle’s: he likes the art and filmic aspects of the film, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, moving story, but he complains not so much that what is presented is all that wrong, but that the emphases are inadequate: he wants more about Tolkien’s religion, more about all the sources of his creativity, a more accurate account of this or that aspect of his earlier and later life: it seems that in later life Tolkien again bonded with a small group of like-minded men of similar attitudes and class. Tuttle doesn’t mind that the film made much of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, only says it was presented as suspenseful when it wasn’t. “Everyone” (that is all interested in Tolkien) knows he married her. A similar stance (with different particulars perhaps) is found in Sheila O’Malley’s at RogerEbert.com; David Appleby at Rolling Stone was bored: it was so convoluted and yet did not bring our miraculous author to life. Tellingly, what they all agree on is how grating and excessive are the scenes of war, “oh bother” says Appleby. I could quote others to the same effect.

What no one seems to say is that the this is a film not much interested in Tolkien’s inner creative life: the imagery from his dreams, from his early anguish at the death of his father, mother, fear of being neglected and poor with his brother), and then, as shared with the love of his life, Edith fantasy operas and books, and finally World War One are all in effect decorations; extras piled on to give the film heightened apocalyptic fantasy ominous (exciting?) imagery. The plot-design of this movie is that of the common popular genre, the nostalgic boys’ public school, interlaced with a feminist-inflected romance with strong critiques against class snobbery.

As the film begins, Tolkien is orphaned. His father dies and then his self-sacrificing mother (played to the hilt by Laura Donnelly, familiar to some as Jenny Murray of Outlander), and he and his brother are left stranded. They are taken to live in a boarding house run by a cold snobbish woman (Pam Ferris) by the Catholic priest who has been made their guardian. What saves Tolkien is he is so intelligent, he is taken into the British private aka public school system and there nurtured by deep friendship, and high academic standards that force him to study hard. The public school is presented positively: while there are grossly unfair tutors (one wants to eject Tolkien on the basis he hasn’t got sufficient drive), others (Derek Jacobi) because they are not part of a structured system can eccentrically take him in.


The young man and his professor

The story of Edith is there as part of the usual matter of heritage films.


Courting — the upper class (if orphaned) boy courting the female boarder

It’s worth it to point out the limitations of the heritage tropes: as in so many of them, class is supposedly attacked or critiqued, when we find it is also upheld; in this film, this is done together with religion. Tolkien was a believing Catholic in life; this was his heritage (perhaps from the mother) but also a result of making a priest his guardian. In the film this priest refuses to support Tolkien if he carries on with his courtship of Edith. Tolkien protests, thinks of rebelling but then caves in. We are to feel that he does this out of respect for the guardian as well as concern for his career, but there is a feeling that he recognizes that Edith is indeed not of his class.

As the film moves on, and Tolkien overcomes the prejudices of the people at Oxford, and the war begins, he again meets Edith. Edith is as genteel looking as Celia Johnson in any 1940s film (Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, Happy Days) and now engaged, and it’s made plain she has done so to support herself. It takes only a few minutes of film time for Tolkien to say he still loves her, for her to reciprocate and (presumably) break the engagement. Later in the film the priest admits he was wrong, and sometime after that Tolkien and Edith are married. This may follow Tolkien’s actual behavior, but we can see that class and obedience to religious and parental authorities are upheld.

The second part of the film is the fulfillment of the first, the war story essential to this genre. It is the final proving ground. Instead of showing us that the values that lead to war are the real basis of public school experience, bullying, competition, physical prowess, daring, separation from one’s family (part of the training that teaches you to be part of an upper class negotiating environment), we are repeatedly shown the great joy, manners, bonding that the young men learn from these exclusive groups within an intellectual demanding environment, which in this case included high intellectual camaraderie, and of course also fierce “healthy” competition in games (we are shown the four young men playing rough sports again and again) . Of course war is horrific, and two of them die, a third maimed for life. No heritage film today is openly militaristic, but the scenes that are individualized show our heroes performing utter self-sacrifice for one another. A small subplot includes Tolkien’s batman, of course named Sam, risking his life to save Tolkien from death, and bring him tea too.


Here is Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien searching for his friend (dead elsewhere several days before)

It’s important to bring this central design of the film out because this elite experience is 1) misrepresented and 2) lies at the core of not just militarism and war, but leads to and shapes colonialism and is behind the mindset promoting Brexit, nationalism, arrogance (the boy becomes privileged, and is kept separate from and encouraged to think he know better than the “lower orders. Joanna Scutts lays out the connection in The New Republic: Britain’s Boarding School problem. The war itself is presented as part of the dream life that led to the exciting adventures, violence, monsters of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve seen so many films of this type: Harry Potter feeds into it; Andrew Davies got his start with the multi-episode To Serve Them All My Days (based on Delderfield’s sentimental depiction of the life of a schoolmaster). I do not say I haven’t enjoyed such films. I enjoy heritage films, I loved the romance, and felt for Edith presented as at the time given no opportunity to have a career of her own, but given the times we are living in, when I read several reviews passing by the central explanatory idea of this film, and seemed even unaware of it. I felt something ought to be said.

I’ll add another corrective here too: nowadays upper class and elite girls are sent to such schools regularly too, and then elite universities. Kate Middleton’s great “rise” came from her having gone to the right private boarding school which got her to St Andrews where she met William, the heir. As Scutts points out, huge fees are extracted (such schools are apparently tax-exempt!, like our churches). As a side note I recall now how startled I was at Vicinus’s account of girls’ private boarding schools in her Independent Women: Work and community for Single Women, 1850-1930, because she didn’t seem to care at all and even was for the psychological manipulation of the girls’ friendship patterns and girls-and-female mentors because it trains girls (who thrived in this) to know how to get and keep and use power. As today parents of boys who suffer badly from bullying, and are emotionally twisted or scarred take that as the price of getting them the right connections and “toughening” them, so Vicinus was for allowing girls to emotionally over-wrought, blackmailed, made miserable by girls’ exclusionary coteries as the price of making girls into women who are embedded in power arrangements and understand how they come about.


Tolkien late in life (photo)

As for Tolkien’s actual and later life: the other male group consisted of deeply reactionary Christianizing critics like C.S. Lewis who also wrote an epic of fantasy wars, Narnia, sheltered dons and learned poets like himself. Dorothy Sayers was a hanger-on, for at the time when a young woman finished university there would be no place for her in university. Think of her Lord Peter Wimsey with his batman turned valet, Bunter. Bob Dixon has analysed the fascist vision of life behind Narnia and (dare I say) and other fantasy epics by over-praised writers like Ursula Le Guin. See also Empire Follows the Flag. Tolkien’s later career as a writer included studies and defenses of Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval English and Chaucer, translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl — delicate lovely poetry with subtle ethical ideas.

I was again startled when I first began to watch the Peter Jackson film of The Fellowship. I had read the books in the 1960s when the illustrations were still taken from romance, fairy books, and looked like feminine depictions Arthurian romance. How had it become a boys’ action-adventure story, filled with violence and Dante-like apocalyptic visions? I have since read that the earliest illustrations were delicate fanciful landscapes done by a woman friend of Tolkien. I dare say a film genuinely interested in his creative life and reading, might help rescue his books from being used or packaged the way they are today. I am told that a five part series, Looking for the Hobbit (on Amazon Prime) does justice to other ignored sources, but I wouldn’t count on it.


Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien deeply engaged with his books

Ellen

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Lily Collins as Fantine sometime after she sells her hair and teeth


Dominic West as Jean Valjean on the barricades


Joseph Quinn as Enjolras, the serious revolutionary

Bishop: Myriel: God tells us to love our fellow men.
Jean Valjean: How can I love my fellow man when he treats me worse than a dog?

Andrew Davies produces video masterpieces as regularly as other people simply go out to a movie, and in the last few years or so, the only material that (it seems) will do are the kind of literary masterpieces considered crucial and extraordinary works politically as well as socially. On top of this he has a penchant for choosing among such books precisely those where a previous film has been made with super-popular actors or some super-respected film-maker and seen by so many people and accepted as “unsurpassable.” Usually he has been polite about the previous (clearly to him inadequate and dated effort), as in the cases of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, the earlier BBC Bleak House (1985 Arthur Hopcraft), War and Peace (1972, Jack Pulman), but he revels in using them while inventing a new conception and in just about all the previous films he’s redone, correcting (Lean turned Pasternak’s book into anti-communist propaganda) or simply superseding them. What’s special about this new Les Miserables is Davies frankness in accurately describing the musical as “a travesty” (the 2012 film is frequently awful), and how watching it brings home to most viewers they didn’t know or understand Fantine’s story at all, hadn’t realized how crucial Waterloo and an honest depiction of street fighting against a ruthless gov’t is to Hugo’s anti-war reformist book (the 1998 film presents what it does of the complicated stories incoherently).


Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar)


Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman)

But this is a movie which makes us want to read the book; since Davies got only 6 hours (as opposed to the more than 9 he had for War and Peace, 2016), he makes us aware we are watching a suggestive and quick-moving surface. As the novel very early on includes Waterloo and has a long historical meditation on the significance of this battle and the lost war, Davies opens on Waterloo (he is apparently the only of the many movies made from this book even to include the battle) and brings Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar) to the fore as the first active character we see: he is stealing from corpses and near dead men, not rescuing anyone as he later on claims. David Bellos (in The Novel of the Century, indispensable) says (rightly) the Thenardiers are not funny figures in Hugo. These characters represent people who are key obstacles to political progress. Bellos asks what makes them hate, resent and fleece others so. They are the kind of people who loathe the poor when they are themselves part of this class. And it’s not just greed, but a passion, they bear “grudges,” “deep furnaces of hate.” and resentful revengeful grief. Like the woman supervisor in Valjean’s factory, they want to “get back” at anyone living more easily, or anyone who rouses their considerable repertoire of hurt. We so want Fantine to return and take her child back. Olivia Colman plays Madame Thenardier as an accomplice, complicit in anger and harm of others as the most convenient rout of survival.


The Thenardier family evicted — Colman’s face registers one origin of brooding resentment that emerges as jeering abuse of others

Bellos suggests that Hugo asks, what can be done to stop such people from undermining any compassionate law, rule, institution. Davies adds that they are punished as decisively and ruthlessly as those they resent and take it out on: Thenardier beats his wife casually, her daughters too, and when last seen Madame Thenardier has been parted from her daughters and left in miserable prison.

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It opens brilliantly with shots in black-and-white of innocent animals killed (especially horses in extremis,in agons, in black silhouette), animals and trees used symbolically (crows), the exquisitely dark and dream like atmosphere is kept up in the first half — that is until we meet a grown up Cosette, and her demand that she be placed in a bourgeois environment where she can “learn about life,” catapults Jean Valjean (Dominic West) into a fiercely guarded island of an apartment in Paris. This reminds us of the Pontmercy home with the ancient grandfather (David Bradley) fiercely rejecting his son and bringing his grandson up to become an aristocratic of the now defunct ancien regime.

Church to one side, naturally, police headquarters prominently there. The wild landscape of white clay, rock, brick, the wretched prison quarters, the chains and whips everywhere are to the fore. In episode 2 The people Fantine meets are costumed like nightmare circus figures (Ron Cook as the man who cuts off Fantine’s hair and cruelly wrenches her teeth out is heavily made up) and the low budget set of streets is like the bleak corner or marketplace of a slum. So in contrast, Father Myriel’s (Derek Jacobi) hospitable table, deep gentle kindness, determination to do and be good, and the Mother superior’s convent are experienced as intense relief.


Lily Collins as Fantine, holding Mallow Defoy as the child Cosette (Episode 2) seeking work and a place to keep her child

Fantine meets Madame Thenardier: I’m on my way to Montreuil.
I’ve heard there’s some good work to be had there.
Where’s hubby? Erm He’s He’s dead.
Oh, dear.
So you’ve had a hard time of it, I dare say.
Yes, I have.
But once I get into a steady job, I’ll soon be on my feet again.
Yeah, of course you will.

