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I don’t always make a blog from the books we read but I felt I ought to in the this case. It would be remiss not to — especially
since it is loaded with divisive concepts …

Friends and fellow readers,

It was in October of this past year, that a group of us on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@grous.io began to read the whole of Hugo’s massive novel as translated, introduced and massively annotated by Christine Donougher. We’ve just finished this week. During this time at least one person also read Graham Robb’s massive biography of Hugo, I returned to Bellos’s Novel of the Century, Victor Brombert’s Hugo and the Visionary Novel, and, with a couple of other people, re-watched Andrew Davie’s magnificent film adaptation, as well as the film version of the world-famous musical.

Myself I had seen Eric Schaeffer’s stage version twice (once in London), and concert presentation years before, and for good measure this time re-watched twice Simon Schama’s The Romantics and Us, whose second hour is mostly given over to Hugo as finally, or at the time of the writing of this book, radical revolutionary in his thought.


Mass protest scene from 2012 film

Given how the matter of all this material speaks so home to us today, I can’t see myself not making a blog about it, though I sincerely doubt I have anything new to add to all that has been said and written – and drawn and sung and danced too. One can say with the usual semi-pompous language, the book is an extraordinary prose narrative — a combination of history, political and philosophical thought, fantastic visions, with novel framework and larger than life presences we can call characters to carry us through. And the French is visceral poetry. Full of contradictions, not to omit much muddle.

But this does not put into language that what is so crucial is how it captures the misery, thwarted aspirations, and fleeting joy in grief of millions of desperately poor, imprisoned, ravaged people, most often seen today in the form of endlessly punished refugees. Jean Valjean is Leonard Peltier, Fantine is exploited, derided, and raped woman hidden in plain sight who when she fights back becomes an outcast Christina Casey Ford (she who accused Kavanaugh and ridiculed ended outcast) without funds or friends. Mabeuf our adjunct lecturer scholar. The vast disquisitions about Waterloo, and morphing of gov’ts rarely even addressing a country’s needs, and when it tries, quickly reversed by those who cannot bear to lose a stitch of power or authority. Each type, the good priest, the barbaric cop, the base criminal and his wife, the orphan child, selfless nun, street prostitute — they stand before us.

It seems to me important to say — and maybe another reason I write this blog — that you cannot rely on any of the movies (there have been several, and I’ve tried a couple beyond Davies’) or the musical or (worse yet) the recent popular film of the musical (2012, directed by Tom Hooper), to convey the spirit or meaning of the book to you. Everything is done that can be by way of setting and choices of scenes to turn Hugo’s book into a seeming Catholic religious parable where God’s mysteries are beautiful in his churches and good people there (a reductive travesty). The movies are apolitical, with personal love the key to people’s happiness.  Nothing could be further from the feel and mood of Hugo’s book despite so often the good people being a church functionary.

Of course in the film musical you are worked up to revolutionary-like fervor and cumulatively end crying at the deaths of these good well-meaning people. And there is tragic catharsis: I found myself beginning to cry at Marius’s song too: the words “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken/There’s a pain that goes on and on” felt directly a propos. Empty chairs: that’s a phrase found in an old Civil War song (union side). And the book’s true heroine, Fantine (according to my way of thinking but not the book where Hugo chose a shallow conventional hero and mindless version of the heroine) is taking its true hero off with her to where (like Lear) he will no longer be wracked on this world’s fiery wheel of searing loneliness, and find rest. In Hugo’s book the emphasis is not personal and its significance more like what is found in a Camus novel like La Peste.


Lily Collins as Fantine after the mountebank has done with her, gathering material for dolls


Hair also needed for wigs – and teeth?

I here single out Davies’ film for making modern secular humane sense, with attention to the pathos of several of the characters (reinventing or changing some, like Courfeyreau). Davies’ script shows how despicable are others (Fantine’s seducer, the thug Madame Thenardier, however brutalized by her husband), and terrifying (Ron Cook as the mountebank who scissirs off Fantine’s hair and yanks out her teeth to leave her looking memorably ghastly). He tightens up the story, makes some realistic turns for the story, makes far more sense of Javert as a character (homoerotic, and thus obsessed with Jean Valjean), as well as filling out and making consistent the other characters in ways that bring out the egalitarian strains in the book. The only film adaptation of a classic that comes up to the presentation of the relentless killing of ordinary people practiced by the militia of the state that we see in the Paris streets in Davies’s Les Miserables here is Davies’ own Dr Zhivago.

I don’t feel that Davies quite captures the sinister and chaotic reality of a senseless unjust society and downright evil in law and deepest thought patterns (punish, isolate) of Hugo’s book: in Davies’ Dr Zhivago he has the totalitarian state as run by seething madmen whom ordinary people are terrified by. Dr Zhivago differs from most of  Davies’ work where there is a Trollopian or Dickensian (Victorian?) comic-realistic vision of the world.  Hugo’s world is tragic and exaggerated so in feel with the beautiful French fantastic.  Both project in their different mediums, Hugo with his story, Davies with the considerable apparatus of film adaptations today, the prisons, trials, hierarchical social gatherings, servitudes, what good and powerless people have to contend with. Both are short of the kind of thing we must turn to Primo Levi to find presented consistently (in If this be Man).  Nonetheless because of Davies’ skill in characterization (dialogue, instructions for gestures, collaboration with Tom Hooper, the director), when you finish Davies’ film you will have understood the underlying politics and source of some of the passions of Hugo’s work better.


Hugh Jackman’s lonely face as the dying scene begins


An unusual moment for Madame Thenardier: Helena Bonham Carter bringing out a flatness Olivia Coleman never attempts (and is not in Hugo either)

As for the musical: as presented (no matter where, stage or film), the book script and songs assume we know the story. Hardly anything is explained. It’s arguable nothing need be explicated clearly, except I appreciated what the composers and lyric writers were doing now: it was one long symphony or piece of music which had interruptions for a little dialogue but basically one long song I’ll call it; it changes mood and character voice but it seemed to me consistently a expressionist reaction to Les Miserables basic concept: here are the wretched of the earth, mixed in with cruel senseless authority figures and rules which have nothing to do with these wretched people. At any rate do not help them but seek to control and to punish. Sometimes a voice of kindness is singing, sometimes profound loneliness. The driving rhythms are a build up of rage, passion kept caged and finally reaching some height as the people climb the barricades.

The out-of-whack piece, brought back more than once, “Master of the House,” is a subversive and mindless mocking contrast, with one of the lines referring to Voltaire — as music and song it seemed to say the Voltairian Candide vision might be seethingly hilarious, a release but no use at all to suffering people.  Costumes and settings are imitative of Marat/Sade (that wild grotesque burlesque protest piece of so long ago), intermixed with Dickensian tropes so Gavroche in the film musical is an adorable Artful Dodger cut down.


Reece Yates (2012 Davies’ film) escapes both the cuteness of the Hollywoodized Artful Dodger and Hugo’s own (to me) unfortunate way of not taking the boy quite seriously

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It is so much easier to write about a movie or stage musical than one of the grand novels of the 19th century. To say I loved the long supposed digression (but the book is more digression than it is story) on language and slang won’t do.


Donald Sumpter as Mabeuf (still prosperous, in front of the church with his volumes, 2018 film)

But in order not to go on for too long, we shall have to limit ourselves tonight for exemplary detail to the ending of Hugo’s Part 4, Book 8, Chapter 7, where Mabeuf, once a lowly functionary in a church, is living in a hovel, and due to conditions out of his control, finds he can no longer pay the ridiculous rent for such a place with what he once did.  He is driven to sell his precious collection of books. He refuses to take a gift of money left for him (he would not steal a loaf of break presumably) and takes it to a bank. The last place that needs it. The cry of anguish from his heart matches the cry of Marius’s mean ancien regime grandfather when he cannot threaten Marius into loyalty, much less love in just the previous chapter. At core there is stark grief in the old man’s unwillingness to open up to his grandson or inability, and in the destitute idealist.

This does happen. Charlotte Smith in the early 19th century had to sell all her books to keep herself and family afloat. It was a terrible bitter experience for her – she didn’t quite sell them all, but those which fetched a good sum. Ever after she couldn’t write the same books. I’ve a male friend who lost his tenure, and came to DC and tried to live and get a job and couldn’t and was finally driven to sell his books in order to pay up his rent, move back home (horrible place – deep south, utter Trump country) — but then he was okay for he had a small job there and place to live with his family , a family which the high-minded Marius would have rejected and, as he does in the book (improbably) make his way (to use a very Trollopian phrase).

Looking at the book from a distance, it is very controlled. The story is minimal but it has enough twists and turns and new archetypal characters to take us through several related climaxes while moving along a trajectory of imprisonment, desperation.  I refer to JVJ’s encounter with M. Bienvenu, the priest at the opening of the book whose transformative goodness to him finds a parallel in Jean Valjean’s transformative forgiveness or lack of vengeance to Javert.   Then luck and cleverness enable JVJ to build a business and take care of a whole community, Montfermeil. He is elected Mayor despite not wanting to call attention to himself. While the slender plot-design unravels – Javert finds him after he has rescued Cosette and secured a hovel room for them both.  Like the Zorro he is, he escapes with her (using a rope pulling her up a wall he climbed up himself)  into a convent, and finding a grateful friend, stays for 18 years. And so it goes. He and Cosette leave so she can enter the world, have a chance to see it, and the spite of an old woman once again precludes their quiet retired but unconventional life. Now and again we stop for long meditations, disquisitions on war, society, language, the right type of wedding …


Dominic West as Jean Valjean reading with the little Cosette before they are forced to flee and end up in the convent

Our Jean Valjean is all heroes. Today I have been reading Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, where the one good man in the whole of Troy and among the Greeks is Aeneas, with whom Cassandra falls in love. She plays a part like Dido’s, and he must desert her out of a sense of duty (pius Aeneas), to care for his people. Well this reminds me of Jean Valjean’s behavior towards the people of Montfermeil as mayor: he thinks about them when he is about to give himself up because he can’t face allowing another person to be taken for him and put in jail. Like Foyle (in the justly respected World War II British ITV mystery series), JVJ decides that the greater general hoped-for good (that when such a good mayor leaves, all the prosperity might fall apart) does not substitute for doing a clearly concrete moral act: you must not use someone else. So he gives himself in and must escape again before he can rescue Cosette, and Fantine dies without having seen her child, in Hugo’s book believing herself forever damned.

I think that Hugo does want us to remember Aeneas carrying his father on his back during the siege of Troy and saving his life when JVJ carries Marius on his back through a sewer, almost drowns with him in filthy quicksand. But when Jean Valjean pulls himself and Marius up and comes to the locked door, who is there? Thenardier asking for money. A sardonic joke subtextually.

True heroism is caring, strength to do the truly moral thing, though the world’s consequences show how you cannot escape hurting someone. Amid all Hugo’s investment in heroic maleness, Les Miserables is as anti-war as it is anti- the capitalist spirit. Thenardier let us recall in the book ends a slave-trader in the US.

Ellen

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The mid-19th century novel (1859) reprinted by NYRB, introd Pramoedya Ananta Toer

(published 1964)


Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan and Mel Gibson, Guy Hamilton (Year of Living Dangerously, 1982)

Friends and readers,

A strange coincidence led to this blog. This past winter on TrollopeandHisContemporaries @groups.io we read the stunningly revealing history by Eduard Dekker (often using the protective pseudonym, Multatuli), called Max Havelaar. It’s a novel in the Trolstoy tradition of novelistic examination and dramatization painstakingly studying what are the realities of an era, a place, milieus. Although written in an frequently apparently whimsical and digressive manner, a Dutch captain and then resident mine manager (Max) thoroughly outlines for us the structural, economic and (to some extent, less this way) military underpinnings of systematic stripping away of people’s rights to their land, to grow food for themselves. The reader sees how enslavement evolved from local structures run by numinous bosses. These native leaders collaborated with the people put in charge by capitalist and industrial companies backed by armies. There followed an imperialist extractive exploitation of the land with its people doing the work for starvation wages. A colonialist culture is what Max Havelaar finds himself in when he comes out to Indonesia to be a resident manager. The story of this man is the front part of the novel; an almost equally long series of comments, clarifications, and notes the back half. We learn how a prosperous tribal world was turned into a famine-ridden groundwork for growing, buying and selling what the Dutch wanted and could trade with — the shamelessness of the brutality is even today shocking.

I reluctantly decided not to write about this novel as its art is so complicated: Dekker is imitating Walter Scott in the way he has narrators distance us from the story; and the way the story is continually interrupted is reminiscent of Tristram Shandy; he moves from whimsical to searingly catastrophic matter, going back and forth between Netherlands and Indonesia and other colonialized countries between them, in time as well as space, with several groups of characters, one belonging to the trading company and the other the gov’t officials. Yet I wanted to inform “the world” this novel exists and you can learn so much about what has ruined and is continuing to ruin so many people in what’s called the third world today from it.


