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Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

From my house in Alexandria (just outside Old Town) it takes an hour and one half to get to the Phillips Collection in Northwest Washington (a block away from Dupont Circle). My little mildly difficult trek (there is no Metro train stop at King Street, my “natural station” so either I take two buses and walk or a cab — guess which I chose?) was a comfortable secure instant compared to the journeys I witnessed records in all sorts of forms of many different emigrations, migrations by bodies of people and individuals from one part of the earth to another. Do not miss The Warmth of Other Suns — it will make you think of any journeys towards a new identity you have taken yourself. Here are two of mine:

On September 6, 1969 I traveled back to the UK from NYC to join Jim after I had gone home a month before, thinking I might never see him again. I came by car, plane, train, traveling from 9 one evening to 6 the following evening. I had telegrammed him once, we had spoken on the phone once (calling long distance was not easy to Leeds); we had forgotten to make a plan how or where to meet.  And yet there he was, at that train station, on the platform, waiting for me. He had in hand a document signed by his parents giving us permission to marry before October 3rd, for that was his 21st birthday. We set the bans the next day and were married a month later, October 6, 1969, at Leeds Registry Office at 1:30 in the afternoon. It took 5 minutes. I had a VISA whose validity was fast vanishing because it was a student Visa only good to the end of that September. So I was an illegal immigrant for more than a week. I became legal by the simple expedient (at the time) of marrying him; several weeks after the ceremony I had to go to the Leeds Police Station to be finger-printed, passport in hand, and was given temporary papers to stay and to work; and a couple of months after that, I got a document saying “all restrictions were lifted” and I was a British subject. I wonder what would happen to me today? I am white (in case you didn’t know), a native-born American citizen, was at the time nearly 23, with my divorce papers in hand (I had been divorced April 1967 in Spanish at a Juarez, Mexico court). Come to think of it both of us needed documents to do what we wanted to do.

A year and one half later I made the same trip in the other direction, with Jim this time, & after he had secured a green card & full permission to live as a resident in the USA. I had worked as a secretary, personal assistant for John Waddington (game and toy and package manufacturing company). For this green card, we needed more documents, and had taken at least two trips from Leeds to London, coped with much mail & document filling out; & my father had written a six-page document outlining his assets to assure the US gov’t Jim would not be a ward on the state. We had several suitcases, one vacuum cleaner, and the trip took two days: train from Leeds on day one, train to London airport, plane, car to my parents’ apartment on day two. I had thought I would stay in England, become English, but Jim could make 9 times as much in NYC, and the cost of living was nowhere near 9 times as much, and I had a place in a graduate school in NYC to do a Ph.D. in English literature. My parents had rented a one-room apartment for us, with a bed in the wall (not far from them). But we did not stay, and moved to Manhattan soon after. Chelsea.


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

I was much moved by the exhibit – kept going back and forth between parts.  It was not as painful as the permanent history exhibit at the African-American exhibit where towards the end I began to cry (while I was in the tragic Emmet Till memorial), but I felt just indescribably upset as I went. I watched movies (two longish ones, several short), looked at paintings, drawings, sculptures of all sorts, installations, photographs (many many photographs), sculptures of all sorts, drawings using different media from oil or watercolor paintings (also there), documents too. The museum says 75 artists are represented; there is an emphasis on the most recent groups of victimized migrants on the US-Mexican border. The long film, by Chantal Ackerman (among many others), De l’autre cote (From the other side) is filmed all along the US-Mexican border, night-time, day time, rural and city. The conceit is she is interviewing the other side:

a elderly couple (in their 70s) whose son and grandson were killed in Las Vegas and were obviously very poor, still crying; a Mexican fourteen year old who had “crossed” more than once, one time trafficked, who said he wants to cross again to join his parents in New York in order to make more money and build a big house. Another girl said she wanted to cross to eat more, eat better. At the end of the film we hear the voice of a hispanic young man who has migrated legally and is now seeking his mother, a summary of his non-findings and her wanderings through jobs, places, rooms. The wall is filmed with the people on the both sides — it is made of different materials in different places. We also hear from a sheriff (appalled at the deliberate crisis and huge crowds created by Trump’s policies), two people who live on a farm, deeply anti-immigrant, a white man who owns a cafe near the border, watch a heavily armed ICE person or guard with flashlight seeking people on dark meadow — the other side.