The set in the second half expands outward from the provincial towns of the first, the wood where Valjean hides his treasures and earned money, and we find ourselves in Parisian gardens, then in the streets as people pour out and set up barricades, and when the fierce killing is over, in the sewers some have escaped to. The contrast is now the countryside to which Jean Valjean finds another refuge before dying. The whole ambiance is far more symbolic and artificial than Davies usually is as he tries to cover so much swiftly. For example, Jean Valjean and Cosette sitting in the snow:

Typically in all his films Davies brings new insight into the book he is realizing, and here importantly he provides further explanation for Javert’s obsession: his feeling goes beyond the homoerotic, his rage is the rage of frustrated, the man who cannot understand the humane emotions and behavior of Valjean and loathes the man as a threat. The two men are photographed in close proximity again and again:

It takes considerable skill to convey this kind of hidden and criss-crossing emotionalism (for as portrayed by West, Jean Valjean does not participate in this) and the brilliant David Oyelowo is pitch perfect, down to an intense nervousness and sense of someone at the ready for an insult from his subordinates; he is perpetually on the edge. He is fascinated by Jean Valjean (“you astonish me”) and his eyes and body convey deep attraction. This throws light on other pairs of pursuer and pursuit from Frankenstein and his creature, to Caleb Williams and Falkland — to modern doppelgangers. But he is still a police officer:

Javert upon meeting Thenardier when he is in search of ValJean:

Did he say what he wanted the girl for? No, but we’re men of the world, Inspector.
Not hard to guess.
Doesn’t bear imagining.
Y All right.
That’s all.
– That’s all? But look here – What? What are you going to do for me? Nothing.
You should think yourself lucky that I don’t charge you.

His suicide as Javert is given time– the writing of his resignation,

JAVERT: I beg, Monsieur Le Prefet, to consider these proposals for improvements to the service.
First, that we end the practice of prisoners returning from interrogations being made to remove their shoes while they await transport back to the prison.
Many are coughing when they return to their cells.
This leads to hospital experiences.
Second, a prisoner who drops a thread in the weaving room loses 10 sous.
This is an abuse of HIS RECOMMENDATIONS OVERLAP: Third, special regulation of the Fourth, surveillance is generally Fifth, gendarmes Prisoners coming back from the –

Writing this he is pictured and writes as an elegant man. Davies gives him time for a silent agon when he cannot bear to jump into that dark waters but does. He lived his life in darkness and amid filth and cruelty and hatred inflicted on others, now he ends in the dark filth. Davies’s Les Miserables includes Javert as among the wretched of the earth even if it’s he who is a relentless punisher of the wretched.

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Master crook (Ron Cook)

I can single out only a few scenes, performances, themes. In Episode 2 Lily Collins astonishingly powerful-pathetic as Fantine — without hair, without teeth, laughed at, her mouth filled with blood, spurned and finally dying, crying crying crying because she has lost her beloved daughter and is afflicted with the idea this is God’s punishment. Only if the child arrives on time, can she feel she is forgiven. This is Davies’s overlay of interpretation on the effect of religion on those like Fantine whom society condemns. Ron Cook is a nightmare masquerade figure with his dolls for sale using the human hair and teeth he has wrenched out of the vulnerable.


Josh O’Connor as Marius

Episode 3: a riveting and unexpected theme brought out is the danger of being innocent. Innocence and ignorance helps the vicious, ruthless. Davies presents Marius and Cosette as utterly innocent and ignorant. In Marius’ case the cause is a reactionary hateful embittered rich grandfather; in Cosette’s a deeply humane loving victim of the society, once a life convict, our Jean Valjean. The result is the same: show Cosette a group of prisoners being treated like animals you mean to murder shortly except put on top of this is vicious cruelty and she says what bad men they must be — and I know in Davies’ version will be automatically horrified when Valjean tries to tell her his story. Showing her these men is his first step and see the result: she rejects him. Show Marius Thenadier and have him listen or remember his own innocent father’s gratitude to Thenadier and Marius assumes he is a “great hero” of war (as was his father — without ever thinking what the war was about and what killing is); Marius goes to the police (!) to tell them of how an older man (fully described by Marius) is about to visit Thenadier and Javert suspects this Is Valjean and is there to re-capture him. It’s like informing the FBI that some good black people are in trouble from criminals: the FBI would come in in the 1970s and murder all the black people.


Eponine (Erin Kellyman)


Gavroche (Reece Yates)

Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter) — a poor man who works at the church Marius’s grandfather’s woman servant takes him to each Sunday

The one innocent who hurts no one is Eponine: she seems so without any partisan or protector. Similarly, her younger brother (or step-brother, in the novel he is only semi-adopted, Gavroche (Reece Yates) who thinks what is happening is a game, tries to protect his younger brothers, and dies senselessly. The old man, Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter), his one revolutionary gesture in a spirit of fine hope is killed by sniper fire


The revolutionary young men: Enjolras (Joseph Quinn), Courfeyrac (Archie Madekwe), Grantaire (Turlough Convery)

Parts 5 and 6: the street fighting. In this version the revolutionaries are not presented as frivolous students, but genuinely aroused revolutionaries; yes some of them drink, they make bad decisions, but they are serious about demanding a better life for all. Marius is an outsider. With all the talk about street fighting that I have come across (the one book I know is Tariq Ali’s) this is the very first attempt I’ve come acrosss to show how terrifying it is to revolt against a govt, and really give a feel of the what it’s like to know a bunch of paid human beings are there to murder you, and see it happen all around you. Davies’s switches points of view, partly as individuals go down, but the most frequent is Enjolas. The episode even had a warning for viewers that the violence here is exceptional: it’s not; what’s rare is to show how paid police and militia will kill citizens. During the Obama era only glimpses were seen of what was done to the Occupy Wall Street people when some prominent person’s son or daughter’s body was destroyed — not all die when they are horrifically maimed nowadays. It was very moving when Grantaire (Turlough Convery) chooses to die standing with Enjolras. I’d say Joseph Quinn had a major role in this film


The death scene

The death scene of Valjean collapsing and put to bed with Cosette next to him put me in mind of Andrei’s death in Davies’s War and Peace. Davies had more time in War and Peace (9 episodes of differing length) so he showed the process of dying (and James Norton is a virtuoso actor) — but we may ask, Is it enough for this man that Cosette loved him? There is a bit too much poetic justice perhaps: Thenardier tells us in his losing scene that he is ending in shit. Hugo’s Les Miserables is not Shakespeare’s Lear

ValJean dying with Cosette by his side:

WEAKLY: Are you still there? Yes, Papa.
I had things to tell you.
Never mind.

Somewhat differently conceived a narrator and over-voice would have helped. Davies has rightly conceived of the piece as an epic but is driven down to individual metonymy too often. Is it though right to feel that Jean Valjean has let us down? Had he made it an educational opportunity for Cosette from all we have seen I doubt she could have understood.

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Father Myriel


Sister Simplice

Bellos mentions as another flaw in Hugo’s book the long sequence about the convent. In a book overtly anti-clerical, rightly critical of the church’s role in repression, to make two of the characters, Myriel at the opening and now the mother superior (Georgie Glenn) as well as Sister Simplice (Natalie Simpson) near saints does more than tend to mute the radical point of view on life. Bellos suggests that like many authors, Hugo is ambivalent; his politics are also partly conservative at times — as would be understandable given his background


We must have the upper class couple: Ellie Bamber as Cosette grown up; Josh O’Connor as Marius

Davies counters this: in each of his adaptations, while it is Davies’s spirit and presence that unites them all (and there are remarkable parallels among the actors he chooses for his heroes), in each he is reacting to and producing a content which is partly a recreated version of his author’s so he is reacting to the author. In Les Miserables Davies turns a sentimentality towards Catholicism at times into a humane secularism, and convent and moral life become symbols for finding peace and safety amid the evils of human nature and the society this nature creates. Davies pulls out of Hugo’s retreat narratives what a good person wants in life is peace and safety. His good people are rarely ambitious; they may want to work hard for the meaning of this, to help others, but they most of them do not seek high position. The bad people are those who value others for their high rank irrespective of anything else. What Jean Valjean seeks for Cosette and himself as the best that can be gotten generally is a framework, a place apart from the world that allows each individual to know individual private happiness in whatever way he or she can achieve – play music, read, whatever.

The priest, the mother superior and the nun who cared for Fantine, were seeking and created peace and safety for all under their protection. That more than any religious belief is the point; it’s the respect the state pays to religious space and offices that allows them to do this for Jean Valjean. We see in the revolutionaries that although Enjolras is a good man and well meaning, all the men surrounding him are too vain, follow their appetites, and simply haven’t the firepower to achieve what this man is after — some other mode of achieving more for “mankind” is needed. So in the meantime we make do.

Voltaire’s famous ending of Candide throws scepticism on the ability of Candide and his friends to protect their garden, and the sense is how tenuous and fragile their space is, it can be invaded at any time.

Another important original move is to genuinely hire as many black as white actors: this is a thoroughly color-blind and integrated cast, from Thenardier, from Arab backgrounds to many black and white actors and actresses, not omitting the usual blonde princess Cosette. There was a black population in France from the 18th century on, but this casting mirrors an ideal for our own times.

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Douglas Hodges as the unbowed Lydgate with whom the film adaptation begins (the book begins with Dorothea)


Juliette Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on her plans for workers’ cottages, which are never built

To conclude, I have been watching Davies’s films as a kind of year-long marathon, and much as the originality and relevance of Les Miserables to today, makes it the one to see now, I suggest that his finest art, the ones beyond those I cited in my opening paragraph, the finest of his film adaptations occurred in the 1990s; I’m thinking of film adaptations like Moll Flanders (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), and early 2000s The Way We Live Now (2001), Daniel Deronda (2002), and especially Middlemarch (1994, the narrator’s voice is Judi Dench and by the end I find myself weeping uncontrollably as the destinies of each play out). This Les Miserables is another of the better recently dumbed-down serial dramas: the language is simple, crude, not much given over to subtlety of thought such as we find in his mid-career films.

Enjolras and Marius in front of the other revolutionaries:

I have to say, first, I’m not royalist any more.
What are you now then? I’m a Bonapartist and a Democrat.
Now, that’s a step in the right direction.
Napoleon was a defender of the Republic before he made himself Emperor.
Well, have a drink.
Yes, have a lot of drinks.
[THEY SING AND CHANT] I say down with all nations and down with all kings.
What about emperors? An emperor is just a king by another name, only worse.
I won’t have it.
Napoleon made this country great.
He brought reforms through his conquests.
What a joy to serve under such a man as that.
What could be greater? To be free.
I want to be a citizen of the Republic, not a subject of a king or an emperor.
One day we’ll all be fighting to the death about that, on one side or another.

Ironic and satiric comedy is closer to Davies’s own spirit (and can be just glimpsed abovve), and deep musing grief for the price we all pay for our failures in life and society’s control, punishment and thwarting of our dreams and innate selves, but also a buoyant enough spirit for self-examination to find strength to play out the roles that are offered us as ethically as we can. Davies does not despair. He offers deep filmic pleasures and humane liberal content still, and has created a wealth of video libraries from books — early on more in his own right individually (education and daily ordinary life his theme), then from popular romance and sentimental novels (Delderfield), from the 1990s on the very entertaining and relevant (House of Cards) as well as some of the greatest novels ever written.

Fingers crossed his star is rising again, and he has the years left to do a new The Pallisers.

Ellen

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Sophie Rundle as Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey (from Walsh’s 2015 An Inspector Calls)


Ruth Wilson as Alison Wilson, a fictionalization of the deceit of a male “patriot” of four women and the families he biologically fathered

Dear friends,

Over the past week I’ve been lucky enough to watch the kind of “thriller & suspense or crime and/or detective novel,” which turns on its head the older hero-centered often misogynistic genre into a satisfying dramatization and examination of disquieting destructive values and norms in many societies. One example, I just loved two weeks ago now, was In a Better World.