There is a film (1967); you can get a DVD reading aloud of the book — it is a classic admired novel

Then in my Foreign Films class (OLLI at AU where I also teach), the teacher assigned Peter Weir’s 1982 The Year of Living Dangerously, part of the startlingly rich flowering of Australian film-making in the 1960s through 80s (supported by the Australian gov’t, Australian new wave cinema). It’s an adaptation of an angry and banned novel by Christ Koch, with the same title, written 18 years earlier. Both dramatize the appalling condition of the same native peoples and corruption of what had become many Europeans and coopted natives 120/140 years after the publication of Max Havelaar. The book was promptly banned in Indonesia, never given a prize (though its author was much honored), so dismissed as far as was possible; Weir attempted to film in Indonesia and found himself under attack, so had to move to the Philippines.

Weir’s film concentrates on the difference between the tumultuous Indonesian world of the time (police-ridden, half-crazed with despair and compensatory escapist religions) and the culture of wealthy administrators and newspaper reporters to which our main characters belong. Their job is to scrutinize, report on and film this world for the delectation and control of the European masters. Among other creative acts of Weir’s was to hire a woman to play the part of the central character, the male dwarf-like deeply compassionate photographer, who we see in the earliest moments of the film in his work-apartment and whose fraught (suicidal) death concludes it. Spirituality tells you the story concisely and well. Roger Egbert emphasizes what helped make the film popular: exotic locale, to which I’ll add a remarkable musical score (includes the use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Jessie Norman, singing while Billy mourns the death of a young child he/she was supporting as well as the child’s mother. And erotic love story between two conventionally (Hollywoodesque) erotically attractive actors:


Signourey Weaver and Mel Gibson — unhappily this is one of those films where the female lead exists mostly to be a sex object

All three should be perused, read, and then watched and re-watched (at least once) by anyone who wants to understand (for example) what happened in Vietnam, then the massacres and slaughters of eastern Europe in the 1990s, Iraq in the early 2000s and Afghanistan for another 20 years:  before the US, there were the Russians, before the Russians, the British — a now ironically famous first line of one of the early short Sherlock Holmes adventures is his when he lays eyes on the wretchedly suffering Mr Watson just back: “I perceive you have been in Afghanistan.”

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What I can tell you in brief that will add to your knowledge of the 1859 novel you won’t find elsewhere?


Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) who risked his life trying to bring to light what was going on in Indonesia and then writing this novel

In Chapter 11 we have Havelaar and a Dutch character, Verbrugge telling 4 stories that are connected by injustice, the bizarre behavior the powerful can inflict on the powerless, then distracting whimsy (as a kind of cover-up). So Havelaar suddenly imagines himself in 1587 and watches in slow-motion the execution (beheading) of Mary Stuart in Fotheringay. This was not an uncommon practice in these countries Havelaar is working for this company in. We switch to present-time Sumatra where he watches a girl stringing beads. This reminds him of Arles where he’s just been, a very beautiful place with a long history. The LRB had a piece by Lydia Davis, of scraps of imagination she has written about Arles while she did a “project” there; she is known as a translator from the French. Then we move to Naal — not far from Indonesia, an African stopover. Horrific deeds keep the natives in subjection and frighten everyone else not super-powerful. Finally, a story of a Japanese stonecutter which resembles the fable of the fisherman and his wife and their three wishes. Probably it is hard to make a novel out of horrific cruelty exercised on people day after day as they labor in the fields and die — the people forcing this are thugs and criminals, extravagantly selfish princelings and their courts. Dekker is presenting the material of the type we see from afar in the Heart of Darkness through the art of fable.

By contrast:

In Chapter 14, an important investigation into brutal uses of lies (to extract money people haven’t got) is both muddled and distorted by the overt way of talking about it by the perpetrators and their assistants and then put a stop to. I followed the ins and outs of hypocrisy and vicious revenge, but the concrete details are useless — because continually Dekker is obfuscating, and not telling the hard core of truth — lest he get in trouble. What this chapter needs – and several others, is a companion book which explicates what actually happened in these places so that we can understand the nature of Havelaar’s irony — I can’t get quite what he is satirizing in the different instances except of course profound lying, inhumanity, vain, idle ridiculous behavior. One quarter in we suddenly switch to Tina, Havelaar’s wife (who is characterized just enough with her baby to lead us worry about her), and the previous resident manager’s widow, Mrs Slothering (her husband was probably murdered and she has nowhere to go) and the present time and the men are playing cards and Duclari (the military man) asks Havelaar if it’s true Havelaar has fought many duels. Oh yes says Havelaar, and the results of these (or maybe the causes) have embittered him. He says how the General at the time appreciated duels. Perhaps we are to infer that again and again other people have tried to murder Havelaar this way, but are we to think Havelaar has murdered quite a number of people also? I suggest that we are not supposed to think this through — that it might be these duels did not come off, and to tell them now is just braggadaccio. So ought Dekker not to tell us this. So we can breathe a sigh of relief that Havelaar is not a murderer.

And now the movie by Peter Weir


What Weir looked like at the time

I studied his masterpiece movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock (scroll down to see a full analysis) a close adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s remarkable novel (of the same name) where Weir mystifies an ordeal coming out of an environment deeply hostile to people’s bodies and social needs. It is crucially maintained that no one knows how the death of the girls came about so a common response is simply to feel awe. The features to the DVD of Picnic at Hanging Rock include Weir’s idea that the girls were murdered by marauding men whom the sexual repression of the girls drew them to. This kind of reductive sexist explanation suggests why Lindsay prefers not to discuss how the girls came to disappear. But in fact people in the story as well as Margaret Atwood’s similar “Death by Landscape” are also responsible for what happened.

In this The Year of Living Dangerously, Weir somewhat misrepresents the story of how the Communists came to be massacred, Sukarno (who had little interest in the West and its capitalism) overthrown (which the US wanted) and the Indonesian military put in charge (with the religionists sidelined). So there is weakness in Weir’s work. We see a wayang puppet show where shadows of souls are supposedly coping with sheerly being — a kind of mysticism. For myself I feel the love story was a distraction and there to create popular appeal; Weir did not compromise this way in Picnic at Hanging Rock or Gallipolli.

The teacher of the class emphasized the film’s threads of morality: how it showed the reporters to be frivolous, corrupt, indifferent to the plight of the desperately impoverished everywhere; one of the reporters, Peter Curtis stands for the ugly American. The British officer Signourey Weaver’s character at first appears to be living with is an old-line Tory type; one of the Australia reporters is a homosexual man who takes advantage of a male servant. Kumar and Tiger Lily who work for Guy Hamilton are genuine devoted PKI people (communists). The focus of the camera is on these starved bodies, hollow eyes, crippled people in rags in contrast to the wealth of the whites. Billy Kwan asks more than once: “What then must we do?” The answer is not try for any large solution but help those who we come into contact with whom we can help. The same answer is found in LeCarre’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In this film an analogous atmosphere of displacement and breakup, desperate lives, corrupt payoffs everywhere, is meaningful in itself — there is no good way of life as long as you belong to these groups.

A valuable subject in the movie is the press: it’s a satiric view where no one but Billy Kwan and our hero are trying to tell the truth.  Anyone who does risks his life.  We can ask the question, what should the press do? what is their role? obviously, try to get the real truth of what’s happening out.  In the last few years (unsurprisingly) any journalists doing this have been imprisoned and murdered and the numbers keep going up.  The most famous case is that of Julian Assange where a 19th century law is being used to try to outlaw publication of hard factual news files.

You must (it seems) opt out to find yourself. Flee. The closing scenes at the airport very like what we recently saw in Afghanistan and before that in Vietnam. Those who profit mightily from all this have no reason (I fear) not to repeat it and it makes them enormous profits. So through their GOP agents they are now trying to destroy the hitherto stable world of the US and (before the 1980s) a generally prosperous and hopeful one.

Ellen

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Frank Fenwick faces the community and the Marquis of Trowbridge, defying them on behalf of the working class Sam Brattle whom they are about to keep in prison for crime there is no evidence he committed (Henry Woods, first illustrator of Vicar of Bullhampton)


John Caldigate glimpses and is attracted to the independent Mrs Euphemia Smith seen for the first time aboard their shared ship going to Australia (Francis Moseley, 20th century illustrator of Folio John Caldigate)

Friends and readers,

Several months ago now on Trollope and his Contemporaries at groups.io I read with a group of people Trollope’s colonialist (even if much of it does not take place in Australia) novel, John Caldigate, together with Simon Grennan’s graphic novel post-text (it changes the story in several important ways) to the book, Dispossession.


One of the houses in John Caldigate as imagined and drawn by Grennan, probably the Caldigates — the endpapers to the graphic novel

Then about two months ago now, a rather intensive reading and discussion of Trollope’s Vicar of Bullhampton, took place on a facebook page run by a couple of people who opened a general page called The Way We Read Now I’ve read both before (see group read of John Caldigate on my website), and especially the first time was much drawn to The Vicar of Bullhampton: my father gave me a Dover copy to read during when I landed in Metropolitan Hospital on the upper East Side of NYC after a car accident, and it fully absorbed me.

These novels are alike in being lesser known novels, not overly long for Trollope, not widely read, with (as I realize now) The Vicar of Bullhampton having a distorted reputation as a sub-Barchester novel (it is very unlike these), and when it is remembered at all, John Caldigate the one novel where Trollope deals at length with bigamy: he wanted to call it Mrs John Caldigate, which would have called attention to the question, which of the two central female characters, Euphemia Smith or Hester Bolton is legally Caldigate’s wife.

But there is another angle on these books which leads me to want to write about them together and here. They both broach taboo topics and controversial issues in Trollope’s era and show him analysing and looking for revealing cracks and contradictions, cruelties, blind prejudices and injustices, at the same time as he is disappointingly deeply unfair to the central women characters of both. In The Vicar of Bullhampton (1868) Trollope was in fact way ahead of his time in his attitudes towards prostitution, working class people, and policing (the criminal justice system he did understand and was very sceptical about how it worked).

But when it comes to making inferences from his own rather different premises than the average person,Trollope goes right back to misogyny, especially sexual controlling and shaming and blaming of women. He presents an impossibly abject and self-hating young woman as Carry Brattle, a young woman no longer chaste, possibly quietly for a time living with this or that young man outside marriage, in the lingo of the time, a “castaway” as apparently the only way he could get himself to sympathize with such a young woman. He allows his central heroine, Mary Lowther, to take on the blame for acceding to an engagement all around her conspired to pressure her into (including by downright lies), and refuses to give her any solution to what to do with her existence except be sure she is in love with the man she is to make her master. The unfortunate male she engages herself to is berated by everyone in the book who encouraged him to stalk her. By contrast, the depiction of the prejudice and suspicion surrounding Sam Brattle for (in effect) simply walking about while working class is simply shown for the class bias it is. When the powerful man of the town angry that his prejudice is not going to reign supreme, encourages the dissenting minister of the town to build a church abutting the Vicar’s and spreads salacious rumors about the Vicar’s relationship with Carry — all to punish the Vicar for his courageous candor in defending both Brattles, there is a unbiased complexity about the various components of what we could call the Vicar’s authentic selfhood (similar to but not as brilliant as the one found within Josiah Crawley in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

In John Caldigate (1877) Trollope may be said to question marriage itself, and partly make a case for people being able to break a marriage if they find they are incompatible with or can do better elsewhere or are just tired of the person they chose, but when it comes to a trial and a judgement (and prison sentences) he only allows the male to be pardoned, and puts the woman in prison: this is one of the changes Grennan feels he must make — Euphemia Smith in his graphic novel goes as free as John Caldigate, and Grennan is a lot more candid than Trollope in dramatizing what happened in Australia and the probably clandestine marriage Caldigate entered into. At no time does Trollope’s hero ever show any remorse for his lies to various women he flirts with rather callously), to Hester’s family. Once he returns from Australia he is automatically his father’s darling because the father was so lonely for him even though before he left he had driven up high gambling debts, would not allow his father to see him reading or doing anything intelligent (just rat-catching, and womanizing) because it seems he was determined to be seen to exercise his own will. After an initial even-handed presentation of Euphemia, when she returns to England, she is treated with the kind of calumny Trollope intends to scold readers for treating the Carry Brattles of the world. It seems the woman is not allowed to be at all successful in an aggressively competitive life while the man who returns with wealth is ultimately rewarded.

You could call these books problem novels where Trollope is examining extremely problematic behavior in societies towards conventionally tabooed behavior as well as conventionally applauded, showing the perniciousness (especially cruelty to vulnerable impoverished single women) inadequacies, even egregious injustices of society’s behavior (and who wins in courts) — at the same time as he upholds the white male patriarchy. They therefore function in a somewhat different way than he might have intended, depending on the reader. People who have the courage to engage with the topics broached by Trollope often tell more about themselves as they approve and accept or critique and reject what Trollope has dramatized. Trollope deliberately creates situations which de-stabilize accepted codes and norms: through the stories he rips open the contradictions and also morally awful behavior or standards or ideas to make us look at these.