It is not just about recent immigration, refuges, but goes back and forth in time. I found “myself” early on: a half a wall of photos of immigrants arriving in 1905-10 at Ellis Island. All four of my grandparents from Eastern Europe came in that way


Refectory

There were artefacts from the Trail of Tears: the horrific 1830 expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren places to start life again.


Trail of Tears

Dorothy Lange and other WFA photographs on the migrants and farm-workers of the US in the 1930s, underpaid in order to force them to keep moving to find more work; African-Americans trekking from the south to the north for decades (Jacob Lawrence’s art); Vietnamese escaping in boats; people from Africa and the Middle East walking, attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean; also photos of The Jungle (denigratingly called), a huge immigrant camp that sprung up in Calais.


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

The second long film, Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (and many others), took you back to eternal time: three screens often filled with the rushing sea, ocean, walls of ice (and expeditions). You were taught how strong, indifferent and dangerous is this medium for travel. Two of the screens at any time were showing fish and animals in large flocks, some surviving, some just living, others in bad shape; or individuals gunned down (I felt so for a polar bear with a man relentlessly pursuing him), dead and trussed up; one huge whale people were crawling around knifing, stripping. The third screen usually had people: Africans transported in terrible conditions,

thrown over board, stories told by narrators of a baby thrown overboard for irritating a sailor, from famous novels (Moby Dick), diaries, poems. Often one person (actor or actress dressed in upper class 18th to 20th century garb) standing out or sitting looking at the sea. Furniture thrown helter-skelter near the sea.

The exhibit fills up one of the two Phillips buildings. The overall impression is of a desperate struggle for survival (one floor is filled with abandoned clothing), a long ordeal of endurance and loss, much rightly to fear, where for the most part the attitudes of those inside the land mass the migrant is declared a foreigner to, where he or she or they have no relative, or friend, or prepared place or job to turn to, and no legal right to be there, ranged from indifference to hostility. You see early in the 20th century officials behaving with minimal decency, but this seems rare. Short films tell of this or that person’s acute misery in say a hotel that is like a prison, grief. Poverty, war as a cause of the flight, fleeing for safety, was most common. Much social and neo-realism, where we see stalwart families holding up, individuals looking out at us proudly or with thoughtful eyes, some famous 19th century engravings (one by Honore Daumier, The Uprising).

Admittedly the exhibit might be accused of being one-sided. In the US there have been periods where those seeking asylum have not been treated cruelly; individuals and families have gone with more belongings, documents and thrive: they quote Richard Wright: I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom (1945)

But the emphasis rightly is intended urgently to bring home to the attendee the new level of depravity the US present gov’t is inflicting on the vulnerable, and include a history of ruthless enslavement and settler colonial destruction against a tragic song of the earth and sea’s rhythms and animals and people displacement and death. You are prompted to re-think and see this general phenomenon in constructive — and generous — ways. Also historical, rational: a nation-state is an invention, it’s a group of people governing a place, often tyrannically; how has it come to be a religion so that borders become sancro-sanct and everyone outside is an “other?”  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refuge Policy in a Changing World is one of several books that are left on a table in a room at the end of the exhibit where you can “reflect” on what you’ve seen.

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I was led to go because I’m just now reading towards a paper I’m going to give at a coming 18th century conference on Culloden and the highland clearances (as this Scottish diaspora and ethnic “cleansing” is called). A few words on my reading and watching (movies matter) thus far and then I’ll have done:

In general, Culloden literature (as I call it) resembles other literatures emerging from other diasporas. Most of the fiction tells an upbeat story (!): the community somehow moves as a group, or ends up sticking together through re-constitution and individuals finding their way back to “their friends.” The person who suffers badly is the person who falls out, does not obey all the norms & fit into the praised culture the others practice. It becomes hard to find a story of an individual at the crossroads of an existence where the ending and shape of the whole narrative is traumatic. This holds true for Hogg’s Perils of Women (often jocular –eeek!) and the truly tragic story (often a woman ostracized for pregnancy, and gang-rape), the calamity is an interlude got over; Naomi Mitchison’s Bull Calves, even Alistair MacLeod’s contemplative melancholy-lyric No Great Mischief.

You must go to the more thoughtful, less popular memoir, the raw found diary or journal, and good serious non-fiction. The outstanding best book I’ve ever read in emigration, refuges, diaporas is Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth Century History.

Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited. He shows that “ordinary people’s safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them.