Billed as a “thriller,” this Danish film, written and directed by Suzanne Bier, tells the story of a sensitive dedicated Swedish physician, Anton, whose wife has left him after he had an affair with another woman, and whose son is the type of boy who is susceptible to cruel bullying in schools. Elias is rescued not by the school authorities (who like those in real life I’ve encountered) refuse to recognize and stop the cruelty but another boy, Christian, angry at his father because his father was unable to save his mother from dying of cancer and was even relieved when she did die after a long period of mutual suffering. It’s an exploration of sadism in adult political life in Africa. It is when such stories are discussed in this way that we realize the formula for carrying along a mass audience is there merely as a vehicle.


Mikael Persbrandt trying to explain to his son why not to respond to bigoted violence with more violence is an act of desperately needed courage

The film struck me because I am just now reading and studying a group of these formulaic books by Winston Graham, which keep to the misogynistic outward plot-design so that the vulnerable woman is seen as the evil person whom the other characters have to root out (Take My Life) or the self-destructive bewildered victim of a crook who used the resistance movement in France for his own profitable exploitation and sexual predatory habits, and whom an essentially good hero (in this version, crippled himself by war) is right to stalk and pressure until she sees that giving herself over to him will bring her protection (Night Without Stars). Both were made into film noir movies. I am looking for a way to discuss them that brings out this hidden backstory. And sometimes I despair when I see how the generic surface is still presented as valid and tedious as the puzzle-unraveling is when speeded up, made terrifyingly violent sells widely.

So I am gratified when I see “all is not lost,” and the books and films which win worthy prizes, a better and/or female audience (not the same thing) are becoming as common. I am not saying anything many people have not observed before me.

In 1997 Marion Frank wrote a good essay called “The Transformation of a Genre — the Feminist Mystery Novel (printed in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, Setting Standards of Taste, ed. Susan Faulkner [NY: Edwin Meller Press, 1997]) where she traces not just the feminization of the central hero but a transformation of the values and the kinds of stories such material uses: Frank moves from Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, woman-centered and mildly feminist while upholding the hierarchical and patriarchal establishment to Joan Smith’s genuine feminist, then radical (not just liberal) humanist detective novels (A Masculine Ending to What Men Say).


Joan Smith

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For tonight I want to compare Aisling’s Walsh’s 2015 adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s “classic” everyone-did-it play, An Inspector Calls to the 1954 adaptation, famously starring Alistair Sim, so pitch perfect as the sinister and menacing Inspector Goole (in Priestley’s the name resonates as ghoul) that the 1954 film still has a following, and can be bought as a blu-ray:

and a re-boot has been successful


Pray forgive the conventional frozen promotional shot from the 2015 re-boot

I was reminded of J. B. Priestley early last week when someone on one of my listservs asked if anyone had seen the Walsh TV movie (now streaming on Amazon Prime)? A wonderful humanistic man of letters, novelist, radio host and commentator, playwright, erased by the media after World War Two because he would not give up his membership in the communist party and remained overtly a committed socialist. He was probably actually much better liked than Churchill during the war (Orwell just about says):

But he has been disappeared (like Mike Leigh’s recent movie, Peterloo) lest we have any encouragement for social decency in our media. A few years ago I went to a book history conference where a man gave a paper demonstrating that no communist after the mid-1930s was ever given a prestigious European prize. If you were not a communist openly, but were a socialist and known to be so, your book was suspect from the start. You’d be lucky to be in the short list and don’t expect a movie.

As an 18 year old girl I cherished two novels by him, The Good Companions and Angel Pavement. I sill have the old-fashioned hardbacks in my library which I read nearly half a century ago. At the time I was contemplating returning to college full-time and remember reading a history of English literature by Priestley, which I took out of the library. It stirred and spurred me on; his novels gave me courage and cheer – now I realize how the picaro novel is not one where compassion is the key note, but irony (Sarah Fielding’s David Simple never does find a friend). In later years (when I got to college) I realized Priestley was sneered at, called middle brow, and if I persisted in citing this allegiance of mine I’d be seen as showing I was not part of the knowing cultural world. A little far more candid and non-snobbish talk that day led me to watch Walsh’s rendition on my laptop that night and a kind friend sent me a copy of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation in 1954 and I watched that. I also remembered Walsh was centrally the creator of Maudie, a film about a disabled uneducated man and equally vulnerable woman artist.

So what is made central in the Walsh re-boot:

The conventional barely glimpsed back-story of a dubious unchaste working class girl becomes the central meat of the dish — the reason for having so many identities is she is trying to protect herself again and again, as each time she tries to conform and yet ask for decent usage (wages, respect, courtesy, kindness, a place to stay, companionship) she is used, dropped and sinks lower.

You can find a bit of the storyline in the wikipedia article on the 1954 version. Basically each member of the Birling family was responsible for ostracizing, firing, using and erasing Eva Smith; the worst moment is her humiliation before the smug mother supposedly running a charitable organization.

And in the 1954 film, much closer to Priestley (by Guy Hamilton as director and Edmundson as writer), we do see our heroine Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey but only in swift short takes and the focus of the scenes is not on her. Indeed in some of them she emerges as stereotypically a “tramp” or loose woman. But there is little going outside the room so we rely mostly on words to learn of the outside world. The kinds of arguments made are in cliches about responsibility. I feel that it is less believable these people would be guilty — their interactions are far less lethal, the family structure presented as far more conventionally okay.

Watch the 2015 immediately afterwards, and you see there were many more scenes with Sophie Rundle as central presence, scenes of her alone, scenes of her interacting with others, many giving her real gravitas, intelligence, and depth of feeling. What’s more the family is now made bitterly internecine and due to the inspector’s prompting presence are led to truly enter intimately into and expose their corrosive relationships. I’d call Walsh’s film feminist, Marxist, egalitarian, coming down to a human level in its demands, and really turning the “crime” genre inside out, while the 1954 one is Marxist and sentimental, still respecting the hierarchy and pious family “healing” at the end.


Grim

In 1954 Sims as the inspector vanishes and it really does seem as if he’s a ghost of Christmas whatever come to be therapeutic for this family. In 2015 David Thewlis as the inspector is not a ghost; as in Priestley’s he is lead in by the maid, and then let out. In the film we then see him watch (from afar Sophie) walking by the sea, then writing in her diary, and finally drinking the detergent; she is then seen whisked along a hospital corridor to an emergency room with a tube is put down her mouth and stomach (painful) as they try to save her. At the last he is sitting by her dead body at the end. IN both the family is then phoned and then told a girl has died and an inspector is coming.

The question in the 2015 is who is Goole? he is not ghoul as in 1954. Are we to take him as possibly some relative? some spirit conjured up against the capitalist male hegemonic order — almost magical realism rather than the female gothic.


Promotional shot of Soller and Pirrie as the Birlings still cheerful

I was much moved by the second film and not at all for real by the first. I do find Kyle Soller as great actor, and am drawn to Chloe Pirrie in all the roles I’ve ever seen her in.

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I encourage my readers also to watch, not to miss, Mrs Wilson on PBS, one of the more recent of these modern feminist humane “thrillers” — two hours last night (Sunday, 3/31/19) and another hour next week. There are of course the exegeses which try to stay on the surface, but the content so clearly calls out for the “backstory” to be told since the “thriller’s structure is now the emotional exposure by the women or the man’s grown children step-by-step of the male liar at the center. As Mike Hale of the NYTimes writes:

Alexander Wilson lived an improbable, deceitful, destructive but undeniably intriguing life. An author of popular spy novels and a British secret agent himself in World War II, he married four women from the 1920s through the 50s without bothering to divorce any of them. He managed to keep his four families mostly secret from each other during his lifetime, and his children (and many grandchildren) only got to know one another more than 40 years after he died …

Ruth Wilson of “Luther” and “The Affair” is the granddaughter of Alec’s third wife, Alison, and she plays her victimized, mystified grandmother in “Mrs. Wilson,” of which she’s also an executive producer.

So rather than the historical adventure or romance it might have been in an earlier era, “Mrs. Wilson” is an interrogation of history, a feminist critique of mid-20th-century British society, a mystery and, least satisfyingly, a character study. The strangeness of the story, and Ruth Wilson’s characteristic intensity, pull us along. But Alison and Alec, and their motivations, never seem to come completely into focus. The series feels caught between fiction and real life, as if the writers (Anna Symon and Tim Crook) and the director (Richard Laxton) were unwilling to fully dramatize a history that’s still murky, partly hidden in the files of the British Foreign Office.


Iain Glen

It could be said that perhaps the new feminist turn as gone too far in making the male an utter shit — I’m only 2/3s through though. One of the intriguing aspects is how the program makes mince meat of all this talk of patriotism and how keeping secrets for the gov’t is a noble patriotic occupation. Iain Glen the male lead often plays this sort of on the surface enigmatic male in female gothics — he was this kind of character in a recent re-do of a LeFanu novel, Wyvern Mysteries, which partly imitate the plot-design of Jane Eyre, except now there is real empathy for the mad wife chained in the attic. Keeley Hawes is getting old, alas, and Fiona Shaw even older … but are very good in their parts.


Keeley Hawes as Mary, drawn to be Wilson’s second wife


Fiona Shaw as Coleman (a sort of M)

Ruth Wilson ever since I saw her in Small Island, and then Jane Eyre, and now recently in an HD screening of an Ibsen play (Hedda Gabler, with Kyle Soller as the husband) remains one of my favorite actresses. I have never seen her in a film or a role where I didn’t bond with her.

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How to conclude? Don’t give up. Hang in there. Ripeness is all. Despite the horrors being perpetrated in the US by the heads of the federal gov’t, and sustained by its reactionary minority senate and judges in the public realm, there are still a large percentage of people from whom good can come, and who can make effective socially critical art from what Julian Symons (in Bloody Murder) rightly calls an inferior genre-game, which is still frequently obtuse to its own potentials.


A photo taken yesterday (3/31/19), the height of the flowering tree April bloom by my daughter, Izzy, as she walked along the tidal basin — we had the day before (3/30/19) endured more than 3 hours of driving on highways and DC streets to see and hear the Folger spring concert, an oasis of lovely, moving, fun, intelligently and passionately lovingly performed Elizabethan music and song

Ellen

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One of the many whole family scenes in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008)


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

Over these few Christmas days I watched two new (to me) Christmas movies, read three Christmas stories I’ve never read before, and renewed my acquaintance with a series of Christmas chapters in a strong masterpiece of Victorian fiction. I most enjoyed the extraordinary creation of a several day Christmas time together by Arnaud Desplechin in his much-awarded A Christmas tale and was fully absorbed by six different households and their experience of Christmas in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. I’m with those reviewers who found that Mary Poppins Rebooted half-a-century later fails to enchant, and think anibundel comes closest to explaining why. The three stories I read, two by Anton Chekhov, and a third by Margaret Oliphant, suggest what was expected from a mainstream Christmas story in the 19th differs considerably from the 20th.

In this blog we’ll stay with movies, and in my next turn to stories.

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Sylvia’s children, Paul, grandfather and Sylvia doing a play of the children’s own device during the week (A Christmas Tale)

I can’t speak too highly of Desplechin’s film. It must may be the best or most mature Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. Before this I would say John Huston’s The Dead (from Joyce’s story) and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (an appropriation of Mansfield Park) were the finest, with the 1951 Christmas Carol archetypally old-fashioned, still delivering a depth of inward anguish, anger and redemption hard to match anywhere, partly because of the performance of Alistair Sim and partly the use of some film noir and fantafy techniques — and Dickens’s famous bitter and joyous lines. But they feel so limited in scope and what’s presented in comparison. Love Actually is vulgar in comparison (and finds sexual predation a bit too humorous with Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody dating just a bit); It’s a Wonderful Life — so meaningfully anti-capitalist for us today, with its angel Clarence seeking promotion and no one doing hysteria the way Jimmy Stewart can (I weep each time) — has problems — the depiction of the wife had she not married as this dried up spinster librarian afraid of her shadow is grating. There are none of these kinds of mistakes in Desplechin’s film.