I’ve put off writing about them since in both cases, I wrote individual postings on both novels, sometimes at length, sometimes several on different angles, and sometimes not just in response to the chapters at hand or their context, but also to the other person or people posting too. It would be a lot of work to distill them. into a blog. I have done this for other of the Trollope novels, but so much is omitted, and in these two novels’ cases the controversies Trollope meant to bring up and be discussed would have to be flattened or lost. It’s this that drove me to make the large sections on my website for some of the Trollope novels I read with others. I just reprint all the postings under the chapters they are about, occasionally festooned with illustrations, photographs or stills from relevant movies, e.g., this one on The Small House at Allington. I have been putting my postings on The Vicar of Bullhampton on my groups.io listserv just so there will be a place on the Internet where they can be found (as long as the archives are online). I also had promised myself I would make no more overlong blogs.

My solution this time is just reprint a couple of the postings from each group read that I hope will be of interest to a reader and leave him or her to find the rest on Facebook or groups.io or read the novels (and Grennan’s Dispossession if so minded). Since the Vicar was written earlier, is a mid-career Trollope book, I’ll put the postings about this novel first.

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Carey Mulligan as Bathesheba in Far from the Madding Crowd: she is subjected to similar pressures as Mary Lowther, also supposed beautiful — one important difference is Bathesheba has property, Mary has not enough to rent lodgings and buy food …

Vicar of Bullhampton, Chapter 2: Flo’s Red Ball:

The center of the chapter is intense pressure on Mary, the heroine, to marry a man she says she does not love. Here is Trollope’s narrator: “The parson and his wife were altogether of one mind in this matter, and thought that Mary Lowther ought to be made to give herself to Harry Gilmore.” She should be coerced, give herself means go to bed with him, give her body to him. Again, Trollope as narrator: “She knew very well that she would not accept him now” after he has her thinking is “was she not wrong to keep him in suspense.” We see she does also because he is encouraged to come and nag her. All the next paragraph is about how “she did not think she could ever bring herself to say she would be this man’s wife” (think what wife meant in that era) and “because she still doubted, she was told by her friend she was behaving badly.” Of course he behaves sweetly; he wants her, and he is encouraged to carry on, and pay no attention for real to her not wanting him. It has been suggested that Mary is a readerly type and he no intellectual. I think of Fanny Price deeply irritated when Henry Crawford carries on after she has said no several times — Crawford’s appetite was whetted by the no (that’s from Mansfield Park). In his introduction Skilton remarks critics in the period saw parallels between the two heroines (Carrie Brattle who has been mentioned once), but instead of focusing on Mary’s emotional life and needs (just emerging here), I’ll call our attention to the game of consent which is what is being put before us. That’s what we are looking at: coerced consent will turned be into just or plain consent once she says yes, for they will forget they coerced her on the grounds they know better what she is or what she needs than she does. Do they? We have before us the injunction that a woman must be willing turned into forced willingness. It’s forced consent that’s the problem (and allows rape to be not-rape). Mary has to be ever so careful not to seem to promise anything or they will leap on it. And how easily a ball falls into the water. Too much attention is paid to “no” when often in reality situations actually arise over consent itself where consent is used as a weapon. All this politeness (and Janet is not very polite) is a screen. As it happens, the latest issue of NYRB has Anne Enright talking about “the burden of ‘yes'” (so the issue yesterday is still the issue today), and I’ll end on a wonderful phrase where she sums up the larger perspective here: “you cannot assert an equivalence of desire between men and women when there is no equivalence of power.” Gilmore has inherited income, power, land, respect, can serve in powerful offices; Mary must live with relatives, and is dependent on their kindness to her. Are we told if she has any income of her own? Let us recall what frees Lily Dale at the end of her story is her uncle leaves her 3000 pounds a year.

Yes, she is poor- her whole fortune is 1200 lbs, perhaps 50/annum.

I thought of another analogous Victorian text which might be of interest: the other night I watched the 2015 film adaptation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and it seemed to me there too the issue was this one of forcing Bathsheba to consent — also placing the story in a rural area. I can see Carey Mulligan as Mary Lowther

Chapter 17: The Marquis of Trowbridge

Thank you to Scott; as all others have said we are one-third through and have an important scene, moment, linchpin occurrence. This chapter contains one of the Vicar’s great heroic moments. He stands up against the powerful in the community to demand that a man against whom there is no evidence for any crime be freed. We are told leading up to the scene that the Marquis of Trowbridge is a bully who likes to inflict his power on others, and is insulted by the idea (with him the suspicion and class of the man, a son of a tenant, means he did it) Sam murdered someone on land near his. Gilmore and the Vicar are meanwhile called Damon and Pythias, a curiously homoerotic note here, but it does also mean constant close friendship. What Trowbridge really hates is anyone defying him. By contrast we are told how Fenwick tolerates the dissenting chapel right near the Anglican church he presides over at the same time as emotionally he resents Puddleham (given one of these allegorical reductive names); but Fenwick holds to a principle of toleration. The scene repeats one from Last Chronicle of Barset where Crawley stands up against the magistrates but cannot defy them because the “evidence” which supposedly proves he stole 20£ was found upon him. Fenwick takes his stand not on Sam’s innocence because we cannot know this, but the complete lack of evidence for any arrest or conviction. It’s a long scene with Trowbridge insisting he has an interest in arresting Sam because he owns so much property. He is backed up by that same dissenting minister, Puddleham (who it’s implied is doing this to gain power against Fenwick by enlisting himself under Trowbridge). Fenwick with Sam’s lawyer wins. But what really incenses Trowbridge is Fenwick has the “gall” (nerve, what an outrage) to mention Trowbridge’s daughters in the same breath as the Brattles because the Brattles are further bad-mouthed by the existence of a daughter, Carrie Brattle (who we know is a castaway). It seems like Sam’s walking about at night, his friendships, that she’s his sister is another insinuation to help arrest (and convict) him. It’s this mention of Trowbridge’s daughter which brings the scene to an end, thus intertwining the intense sexual plot-designs with this murder one. In both instances the Vicar is our hero and for once on the wholly right or moral side. I will remark here that one of the ironies Trollope wants us to see all along is that the Vicar has continually acted as if he were a powerful man, and gains power because of his position and his belief in himself, but Trollope wants us to see that the Vicar is relatively powerless against many forces and people in his community — not as powerless as the Brattles of course, or any “mere tenant” or any woman w/o control of property (none of them in this book thus far). The Vicar in other words has won this scene literally (Sam will be freed) but there is no indication he will win this larger battle with injustice as he seem to be losing gaining Mary for the convenience or desires of his wife and Gilmore. So the title of the book is partly ironic.

Chapter 36 – Sam Brattle Goes Off Again

I just loved how Sam was allowed to speak, and how his argument is cogent and persuasive. Also some of his motives & behavior. Says he, Is he not to be allowed an independent life because the police have not found out who killed Trumbull? can that be (just is his point) law? “a chap can’t move to better hisself, because them fellers can’t catch the men as murdered old Trumbull? That can’t be law — or justice.” The Vicar does begin by telling Sam that having been with this group of men trespassing a garden, he “has no just cause of complaint at finding his own liberty crippled (what a strong word), but then he agrees (narrator’s voice intermingled here too): “no policeman could have the right to confine him to one parish;” no shred of evidence he could give information. We’re told Sam argued the matter so well (“sharp and intelligent”) that Fenwick was convinced (it’s implied as long as Sam is available because bail was paid). Beyond wanting to escape very hard work at little pay in a hostile atmosphere, Sam has wanted to help Carry. He has infuriated the old man by trying to get the father to let Carry come back: “I just said a word to him, as a word was right to be said,” to the Vicar: “she ought to be let come home again, and that if I was to stay at the mill,I’d fetch her. The father said get out. Then the problem of where she went, how to find her, in talk brings out this kind of abject self-hatred from Sam paralleling Carry when the Vicar says he’ll take her in: “The likes of you won’t likely have a sister the likes of her.” We already know Janet won’t allow this: her excuse: the servants will object (worried about their reputations?) Sam says “she is not a bad ‘un,” to which the Vicar replies: “And as for bad, which of us isn’t bad? The world is very hard on her offense” (he separates the person from the act). Sam again gets the truly eloquent statement: “Down on her, like a dog on a rat” (I am sorry for the metaphor as it maligns dogs – but Trollope is not alive to animals as fully sentient beings and uses them as symbols). Then, as Melody says, back to the Vicar’s fight. I agree with John, all religious groups are entitled to worship, but that kind of hidden prejudice in the Vicar and his wife, is lost among what really makes it openly unbearable to the Fenwicks: the chapel is an eyesore, “a hideously ugly building, roofless, doorless, windowless.” Of course, the Anglican church has a lot more money and time to build pretty buildings. The bishop repeats his early performance by refusing to go into details (reminding me of the US supreme court with its “shadow” allowing laws to pass into being without having the courage to tell their unacceptable opinions). Then Gilmore tells the friend seeking support, well, he doesn’t see why the Vicar is so annoyed. Comically Janet is growing thin with this aggravation: it’s more than snobbery, it’s being made manifest that she is not as invulnerable and powerful in her own right (as Vicar’s wife) as she likes to think. What’s interesting to me here is how the Vicar finds his friends will not support him if it’s inconvenient to them. Now, Sam has acted in ways that show he does not always consult his own convenience.

“It went forth through the village that Mr. Puddleham had described Mrs. Fenwick as Jezebel, and the torch of discord had been thrown down, and war was raging through the parish.” Sad though all the discord is, imagining Mrs. Fenwick as Jezebel has to be worth a chuckle. “It went forth through the village that Mr. Puddleham had described Mrs. Fenwick as Jezebel, and the torch of discord had been thrown down, and war was raging through the parish.” Sad though all the discord is, imagining Mrs. Fenwick as Jezebel has to be worth a chuckle. Ginny

How absurd is Puddleham. Janet a Jezebel … but then this fits into low church imagery and he has no ability to think at all so he uses what he has read.

Trollope had input into what scenes would be illustrated (as well as which illustrator would be chosen). What is telling here is the way in which George Thomas pictured Crawley anticipates the way Henry Woods pictures Fenwick. First Crawley facing the magistrates

Then parallel to Crawley Fenwick facing Trowbridge. In both cases we see our hero from the back in what seems the subject position, the vulnerable person. Fenwick as drawn by Henry Woods for Vicar of Bullhampton facing the powerful of the community.


Carry Brattle at the window of her parents’ house, climbing in — one of the way the society inflicted punishment on young woman was if she was in the street, alone, she could be picked up as vagrant and put to hard labor and little food for three months (a character in Gaskell’s North and South dies from this treatment)

Chapter 69 (almost the end of the book): The Trial

I find many of Trollope’s court trial scenes fascinating: The Macdermots of Ballycloran, The Three Clerks, Orley Farm — to the non-lawyer they reveal the venality and pretenses that courts go through: in two of the above cases, the verdit is deeply unjust or just literally wrong, but it’s what the lawyer has maneuvered the community into agreeing to (Orley Farm) or is a product of the community’s desire to scapegoat a vulnerable person to assuage their fears (Macdermots). In Three Clerks, there is no punishment for the truly bad man, Undy Scott. It’s not my turn and I’ve not got the time it would take to go through all the turns of the scene which bring to an ironic or fitting climax what happened to the characters over the course of the book. I disagree and find this the fitting conclusion for what has gone on before. I’ll pinpoint one piece. I happen to be beginning Les Miserables just now and the exemplary priest who opens the book sees an analogous scene where the agent of the state (here the defense lawyer) behaves as manipulatively, and ultimately amorally as this man: Monseigneur Bienvenu’s one remark is: “And where will the crown prosecutor face judgement?” The prosecutor had caught the man who counterfeited money by tricking the woman who loved him (after torturing her to no avail) into thinking he had another lover. So she told all. The person who ought to be punished is the defense attorney for his viciousness; he did not succeed in destroying Carry altogether (if there is a character in the books whose suicide would be understandable it’s hers — indeed she ought to be admired for not killing herself) because the immediate emotions of those in the court were on her side; they would not last of course and do her no good. His way of defending his client has nothing to do with what the client did. This is one of Trollope’s brilliant analyses and exposes of what happens in courts. I The scene also justifies and exemplifies what Margaret Oliphant wrote in her brilliant “The Grievances of Women,” where she says the core one is that whatever their pretended worship of women (she has no use for chivalry), men treat women with contempt, as of no value beyond what they use them for, with their main technique being ridicule just as this attorney throws at Carry. As for Acorn earlier in the book we are told that he had some decent qualities but that after he went to prison he came out a much worse and desperate man. His life is one of those thrown away by the Bullhampton community.

Yes (in response to someone who said the trial turned into a trial of Carry, as sister to one of the witnesses). A woman accuses a man of rape; he did it, and she is the one the public punishes; it is common for him to get off. And how to do it? well, ridicule her as in the case of Christine Casey Ford.