Communities don’t survive almost intact; they don’t reconstitute themselves as a mirror image of what was — as we watch the Outlander characters do in North Caroline in Drums of Autumn — I grant she more includes more intermittent tales of desperate tragedies, calamities, cruelty than many such books; tellingly, most of these associated with enslaved people and low status gang-raped women. But what she’s not having is your identity changes and so does everyone else’s under the impress of need and a different world geographically and socially.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in front of their tent – they will soon with Ian’s (John Bell) help build a magnificent log cabin (Outlander, Season 4)

For Culloden and the highland clearances, the recent best is T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Clearances: it’s been praised as showing that John Peeble’s powerful detailed Culloden and indignant Highland Clearances are wrong, unbalanced, far too hysterical, too tragic; in fact Devine ends up telling a similar story, only nuanced and occurring over generations and with many more bad and mixed actors. And I must say, if a literary masterpiece (especially endurable you are not reading but listening to it read aloud by the brilliant David Rintoul (who knew he is Scots?), Walter Scott’s Waverley is as distorted & misleading a book as you can find.

A friend is sending me a copy of Chasing the Deer (1994, much influenced by Peter Watkins’s masterpiece docudrama, Culloden (1965), and said to be a credible depiction of Culloden, with Brian Blessed and Iain Cuthbertson in lead roles.

As these films are mostly all men — male experience –, I’ll end on one of a beautiful cycle of poems on an emigrant’s life experience in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s re-creation of Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush in her brilliant poetic The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently
shaped ears

thought I tried to adapt

(he girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeers at me for my burnt bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. The forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder;
the branches quivered

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen

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Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley) when Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy) first sees her


As read using Buckley in voice over, Marion’s letter to Walter, Laura Fairlie now Hartright (Olivia Vinall) and Mrs Hartright, Walter’s mother (Cathy Belton)


Marian escaping

This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It is also about “the machinery of Law” and the power of those with “long Purses.” So begins the novel. Towards the end we are again told [Walter Hartright] “vindicates” [Marian, Laura, Anne] through all risks and all sacrifices — through the hopeless struggle against Rank and Power, through the long fight with armed deceit and fortified Success, through the waste of my reputation, through the loss of my friends, through the hazard of my life …

Friends and readers,

Over the past few months I’ve watched three adaptations of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone:

1972 (with Robin Ellis and Anna Cropper as especially effective), 1996 (I just loved Keeley Hawes and Gregg Wise), and 2016 (which I found incoherent);

and two of his Woman in White:

1982 (Diana Quick and Ian Richardson extraordinary) and Fiona Seres’s 2018 (unforgettable so many of the performances) while I read with a group of friends on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io Collins’s marvelous novel, The Woman in White.

I’d read about Collins’s use of disability in his novels (No Name, Miss Finch who is blind), and now I added how aspects of Collins’s life, his character as a person, his other craft (visual art) are woven into his novels; see Martha Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, Catherine Peters’ biography, and do read the radical sexual nature of “sensation fiction” in D.A. Miller’s essay in The Novel and the Police, Cage aux Follies: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White.

I had tried to read The Moonstone when I was in my 20s and just couldn’t get on with Gabriel Betteredge as the narrator. I tried Armadale in my 40s, and found the thickly-evented plot defeated me. I first read The Woman in White when I was about 24, I was running a very high fever and sick in bed for three days and read the whole novel steadily, turning the pages intensely as I went. I never forgot the experience, which is why I tried more than once to read Collins again, though found I just couldn’t manage it. After this second experience of The Woman in White, some books about Collins and all these films, I am eager to try The Moonstone again and No Name.

I’ve come up with a few conclusions:

First, that Collins’s two best-known novels are just not adaptable because their fascination and depths comes from the highly complicated ironically juxtaposed subjective and nuanced narratives; but that when you adapt them if you use framing devices that turn forward-moving chronology into continual interchanges of past and present, gothic techniques, and a strong feminist point of view, which is what Fiona Seres in 2018 does that leaves room for creating empathy with mental disabilities, you can make an adequate substitute.

That he is astonishingly contemporary in a lot of his perceptions, viz., how dangerous people kept innocent who have good impulses can be to themselves and to others; how people are continually under surveillance by gov’ts as well as any local groups they belong to, with records kept about them, and become neurotically insecure.

And lastly that at their core is a radical attack on sexuality as usually perceived and controlled, and violations of privacy, security, and any calm.