I’d say if you are alone (like I fundamentally am now) and want to experience Christmas with other intelligent well-meaning real enough people sit for the full 2 and 1/2 slow-moving hours and then watch the 2 hours of features too. It’s the story of a large bourgeois family who all get together for the first time in several years because the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a cancer which requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to have any chance of living even for two years. Two of the family members have compatible blood types, one Paul (Emile Berling) the 15 year old troubled son of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a gifted playwright, who loathes the other, her brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) to the point five years she demanded her father, Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) and her mother cut off all relationship with him in return for her paying the enormous debts Henri had racked up; if someone did not pay it, her parents would lose the family home.

A major character across the film is this large comfortable ramshackle home and its landscape, both of which frame and is a brooding and comforting presence throughout all the scenes which don’t take place specifically in Roubaix. Roubaix is the film’s subtitle, a small French city in which Desplechin grew up and which he photographs lovingly, realistically in small interludes of shots. The key characters are Abel (the father), Junon (the mother), Henri and Elizabeth (two of their grown children), with Amalric as Henri delivering a character of extraordinary complexity and interest, vulnerable, resentful, despairing, kind, insightful by turns.


Mathieu Amalric as Henri talking earnestly to his younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaid) as they decorate the family tree.

Back history (like a novel): Abel and Junon had four children, and the film opens with the death of the eldest, Joseph at age six as a flashback of memory in Abel’s mind — as he and his wife await the arrival of the family as it is today for Christmas.   Elizabeth and their youngest son, Ivan, have married. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) leaves at one point, so incensed does he get against the tactless Henri, when he is having to deal with his son Paul having had a breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. Claude is preparing his mind for a coming interview with authorities to try to get the boy out of the asylum while Elizabeth wants to put him back there. By film’s end the boy will not return to the asylum but stay with his grandparents, Claude has returned, and Elizabeth been helped by talk with her father.

Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroiana, Deneuve’s actual daughter) while reacting with real affection to her two small boys whenever they are around, is essentially bored by them and her life, and during the course of the film discovers that Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a cousin who lives with Abel and Junon, and works in their dye factory (the source of the family income) is deeply in love with her, and gave her up to Ivan after he lost a bet. She apparently had preferred Simon to Ivan; he is one of several family members who absents himself from the group now and again — he drinks too heavily, maybe is bisexual, is doing nothing with his life. So Sylvia finds him alone in a bar on Christmas eve, and they spent a night in bed together, something accepted by Ivan, who himself lives unconventionally as a musician commanding large audiences in rock concerts, one of which we attend.

Henri’s first wife, died in a car accident a month after they married:


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

Henri has had several partners since, and the present woman, Jewish, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) finds herself feeling alien, Henri’s response is he wants to leave too; at one point she goes shopping with Junon, and without telling her, Junon leaves the shop, driving herself back, so Faunia has to get back herself. She does leave early.


Simon, Sylvia, Ivan, Junon in a corridor (left to right)

A complicated family you might say – but no more than many families. I assure you, you will not be bored; it’s funny, wry, quiet and peaceful (as they watch appalling movies), suddenly all is fraught emotion and then they calm down again and exchange presents.

The stories close with Elizabeth intoning the epilogue from Midsummer’s Night Dream, as she overlooks Roubaix.  This last literary quotation (of several) signals the underlying mood that holds it together: acceptance (except during eruptions) of one another, their fates, with barbed raillery mixed with profound thoughts, sometimes read aloud —


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

What helps hold everyone together: the house where they dwell together. All they do in and for it. The town they know. Even the cemetery close by where their baby brother was buried.  The father is the final authority all the while going off to clean up the table, the yard after fireworks were set up all over it; the mother is respected by all even if she had the disconcerting habit of telling this or that child she never cared for them. So a combination of tradition and concrete truth.  Things.  Prickly, messy and companionable (Henri goes walking in the snow with Paul and helps him), filled with shots of beautiful winter, ghastly streets, and the house and rooms every which way, this movie finally helps us to endure on. Chapter headings, days of the week also named by mood, characters who turn around and address us, hospital and bar scenes, it’s all there, Christmas time. The hope in the film that they do get together, help one another, share their memories, which is to say their deepest identities, has some fruition.

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Look at the look in Blunt’s eye — cold as ice

The Mary Poppins movie is not the most tedious Christmas film I’ve ever seen — I give that prize to the Muppet Scrooge story. But it can come close. It’s a child’s movie because the main action, the rescuing is precipitated by the children. I bring it up because Disney has such a prominent presence in our culture, as a girl I loved the books by P.L Travers (wildly disparate from the 1964 movie), which have yet to be done justice to by any of the movies (including Saving Mr Banks), two of which have been used as Christmas icons. Emily Blunt herself played the wife who dies, a central role in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which was another Christmas day extravaganza, and this gives us our clue to what goes wrong.


Emily Blunt as the despairing hysterically lost baker’s wife (2014)

Sondheim’s song was simply about how in life sometimes we end up walking alone: “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.” Paradoxically the film also tried to bring something of the original thwarted feelings of the book: each time an adventure is over, Mary Poppins denies it took place; she is all vanity, egoism, discusses nothing, orders everyone about (Blunt tried for a soupcon of this). Anibundel suggests the problem is the film took on “deep emotional themes” the Disneyfiction can’t include. Manohla Dargis agrees that it follows the trajectory of the old songs; and finds it uncanny that it never captures the original “delicacy of feeling” or bliss.


Lin-Manuel Miranda imitating one of Van Dyke’s routines

I’m inclined to think the actors didn’t believe in it the way they did 50 years ago; Emily Mortimer was thrown away; Julie Walters was a stray from 19th century music hall; the occasional nervous plangency allowed Wishaw went nowhere, and Lin-Manuel seemed to be biking to no purpose, round and round. What seems to me important is capitalism won out; no subversion allowed. All the talk of the movie was money, certificates, and while Dick Van Dyke stepped in for a moment to dance a delicate shoe number and remind us trust in one another was the key to the first bank’s success, that was lost in the hard noise of triumph. The principals worked so hard because it was all counter-productive; the less true Christmas message they had, the more vigorous they became. When they went high up in balloons, they were not escaping from their world. The material as brought down not from Travers, not from her book:


Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers very irritated by what Disney did to her book (Saving Mr Banks, 2013)

But the previous naive travesty won’t work any more because we are cut off from social feeling.


Is the Mary Poppins in the center having any emotion with respect to anyone around her?

They wanted more than a Sondheim production, where rousing music and slow depth simple words convey significance. The movie lacked haunting music because it was not permitted the real melancholy of life’s existence (as caught in Abel’s words in the book he reads; another review by Jen Cheney this time of the DVD set). Streep’s song could have fitted the movie’s story: the Banks children and Michael Banks need to be righted. But one visit from MP will not do it. This was a ludicrously over-produced fantasy, a commercial for Disneyland, pictures of which opened and closed the movie itself.

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What should a Christmas story be? Trollope said “the savor of Christmas” was a story that instilled (in his language) “charity,” which translates literally into acts of giving. We’ll explore this next time. At the end of A Christmas Tale, Henri has given life’s blood, risked his life, on the chance he could save his mother’s. There has been no talk of money here; what tore the family apart was money.


The church scene repeats the arrangement of characters in the court scene only then it’s Abel next to Henri

I mentioned my DVD included two disks. As Cheney says, “Arnaud’s tale” is disappointing: we are told how central the house is to the film, and the city, and these connect back to Desplechin’s life and Almaric talks of how he understood and played Henri. But it’s the one hour documentary movie that illuminates why he chose to make a Christmas movie:

“L’Aimée,” on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin’s relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like “A Christmas Tale,” a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort,” “L’Aimée” introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family’s history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.

Into the Woods was not about charity but it was about heartbreak, memory and camaraderie as solace. A roll of the dice, chance moments, human obtuseness and self have caused much damage but by the end (as Philip Lopate says in the essay that accompanies the DVD — such a lot of stuff in this DVD case) even the depressed Elizabeth “gets her bearings.” And moments of grace no matter how odd (like when the nurse does not stop Henri from drinking and smoking the morning he is to do his part of the procedure) enable the people together to invent livable lives. No one altogether crushed, and everyone at some point smiles with some shared or individual enjoyment.


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

“But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond out daily vision.”

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt I can convey what a good time we had for the last two or three months on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io reading and talking/writing together on Forster, his Howards End, and the two movies made from it (1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala with Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West &c&c; 2018 BBC Lonergan-Hettie Macdonald with Matthew Macfayden, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard &c&c), a couple of biographies, especially Nicola Beauman, and then (irresistibly it felt) A Room with a View (again two movies, 1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala (Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, again Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis) and a superlative 2007 ITV Andrew Davies (Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams&c&c), not to omit talk of Bloomsbury, fluid sexuality, Virginia Woolf as a topic in her own right, the new art and so on and so forth. We were turned into a Forster listserv. We have torn ourselves away at last to turn to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now for December through early February, but we plan a Forster summer in a few months. We’ve got four more novels, and who knows how many movies and great actors ….

He wrote fascinating novels, wonderful novels, smart, complicated funny and very sad. So what can I say about what we said about Howards End that can fit into a blog? a novel filled with ghosts and silences: “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Mrs Wilcox is said to have asked her husband


Vanessa Redgrave as the first Mrs Wilcox (M-I-J 1993 film)

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others—and thus was the death of Wickham Place—the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in the spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness — from Howards End


Samuel West in a dream sequence of longing as Leonard Bast (M-I-J 1993 film)

In general a number of people said they found themselves reading this book very differently from the way they had say 30 years ago, and they were noticing elements in Margaret’s marriage to Henry Wilcox and Helen’s full attitude towards Leonard Bast they never noticed before: how condescending both woman can be to Bast; how Margaret marries to have monetary security, on materialistic considerations she ignores her incompatibility with Henry Wilcox who cannot change to the extent she imagines.


Anthony Hopkins as the unreasoning instinctively closed Henry Wilcox (the successful businessman) when Margaret angers him (M-I-J 1993 film)

The Wilcoxes in their turn say they would do anything for their mother, but the one request she makes, that she leave her own house, Howards End to Margaret is looked at as preposterous. All the characters are trapped in unsatisfactory human relationships, if the causes of the dissatisfaction differs for each. This is a novel about the cruelties of class. How Margaret is shocked at Helen not sleeping in her own house, but with (we know) Leonard Bast. She tricks Helen into coming to Howards End. She is presented as having been a mother to her siblings in the 2018 film but not in the book


Hayley Atwell as Margaret (2018 film)

All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be — Margaret to Helen at the close of the book — though she is kind to her aunt

A couple of us defended the perhaps ex-milliner Jackie; she is treated in the novel as ontologically inferior, erased, forgotten.


Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky Bast (2018 film)

How often Forster comes out directly as narrator, how conversations among the characters are multi-dimensional. He projected his love of the English countryside vividly — as when Bast goes on that passionate roaming reverie though an old wood. He read Ruskin and Ruskin’s love of art and proto-socialism are forces in the novel. There is a magic faery tale element about the house. Miss Avery by unpacking the Schlegels things, especially the books, makes the house alive; it was suggested that Helen is a Pre-Raphaelite figure as she sits in its porch waiting to be let in by Margaret. She is deeply human, sensual and comfortable in her skin


Philippa Coulthard as Helen (2018 film)

Margaret is deeply gratified to have Helen with her again, but I note how she tricks Helen into coming into Howards End, and then moves from distrust and alienation and a new almost automatic rejection of Helen to the old bonded feelings and agreement. What enables this is not common grounds in attitudes but common ground in the furniture and books; set up in this house they are enough to bring back the past and begin a re-bonding. I wonder if this is not a wish fulfillment and this intense love of early places and the past (which I’m now reading about in Beauman’s biography) is not a strong delusion or illusion fantasy: “all the time their salvation was lying around them — the past sanctifying the present, the present, with wild heart-throb …. the inner life had paid”


Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (Lonergan 2018)

We talked of Forster’s homosexuality and why he stopped writing novels so early in life: he was frustrated by having to present heterosexual life and leave so much he valued outside his text, to respect in the text what he felt alienated from. Tyler Tichelaar had written a perceptive blog-essay on this aspect of Forster’s art and life as seen in Maurice. I wrote about Sean O’Connor’s book Straight Acting where he described his and other playwright’s dilemmas as gay men pressured into misrepresenting themselves and what they longed to dramatize in life; I watched the recent film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea by Terence Davies: wrecked and wrecking heterosexual relationships represent a gay man’s take on heterosexual marriage and compromise; he pitiable but at the same time vengeful older lover.