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


Iconic 19th century Austalian watercolor: Ashton, A Solitary Ramble — a respectable white colonialist woman of the era

At the Leuven Trollope conference, Grennan told me he dressed Mrs Smith so she would have been recognizable in the era as a “Dolly Varden:” she is a character in Barnaby Rudge whose coy highly-sexualized self-presentation (Dickens just salivates over her) was taken up by music hall performers — after all Mrs Smith has been and returns to the stage (though the reader never see her do this). I admit I prefer to imagine Mrs Smith in her more somber outfits as a mature woman who confronts life and men frankly as their equal.

Pages from a graphic novel ‘Dispossession’ by Simon Grennan.
Mrs Smith dressed in a Dolly Varden outfit: cf the typical white colonialist woman of the era, and Francis Moseley’s portrait

John Caldigate, the first three chapters

We open with Daniel Caldigate who we are told is a stern man and made his daughter’s lives a trial, and wasn’t nice to his wife. They all died around the same time and then he regretted his behavior but it was too late and anyway had he had it to do all over again, Trollope tells us, he would have behaved the same. This is a realistic depiction of a Sir Thomas Bertram type.

So his son is a disappointment. John Caldigate. I am assuming others have read the text or will be by early this week — I see already in the description of John’s misdemeanours and bad behavior signs offered he has it in him to be better. But he isn’t — the idea I feel thrown out is John Caldigate is one of these people who resents control, resents anyone trying to enforce on him behavior that does not come easy or natural. Like studying, like reading, like behaving virtuously. Not only does he spend his time in rat contests and killing animals (here Trollope is not pro-hunt) but he gets into debt with a man called Davies and while we are told it’s gambling and over-spending, I see plenty of hints he is sexually promiscuous — spends his money on prostitutes. We are told how tall he is, how handsome. He spends his time at the Babington relatives’ house where they are similarly frivolous people. What he does not realize is they are tolerating him the way they do because he is a rich heir and they want him for one of their daughters, Polly. Polly is all right but he is not attracted but he finds himself just about engaged to her because of his aunt’s maneuvers. At the Shandy house he overtly teases Maria over a book later on, manipulating her into confessing how much she’ll miss him.

Trouble is he is in debt — who will pay his debts. He owes to the college and if he doesn’t pay will not get his degree. His father does pay this but he will not pay anything else. Young John will show no remorse and keeps his bad behavior up. Father is so hurt — he’s lonely — that he thinks to leave the property elsewhere! He hates primogeniture because, like his son, he hates to be controlled. Things going from bad to worse and now John is attracted to the idea of going to Australia to get rich quick mining gold. One needs money to go, he has these debts. Well the father will pay if he gives up his right to the property.

So what the hell, he agrees. Steps in the Boltons. Mr Bolton a lawyer who advises the father against this but he agrees to do what his employer wants and John comes to visit and there is Mrs Bolton, another one of these harridan puritan women whom Trollope hates and she is this beautiful daughter — ever so pure, ever so represssed, ever so innocent – -and of course John decides he will go to Australia, get rich, come back and in effect buy her

Wonderful descriptions of houses — the Boltons a real “puritan” group with 4 brothers who have followed the straight and narrow and prospered. The two chapters are named after the houses, Folking (this is an imagined specific place but you can find the area of Cambridge on the map) and Puritan Grange. Symbolic and effectively believable towns and cultures.

John Caldigate is a stud who thus far turns me off. I couldn’t care less what happens to him, and think he deserves whatever is coming to him (Trollope wants us to think this I suggest) and yet I know I am supposed to care – John Caldigate is supposed to matter to me. Trollope wants me to care about John Caldigate as a significant person.


When after Caldigate returns from Australia, marries Hester, she has a baby (all very rapidly) in the book, he tries to hold onto her as his property, but when she visits her parents and they are determined to keep her prisoner, she lays on the floor near the front door with her baby (from Dispossession)

It is getting to be an overlong blog so I must put the other two postings I’ve chosen and coda in the comments. Here are Chapters 33-36; 49-54; Diana Archibald’s wise commentary in her Domestic Imperialism and Emigration in Victorian Literature.

Ellen

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So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night – are not solved; as long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
Victor Hugo, preface to Les Misérables (Hauteville House, 1862)

Dear friends and reader,

As I started to read it, the text seems to me utterly contemporary and referring itself to what is all around us today; a book again
for our time … I became so excited with the beauty of the prose and the incisive suggestively rich allegorical underpinnings …

I’m hope I am not giving an impression that I spend my life making schedules for reading with other people: this the sixth such calendar I’ve put on this blog this year. In four cases they were part of syllabi for classes I teach (this year all online) but in two they are schedules for me and several other people (thus far we have 7) to read together over several weeks (here months) on a listserv. I put this one on because most unexpectedly when I shared a previous schedule for this book with two FB pages I found a couple of people joined the listservs where we are reading them, and more people were planning to read along than I thought would. It is a famous book, many movies, a stupendously successful musical, many editions, many translations, and a full secondary literature.

I then discovered I had been far too optimistic or naive about quite how long Victor Hugo’s profound masterpiece is. In the 2013 Deluxe Penguin edition I am reading the text in it’s 1416 pages, including notes bit excluding the introduction. So I revised it, and will now put it here and the URL to this blog in those two places as an amendment. I am also inviting people to join us this way. Go to:

https://groups.io/g/TrollopeAndHisContemporaries

or

https://groups.io/g/18thCWorlds

The novel is divided into 5 books, corresponding (as David Bellos shows in his wonderfully lucid nformative and enjoyable book on Les Miserables as The Novel of the Century) to five stories or narratives, the first three centered more or less on three of the major characters: 1) Fantine; 2) her daughter, Cosette; 3) the young man who falls in love with Cosette, Marius; 5) and our hero whose lifeline is the general backbone of the book, Jean Valjean. 4 appears to be centered on the rebellion that occurs in the novel in Paris, which all our still living major characters, even Javert, the police guard who goes in pursuit of Valjean, take part in. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 5 are 8 to 9 books each, with Part 4, 15 books.

I will be reading the recent Penguin translated by Christine Donougher (used by Bellos, recommended by him) and have followed the numbers I found there but also have the older Penguin Norman Denny (where two chapters said to be straight history are placed in the back of the book). This time I do not have the text in French (as I did when on these same listservs we read Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris).

For the week beginning Sunday,

Oct 3: Part 1, Bks 1-2
Oct 10, Part 1, Bks 3-5
Oct 17, Part 1, Bks 6-8
Oct 24, Part 2, Bks 1-3
Oct 31, Part 2, Bks 4-6
Nov 7, Part 2, Bks 7-8
Nov 14, Part 3, Bks 1-3
Nov 21, Part 3, Bks 4-6
Nov 28, Part 3, Bks 7-8
Dec 5, Part 4, Bks 1-3
Dec 12, Part 4, Bks 4-6
Dec 19 Part 4, Bks 7-9
Dec 26 Part 4, Bks 10-12
Jan 2, Part 4: Bks 13-15
Jan 9, Part 5, Bks 1-3
Jan 16, Part 5, Bks 4-6
Jan 23, Part 5, Bks 7-9

So we finish just as February is rolling round …

As you can see we’ve started already but we will take a longer time over the first Part (Fantine) to give people a chance to join in, get the book and catch up, become (we hope) immersed.


Harriet Walter reading aloud poetry (so did Tobias Menzies) from Simon Schama’s The Romantics and US: the third part includes an impressive meditation on Hugo

Translations and editions. For what it’s worth, here is an article about the merits and flaws of several central translations. The Wilbour translation is contemporary with Hugo, and the Isabel Hapgood is another good 19th century text (with pictures), but Hugo sanctioned and gave advice on a translation by Sir Lascelles Wraxall, which is online at Gutenberg. If you go to Part 1, Fantine, that will take you to the later books. Hugo’s original French is also online at Gutenberg: you begin with Part 1, Fantine. There is a venerable Everyman whose translator is not named. Here is my old Denny, quite lively English, with a good introduction. And the latest, an award winner by the highly praised Julie Rose for Modern Library


Group photo of actors in 2018/29 Les Miserables

Movies galore: I’ve watched several and think nothing competes with the most recent, however too short, by Andrew Davies, 2018/19: Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Adeel Akhtar; Lily Collins, Olivia Coleman; Ron Cook. Dir: BBC/Masterpiece. I’ve never seen a more terrifying poignant depiction, Lily Collins astonishing, unforgettable, without hair, without teeth, laughed at, spurned and finally dying without retrieving her child in time.

The musical needs no description here. Here is a blog where they read Les Miserables one chapter a day and compared the movies (it includes clips).


Signature theater production in Arlington (my husband, Jim, loved this one and wrote a now lost blog on it)

Here is Peter Brooks’s just, apt, enthusiastic review of David Bellos’ book (you can find none better in the new biography of a book mode) through having read about Hugo thoroughly and Les Miserables too. I’m also reading slowly as we go Graham Robb’s suave biography


Victor Hugo on the terrace of Hauteville House, Guernsey, where he wrote Les Misérables, 1868

Join us

https://groups.io/g/TrollopeAndHisContemporaries

or

https://groups.io/g/18thCWorlds

Ellen

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Cherry Blossoms (Elmar Wepper as Rudi Angermeier, and Aya Irizuki [de] as Yu)

“What I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past” (Janet Hulstrand)

The impermanence of life is at the core of Cherry Blossoms, an exquisite German film directed by Doris Dorrie (How to Cook Your Life). A wonderful sequence in the story takes place during the cherry blossom season at the beginning of spring in Japan. Hanami is celebrated for about ten days as families, friends, and visitors gather under trees while their pink and white flowers are in full bloom. The cherry blossom is seen as a symbol of beauty, awakening, and the transience of life … (Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat)

Dear friends and readers,

Summer is slowly turning into autumn, and I’ve written only once of this year’s summer reading and movies: David Nicholls’s Us, book & film, probably because I’ve only read and seen one I’d so characterize, and now as the days begin to shorten more quickly, I feel I’ve been remiss, partly because my spirits have been again rejuvenated by a movie and a book.


The audio book

First, the book, which will require my speaking first of David Downie as I encountered him in his earlier Paris to the Pyrenees last spring, and providing contexts with other books, and French movies. I took a course at Politics and Prose (the DC bookstore) called A Literary Tour of France, it was somewhat disappointing as the teacher refused to discuss any serious topics (!), and seemed to live in dread of offending people in the classroom, but she did offer two books, with real merit, the equivalent of Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon’s first and second Trip movies, the one where they drive around Derbyshire, into the Lake District ending at Bolton Abbey before returning to London, and the second a journey through Italy, from Rome past Pompeii to Naples.


Somewhere in the West Riding — an idyllic dream vision of what I remember of the rare walks Jim and I took out into the Yorkshire moors

Travel books encompass books about people making a home usually in what is to me a “foreign” country; they can be the encyclopedia type Trollope favored in Australia and New Zealand, the let’s analyze this country, his North America, or his jolly When the Mastiffs Went to Iceland (the nearest he got to popular travel books). I think the genre is invented in the 18th century where the idea of truly telling the truth of what you are seeing, of cultures being different, of trying to discover history this way began with Johnson and Bowell’s twin tours; a second variant is Susannah Moodie’s 30 Years in the Bush, a classic first Canadian book, about how she settled into the countryside to become Canadian.

Jeffrey Greene’s French Spirits: A House, A Village, and A Love Affair in Burgundy, was assigned first, and begins well, but David Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees sustains the type. Greene’s French Spirits is similarly replete with intelligent insight into places, objects, people. He and his partner are marrying and decide to buy and renovate as a place to live an ancient church: they have plenty of money, live upper class educated lives (whose values Greene never questions, the source of the money never told): Greene is trying to capture his sense of what life against history is, French culture in history, and uses these “odd people” in the countryside to bring this out. Greene’s book is light and half-way through falls off when he goes into these chapters (to me tasteless) on his wedding but it is picturesque and evocative of middle France. He and his wife renovated a presbytery to make it into a home: the history of the building and the real problems of trying to renovate such a structure are absorbing, teach one about buildings.

Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees is a sort of sceptic’s pilgrimage across that part France and down to the Pyrenees. He’s more somber in spirit, and the character he comes across made less eccentric at the same time more locally embodied. He has rejected much that Greene is content to accept: the materialism, hierarchies, fashion-laden admiration for what reeks of rank, monetary success. Downie is exploring his own mind (quietly, not that openly), his past, and the past of the countryside he and his wife are walking through. One needs courage and a partner to do what they are doing — — just walking following an old route and not sure whether they will find an inn in a given place, or the kind of food and drink they might require. They are doing their journey in an entirely non-commercial way.