Together with Tyler Tichelaar, after reading Woman in White (and also a few years ago teaching Bram Stoker’s Dracula), I’m convinced that Collins’s Woman in White was a strong influence on Stoker’s sensational vampire horror tale: Collins’s use of subjective structures, and many of his themes and motifs are taken over. See Tyler’s The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula.

It’s a powerful and was an influential book, and when I look back on the English courses I took as an undergraduate and graduate student, it seems a form of snobbery (and left-over imposition of F.R. Leavis’s Great Tradition) that doesn’t make The Woman in White a must-read in any course in the 19th century novel — though to the ten standard novels I was assigned in a Victorian novel course I nowadays also would add Gaskell’s North and South and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (or if I dared, The Beleaguered City) too.

This is a whole lot for one blog so tonight I shall just deal with a few aspects of Collins’s The Woman in White as it appears in John Sutherland’s edition for Oxford World Classics and the strong anti-hierarchical and feminist stances of Fiona Seres’s 2018 Woman In White (with a few words on Ray Jenkins/John Bruce’s 1982 version for comparison).

I mention the editor of my volume because in Sutherland’s notes, appendices and an apparatus of chronology, it is apparent that there are at least three differing versions of The Woman in White: there seems to be a complete manuscript, which was apparently cut by Dickens as well as Collins before any publication. There the version of the novel which first appeared in Dickens’s own All the Year Round; this differs from the volume editions because the places were the chapter divisions or installments fell are different. (The Woman in White appeared right after Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, so the two novels could be linked together in the audience’s minds.) And there is The Woman in White that emerged in the stand alone volumes — made yet more concise, more edited. Sutherland prints many passages cut from the manuscript and tells you where the installments ended and what was the last passage so you can see how often Dickens chose highly melodramatic endings (blunting subtlety).

What fascinates me is the artistry of the novel. The diction seeming so impersonal and yet sensuous, deeply felt, passionate. The uses of suspense and dramatic irony.  In the latter parts of the novel where you have several different minor characters as writers (a housekeeper, a cook, a servant, a doctor, a tombstone) and then return to the now knowing Walter Hartright, first you are not told the truth of what is going on under the machinations you watch, so you are left in suspense, to put together a meaning, plus you cannot tell whether the servant/hired professional is disingenuous or not; then the machinations are suddenly explained so now you watch events, so you are experiencing what’s called dramatic irony: you know truths the characters you are watching don’t know. Since a lot of the events are the same, just retold from different points of view, this psychology is endlessly to be explained at the same time we can see continually the distance from between the way people behave on the surface and are actuated.

The matter presented in these devious ways is deep emotionalism. Humiliating and dangerous secrets, strange illness, other unknown of motives — at the core of the book is the history of a disabled child born illegitimately, Anne Catherick, whose parents abandoned her, whose one loving caretaker, a nurse-housekeeper, Mrs Clements, had no power to protect her from them dumping her in an institution. She has two doppelgangers: the obvious, her half-sister, Laura, who looks like her (they had the same father), and is herself unusually sensitive and vulnerably fragile in her will. Laura’s mother (now dead) had shown an impersonal kindness to Anne because she resembles Laura and Anne was deeply attached to her and now hovers over this woman’s grave. Laura herself has another half-sister, Marian (they had the same mother), who is presented as inherently strong but slowly shattered by the abuses of male power, so that if not by genes, by experience she begins to resemble Anne Catherick. We become deeply worried when Marian becomes so ill, then (possibly) so drugged, and then bewildered and frightened at her loss of self-possession. She is no longer in control of where her body is.

The matter is also on the surface brutal: a coerced marriage of Laura to Perceval Glyde who slowly loses control and the quiet menace turns to violence because of his need for money becomes unbearably pressing, while his secret illegitimacy (that would deprive him of any right to rank or his own property) preys on his mind, and he strikes out everywhere, adding kidnapping, possible murder, imprisoning, hired thugs and (wild comedy here) while trying to secure or destroy the birth records ends up setting himself on fire in a locked church. There is the homosexual obsessively reclusive or screechingly selfish uncle has power to help the girls but adamantly refuses, threatening them, and firing Walter (who would come to their aid) ostensibly for not attending to mounting, cleaning, improving his paintings. This hideous cruelly irrational uncle role is played with such high memorable theatrics by Ian Richardson and Charles Dance as to dominate over Perceval’s Italian friend Fosco who in the book is probably the most memorable presence, scary because so amoral (we feel), cold, manipulative, projecting a will which will stop at nothing, mean to animals who fear him on sight, with a utterly cowed wife.