Peppard Cottage used for Howards End in M-I-J 1993 (here it is not photographed in prettying up light) – the house in the novel is Rooksnest which Forster and his mother lived in for many years

Death is an important reality in the novel and outside a reason to live, become your own identity as you make your choices. We talked of how moving home, from one place to another, is akin to the experience of death (though for some it’s liberty at last from stifling hierarchies and militant naturalisms. Judith Cheney quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:

The coach is at the door at last;
The eager children, mounting fast
And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

To house and garden, field and lawn,
The meadow-gates we swang upon,
To pump and stable, tree and swing,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

And fare you well for evermore,
O ladder at the hayloft door,
O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
The trees and houses smaller grow;
Last, round the woody turn we sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

We don’t know that if Henry Wilcox should predecease Margaret the Wilcoxes will not go to court to get Howards End back.


The room with the view in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhavala film (1985)

We read the earlier book, A Room with a View second. it is shorter and at first it seems simpler — there is no larger critique of colonialism, no debates over socialism, the removals of people from capitalism, but it isn’t simpler. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in intensity.

Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul


Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy setting out on her adventure among the art and churches of Florence (M-I-J 1985)

I loved the ancient classical myth in the book too, the use of Italian art, the pastoral, all mixed with the everyday in Pensione Bertolini. We are invited to revel: Lucy is called a Work of Art, and Forster is generalizing out from this incident to make large statements about art, sexuality, and all the ritual events of daily lives. It’s false to say our conflict is passion versus duty; it’s real feeling versus the pretended and hypocritical. Lucy almost misses out on marrying George where her joy is presented as potentially so fulfilling. By contrast to convention, Cecil repeats Tibby’s statement about the work ethic more forcefully: “I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about, but somehow I’ve not been able to begin.” Diane Reynolds quoted “Lucy’s vehement outburst of hatred towards Mr. Eager’s cold snobbery and ascetism. I found it quite satisfying—and true: We perhaps should hate people who destroy other people by spreading lies:”


The bathing scene (from the 1985 film)

“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“No!”
“Why ‘no’?”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”

Beauman, Charles Summer and all I read suggested that Forster matured, found such pleasure, liberty, love when he traveled — Italy, Greece, Alexandria, and India, all meant so much, and this book records these feelings. I show but one still of these English in the countryside:


That’s Maggie Smith, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish (makes phony art) and Lucy (1985 M-I-J film)

Mr Emerson and Mr Beebe, but especially Mr Emerson are the two benign knowing genius locii of the book. Mr Emerson (I found Timothy Spall pitch perfect) speaks eloquently of the “holiness of direct desire” and Mr Beebe quietly for whatever is your sexuality — he encourages Lucy to play, everyone to bathe, tries to help Cecil recognize himself. He does not blame Mrs Honeychurch for her dim appreciation of nothing beyond the obvious comforts of living. There is much lightness, pleasant humor. Tyler wrote: “I love how the bathing scene comes about – Freddie just inviting George to bath – the awkwardness of the invitation and the joviality of just spontaneously going to bath, and the joy of the Sacred Lake being large enough to bathe in, only to have it return to normal size soon after. I did not really think there was anything very gay in the bathing scene, even though the film sort of suggests it. They are just being boys and being playful, acting like teenage boys, although it does seem odd they are wrestling and playing ball naked outside the pond. It’s a very strange way to get to know your new neighbors.”


A scene of Charlotte successfully repressing Lucy and persuading her to go home to escape George (1985 M-I-J film)

There is death and it is swift and sudden in this book: the man knifed in the piazza. Davies’s film frames the story with George’s death in WW1 by having Lucy return 20 years later, most of the film a flashback, ending with her going on a picnic with Gino, who had been ostracized and stigmatized on the trip into the countryside by Mr Eager. We are told Mr Emerson died. In much of the book Charlotte Bartlett plays the part of “a corrosive, selfish, and dull personality ” who spoils life for others, represses others with shame, a loving kiss is an insult; but at its close she is presented as alone, poorer, having trouble with her plumbing (no bathing for her) and forgiven: Forster wants us to think she facilitated Lucy and George finally getting together. It’s not quite believable but the 1985 M-I-J movie ends with Maggie Smith as Charlotte reading a letter of the young couple in love and the movie’s last scene of love-making is a flashback from this letter. The book and movies are charitable: as acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vyse conveys how much small experiences in art do mean much to him; the character is deeply sensitive and he is hurt by Lucy’s lying but gentlemanly, chivalrous in response. The book is about an awakening.


Elaine Cassidy as Lucy after listening to Mr Emerson’s description of George (2007 Davies film)

I discovered many parallels with Austen (she was his mentor in novels) but also much other influence beyond art. Edward Carpenter, idealistic, socialist gay man (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham), Forster’s mother & aunts, his milieu, and that of different circles of artists; as the years went on when he taught, and later years of broadcasting in the BBC. He did not shut down because he stopped writing fiction, and beyond the novels there were numerous unpublished short stories, and published essays and travel writing and biography. Jim liked Forster’s correspondence with the Greek gay poet, Cavafy.

What Beauman does in Morgan is what write up Forster’s deep past and what’s to come from Morgan’s point of view when he grew much older and perhaps after he had written all his novels from the beginning to the end of her book. That’s the curious perspective taken on the incidents of his life and his art examined in more or less chronological order: each incident is retold from how Forster would see it when he became an artist or was a practicing writer.

So for example, in talking of Rooksnest into which Forster and mother moved when he was just 2, she says the way his mother set it up was “to make a statement about how life should be lived” and then connects this to Mrs Wilcox’s love of Howards End. Beauman is soon describing the real place using Forster’s words many years after, e.g. about the hall, “he tells us about “a kitchen when the house was a farm and sad to say had once had an open fireplace with a great chimney but before we came the landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, closed it up put a wretched little grate instead and made the chimney corner into a cupboard.” Says Beauman: “The reader does not visualize the cupboard; instead one gets an image of a difficult landlord.” Then she goes on to give an example of this kind of thinking and feeling in a character’s mind in Forster’s fiction. And so it is built up memory by memory.


Sophie Thompson as Charlotte, pitch perfect) probably modelled on one of Forster’s aunts or his mother (2007 Davies film)

We plan to do it again with two or three of the following four novels: each person can choose which ones he or she would like to read: The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Passage to India (which I was listening to read aloud in my car by Sam Daster and I am now persuaded is one of the finest shorter novels in the English language) and/or Maurice. And if I live, I’ll teach a course in both OLLIs on the novels of Forster two springs from the one coming (2020).

Ellen

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Puck in Motte’s filmic MND — presiding over wood, beach, mountain, his fingers seen typing away on his computer throughout ….

Friends,

I saw the Zellner Brothers’ pernicious film, Damsel, about two weeks ago now in my film club, and had debated ever since if I should write about it. I hoped it would go away, not be shown anywhere or hardly at all, not make any profit so the brothers would go out of business. No such thing. Today while watching Won’t You be My Neighbor?, I saw Damsel advertised as coming to a chain of theaters in my area. It is a film filled with acts of senseless violence, most of the characters exhibit a mindless obduracy, despise any openly vulnerable, tender, sensitive, and want to kill wantonly the one character who seeks friendship and love; one might offer the idea the Zellner brothers meant to parody the norms of the Trump regime and his non-super wealthy voting base, but the incongruities are inconsistent. If a Native American sounds like a Mel Brooks character upending the nonsense (he asks, “What is wrong with you people?”), he also steals everything he can from those he encounters and sneaks off in the night. The heroine is last seen rowing away into a misty lake with a miniature pony, determined to live on herself, in scornful need of no one. Most of the bulk of humanity are presented as moronic peasants who are first seen hanging a useless chubby man in a barrel (classical allusion to preferring begging to being a corrupt lord)


Mark Pattison at the ready (does not need anyone but himself, his gun, and the helpless animal)

One of the central male characters, Samuel (Mark Pattison) is someone out of the scenarios of our mass massacres by white men. Samuel is a white actor and he insists Parson Henry (David Zellner, one of the two people who made this film) a preacher come with him to marry him to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) a girl whom he says has been kidnapped. He is ferocious with his gun. When they finally find her, and Anton (Gabe Casdorph) a young man is seen leaving the hut they live in, this young man shoots him dead. Then we see a gun come out of the door of the house and begin to shoot. It is Penelope. She comes out and immediately it is evident she loathes Samuel, a stalker — for that is what he is. She was in love Anton, whom he has murdered. She tries to and succeeds in murdering Samuel while he is pissing in an outhouse. She then under point of gun, puts material for a bomb around Parson Henry’s neck and at gun point forces him to walk ahead of her. She blows up buildings. She is insane, the young man stalking her was insane — as the young white man who murdered those nine black people in a church was insane. The preacher is laughed at by the film since he does not want to murder anyone and is constantly being threatened with death. Everyone carries a loaded gun in this film.

Other characters: the other Rufus who seems related to Anton (David Zellner) shows off that he is ignorant, ill-dressed, and violent. The movie opens with another nameless preacher and another anonymous young white man waiting for a coach that never comes. Public transportation is non-existent in this desert. Finally the preacher walks off leaving the passive young man waiting.

But it’s not a parody of today’s America because it is immersed in and endorses the violent characters intensely. Not a moment of kindness except by Preacher Nathan and he is sneered at because he needs people: “that’s your problem, ” says Penelope. In the end Nathan returns to the village idiots and stays with them. They drink whiskey and spend their time drunk — they have none or don’t drink water they tell Samuel.


Mia Wasikowska as Penelope (at Cinema art theater)

I had thought going to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would simply be a trip into Laura, Izzy and my shared experiences together in front of a TV, nostalgic, possibly sentimental, making tear up, but it was a serious deconstruction of the profoundly humane and socially good ideas actuating Fred Rogers to make 4 decades of children’s programs that reached out to them candidly.  Mr Roger’s Neighborhood experienced through children’s art (like puppets) children’s apprehension of the world and built their self-esteem, consoled, uplifted, solaced and taught them about the realities they find themselves in.  By tracing Rogers’ career from his leaving the religious ministry to replace the slapstick, obtuse ridiculing, and ceaseless violence in one form or other with his programming really taking kids into account, the viewer travels through how we moved from a seemingly optimistic era and pro-social behavior (enacted, put into law, supported), to the present time, represented in Rogers’ fairy tale land by the arrogance, indifference, and willfull disregard to human needs. The King puppet wants to be a dictator. I remember Daniel as a surrogate for Rogers; the grief of Henrietta Pussycat making Laura grieve too. Rogers’ neighborly world connects the mirrors in the fairyland and good words well understood. Nothing to hide, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Would you believe groups of Trump bigots rant about Rogers as a socialist, and hold up placards saying they hate him. Rogers had on his show a long-time black TV actor, Susan and her husband, our black exemplary parents, Maria the touching young Puerto Rican girl who grew old with the part. A group of these people who loathe him came to his funeral with signs saying how he was a “faggot,” and how they hate him. Trump types have long accused him of wanting children to feel they are entitled to things without working for them. They say all children should be taught they must earn respect. Love does not seem to come into this. He is called gay because to them he is unmanly. Rogers does say how he dislikes TV, especially popular children’s TV, which is frenetic, filled with clowns, and pours thick messes over children, shows cartoon characters in intensely violent acts. I remember the first time Laura saw the Road Runner; she was terrified the character had died when he fell off a roof. We didn’t have TV for the first five years of Laura’s life as out TV had died and we didn’t buy a new one for a few years. American cartoons are the first place Americans are inured to cruel violence. Rogers went into TV to replace such pernicious fodder.