Gradually his book turns into a more political polemic attached to French history (eons back) and the recent political events (1871 and the French occupation in WW2, Algeria, modern emergence of fascism). An emerging theme is how much is left across the French countryside of WW2. We saw that in Calais and Brittany. Downie describes so much left of the Resistance (and Nazis’ atrocities) and so criss–crosses for me A French Village (and Come What May). It’s a pilgrimage, in which the French landscape seems to contain almost no one, they have to find taverns and even once stay in someone’s home, take chances, depend on themselves and other people. It put me in mind of Anne Radcliffe’s gothics at their spiritual landscape best. Colleen’s Paris (a blog reviewer) captures the book very well, telling you the details of the story too. Downie’s book is more genuinely worked out than Greene’s.

Both are a long distance from VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival (Salmon Rushdie finds it too sad), but they move in this direction of deep meditation in a landscape about the history of the place through what’s physically left there and what we can know (and in Naipaul’s case) dream deeply and re-create to make of himself (to the person) embedded in this foreign landscape — through his memories too. For Naipaul it’s the landscape around Stonehenge, as a strong antidote to the culture he was born in and has rejected. Karen Langley in her Kaggsy’s Ramblings writes of a lighter gay variant, Hugo Charteris’s Marching with April (introduced beautifully by Frederic Raphael), the writer and his family determine to leave London and takes root in an ancient place, the Highlands (out of his background) and attempt to build a new life: this time the Highlands. It will come after Downie’s Paris Paris, is lower on onw my night-table’a pile.

To be honest, I’m only half-way through Paris, Paris but I’m just loving it. One problem with many travel books is they fail to convey a deep sense of what it feels like to be in the place — Downie has this ability. Each area of Paris the reader is taken to, is fitted into a larger coherent picture of the city, and then itself explored visually, physically, and mentally. The photographs are beautifully done (black-and-white) and epitomize a mood, the kinds of history that occurred in the place and/or what is there now, the people he sees. I’ve been to Paris three times now, once long ago for 6 weeks on my own in a cold winter, and twice with Jim and Izzy, 2 weeks around Christmas time and the New Year (2000), and the following summer. I am learning more, getting a better feel of the place than I’ve ever done and think if I could go back how much more I’d benefit. Each chapter is a little Eleanor Clarke, Rome and a Villa. Each one forms a walking tour; you are exploring with him. A shorter review by Kirkus. Janet Hulstrand says rightly there is so much here of history, literature, art, that it’s almost impossible to capture in a couple of paragraphs, but I believe she comes near and regales us with the details evocatively.

Downie himself, talking in France, about the book. He begins slowly, and has trouble getting into contact with the audience but as he goes on he’s extraordinary: the romanticism of Paris is the result of its negativity, that it make each visitor invisible, and conveys amid its austere life suffering, time past, darker passions contained.

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Hannelore Elsner as Nadja Uhi, with either one of the film’s younger actresses or perhaps the director? or costume maker?

I had confided in a friend how much I was again missing Jim this summer, and my friend recommended to me a 2008 German film, Cherry Blossoms, about an older man whose wife dies suddenly. I looked up the reviews and found most reviews to be vitriolically hostile or indifferent. For the record, I watched The Toyko Story and found it to be frozen, creepy, too long, too still, absurdly over-rated. The only parallels are the angry children and the deaths.

Cherry Blossoms opens with Nadja, the wife (a wonderful German actress, Hannelore Elsner) listening to doctor’s tell her that Rudi, her husband has not got long to live. She cries silently; they tell her to take him on a trip and she says he hates adventures. He follows the same narrow routine everyday of his life, including the sandwich she makes him for lunch. It would seem despite her staying home, being there for him all the time as he forges forth in the world, he stays within her sphere.

So no surprise when he follows her advice as she proposes a trip to visit their grown children in Berlin or some other German city (they live in a country town or suburb) and to the beach by a hotel. We see how much they do love one another, are dependent on one another, also glimpse the hostility to them of their grown children who slowly it’s revealed find their presence even so briefly an encumbrance, annoyance. Her favorite son lives far away in Tokyo — later we learn he moved there, that far to escape the domination of her quiet presence.

Quiet mood on a boardwalk; they move to the beach, by the shore, and suddenly she dies.

The film is half an hour in. The rest is Rudi’s very hard adjustment, then a chosen trip to Tokyo to see the son who fled them. At first he is bewildered and this son also hostile; they adjust to one another; he gets lost early on, but soon he is finding his way. Tokyo seemed to me as inhumane as I’ve thought it. The son says everyone works weekends, long days, all the time. They live in small boxes in high look-alike buildings, where everything looks the same. Their talk reveals that indeed the wife had always had this inexplicable desire to visit Japan, had wanted to be a Japanese stylized dancer. We have seen photos of her when young so dancing.

He has brought with him his wife’s clothes, at first he puts them on the bed beside him to sleep (what he started at home) but then he puts them on under his coat. He sees and then introduces himself to a street performer, Yu, an 18 year old girl who turns out to be homeless. She does a dance where she appears to get into contact with the dead; she says she is with her mother this way. She wears white make-up on her face — as the aborigine did in Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign he was willing to die, to let the whites murder him rather than flee them some more. He and she bond, form a friendship, she says she is an orphan and he suddenly cuts loose from this son (who has said he moved to Tokyo to get away from his mother who he loved so much but was overwhelming).

He takes the girl to Mount Fuji which his wife dreamed of going to. She dreamed of being a dancer, of going to Japan. He feels very badly that he stood in her way. We do see how middle class people in Japan take holidays: in a vast hotel-like structure where they live semi-communally — all eat in the same vast room. He and Yu are failing to see the Mount as each day it is so cloudy; and one morning he gets up very early and sees the mount: a vision. He hurries back, dresses in a Japanese dancing costume for a man that he has brought, and returns to the shore. As he dances, we see a hand reach his, and his wife is there, visible, similarly dressed. They dance intensely together. The camera moves away to Yu, just waking up. She discovers Rudi is gone, a couple of hours go by and he does not return. Now she too goes to the shore and finds him dead, laying by the shore. There follows a Japanese style funeral with his son and Yu presiding over his ashes in an urn, and then another funeral in Germany. The film ends quietly with the camera returning to the girl who has returned to the park to dance for money and to reach her mother. There is a dedication at the movie’s close, apparently by Dorrie remembering someone who perhaps died.

I use the phrase very moving so often, so let me say very very touching. Here is a review by Frederick and MaryAnn Brussat which begins to do the film justice. It’s beautifully tastefully filmed, written, the music just perfect, everything, tactful, controlled. I found it uplifting.

I do have one (many) regrets from my marriage: I never went to the shore or the beach with Jim enough. I knew how he burnt, and I’d get bored. Now I wish I had gone every summer with him — we’d go when we went to England to the Chitterings beach, once we went to Brighton. This summer I didn’t get to the shore at all. It is a three hour drive from my house to reach a public beach.

So these are the summer books and movies I have experienced this season of 2021; Nicolls at mid-summer and these at journey’s end.

Ellen

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Mudbound: Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) handing the letter from Resl (German woman) meant for Ronsel t(Jason Mitchell) to his family; Laura (Carey Mulligan) alone on the Jackson porch

Friends,

My theme tonight is adequate movies or films. Over the last couple of months I’ve been watching a number of films adapted from books — I’m not sure what to call them any more as I reach them by different technologies, or software, all of which are accommodated by my computer or my TV (which is after all a computer too). They stream in, I use DVDs, I watch via YouTube. There’s vimeo. I am exploring what makes for excellent film adaptation, without which you have poor hollow movies — or travesties.


The two friends, Jamie and Ronsel

The most recent and one dwelling on my mind is Mudbound, streaming in from Netflix who produced it, a film by Dee Rees, adapted from a book by Hillary Jordan. It is a gripping tale, very hard to watch for me because I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, worried that the members of the Black family would be killed or maimed from the constant threat or menace from the cruel violent whites they (and other Black families) are living among, or that the whites themselves would turn on one another, as in the opening scene where two brothers are burying their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks playing evil man), and it’s not clear that the older brother will rescue the younger one who appears to be drowning, sucked in by the mud the grave turns into as it starts to rain hard. The movie and book show you how racism under Jim Crow worked a constant demand from whites on blacks that they kowtow, humiliate themselves, with an ever menacing threat, every once in a while made good — as at the end of the film and book. The story has been reviewed as a movie far more often than as a book (New York Times; Odie Henderson of Roger Ebert’s site, with the story told and retold. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison is breath-taking in its artful suggestiveness.

The book itself reminds me of Faulkner or Graham Swift crossed by Toni Morrison: it’s told in turn by narrators in deeply subjective ways, all of which add up to an eloquent rendering of the misery and deprivation, impoverishment of the best of the human spirit in a racist, deeply inhumane capitalist racist order — Mississippi in the 1940s. The women are utterly subject creatures — in a secondary white family the father beats his wife and rapes his daughter and they have no recourse. We see whites cheat whites; and the way the whites makes money is to exploit the Blacks. We see Laura, the white wife (whose husband takes the car keys from her as a punishment), and Florence (Mary J. Blige), the Black one (whose husband relies on her) create meaning and beauty for themselves through piano playing or doing for their families; they form a supportive friendship; Hap (Rob Morgan), the Black father is a preacher and kind to his family; two sons, Jamie, white, and Ronsel, Black, learn that life can be far more decent and rewarding even during the terrors of war in Europe, and through friendship almost bring upon themselves annihilation but also escape at the film’s end.

But my theme tonight is not the message about how racism and patriarchy work in the US even now (subtler except when it comes to the police), nor even the relationship of the book and film, nor even the splendid art of the film (patterned scenes at the core), but rather that element so hard to gauge, to measure, to explain: why a given film is adequate to the content it seeks to visualize, give sound to, human presences, life, realization.


Stuart Wilson as a viscerally deeply felt Vronsky

I’ve watched several of these over this winter into spring time which are as it were forgotten (not even an adequate wikipedia entry; a 1977-78 BBC Anne Karenina by Donald Wilson (who also wrote the Forsyte Saga), with Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson, Robert Swann; the 1979 Rebecca, directed by Simon Langton (the best of them all), with Joanna David as Rebecca, Jeremy Brett as Mr de Winter, Anna Massey. The 1987 BBC Fortunes of War, written by Alan Plater (from Olivia Manning’s masterpiece epics, Balkan and Levant Trilogies), with Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Ronald Pickup, Rupert Graves (among others.


Joanna David (her daughter, Emilia Fox, played the part in 1997) showing that the quiet second Mrs de Winter of the book, is the strong woman

We dwell on these actors but it’s the embedded film world that is made for them as much as the enactment of their characters in that matters. What is it that makes for this depth of apprehension and detailed lived realization? Faithfulness (as it’s called) to the literal surface of a book or psychologies of actors and mood are the means. Each of the characters on a separate journey within groups of characters in a situation. There is the jelling together of the actors as they make the story realized. But more central I find is the inner drive to maintain an integrity of thematic vision, truth to a complex moral on the part of the central film-makers (writer, director, cinematographer, producer).

I stay with my paper written so long ago, the importance of the screenplay — that’s why we should study. In all these cases, that’s what I’ve been paying attention to — as well as watching how the director elicited from the actors the emotions wanted moment by moment. Look upon this as an interim attempt to suggest what I might write more at length once again.

Re-watching Mudbound, reading the book and studying Martin Scorcese notes for his masterpiece Age of Innocence over the past few days too: I’ve been studying Martin Scorcese’s for his 1997 adaptation of Wharton Age of Innocence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel-Day Lewis, and there the give-away are the lengthy descriptions of setting, gestures — and the use of a narrator. And re-watching the magnificent 2004 BBC The Way We Live Now, scripted Andrew Davies, featuring David Suchet — I mention Davies in the same breathe as Plater — in both cases shooting scripts are often available. A signal of the same core resolution and good strong book which can be so parsed.


There is a beautiful still of the Black church open to the sky with stained glass window covering half the space and Hap preaching so movingly in front of it but I cannot find a still among those online

And watching Rachel Morrison discuss the cinematography of Mudbound tonight brought me to bring together these nightly experiences over these weeks and what unites them even if the only stills commercially available on the Net are the far shots of landscapes, medium shots of people and close-ups of actors.

Short tonight, but I hope adequate … Do see the six films I’ve cited and read the six books alluded to in this blog. I want to say stick especially with the BBC later 1970s and early 1980s serials but again and again since then, as in Mudbound, one finds the crew and film-makers doing it again. A sign of seriousness is the published shooting script and in it real essays and thoughts in the appendix about what inspired the people — in Age of Innocence it appears to have been other brilliant costume dramas. Read what Mary J Blige has to say where she discusses why the most horrifying scene in the film is her favorite.


How they all stay in character too: Jamie is to me super-handsome but he is not the actor; and Mary J Blige is Florence throughout

Ellen

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For a US person I infer an analogy to these South African trials is the present trial in Minneapolis of the murderer of George Floyd (who thinks he will get off).  I’ve learned (I watched only the briefest clips but have read what is said) that police protocols in Minnesota and in much of the United States are intended to intimidate and murder Blacks — to hold them in terror so as to bully them at will. Not as searingly cruel as So. African militaries, but very much the same behavior in principle. And it’s upheld: in the court no one questions the police protocol; the only question is did Chauvan “overdo” it.