Nota bene. We are told Fosco is enormously fat; the man who finally does him in, the tenderly loyal Italian friend of Walter, Pesca, is said to be a dwarf. But all the film adaptations avoid such “abnormality” and cast for the roles males who non-genteel, tough-looking, Italianate, but nothing out of the ordinary. Collins himself suffered from social ostracism because of his “odd” appearance: some sources say very tall, but with small hands and feet, slight, delicate looking with one part of his skull depressed — from a hard childbirth. Others have him as small with “a protuberance on one side of his head.” At any rate, he looked different enough to be ostracized. He suffered psychosomatic pains and all his life — bad ones. He remained further outside social acceptance when he would not marry either of the two women he got involved with, lived and had children with …. this not marrying was his choice of course, and he did what he could to make a secret of the two families to the point that their existence and present descendants have only been identified recently. All this felt in the books is erased from all films by hiring actors whose appearance is commonplace.

It’s worth noting that in the novel lawyers try to do the right thing. In the 2018 film, Seres invents a third lawyer whose attempts to gather evidence and help at the frantic Marian’s bidding are the central framing device; Mr Gilson has a long narrative, which keeps us at a distance from our beloved characters’ minds; he also recounts the specific amounts of money Laura inherits, and Glyde owes.

This has the effect of breaking the mesmerizing blocks of journals early in the book, calming things down. Why so mesmerizing? The novel is about Marian’s love for Laura, about Laura as utterly in need of supportive love; Laura loves Marian and cannot conceive living apart from her. And it’s Hartright’s love for them both. It’s immersed in homoeroticism — from Walter’s seemingly effeminate sensibility — and lesbian feeling. Marian is attracted to Fosco and he to her. (Collins had two mistresses or wives.) All this keeps breaking through while an attack on the way families treat individuals, parents use children coldly is going on –.

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As to the two movies:


Marian ill (Diana Quick)


Laurs (Jenny Seagrove) in mourning, found by her mother’s grave by Walter Hartright (Daniel Gerroll) (1982)

The 1982 The Woman in White moves much too slowly in its attempt to be realistic and unravel the novel for us; it is too sentimental, too decorous,but it has real strengths when it dramatizes the novel’s more somber episodes and places.

The fourth episode (which dramatizes the latter parts of the novel described above) partly vindicates the methods. It begins around the time when both Marian and Laura have been very sick, Marian is in her bed at the top of the house, and Laura in her room. We see Marian taken away on a stretcher, looking ghastly, and are told that she was taken to London. We see Laura frantic, going wild, the first time in her life without Marian, Fosco apparently gone, and a brutal drunken Glyde. It emerges Marian was not removed from the house, but put in this ancient ruined part of a barn, filled with straw, ancient furniture, rats. Next image the gravestone of Laura. Now the housekeeper returns and is told Marian is after all in the house, shown her; Marian slowly gets better and begins to investigate; she goes to the lawyer, and we are at the scene with which the 2018 Woman in White begins!

The atmosphere all along has been quiet and desperate, now it’s tragic — the 1982 film-makers tried for a serious tragic interpretation of this material and it actually works for this stretch of the book. Marian visits the asylum, discovers Laura, and pays off the nurse to help her rescue Laura. They go to the uncle who refuses to recognize Laura; she is dead! they become rightly leery of Ian Richardson’s gleaming knowledge of their whereabouts. Laura insists on visiting her mother’s grave first, before going into hiding; who is there but Walter (see above). These images repeat the opening of this film adaptation: Anna Catherick crying over Laura’s mother’s gravestone. The scene of crying in Walter’s arms is very moving, Marian in is arms — and he takes them to live in this utter dive in a broken down boarding house in London: they will hide while he investigates. A powerful scene with the grieving Mrs Clements because Anne has indeed died of heart failure. We then visit the still living Mrs Catherick, a mean cold woman who appears to care nothing for her daughter, but pathetically lives for the minimal respectability she has achieved by doing almost nothing all her life so as not to offend anyone.