Charity Wakefield a wonderful Peter Quince to Fran Kranz as Bottom (see just below also)

The two films seemed to be so worlds apart, yet covering all possibilities of landscapes, houses people, until I saw Casey Wilder Mott’s fantastical film world, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s text of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Damsel left out imagination, beauty, and Mr Rogers was so concerned to reach children that his imaginative world of puppets is not dreamy but an analogue of our real world. Shakespeare takes us to a world elsewhere. Mott rearranged scenes, cut and rearranged film sequences and the actors were taught (as the BBC ones were for Hollow Crown) to speak Shakespeare trippingly off the tongue, to transform their anguish and comedy for more accurate, elegant language that nonetheless is spoken as naturalistic in TV films of Shakespeare like the recent Lear or The Hollow Crown. The worlds of the play were replicated in a couple of high-powered movie executives (Theseus, a recognizable serious actor, and Hippolyta, long willowy black model), 25 year old white children of super-rich parents (the lovers), hard-working clueless actors, the last two falling into a magical holiday time. Oberon is an older black actor, Titania an Asian actress. Among new patterns: this turns out to be written by Puck wonderfully acted by Avon Jogia as sprite.

Go see Damsel if you enjoy cruelty, jeering at vulnerability, but if not, don’t support this travesty of toxic masculinity. Trump’s world, his impulses heroized or mocked (depending on how you see this). Alas not a museum piece but a “western.” Don’t give them any more money: the Koch Brothers and their ilk is supplying enough; the new Supreme Court is determined to give intolerance power because that’s free speech. Your right to liberty gives you the right to exclude, reject in the public sphere now.


Fred Rogers answering a little girl’s answer (the same as above)

Open up to what people truly are with Fred Rogers. Watch Rogers’ face go to stone and his eyes show pained rage when he consider the mockery of his show on Saturday Night Live where they invented a plot where an actor looking like him is put into a wrestling match with one of his characters to reveal how he is in fact a hypocrite and turns to nasty spiteful violence when he is losing. He is remembering how he was bullied as a boy. You’ll learn about the history of the show (they did make the mistake of trying to film the challenger and caught it exploding), Rogers’ attempt at a show for adults (it didn’t work, too hard-hearted by our thirties we might say).

Achieve forgetfulness of the world of Trump and 30% we are told of Americans supporting him in Wilder’s choice of eloquent passages from Shakespeare turned into text messages, the voice of Puck, the quarrels of the lovers. The wood, the beach. The play within the play finds the actress and actors dressed like the stars from Star Trek (Thisbe looks like Princess Leia, while Pyramus looks like Hans Solo).


Shakespeare’s lovers on the beach

Summer movies are implicitly jeux d’esprit. Not this year. A fat man with a remarkably stupid smile or stupid stubborn pig expression, incapable of making sense for a spoken or speech paragraph (he can only tweet) is becoming a disguised dictator, opening detention camps and prisons around the US, putting children in their squalid conditions (and is not impeached for anything he does which undermines the constitution), and who will he come for next, and do what to the detainees? Mr Rogers didn’t succeed it seems — a cartoon show of him is all that is left on PBS. Are the Zellners right about humanity in their depiction of everyman’s village in their western?


Scofield in the trumped-up trial (A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt)

“Our natural business lies in escaping said Bolt’s Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1960; shall we all escape to the wood? One problem with that is the characters achieve comfort by making fugitive visits to the obscenely rich palladium mansion of Theseus.

Ellen

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Sophie Marceau as Anna, typical odd angle, very close up shot (1997 written, directed, produced by Bernard Rose)


Jacqueline Bisset as as a passive Anna submitting to Christopher Reeve as a conventional cad Vronsky (1985, script James Goldman, directed by Simon Langton)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been participating in another group read and discussion of Anna Karenina! This time on the GoodReads site. And I’ve gone on to watch two more notable film adaptations, the 1985 Anna Karenina (made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) and the 1997 Anna Karenina (an independent film, made in Russia, an even more extraordinary cast, with Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina as Levin, Sean Bean as Vronsky, James Fox as Karenin, Phyllida Law as Vronsky’s mother, and Fiona Shaw as Lydia).


Matthew Macfayden as Stiva meeting Keira Knightley as Anna at the train. well-known opening of book and film, resembles book illustrations (from 2012 Wright/Stoppard)

It may be this is hard to believe, having watched watched three other Anna Karenina films and read essays and chapters in books, yet I feel I learned yet more, and was made to see more insights into the human condition when under pressure from this particular story and character elements.

The 1997 film, dismissed as “shallow, bloodless, having lost track of characters, by re-arranging the order and then stripping from the story almost all the larger social scenes, to focus on key linchpin memorable one-on-one intense encounters lays bare the trembling core of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

The 1985, less interesting philosophically is moving because it updates, make feelingfully contemporary the same trajectory as the book the 1935 Gretta Garbo AK (she is what is remembered) and 1977-78 BBC faithful and liberal-minded Donald Wilson of-Forsyte-Saga-fame AK (remembered for Porter, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and only after that Nicola Paget).

Scofield and Marceau in their different films enable us to reach a new understanding. Both films ought to be better known; they are absorbing.

I refer my reader back to my blog on Tolstoy’s novel for the story, and AK at the movies I for the 1935 and 1948 (remembered for Vivian Leigh’s performance near suicide and Ralph Richardson as the steele-knife Karenin), and Stoppard and Joe Wright’s 2012 brilliant theatrical rendition

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Bernard Rose’s 1995 Anna Karenina, an independent film:


Alfred Molina as Levin (1997, opens and closed film, given narrative overvoice)

I was astonished when Rose’s film was over. It startled me by opening on the ice-skating scene between Kitty (Mia Kirshner) and Levin; his point of view, seemingly reasonable, trying to find some rationale for what is happening, some comforting lesson or sense runs across the movie, linking the scenes. While Kitty is there and in quick moments, has the familiar turning points of dance, snubbing, sickness, rescue by Levin, baby, there at Levin’s brother’s death with brother’s prostitute-mistress by her side, hers is a minor role. The major woman after Anna is Madame Vronsky and Phyllida Law captures the banal hypocritical ways of this woman with her hard insinuating glances perfectly, so her presence at the first train encounter, and at the close of the movie as who Vronsky flees to makes her point of view that one that destroys Vronsky and Anna.


Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

Also made into a major presence is Fiona Shaw as Lydia. Rather than a mere religious fanatic clinging to, squatting all over Karenin, she is a forceful political actor (goes to political rallies).


Shaw as Lydia, while Karenin’s own austere idealism and role as a cuckold has ruined his career

Karenina is kept as an outer ring character; stern and sensitive he is the first of the Karenin enactments to move to rape when he brings Anna home after the race, and the carriage scene, which are (as in all social scenes of the movie) kept to a minimum. The point is to have the confrontation where Karenin’s sense of himself is rocked: his anger is not over social appearances and if she did agree to a veneer, we are to feel he wouldn’t keep to it.

Rose took all the famous strong passionate scenes and rewrote them so they become intense interactions where private emotions takeover; he rearranges them some, strings them together. All the rest of the story, the social world, hum drum life left out. Danny Huston’s draining of his wife, Dolly, bankrupting them, bland complacency is choral; we hardly see Dolly as she is a figure who brings in the troubles and compromises of the social and economic worlds of the novel; Huston’s role is to listen to Levin,go hunting with him, attempt to persuade Karenin to give Anna a divorce. He seems so weak against Fiona Shaw whose scene with the child where she tells Seriozha his mother is dead is chilling, scary. Somehow Levin working hard in the fields becomes another private moment of self-discovery which just happens to occur in a (lovely) public field. Childbirth is a screaming painful bloody affair that occurs twice (Anna and then Kitty). Another departure is Rose presents Sean Bean Vronsky more positively than any of the films:


This promotional still of Bean in uniform as Vronsky must be the only time in the film he seems involved in his regiment: the look of puzzle is more common.

Bean is driven to anger and distraction between Anna, his mother, Karenin refusing to cooperate. Anna’s baby by him dies or is stillborn in this production (we see her nursing an old broken plastic doll). When he screams at her, there is no sense from the film that she has deprived him of a career he wanted, or even a place. Just that it’s the done thing to be married so he can be an accepted landlord. The film’s tragic scene focuseson his scream and frantic mad behavior pulling himself away from the officers as we hear Anne go under the train.


Bean is that movement under blue cloth

It’s a stripping of Tolstoy to bare bones and then putting back in psychologically distraught moments. Sophie Morceau carries the film, moving from cheerful and strong by stages into utter self-abjection, loss of identity, a kind of stupor as she only half-heartedly tries to follow Vronsky. A each scene is flung at us background music passionate romantic opera or equivalent link — there’s a heavy use of music and at times pantomime. The last 8 minutes of Anna last walk towards death is all music. The houses and rooms are opulent. Trains continually brought in and function. Dialogue is extraordinary, things brought out frankly in physical interactions. No words of continuity, just juxtaposition. Are these the core power of Tolstoy, Rose seems to be asking.

Rose makes the book into a kind of wild romance. Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard made the book theatrical too but they kept the outer social world as a shaping force and the story line and dialogue had strong intellectual ironies. This film made me see Anna Karenina more as about how the personal and sincere have no chance to thrive. Vronsky’s mother’s objection, that of Betsy (Justine Wadell), and the astonishment of everyone else seems to be Anna and Vronsky’s attempt to live by some shared mutual soul within them. And this inner self can’t take this kind of leaning. Babies die. People don’t cooperate. Things don’t make sense.

The movie ends with Vronsky on a train going to Siberia. He has lost all meaning. Levin is narrator and then he returns us to his life with Kitty, and his book, asserting one can find meaning in life by turning to religion. It’s not very convincing.


Near closing shot of film, after this we see the writing of his diary (lines from Tolstoy)

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The 1985 Anna Karenina, written by David Goldman, directed and produced by Simon Langton (filmed in Hungary)


Paul Scofield brilliant as Karenin (1985 TV film) — this film returns us to Karenin as the powerful central male

This is another remarkable production. The cast includes some remarkable actors, and in the minor parts too: including Anna Massey as Betsy, Joanna David as Dolly. It opens using a sort of browned framed set of stills, to set up an antique feeling — although the attitudes of mind are recognizably those of the mid- to later 20th century imagined TV audience


Joanna David as Dolly: she is the suburban wife who is persuaded to forgive the erring husband

Simon Langton, who directed and produced the 1995 Andrew Daves P&P directs and produces; Goldman has written other fine screenplays (e.g., The Lion in Winter). It seems to have been produced by some combination of companies, filmed in Hungary and then put on TV, though its length (2 hours and 15 minutes) and feel makes it seem as if it were meant for movie-houses. It’s the only one I watched straight through and it’s exhausting. Its one weakness as a film is Christopher Reeve’s inability to act, his woodenness is a real flaw. He was considered super-beautiful (yet he was given the usual mustache). That he too is made into a positive figure enables him to carry the complex role more easily. It does have something peculiar at first: it seems as if the voices were dubbed in after for the first hour so the actors seem oddly distanced.

In conception it’s a redo and updating of the previous three I’d seen (1935, 1948, 1977) in the sense that Langton (director) and Goldman (writer) adapted the same arrangement, story line, emphases. Yes Levin and Kitty are just about eliminated but that was the tendency before. But otherwise the characters are simply modernized. Tellingly there is a softening of attitudes towards adultery and at the same time towards both Oblonsky and Vronsky. Oblonsky is merely weak, poor guy means well, and there is a repeated Americanization of both going on. Vronsky never meant to mislead Kitty; and it is presented as perfectly understandable he wants to get on with his career. There is no Lydia, so no disquieting aspects to religion (American audiences might not like that). Betsy is not a bad woman either: she understands that Anna is not the kind of woman who can live a disguised life.


Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

Unexpectedly (but this seems to me very much in line with today’s attitudes) Karenin is himself a man who lived solely for his work and Anna, and she was enough for him; why is he not enough for her. Anna only grovels at the very end of the film. Strikingly it opens with Karenin and Anna and the son, and they seem a contented enough family. He has just had a big success, and they talk about whether they should say goodnight to their child and go into the bedroom. It’s a very 1960s family scene. It’s from this position of an adjusted family that the film departs and presents Anna’s seduction by Vronksky as a sort of sickness. Anna herself is without friends except for Betsy even before she loses her reputation.

Scofield’s characteristic quiet apparent reasonableness is to the fore; when he does become fiercely enraged at Anna’s behavior at the races and her telling him in the carriage she is Vronsky’s mistress, loves Vronsky, is pregnant, it’s no loss of social appearance that drives him wild. His image of himself as a man, his choice in life to make her the center and have no other friend (he says this) morphs immediately to near rape: this is her duty. It’s that she personally betrayed him, with marriage as a one-on-one relationship. There is real sympathy for Kareinin. He decides to get back towards the end by refusing to divorce her even after she agrees to give up her son. Anna is passive sexually (so a good woman), waits to be taken. She is firm and angry with Karenin after the childbirth collapse; she wants out of this bed and only one man at a time. I admit this film made cry more at the close because I bonded in small ways with this Anna as I had not with any of the previous: this heroine is no longer a 19th century character. I felt yet more for Karenina. If I may make the comparison, the couple reminded me of the characterization of Winston Graham’s Ross and Demelza Poldark in the recent film adaptation by Debbie Horsfield.


Anna with her maid did not want to take a ball dress with her; she was not particularly ambitious; their friendliness reminded me of Lady Mary and Anna in Downton Abbey

Some viewers might like this one best. Modern readers are often bored with Kitty and Levin, and they are hardly there. The directors and actors are allowed to present the sexual scenes between Vronsky and Anna far more candidly. While not as many as the 1997 film, it does eliminate a lot of the exterior events — especially the closing scenes between Dolly and Stiva and the Levins in the country estate. Especially interesting is this re-conception of Karenin: here he is not driven by religion or even his political position, he says he has no friends, and Anna has been everything to him, he has been satisfied with her as his friend and companion. He seems to go on for politics as a principled business as an aristocrat but find no personal meaning in it. He is not ambitious as Ralph Richardson, Eric Porter and then Jude Law all are.


One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

Four hinge point scenes are revealed as what one must have: the race scene, Karenina taking Anna away in the carriage after Vronsky falls, has to kill his horse (done intimately) and her abjection in the carriage. In their talk afterward Karenin is the most sensible of all the husbands: he is warning her of what will happen: she will be lost, Vronksky will tire of her; it’s almost done kindly. Scofield’s behavior and words reminded me of how he played Thomas More. She does get pregnant, have the baby, in this one wants to die — there is a death wish throughout. There is the forgiveness scene but then (as in the other movies but one and the book) she cannot stand Karenin again and flees. When she comes for the divorce, they are like a 1960s couple agreeing on how they will treat the child; she promises to give him up, and in return he will divorce her.


Scofield in pain but controlling himself


Anna giving up her son

Reeve was mechanical in feel early on, he did much better when it was a matter of sexual interaction and in the last part when he rejects her: as in the 1936 film he grows irritated, tired of her, threatens to leave. At first they seem to be adjusted: a visit from Dolly and Stiva make the four look like American in-laws during an afternoon.

But it’s not enough. In this one Betsy does not betray Anna as the norms behind it are not really high society Russia. Anna just becomes more clinging and nervous, and he does irritation and restlessness very well. The scene of her return to the house when they return to Moscow is powerful, at first centered on the husband. Her love of her boy and her boy’s for her is touching. In this the film harks back to the 1935 Anna Karenina where the strongest scenes in the whole film are Garbo and the son.


There’s real pathos as Anne bends her head; Reeve’s stiffness as Vronsky works well here

The last part of her chasing after Vronsky gone to his mother and her choice for his wife remembers the 1948 with Vivien Leigh. Bisset is going mad with nothing to do, no one to be with. She wears a dress that looks like a prisoner’s outfit, all stripes. She too is haunted by bad dreams and sees a figure of a man. But she berates herself in practical 20th century American terms: she has destroyed two men, one boy, and she does not love her daughter. In this film we feel why she does not love the daughter: the daughter stands for this new life Anna claimed she loved (I don’t need society) but found herself cracking up under. In this film she does not go to the opera; she obeys Vronsky and still she and he quarrel. He wants to escape her altogether. The last moment shows her by the train and then we switch to where Vronsky has become aware she has come after him from Annuska and turns horrified at what he sees. End of film.

I suggest that the 1985 film has the most modern feel because of the depiction of Karenin is not based on religion or status and of Anna as the most inward, inner directed people might say. I wondered if the elimination of many of the social scenes gave Rose the idea for his re-conception.

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One of the older Penguins

Returning to Tolstoy’s book too, I am just reading a book by Joan Hardwick about Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife, whose father was not her mother’s husband. Hardwick paints a picture of the aristocracy in Europe at this time as often adulterous, with differently sired children in one family. Karenin is then as unusual as Anna, but they live in a world of egregious hypocrisy. Oblonsky represents the norm. That makes the outlook many middle class 20th and 21st century readers and viewers have had on Anna anachronistic; it was not her adultery that was so unacceptable; it’s the way she went about it with passionate integrity. In that she resembles Levin. And the movie adaptations that come closest to this are the 1948 and 1977.

We might say now in our 21st century political and corporate culture what the filthy rich do today esembles the parasitical aristocrats of Tolstoy’s day, so it may be the 1% as a culture (which are where Tolstoy’s characters fit in) are not so far from these corrupt aristocrats as we like to imagine. Levin and Anna are our figures of integrity — Kitty is simply another utterly conventional young woman, believable yes. These hollow pretenses have provided the way Karenina, along with rank, and wealth and status, has risen so high. A real jack-ass con-man whom of course Oblonsky gets along perfectly with wins an election in Vronsky’s area; Levin can’t figure out how he did it. Like Levin, Anna doesn’t fit in; she will not play the social games with all their hollow pretenses.


From a two act production in the Abbey Theater by Irish playwright Marina Carr, directed by Wayne Jordan

The book was written by a man and all these movies made by men. What matters in male-centered, male-written, male-made movies is adultery, the man has been betrayed. What matters to women is the custody of their children. Anna Karenina shows these outlines too.

Next up for Anna Karenina will be an account of a few other of the Anna Karenina films as found in Tolstoy on Screen, edd Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael Denner. The list of movies is NOT endless. You don’t have to watch them chronologically. I am slowly discovering more about Tolstoy’s book by watching these

Ellen

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Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)


Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)

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Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).

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A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.


As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait

Ellen

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Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina (from the first half of 1948 film, at home — an unfamiliar shot)


Gretta Garbo as Anna Karenina (reminiscing in front of Kitty, a fine moment from 1935 film)

Friends and readers,

Each time one watches a great movie, like each time one reads a great book, one learns more about the film, art, and to some extent the life it reflects. In these two Anne Karenina films, the visuals tell a different story from the script: in visuals, the 1935 AK is far more romantic and highly erotic, but in the dialogue it’s the conventional point of view; the 1948 AK is from its words disquieting, disturbing, but its visuals present prosaic conventional or picturesque images.

Out of eighteen film adaptations, I watched five, attempted a sixth, and read good essays on yet three more. None of my choices were Russian. The finest, in my view is the longest, not written about anywhere, the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina, scripted by Donald Wilson (who wrote the 1967 BBC Forsyte Saga), featuring Nicola Paget, Eric Porter, Stuart Wilson. It should be treated like the BBC 1972 War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pullman, featuring Anthony Hopkins. I’ve written about the 2012 Joe Wright-Tom Stoppard Anna, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew Macfayden.

For tonight I’ll cover the first (for English speakers) two famous Anna Karenina films (1935, 1948); on another night I’ll tell about two more (1985, made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky, 1997, directed by Bernard Rose, notably greatly acted by Sophie Marceau, Phyllida Law, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, James Fox, Fiona Shaw and in some ways the most interesting of all the AK movies I’ve seen). A third night, I’ll describe the three I wasn’t able to reach by watching but read about; and at last, a fourth and fifth blog, the culmination, we’ll do the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina masterpiece.

I assume my reader knows the story; if not, go back to my blog on the novel by Tolstoy for links (as read aloud by Davina Porter).

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The 1948 film opens on the train, cold, snowy and a terrible accident quickly ensues (Anna thinks it an omen, the pragmatic Stepan says no)

I’ll go backwards because I watched the 1948 British Anna first. I was so curious to see Leigh and Richardson. This AK was scripted by no less than Jean Anouilh and Julien Duvivier (who also directed), with a little help from Guy Morgan (whoever he is), with Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson as Karenin, and a very weak (unconvincing as someone who’d I’d find irresistible) Kieron Moore.

With British actors, a French company, I was naively surprised to find it resembled the 1956 US War and Peace, scripted King Vidor, featuring Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, John Mills. The same kind of sentimentality and superficiality of acting or keeping emotions decorous. I noted that the women’s voices were all this same soft oozy breathless sound Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy and Billie Holiday and so many others affected. Including the Kitty. Only the older women allowed to have real voices. I was so absorbed and bonded with Leigh in Streetcar and a couple of her other films (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone also by Tennessee Williams) that when she was at first presented as this coy sweet thing was grating. Vronsky and his friends were all these Don Ameche matinee idol stuffed male dolls.


The first meeting is at the train (as in the book and several of the AK films)

That said, Duvivier-Anouilh’s work has merit. Richardson as Karenin is its core: hard as steel and mean (not softened as in the BBC 1977-78 Eric Porter conception). This man wanted a divorce fiercely, right away. Richardson’s conception of the character and acting reminded me of him playing Dr Slope in the 1949 chilling version of Henry James’s Washington Square by William Wyler where Olivia de Haviland is Catherine. So the rigid male controlling his women. Duvivier-Anouilh begin with Hugh Dempster as Stiva and they tried for comedy — which is what Joe Wright does and what is in Tolstoy about the marriage of Stiva and Mary Kerridge as Dolly. Telling about US culture, at the same time as Stiva is socially okay he is adulterous and it’s suggested he and Anna inherited this unfortunate disposition. They included (as the 1997 AK does not, but Wright 2012 does) the race course where Anna first reveals herself. The most effective other male is Michael Gough playing Levin’s brother. The gossipy types spoiling things with their tittle tattle is effective.


A playful Karenin when he comes to pick Anne up at the train station, home from Moscow

In 1948 the film-makers were much more anti-adultery than the 1977-78 BBC, but when in the carriage after the race track where Anna’s intense love for Vronsky was on the table, the whole movie shifts into a mode capable of accommodating bitterly realistic marriage, with a shift in the last quarter of psychologically shattering tragic death. Karenina insists on taking Anna home from the races for having disgraced herself. Leigh is abject (anticipating Nicola Paget in the 1978 BBC version) when she says she won’t ask for a divorce. Leigh also says she deserves to be punished (which no other Anna I’ve seen says). The film-makers try to make the lack of a divorce understandable in Anna’s love for her boy, concern for his welfare with a harpy-housekeeper. Leigh is seen caring for the boy but it doesn’t come off in the same emphatic way when Anna turned suicidal and will approach anywhere the BBC managed.


Richardson and Leigh in the crucial quarreling scene

The flight of the young couple to the suburbs was not successful. They didn’t plan enough (as Jim and I when we were young did not). There is no real critique of society; Levin Niall McGinnis) and Kitty (Sally Anne Howes) are downplayed as ordinary people not thinking much about these things Richardson is seen as an admirable strong man doing politics. Somber, thoughtful, and prosaic too. Originally sensible.