An article in Guardian by Oliver Laughland describes how the trial of Chauvin is being conducted as a way of assuaging a traumatized community

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the last three or four nights I embarked on a journey through four films telling the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After Apartheid finally ended, and Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, in 1996 a commission of concerned and able citizens was set up to hold public trials where people could come and tell of the horrific wrongs they and their friends and relatives suffered during the long decades apartheid was imposed on South Africa.

It was mostly Black people who testified about such experiences. I notice in each case a second person sits next to the victim witness there to soothe — and control — them. The people telling what had happened grieve, and occasionally become hysterical. The people who had perpetrated the wrongs the specific Black people were describing were invited to come to the same trial and if they admitted the whole truth of what had happened (which before this had been egregiously lied about, not told at all, distorted and falsifying details presented) and could demonstrate convincingly they were actuated by a political motive, a jury might grant them amnesty. This is not the same as forgiveness: it means a court has pardoned someone for an offense, which he or she can then not in law be blamed for again.


Four young South African men who were brutally murdered (Long Night’s Journey into Day, produced, directed by Deborah Hoffman, Frances Reid)

It was expected that the perpetrator should show remorse and apologize, and most did; a few became genuinely grieved and talked of how they had not since the time they did these deeds been able to sleep or live with themselves easily, but at least four men justified what they were doing by saying that is what they understood to be effective and necessary deeds at the time to achieve “stable gov’t” — and two of these were clearly in their hearts fiercely angry at being forced (if they wanted pardon) to own up. One white woman who came to complain about the death of her white son at the hands of a Black man was livid with hatred, indignation, and not for a moment accepted his explanation that he was driven by the deprived life and ferocious punishments that had been visited upon him. Yet of the three men all received amnesty. The people who did not receive amnesty were the ones where the torture they inflicted on the people they were murdering was hideously in excess in pain and suffering of what was needed to say “extract information” subdue or kill them.

When I first read about these commissions and what they were doing (in the 1990s), and have come across articles since, I was dismissive of what they could achieve. I thought that in reality by telling these terrible acts to those who have been mortally wounded basically for the rest of their lives, those listening would and could never forgive but would generally be made more angry. I now realize I was wrong; I had not read deeply enough, not read any descriptions of these trials at length and especially not seen any enactment. After watching the fictionalized retelling, Boorman and his team’s In My Country (1994); the shaped documentary Hoffman and Reid’s Long Night’s Journey into Day; and a two part report-like documentary made in 1997 by the South African Truth Commission, I’ve changed my mind.


Langston Whitfield (Samuel Jackson), Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) in John Boorman’s In My Country (1994, scripted Ann Peacock, Antji Krog)

On my own behalf, as an excuse I suppose for my obtuseness, one problem was the aim of the commission and the results were not being told clearly: the point isn’t forgiveness. Most of the anguished people I’ve now watched over some six hours of film could not forgive the people who did what they did; there was hardly a human relationship between them. The aim was something far more practical and less personal. In In My Country, it was called ubuntu (if I’ve the word correctly), a word which refers to a recognition that all must live together in one community and are bound together as one people, and must live in peace side-by-side. The aim was to achieve understanding of what had happened by uncovering all the details no matter how painful. Catharsis.  I now see tha good was done.  The person who had been so hurt at least had his (or her) day in court even if by proxy.  Also a hand was held out by the Black people who had so suffered for decades to the whites to be reconciled.

Of the three movies I’ve watched thus far, only the SA Commission Documentary admitted that few whites were in the audiences of these trials, that many whites refused to believe that the trials were telling the truth. Alas, for the most part the only whites who showed were the police and other militarized men seeking amnesty, telling of their deeds, and the relative of a rare white murdered either by gov’t death squads (let’s call them all) or a sudden uprising of mob rage by Black people (uncommon because of the terrible reprisal policies).


From Long Night’s Journey into Day: a rare young white woman, Canadian, who came to South Africa to help work against apartheid was mistakenly murdered
in a hysterical mob action simply on the grounds she was white — we see her anguished parents come to the commission, describe what happened, listen to the Black men who did that deed admit it and say they were grossly wrong and apologize profusely.

There is a fourth film I mean to see, but find The Power of Forgiveness by Martin Doblmeier, yet another documentary, is available as a DVD to be bought. I must wait for it to arrive by regular mail from the post office or Amazon.  The film is said to explore the nature and examples of forgiveness, including personal stories about Northern Ireland, the Amish, 9/11 and the Garden of Forgiveness, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Weisel; to use scientific studies, and of course humanistic discourse. I’m glad I watched the others first, for the implied demand here (you must forgive) skews the nature of what these trials meant to achieve: the aim is not forgiveness of the people who committed such horrific acts by the people wronged; rather it is an attempt by a people to live to live with their past and with those who have inflicted hideous damage on them by asking them to tell the truth and ask for legal pardon.

What I concluded is that the tiny number of white people in South Africa determined to set up a white supremacist state with whites wholly in charge, with all the wealth at their disposal, took horrendous and just cruel weapons of all kinds and hired and kept active armies who treated all Black South Africans as if they lived in a concentration camp where gov’t thugs were free to arrest, beat up mercilessly, torture, desecrate Black people’s bodies at will – and did. They did this because they were such a tiny minority — they used Blacks too as part of their police and surveillance: these were collaborators.

Similarly in Minneapolis, the prosecutors are allowing all the Black people who were forced to stand around and watch a fellow Black person murdered before their very eyes are testifying to the world what they experienced. If this protocol of intimidation and terror forced on Black people and communities all over the is not being openly admitted to, we are seeing it. That this is the way it is being understood can be seen in a British reporter for a far away newspaper picking the reality up and explaining it. The people being reconciled are themselves also potential victims and victims’ families — not all of them are up to it — they are of course hoping that at long last some justice may be done, and if this protocol not be done away with, the man who used it excessively, exultingly, will be judged rightly guilty of gross murder. Many weep as they tell what happened and then have to listen to the excuses and insulting of them and the victim the perpetrator’s lawyer. Apparently the ranks are breaking and some police officers are coming forward to say Chauvan used excessive force.

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I’d like to offer a few details of the three films I’ve seen thus, and when I’ve seen the fourth, add my commentary on it to this blog in the comments.


Anna and Langston at a trial as a South African TV reporter and American reporter for the Washington Post

In My Country is a fictional film, or a historical film fictionalized by the story of an Afrikaner white poet-reporter, Anna (Juliette Binoche) who has come with Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), a Black African man to cover the trials for a TV station and Langstan Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) an Black American reporter who strikes up a relationship them. What conventional suspense we experience is worry for their safety and watching their relationships develop. Anna belongs to an Afrikaner family most of whom disapprove of the trials and her empathy with Black people; her husband supports her and she leaves him with their children to follow the trials as they occur around Africa.


Anna and Dumi

Gradually she becomes friends with the young Black South African man assigned to her as technician, and lovers with the Black American reporter: it is a witty and tender relationship, beginning in antagonism and ending in understanding. She does return to her family and there is tension and loss. Dumi in the one false note in the film at its end is made to confront his past in a brutal scene with other Black Africans.

Juliette Binoche is another actress who appears in films and plays with a social conscience which are beautifully well done; she was a moving Antigone at the Kennedy Center years ago. Samuel Jackson is a well-known multi-faceted star.

But we are also — I was — riveted by the stories told in the hearings and seeing the white men as portrayed by white and black actors.  What happened is I realized that the commissions did succeed in what they set out to do for many. In fact the point was to allow hundreds of Black people to confront their hideous oppressors and tell them to their faces in front of a crowd what they had done — the point was a kind of tranquil shaming. If a particular officer or person showed he was politically motivated (had to do it) and did not go about the job with disproportionate cruelty (which many did), he could achieve amnesty — and the Black person learned what had happened to their beloved relative, friend or heard it said aloud and believed. Brendan Gleeson played the white Afrikan officer whose crimes were so disproportionate and whose remorse so ambivalent he is not granted amnesty but must stand trial for 63 murders.

I have found the whole of In My Country and been able to link it in here, and hope the people who put it on YouTube do not remove it.

Long Night’s Journey into Day was much tougher because the four cases (out of 22,000) detailed were real and there was no sweetening romance.  You learn more seriously the horrors of what Black people were subjected to for decades in South Africa. What I came away remembering best was that there are still many white who are not only unremorseful but angry that either one of their relatives/friends were killed and see themselves as having no responsibility to other people. One white man who did horrific things clearly was as cruel and brutal as ever and he was granted amnesty – for telling the truth. I also saw so many Black people and especially the mothers of those murdered years later still living maimed lives. I saw their continuing poverty. And I saw one white Canadian mother, father and brother, attempting to live up to what their white daughter in her idealism had tried to achieve. I thought this emphasis on women was perhaps a result of having two female director/producers.


One of the mothers of the four murdered young men featured in the posters (see above)

It’s a vimeo:


A young Deborah Hoffman — I can find no image of Frances Reid

Last, the straight two hour documentary made by the SA Commission. It is here we most often meet and listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu — he speaks of the white people who refuse to participate as missing an important chance to admit knowing what happened, to become better by doing so, to function more effectively in the true worlds of South Africa. It is a powerful film; I’d see it over two nights.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_QZO_onxlo (50 MIN)

I regret I have read so few books by South Africans about South Africa. I keep trying to persuade my WomenWriters@groups.io to read Nadime Gorimer with me. As of tonight I’ve only read a couple of marvelous short stories by Gorimer. I have read much Doris Lessing, but most of it not set in South Africa. One exception is The Grass is Singing

Ellen

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Alan Plater (1935-2010), screenplay writer extraordinaire, playwright, musician-composer

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight in my efforts to watch a Region 2 version of the 1987 Fortunes of War, a brilliant 7 episode serial adaptation of Olivia Manning’s brilliant trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, I was driven to use my multiregional player attached to my flat TV. My vlc viewer just was not strong enough to get through the occasional damage on the disks (in this set there are 3), and I clicked by mistake on something called “Timeshift.” I just could not get out of this program, and was irritated until within a minute or so I realized it was BBC documentary, lovingly and intelligently done, appreciative, of the life’s work of Alan Plater: Hearing the Music (unfortunately not available from the site it’s now announced on).

In the 1960s (many one and two hour plays) and early 1970s he wrote over 50 screenplays for the BBC; he wrote fewer in the later 1970s and into the 1990s running up to 2000 (his last) but these include the memorable whole of the Barchester Chronicles, this Fortunes of War, and one of the best of the episodes of the important Danger UXB; his work includes Misterioso, The Good Companions (J. B. Priestley novel turned into a musical), A Very British Coupso many it’s hard to look them all up. With many stunning performances, from Judy Dench to my favorite, Barbara Flynn, playing Jill Swinburne, whom Plater said was a version of himself.

Although this Guardian obituary does justice to Plater by beginning by naming him as one of the screenplay writers for British TV who made an important difference in the quality of its drama, and changed what you could represent and how ever after, in the tone of respect and felt appreciation for his work, the writer does not emphasize sufficiently Plater’s love of music, jazz and modern rock, his use of it in his work — and his political point of view (socialist). According to Timeshift (and other pieces I’ve read), Plater was a highly original writer for TV in the 1960s strongly because of his Hull and musical background (he studied to be an architect and that probably helped his sense of structure). At the time most shows displayed upper class accents and working class people were given cockney accents, with the dialogue often stiff or naive, or utterly conventionalized so as not to be realistic. With his roots in Northern England, especially Hull, he was one of those who changed all that, writing dialogue for the real spoken voices, kinds of accents different idiolects across Britain. He slowed down the action, and often wrote scenes between two or three characters conceived of as the core of the drama. Most of all he integrated music into his plays, conveying meaning through music. Music told the identity, the culture, the past, the feel of his characters; in talking of how he wrote his plays he called his process like that of Jazz; he has 12 bars, and within that he provides variations.

Here is one 10 minute segment on him, together with a discussion of a four season series made for Yorkshire ITV, the much respected and popular Beiderbecke Trilogy:

You hear and see Barbara Flynn talking too.

He conveyed how people really talk by writing less dialogue too and leaving spaces for pause, for really felt enacting by the actors together. He loved to develop what the author of a novel might have left out — what was the sermon the Reverend Slope spoke from Barchester Chronicles — it’s not in Trollope but improvised as the script developed by Plater.

Plater is not alone unsung. I cannot express how often I have had the experience of identifying a wonderful TV drama show by its writer, and been greeted by a blank look. If I’ve tried to tell the person who was the writer, what his or her career, what other programs he or she wrote, they politely wait for me to finish. They don’t seem to realize their love of Dickens is a love of Alexander Baron (prolific screenplay writer of the 1980s with some of them peculiarly fine, and a good novelist too) or Andrew Davies or Arthur Hopcraft or Simon Raven (of the Pallisers). Nowadays many women write these screenplays, Sandy Welch (Our Mutual Friend 1999) is an older practitioner, so too Fay Weldon (1979 Pride and Prejudice) more recently, Fiona Seres (2018 Woman in White). In the BBC until recently the screenwriter was the linchpin or (as the position is now called) one of the showrunners of the series. In cinema they are now named early in credits and paid much better; so too in some more prestigious (or pushed) serial adaptations (Poldark, Deborah Horsfield; Downton Abbey, Jerome Fellowes), but not as much (how many people know the names of the remarkable team writing Outlander under the general direction of Ronald Moore). Misterioso is perhaps one of his finest later dramas (1991, based on his own novel.

Hours, days, months, years of fine entertainment are due to such people — of course the cinematographer, the directors, producers, costumers, but in the case of the writer you can find biographies and you can trace a personality and point of view that is interesting across the work. I wish more people would pay attention to these unsung heroes and heroines. I hear in my head for hours afterwards the music that plays across The Fortunes of War

As a coda treat, it is said of Plater he combined Coronation Street with the feel and outlook of Chekhov story or play. I cannot locate Misterioso (the name is after a Jazz number), nor anything more than the kind of 2 to 10 minute clip included in the above interview so instead here is one of those Play of the Month productions (not by Plater) but of how Chekhov has been seen and done on the BBC: Francesca Annis and Ian Holm, 1974 in The Wood Demon (I believe it’s the whole thing)

Ellen

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Father (in his sepulchal voice) There was this English butler out in India — one day he goes into the dining room and what’s he see under the table: a tiger. Not turning a hair, he goes to the drawing room– ‘Excuse me, m’lord’ — (gives imitation of slight cough)– and whispering so as not to upset the ladies: ‘I’m very sorry, m’lord, there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps his lordship will permit use of the twelve-bores?’ They go on drinking their tea and then there’s three gunshots. They don’t think nothing of it — this being India where they’re used to anything — and when the butler is back to refresh the teapots, he says, cool as a cucumber: ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time, m’lord, and I am pleased to say there will be no discernable traces left of the recent occurrence by that time’ (shooting script, third draft, scene 22).

Friends and readers,

This not very long novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), with its quiet main story, the happenings along a road Darlington Hall’s long-time butler, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), encounters as he drives in his master’s Daimler cross-country from southeast to southwest England — is as rich a masterpiece as any overlong super-respected 19th century novel, as richly interesting as the novel Ishiguro said he had in mind as its precursor, E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). The film adaptation by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (whose script is a not-very-much altered version of one by Harold Pinter, is repeatedly said to be one of their masterpieces. I just finished teaching the book to a lively intelligent group of retired adults, and wish I could better convey the tone and comments on our conversations online (via Zoom), which show how metaphorically connected to our lives is the outlines of the story, now the characters, especially Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) are versions of ourselves from whom we can learn. We talked warmly about things that are important to us, coming out of and returning to the book and its film.

There has been so much said about both books and sets of films (Howards End comes in two forms, the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala 1993 version, with again, and not just a coincidence, Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the key roles; and the 2015 HBO version scripted by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Hettie MacDonald, this time with, as alterego for Margaret Shlegel-Emma, Hayley Atwell, but a somewhat different type from Wilcox-Hopkins, Matthew MacFayden.) What can I add? Here goes.

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The Remains of the Day, the book, continually exists on at least two levels: Mr Stevens is both a realistic character and a symbolic one. On a psychological level, he is a super-sensitive man, afraid of life’s emotions and hard realities (like possibly even getting fired), status insecure, and hides under the habit of the archetypal butler. We gradually learn to feel for him, grieve for his unlived life (as he finally does at the end of novel and film); on a symbolic level, he stands for the person who opts out of responsibility, will facilitate the doing of the most horrible aims (Nazism, fascism, flourishing and extended out of Lord Darlington’s conferences), an instrument for evil to work with. In his interview online, Ishiguro says he chose an archetypal figure for his allegory, made a man who fears the arena of emotions, emotional engagement, who at the same time is us because we too are removed from real power, do a little job as best we can, without being able to control how our contribution will be used. In a democratic culture we don’t get to choose among the out of our control decisions that affect vast numbers of people. He is Us.


Here he is always under strain


Miss Kenton intruding on Mr Stevens’s refuge in sentimental romance (a self-reflexive scene, since what is this novel but a sentimental romance?)

Ishiguro wants Mr Stevens’s idea of dignity to be completely challenged by the end of the book. I saw saw Mr Stevens’s definition of preserving self-guarded control, an attempt at a veneer which would save him from mockery, ridicule, scorn (in the book when Lord Darlington’s rich powerful guests question Mr Stevens we see how easy it is to humiliate him nonetheless). The true servant is the man who gives good advice, trustworthily, tells the master what he or she (the mistress) needs to hear to do well — as Kent does in the first act of King Lear, for which the king, I admit, banishes him.

Miss Kenton is Everywoman in the guise of a type seen in traditional English novels: she is pro-active, strong, competent in housekeeping (no small task to run such a house), with perception, integrity, and prudent self-control. She will act according to her conscience, as when she is horrified that Mr Stevens goes along with Lord Darlington’s orders they fire two Jewish maids (thus threatening their lives, as without jobs, they might be returned to Germany), she wants to quit; but she stays because she needs this job to live, because she enjoys her status in this awesome house, is deeply pleased by its order, beauty, and diurnal routine peace. She is a sister to Elinor Dashwood, to Margaret Schegel; that’s why the same actress, Emma Thompson, is perfect for all three characters.


as Elinor Dashwood writing to her mother (1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, scripted by Thompson too)


as careful Margaret Shlegel (M-I, 1993)


Miss Kenton interviewed (presumably in book and film, spring 1922)

She defends herself against Mr Stevens’s frequent nervous hypercriticism (his father “incorrectly situated [the china] Chinamen”). She says of another maid when she choses to marry over staying on in such a celibate position, “she will be disappointed,” but it not long afterward he begins to date Mr Been (Timothy Piggot-Smith). She wants both: the career, the marriage and her sad ending choosing to stay with Mr Been, so she can be near a coming grandchild and live through it, is not atypical. The letter (over-voice) with which the film opens, is brought back at the end, to show us that she had longed to return to Darlington Hall and this butler for whom she had venerating respect. Her grief at loss of a dream of happiness (it does not seem that they could have been happy together) is unbearably moving as she waves goodbye as her bus pulls off. Their hands had touched, and she leaves him and us weeping too. How many of my woman readers recognize themselves in her life and this ending? He could not reach out to her, and ridiculed him in a petty revenge among her last scenes in the house together.

Looking to the large issues: the unsettling of the old order, with a new one struggling to be born (Gramsci) pathological symptoms emerge. This is an unobtrusive condition of England novel — there are auctions in the movies made from both novels. Young Mr Cardinal (Hugh Grant) belongs here: he knows what is happening, his father persuaded to work for Nazi fascists, and in his newspaper he will try to expose his uncle — to stop him. The scene where he (like Miss Kenton) prods Mr Stevens to let go, open up to the reality of what he is working so hard for and is rebuffed is one of the books’ several climaxes.


Grant pushing Mr Stevens to own (up) to what has been going on at Darlington Hall this 1936/37

And in a throwaway line, when Mr Stevens and Mrs Been discuss Lord Darlington’s estrangement from England after he was shamed by his own libel case (he did entertain Nazis), she says how perhaps his nephew prevented too profound a loneliness, only to be told oh he died in the war. The good man in potentia and actually thrown away.

I love that the book is a beautiful patterning of art in itself. The story (the woof) contains three time skeins, with indeterminate time in-between. We begin (this is the third letter of the book). 1922 when Miss Kenton is hired, 1923 their earliest struggles – over who will have more power demonstrably, over his father too old for the job, his father’s death (where his face is suffused with tears which he wants no one to notice), seems around that time to want to visit the town the school the new schoolmaster (me) he is. Then 1936/37 – the conferences and also when Miss Kenton begins to date, tries to approach Mr Stevens is rebuffed, –- when Darlington tells Mr Stevens to fill his nephew in on Facts of life (sexual facts or more sinister, real politick). 1956 – when the trip happens – 20 years later, the time it became apparent during the Suez Canal incident (why should Egypt allow Britain to use its natural resources) that England no longer the world power she thought she still was. Three theads)

The trip itself has wonderful incidents, and juxtapositions intermingled, juxtaposed to long skeins of Mr Stevens’s remembering the past (the warp of the tapestry), to wit:

There’s a prologue and six days. The prologue and first day contain Mr Stevens’ memories of being in groups of servants like himself in “the old days” (so pre-1922/23, a time when grat houses were flourishing and had extensive staff) discussing what makes a great butler, with Mr Stevens telling anecdotes of his father or Mr Graham, whom he so admired, enacting dignity – in the face of absurdities (a tiger under a table) and active derision in a car trip (something to do with a music hall routine I could not discover). In the present Mr Stevens’ invited to take this trip (“take my car, the gas on me”), and dressing himself in the suits of his Lordship, with a comical allusion to the old (delightful, filled with real photographs of the places and an imagined trip through them) county books (Vol III of Mrs Symons’s Wonders of England). This is the first trip Mr Stevens has ever let himself take, and from Mr Farraday’s banter in the book, drawn out by his longing to renew a relationship he has brooded on for twenty years with cherished memories of Miss Kenton.

By Day Two, “Morning Salisbury” (evoking the cathedral with its embodiments of time across centuries), as Mr Stevens truly gets going on his trip (woof), Mrs Been’s (poor Miss Kenton that was) letter yearning to return, for her youth, for finding some purpose in life; with over-voice of Emma Thompson (the first spoken material of the movie) set against the house, saved from being sold as cement. His memories (the warp) more or less start at the beginning of their relationship (1922, the interview) and climax at the end of Day Three, Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon, when Miss Kenton roused by seeing her protegee leave to marry, herself begins to date, and, with Mr Stevens refusing to show any anxiety and even when she tries to say their evening talks are getting in her way, swiftly (spitefully as she can be) bringing an end to them, over her protests. Then her acceptance of a marriage proposal from Mr Been, juxtaposed to Mr Cardinal trying to persuade Mr Stevens to admit what’s going on. Neither can crack his facade.

In Devon too, the evening, we get a climactic dialogue of Mr Stevens with a Mr Smith in the Taylor’s house, which seem to serve as a tavern, with the neighbors all around, and Mr Smith who reflects morally on the another meaning of dignity for all of us (equality), with the corollary what they fought for in WW2 was liberty, not to be slaves of others, the right to exercise one’s will and make a view felt. Alas this time Mr Stevens hurries off because he has presented himself falsely as a Lord who knew powerful people (we cannot too much criticize him as Mr Smith’s desire to speak to him comes from this misapprehension) and hurries away because a physician he fears might expose him has entered “the fray.” It is against this scene that the upper class people at Darlington Hall humiliating use of Mr Stevens’s lack of an educated man’s knowledge in special areas is juxtaposed: it supposedly shows how he is not capable of making serious decisions about his or anyone else’s life. The “lower” people were so respectful and kind and asking him to identify with them. We get Lord Darlington’s half-apologies to Mr Stevens, and discover (to our dismay) the next morning not only did Dr Carlisle guess Mr Stevens to be a servant, but despises, dismisses the conversation of Mr Smith.

In the movie the final scene between Mrs (now) Been and Mr Stevens in the hotel restaurant is in present time; in the book, there is again evasion and we are privy to the scene only through Mr Stevens remembering it afterwards. All thrown into the immediate past, including their last scene standing in the rain waiting for her bus. And then, at last present time), his sitting on the bench breaking into talk with another older retired man –- tears streaming down his face. The man feeling for him urges him to look forwards, the evening or our lives are the best, and as ever polite and self-erasing Mr Stevens agrees, and vows to himself to do better once again, perhaps try to learn what this bantering is all about.

There are many juxtapositions that are “merely” suggestive: in Day two, Morning Salisbury, Mr Stevens swerves not to flatten a hen who just happens to be in the middle of the road and a farm girl comes out to thank him. It shows Mr Stevens’ good nature (perhaps in Ishiguro’s mind the cat that Charles Wilcox so carelessly “flattens”), and she tells him of a beautiful view nearby I worried she was thief, thinking Mr Stevens (like Lord Darlington) a naif, an amateur at life (as Mr Lewis says in the memories that come on the next day).

There are a number of reviews which do justice to the book, Laurence Graver of the New York Times; Peter Beech of The Guardian will have to do. Neither of them, though, dwell at the length they should on the characters of Miss Kenton and the young Mr Cardinal or Lord Darlington.