Vronsky’s mother is cold and cruel to Anna, openly snubbing Anna in Anna’s own home but that is put down to her character (not the influence of those around her). In this film Anna self-destructs because she lacks strength from within to live on herself. She’s blamed in effect in several scenes where Vronskry is trying to compromise and increasingly irritated, grated upon, towards the end calling Anna a monster. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. The social types who fit in surround Anna on her mistaken trip to the opera where Vronsky himself is going (Stuart Wilson was not going in 1978) and sits in his mother’s box. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. She visits Dolly who welcomes her and finds she is not thrown out of the family but feels her position and flees.

Anouilh’s script is fine and Dudivier’s directing good; it is also a French film with European expressionist techniques in the use of lighting and performances. Despite it’s being just one movie length, it seems to have much more time for inner psychology than 2012 (comparable in time) Wright/Stoppard. Richardson is this hollow man who wants to obey conventions, not a bad man, he just didn’t understand he wasn’t satisfying his wife.


Oblivious Stiva early in the film


Kitty the innocent maiden at the ball

The depiction of the marriage is very much a depiction of a 1948 or mid-20th century marriage. The dialogue is showing us how a couple can become incompatible — it’s not a costume drama (even though it’s produced by Alexander Korda, who may have been responsible for the unbelievable sets), or film of a classic novel but a kind of semi-women’s film only with extravagant clothes. Leigh is given new kinds of lines about her needs, dissatisfactions, and her attachment to her son made more daily and prosaic. I recognized the actresses playing Dolly and Kitty from other films at the time; Kitty is more like a novel character in her illness over Vronsky but Dolly is a woman whose husband is unfaithful living with it. Levin is marginalized and made comic in the same spirit as Stiva.


Dolly’s unhappiness early in the film


Frederick March look-alike when they first flee, he is in love but brisk, sharp, assertive

The music and picturesque settings are now a problem. The music is soppy, the sudden soft focuses, the feel is of a weepy woman’s film at times to us today. She is filmed in a corridor or at these people’s stairways with this pathetic treatment. Outside picturesque house left over from Gone with the Wind or maybe some film taking place in New Orleans. Maybe this pleased and made the 1948 audience weep.


Anna losing her grip

But then everything then falls away as Anna is left alone and we get a 10 minute sequence of her mind going to pieces haunted in the house (hears footsteps). Leigh takes over and is stunning. This sequence takes a long time. It’s a specialty of Leigh’s. She is trying to follow after Vronsky on the train, and happens on and watches an incompatible couple, gradually losing it on the ground until she steps out, in front of the train. This is done slowly as the train comes at her. the camera on her face. It’s tough and while I didn’t take the down there are very Anouilh desperate lines about life before the train smashes her. A blemish is an inter-title just before this from Tolstoy reasserting how good life is or something like this — surely stuck in by the studio.

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1935 — Anna Karenina – Greta Garbo (Anna), Frederick March (Vronsky), Basil Rathbone (Karenin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Kitty). An all-star cast. A studio product so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer matters; the director chosen was Clarence Brown with three different writers (the script writer was not respected in earlier films).


Garbo and March

First upfront: where I’m unfair: I don’t care for little triangle mustaches all the men seem to have. Th March look-alike for Vronsky in the 1948 film had this too. To me they look absurd. The males clothes in this one make them look trussed up. I realized the film-makers were once again trying for comedy at the opening with absurd feast, but why the men should all go under the table is beyond me. I preferred the train opening in 1948 but admit the 2012 AK also begins with comedy and Stiva (as does Tolstoy). Kitty is made too innocent: she does yearn for Vronsky but she is hardly allowed near him; she is kept with Levin all the time, and Levin is marginalized, the actor a nobody, Gyles Ischam. Vronsky is thus to be seen as someone who might “pollute” a nice girl’s chastity. Like later Indian films (which eliminate Lucy Steele from Austen’s S&S as too raw material) this shows just how women were kept dolls.

I noticed something no longer with us — film-makers were willing to hire older “ugly” actresses and give them semi-comical parts. Such an actress plays Vronsky’s mother (May Robson, a character actress at the time), so we don’t take her seriously. Who would taken an ugly old woman as a serious presence? On one level, this means jobs for aging semi-fat women; on another, there can be little sympathy such as we find for example in Virginia Woolf (and films made from her books). A third: there is a kind of toleration in showing this reality, except it’s treated derisively. Such a woman type is even in Gaslight (as comic relief — now there’s a powerful film).


Gretta Garbo as Anne Karenina (from just before she meets Karernin in her way home from Moscow, after she has met Vronsky, on train)

All the acting seemed to be artificial including Garbo’s – somehow stiff, detached from their bodies, not coming from some gut area. I felt somehow the tones were off — the falling in love in this film did not convince me. Also there is no felt violence from the men. Some of this is 1935 dramaturgy but it’s hard to make the transition in this film and I have made it in others — when I was reviewing a book about pre-Hays and post-Hays code films I saw a number of 1930s films which were rooted in real emotion and a real sense of body. Was it the awareness they were doing a classic book and so naturally it cannot be quite real? or contemporary? no one believed in it — who had read it of the cast or crew, after all? On the other hand, some of the pictorial moments, the shots were striking (as in the famous one just above)


Rathbone as Karenin also reproaches Anna for her extravagant outfits …

That said, this is a still living effective film.

The crucial or climactic moment was similar to the one in the 1948: there is a fierce quarrel between Karenin and Anna on the way home from the race (where Vronsky is again thrown). Some of the language written by Behrman reappeared in the 1948 script: she is abject, she blames herself, he won’t give her a divorce, but it also takes a different direction: she blames him for caring for appearances. Rathbone is far more menacing: he looms over and accosts Anna in the bedroom: she is too open about her flirtation with Vronsky and Anna tells him she does love Vronsky. This pair argues over appearances: he cares about social appearance (he refuses to admit to jealousy) for the sake of his career; she says she cares nothing for this. It’s interesting to me that this opposition is one that is made explicit in Anouilh/Dudividier’s 1948 AK. It’s not couched that way in the 1978 BBC because in this later liberal era, they were the critiquing society full-stop.


One of Garbo’s many scenes with her boy

I was surprised by Garbo’s presentation. This shows how little I’ve seen I guess. She was not at all a vamp nor over glamorous, but framed in a downright sentimental way: she is clearly filmed as being stunningly beautiful. I had not realized how tall she is. I didn’t recognize March. I did recognize a number of the actors from other films in this company. The most convincing moments were Anna with the son (Freddie Bartholomew). I read afterwards in brief more recent commentary that the mother-wife role was the subtext given Garbo (or the role she longed for) in her films. I would not have guessed that: I thought she was a “vamp.”

It improves around this same spot: the second movie (1948) is then probably modeled as to structure on the first. Vronsky and Anna go to Venice, they are lonely and miss Russia so return, then they are ostracized, the trip to the opera is insisted on by Anna, the humiliation, with a visit to Levin and Kitty at whose house Dolly and Stiva happen to be, preceding the suicide.

But there is much difference and maybe people today could like the 1935 better. Garbo is not a distraught woman, she does not go into a tizzy of self-berating, she does not fall ill — as Anna does in the book from the childbirth. The childbirth is omitted altogether — maybe the 1935 film makers omitted it because they did not want this weakening scene. Basil Rathbone never for a moment compromises in the way Richardson and Porter do.

Garbo remains strong, her speeches show her justifying at least her outlook for sincerity and real emotional life, but then the book has to be followed so after the couple goes off to gether, we have her suddenly angrily berating Frederick March (who looks astonished) and demanding he act out love for her, declaiming doesn’t love her, and she is desperate.


Garbo as Anna in emotional pain from genuine rejection about 2/3 the way through the film


Vronsky wants out

Another change: of all the Vronskys I’ve watched thus far, March alone explode angrily very early on, says he cannot take this any longer and leaves Anna forthwith. The 1935 film has him get an invitation to rejoin his regiment for war so he has somewhere to leave to. There is no near suicide in any of them but the 1977 Stuart Wilson, but one could believe they would self-destruct, not March in this one. He is your Boghart tough man — he goes off to war purposefully after the suicide (totally unlike the book where Vronsky’s going off to fight is throwing himself away for what is senseless). US militarism glimpsed here.

So when Anna visits Dolly and Stiva this occurs after Vronsky has left her. In this 1935 movie Dolly at the visit is clearly bleak since Stiva after partly scolding Anna (yes) for her affair, is clearly going out to a mistress. (This kind of outright disdainful contempt is not seen in the 1948 or 1978 or 1985 movie.) OTOH, unlike the book and all the other movies, Dolly tells Anna she has made the right choice: we see Dolly’s children are selfish and clamoring. Not companions for Dolly. Anna was right to leave Karenin whatever Vronsky’s behavior now.


But as Dolly tells Anna that Anna is better off, we see how lost and rigid Anna has become

Then the scene at the train is very brief and we do not see her body or anything smashed. All very discreet. As I said, Garbo is not presented as transgressive or shattered. Instead this 1935 movie reverts to Frederick March Vronsky who we began with at the feast (with Stiva there too). He has this fancy painting of Anna and talks remorsefully about having left her and says he will always feel guilty.


Levin and Kitty at the ball

The weakest scenes in 1935 are the weakest in the 1948: the opening of Kitty where in 1935 she is not even allowed to dance with Vronsky is repeated; the Levin-Kitty wedding and superficial scenes of wedded content. Again, the strongest scenes are between Anna and her son. They are much longer than the 1948; the son stands up for her, mocks his father. Very good. And we have the servant (Harry Beresford) who says how good she has treated him so he will let her in (that’s in the 1978 film too).


Where we are invited to imagine she will fling herself

End of film. Taking A Streetcar Named Desire (which also lies behind the 1948 film), we might say Garbo as Anna has turned into Blanche who kills herself to escape all these men.

At the end of the 1935 film there is a list of countries where it’s said this film will not be shown, is forbidden. So the adultery was more shocking in 1935. Maybe this curious punishment of Anna (Vronsky actually leaving her, telling her he’s had it well before she kills herself) is there to satisfy the moral lesson that women who are adulterous must not have any joy.

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Brief recapitulation, despite some real strengths in the 1935 film and its surprisingly contemporary revelations and resonances, its strong heroine, over all the 1948 movie seems to work better, have a stronger thrust and shape because the 1948 film-makers felt the material was more acceptable to the audience. They could thus be truer to the book in some crucial scenes where the 1935 didn’t dare. To be noted are how many of the archetypal scenes we think we remember from the book reappear in both these films (as in the 1977-78, 1985, 1997 and 2012)


Above all the train and the cold — this is from near the end of the 1935 film


Anna contemplating the above train, listening to the sounds of the working men’s tools

As it happened yesterday I read a superb essay by Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf: Essays on Biography: “Virginia Woolf’s nose”. Woolf saw a 1920s version of Anna Karenina and commented on it; she wrote aghast at what the film medium did: instead of interior life, the emphasis is on “teeth, pearls, velvet.” Woolf mentions scenes of sensual kissing with Vronsky, absurdly well-appointed gardens (a gardener is seen mowing one) and super-luxurious rooms.

The 1935 film had pearls, velvet, and a garden — so maybe the 1935 film was influenced by, imitated the 1920s AK that Woolf saw. Anticipating my last blog on AK at the movies, I preferred the way the 1978 BBC people did it to all the other because it’s setting and clothes were the most austere. Maybe they had a lower budget so the lack of emphasis on costumes or houses was necessity; in any event it was done somberly and I liked it better for it.

In the book says Woolf “we know Anna almost entirely from her mind.” but in the film (writes Woolf) we “lurch and lumber” through this furniture. Hermione Lee suggests (rightly) the same vulgarization went on in the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway as The Hours which presents Woolf’s suicide as at once romantic and self-indulgent (both the worst uncomprehending choices one could make). Woolf is probably unfair; she is not used to the idiom of the visual film, and writes before they developed tools for inwardness.


A later 19th century illustration towards the close of Anna Karenina

Ellen

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