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Miss Kenton, unable to break through Mr Stevens’s carapace, tries to see what he reads privately — a sentimental romance (surely a self-reflexive joke)

The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie, whose script is close to Harold Pinter’s screenplay is rightly regarded as one of the team’s supreme achievements. For my part I attribute this to the brilliance of the book caught up through its most intensely aware (on the part of the implied author) scenes realized by a brilliant group of actors and director. In the book Miss Kenton is seen through the memories of Mr Stevens and so not viscerally there in the way she is in every scene of the movie. To my mind, very few of the reviews come near the rave one I would write were I a professional reviewer. Vincent Canby of the New York Times comes closest; Rita Kempley of The Washington Post; and some of the thematic kinds of publications: in Spirituality and Practice, ignore what Frederick and Mary Brussat say the film is about. I know I burst into tears the first time I saw the concluding scene of our thwarted lovers holding our their hands and not quite touching as her bus takes Mrs Been away from Mr Stevens forever. I took it as about the agony of self-reproach we feel as we look back at our unlived lives, our failures at not wasting our existence.

It is fair and accurate to remark that one of the people in the class remarked that Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton would have been very unhappy with one another had they married, and that often the scenes skirt a demented kind of comedy


Timothy Piggot-Smith as Mr Been kissing Miss Kenton after a couple of dates


They wait for Mrs Been’s bus together

In her review of Ishiguro’s first three books, Hermione Lee speaks of “the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate [I’d call it intensely tremblingly controlled) surface of the book. They’ve caught this in the movie as well as the stretches of absurd comedy, open anguish and daily ordinary life. James Ivory writes more than adequately and in detail about the scenes that matter so effectively in James Ivory in Conversation with Robert Emmet Long (pp 226-238).Ivory says he kept in mind a Satyajit Ray movie where an unfaithful husband and wife hesitantly reach out to one another and fail to make contact, also that it’s insufficiently appreciated how all the scenes upstairs are seen from the point of view of a servant passingly there and hardly take any of the screen time. I’d say as in the M-I movies set in southeastern England, do not underestimate the effect of the soul-gratifying orderly green landscapes (see the intelligent picture book, John Pym’s Merchant Ivory’s English Landscape: Rooms, Views and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes).

I’ll leave my reader to watch the film again and listen to Ishiguro talking of what he meant to do in his book and how he felt the movie related to it and should be approached.

Ellen

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Hana (Andrea Riseborough) examining a temple (Luxor, 2020, directed scripted Zeina Durra, 2020)


Oliver Sacks His Own Life (biopic, 2019, Ric Burns directed, using Sacks’ book of the same title)


Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in sunlit landscape contemplating excavation (Dig, 2021, directed Simon Stone, scripted Moira Buffini from John Preston’s book)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been very fortunate in the last week or two because (without doing this deliberately) I’ve seen three excellent recent movies (actually four, see Even the Rain, 2011, in comments), all of which are thoughtful, quietly passionate, with genuinely interesting content, landscapes, story — all providing a true uplift. I write this blog to tell those of my readers seeking some respite from anxiety (COVID morphing into more deadly or infectious variants, not enough vaccines, the economic future. people hurting economically, and trying to self-isolate) you need only go to your computer and it’s a couple of clicks and a nominal sum away.

I don’t want to overdo this as I think of what most popular movies are, but I begin to wonder if there has been an effort recently — given the continued misery (see above) — to produce films where characters persist in hoping amid nearby or coming carnage (middle eastern wars, WW1) or the neglect of the agonizingly mentally disabled) or their own inner demons and distress. It really is a coincidence that just now on PBS, an excellent re-make of the movingly comic All Creatures Great and Small, has been airing, coming over your cable from PBS for the last five weeks. But maybe not that the era the film-makers are drawn to is just before or after WW1


James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) treating Strawberry, the cow (ITV, 2020, now on PBS)

I watched Luxor and Oliver Sacks His Owe Life as assignments in a weekly movie-class, where we watch movies online at Cinema Art Theater (supporting our local art movie-house). We are in our second week of four, all current movies. Luxor and Sacks are $12 each for 3-4 days of potential watching.

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What a relief is Luxor.


Hana with the newly re-found Sultan (Karim Saleh) at the hotel bar

It’s such a quiet movie, people hardly speak. The sexual acts that occur — several times, Hana, once with a stranger she met at a bar, Hana more than once with Sultan) are off-screen! There is no overt violence in front of us. Hana has returned to Luxor where she spent a joyous time with Sultan (throes of first love) 20 years ago. She is suffering from PTSD after years of surgery, practicing medicine the worst war and refugee places you can imagine — the Syrian border is mentioned. Unexpectedly she finds Sultan is now living there; he too returned, to do archaeology for the Eygptian gov’t (to please nationalists, for tourism). The story is we watch her slowly seem to get better, to come out of herself. Towards the end after she dances at a bar and comes back to her room in the hotel with Sultan, she bursts into hysterical shattered crying. To find tranquillity you have to allow the passions some release.

Like Celine Siamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s oddly devoid of dialogue — some people in life do talk a lot … but not this pair of lovers. As you go through her experience with you, you (or I) find therapy yourself.  At one point Hana visits a fortune-teller with the hotel owner.  It is also at core a romance, with two people who once knew each other, coming together again (like Linklater’s Sunrise, Sunset trilogy) with beautiful photography of this city left off the beaten track of commercialism, power, and today not even getting heavy tourism. It’s an Indie , the director is a woman who has made other movies of a similar type it seems. Roxana Hadadi writes a fine favorable detailed review on Ebert. It gains its denser power by the significance of the temples, the history of lives lived in squalor and hardship, the profound irrationality of people caught in their statues

The small diurnal transient lives considered against this backdrop, which lives are nonetheless precious and everything to those living them — this perception embodied is replicated in The Dig of Sutton Hoo below.

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Self- or group-reflexive still – during the course of the movie we met the living people now making the film and friends to the dying Sacks, as well as those no longer living (through older photos and Sacks narrating

His Own Life is the title of Sacks’s last book.  At last, out as a gay man, he owns his life.  And now he tells it. I’m a reader and teacher of Sacks’s books and essays as was Jim (our library of Sacks’s books) and I’ve taught several them (Hearing Voices, A Leg to Stand on, Migraines) and xeroxes of chapters and essays from others and periodicals (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, the New York Review of Books), and I thought I knew a lot. This film taught me I knew very little about the man’s full life (Jewish boyhood with physicians for parents, 3 other brothers), his character, how he grew up in England, how his mother rejected his homosexuality with abhorrence and then silence about it.


Oliver Sacks as a child.

What a sexy young man he was — when he left England, after having gone to the best private schools and then Oxford, for San Francisco & then Greenwich Village, NYC


Oliver Sacks, 1961.

His colleagues at first sidelined his work or fired him (when he accused their punitive methods of cruelty), his going on drugs, a slow and agonizing flowering when he got a job in a Bronx clinic where he was able through insight, drugs, compassion to bring catatonic people back to life. His literary success and then social through giving talks in prestigious places, his success as a doctor finally brought the psychiatric world round enough to appear to accept him.

I did not know he was homosexual and had to hide this most of the time. I was startled to see how heavy he was at one time. To watch him risking his life in crazed motorcycle riding. He is presented as living a more or less chaste life until his last years when he fell in love and his last partner, Bill Hayes, is in the film. The film narrator attempts to explain his methods, and his clinical work is done justice to as well. Among the witnesses is Jonathan Miller who describes Sacks at Oxford. Owen Gleiberman has written an intelligent review of the film, conveying the deeply humane nature of the man that also shines out in the film.

The film omits a few things about his career itself:  he was a wonderful storyteller  — a writer.  And central to is professional success without the support of academia was to have had the abilities of a novelist (in effect). His chapter stories are little novels where he has himself through his writing understood his patient or alter ego better by talking/writing to the reader.  To be sure, all these are based on years of clinical work (which work is not respected by the highest academics who prefer the theories that arise from abstract thought and research).

Very important: his real thrust was low tech (see especially Migraines). He contextualized and understood phenomena in history, e.g., the deaf in Hearing Voices where they were idiots for centuries and suddenly were people like you and me after the 3 Enlightenment philosophers invented sign languages.   The last thing he resorted to was a operation (see Migraines especially), and drugs were only applied after long talks and getting to know and understand a patient.  This is not appreciated by the medical establishment, supported as they are by the pharmaceutical industry & astronomical prices for surgeries.

As Oliver Sacks’s homosexuality made him for a long time an outsider in society, so his deeply humane methods, and his choice of approaches which are not prestigious (or as well paid) .  Sacks’s storytelling,  abilities as a brilliant writer as much as a clinician, neurologist and psychologist made him the hero and explorer and man we should be grateful to.

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Dig is a pastoral movie with much sun over the peaceful green fields of southern England

The Dig. I loved almost every minute of it, and although I realize the novel from which it is adapted, departs from historical accuracy, invents personalities and characters, I’ve a hunch it’s the sort novel I will find comfort and strength from (I have bought a copy from bookfinder.com). I gather the movie is getting a big audience; the subject is one long known, one which does attract a popular audience when set up in a museum to be a spectacle of gold: the Sutton Hoo burial grounds, the ship, its treasures, the Anglo-Saxon history.


Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) in the sun — many of the characters in Dig and Luxor are photographed in the sun


With Peggy Piggot (Lily James) by a left-over wall — your conventional romance trope

As with Luxor, and (on TV) All Things Great and Small, the photography is beautiful. One does not wonder why so many Anglophilic novels are set in the southeast. The acting very good: Ralph Fiennes, as Basil Brown, the “amateur” archaeologist, superb excavator, hams it up a bit with his accent, but when he is gone from the screen is when the film begins to fade and lose strength of emotional will and understanding.  He, together with the owner of the property, Carey Mulligan, as Edith Pretty, who catches the note and behavior of the upper class woman with her sense of privilege, have found the buried ship and its treasure together. She defends him only slowly from the ambitious academics, but it’s she who saves his life when the excavation collapses over him; she tries to invite him to dinner but he evades what might have been a very painful experience for both; nonetheless, they form a strong bond in the film. At one point he leaves the site because he is treated so rudely, condescendingly by those with degrees, but he is persuaded back by his wife, May (Monica Dolan) on the grounds that has he been doing this all these years for these people’s praise? At its end, she says she will be sure he will be recognized. Intertitles in the final credits tell us the Sutton Hoo material first arrived in the British Museum 7 years after Edith’s death; and then it took a long time for Basil Brown to be properly credited, but he and Edith are both central names on the exhibit today.

Our two central actors are ably supported by Johnny Flynn, as Rory Lomax, who I first saw as Viola in the all male Twelfth Night, and does have this charisma-charm; & Lily James, as Mrs Margaret (Peggy) Piggott, who falls in love with him (James has been superb as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Cinderella, & Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice & Zombies). Rory Lomax is Edith Pretty’s brother who is going off to WW1 as a RAF and we and he and everyone knows the danger and death rate high.  Peggy Piggot is the wife of the one of educated by degree team who is also homosexual and has married her in a cover up ,and continually rejects her body and companionship. Like Brown, she is not professional, has no degree, but knows a great deal, and she comes upon a jewel first (fiction can do this).

One of the film’s pleasures is its staunch egalitarianism. Again, the seeming ordinary man is our hero, and he is almost pushed off his site; but his wife persuades him to accept the snobbery and sidelining by the official professionals who at first treat him like a servant whose services they must endure but control. But after all he is not ordinary; the caste system erases people not born with money and rank, irrespective of their deeper talents.

Fiennes was believable as the older man whose partly orphaned son is attracted to him — they look at the stars through Brown’s telescope together. When Mulligan presented the reality of a personality of a upper class woman of the era, now widowed, she shows a hard edge, and assumes of course that her servants should serve her hand and foot. The love story of Rory and Peggy is conventional, but I did not find it detracted — it done from the DH Lawrence point of view, which roots the attraction of the two people to their deep time alone at night in the natural world all around them (a tent, behind a garden wall).


It rains; the women with the famous archaeologist from the British Museum (Ken Stott)

It themes includes death — Mrs Pretty visits her husband in his grave; she is discovered to have rheumatic heart disease and physically deteriorates during the film. Her young son is desolated when he sees this, and cannot save her — as he tells Mr Brown. Then we get this wonderfully delivered speech by Fiennes-Brown about failure: how we fail all the time, have to accept it, and just try to fail better. He got near Robert Louis Stevenson’s axiom. The boy clings with admiration to Mr Brown.

Et in Arcadio Ego; death is in The Dig shaped by the film’s consciousness of long time, and that each individual is part of some long range cycle seen in the buried ship. We are in an ancient cemetery. Planes going over (RAF) soon to be replaced by the brutal Germans with their bombs. All this is in Luxor too: war and carnage, the irrational temples. Sacks is dying and has been deprived of deeper companionship of a lover most of his life. The dialogue is realistic, well done. For detailed full reviews see Sheila O’Malley on Ebert. Also The Guardian, Mark Kermode, better than usual because he’s reviewing a better film.


Fiennes’ presence helps make The Dig


Riseborough pitch perfect in silent grief


Playing piano, being filmed in His Own Life; his papers just below — there are no online photos of his patients (Jim used to feel that there was a voyeuristic element in his books)

Ellen

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