The 2018 adaptation is one of the best I’ve seen in years. Seres and Carl Tibbetts (the director) show the talent and originality of Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch and the best of the BBC adapters over the decades. She cannot realize the complicated subjective structures, but her framing, use of flashback, montage, shots, light and dark, depth zoom shot, and voice over is more than a filmic replacement: again and again these techniques serve to bring out more strongly the feminist and anti-hierarchical protests of Collins’s novel. She has narrowed its trajectory and used Collins’s use of lawyers (Art Malik a superbly strong presence with his resonant voice) to provide a skein of continual explanation, telling of secrets (of which there are many) and hope — for the lawyers Marian goes to are all she has to depend upon until Walter returns and then he must use their expertise to decide how to proceed effectively to return to Laura her identity (as well as peace of mind) and in this version not settle in with Marian but watch her from afar find liberty to experience life and choose a destiny. I was impressed by the dialogue, acting, interweaving; the effect is of innovativeness in the service or serious themes and entertainment.


Mr Nash (Art Malik), a central presence added to the lawyers in the novel


Ruth Sheen (as the grieving Mrs Clements): the one person in the novel to have known and cared for Anne Catherick

2nd and 3rd episode: playing games of suspense: for example, bringing in Art Malik as the lawyer taking all down at punctuated moments, ever so skillfully dropping supposed information, writing it down as by-the-bye such as “the demise of Laura Lady Glyde at the beginning of the third hour.” A development of neurotic hysteria is felt along the nerves and carried on through the best actors. This is as strongly a feminist serial drama as I’ve seen in a long time. In the book Marian remains seeming invulnerable — not here. She is as subject to male law, authority ownership as Laura and every other female we see and this is made explicit. At the same time I love her mannish costumes, there are her beautiful scarves and skirts. Laura is something left over from Snakepit. The actors playing Glyde and Fosco re-inforced (by implication) how they use sex as a weapon they can enforce to repress and hurt and bewilder “their” women.


Laura deeply traumatized by the abuse she suffered in the asylum


Frederick Fairlie (Charles Dance), the uncle, threatening Laura and Marian, who has brought Laura to Limmeridge

4th episode: What most haunted me was that the scenes of imprisonment, cruel treatment (water thrown on Laura, solitary confinement, manacles in a strait jacket) were precisely those of 55 Steps. And yet the physical settings were not anachronistic. I thought of Rosina Bulwer-Lytton put away by her husband and dismissed as an hysteric at times after she was released and had a hard time living life of her own by writing. Marian too is bullied and drugged and imprisoned. She escapes by climbing to the top of a roof and sliding down. Again Art Malik as lawyer there at crucial moments; the maids and housekeepers are brought forward as helping Marian and Laura make their case.

Marian is not permitted to sleuth with Walter: she must stay to protect Laura; but this gives the opportunity to have a scene of her defying Fosco, and I’m glad the ending differed from the book’s.

Probably nobody needed me to say all this, but if you don’t know Collins’s novels you are missing out. I did love the description in the book and use of landscape, cityscape, light and dark in the films. I could have gone on about the Moonstone film adaptations, but I want to wait until I’ve read the book.


Walter (Ben Hardy) approaches the church where the birth records of Anne Catherick and Perceval Glyde are to found


Anne Catherick’s grave — the 1991 BBC Clarissa also uses an image of her gravestone near the end of the series

Ellen

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August Wilson writing

Teach us to number our days again

The narrative Wilson’s plays tell us say that the public story of progress for African-Americans from 1960 is false: the changes in law intended to change norms and improve lives of black people have not worked. What the story over 10 decades shows is while there was some feel of progress and hope justified in the 1940s and 50s, by the 70s it had been swept away by new customs destroying the communities, individuals of black people in the US. Start with King Hedley II, then read Joe Turner Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and then Two Trains Running. Gem of the Ocean ostensibly about 1904 but actually mirroring 2004 tells the intermittently but consistently appalling story of grief and loss in a parable.

In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.

Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams

he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.

And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.

August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
— Rita Dove

August Wilson numbered the decades ….

Friends and readers,

Over the course of the last nine to ten weeks for a class I took at the OLLI at AU I’ve thus far read 9 out of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote in an endeavor to realize through poetic and realistic enough drama on the stage the African-American experience of life in the US from the first to the last decade of the twentieth century. I have been stunned by their brilliance, how he makes poetic drama out of the language and experience of African-Americans seen truly out of the lens of their own culture (the only exception here is Fences). His work is as important, beautiful and insightful as James Baldwin’s (who is the other black male writer where I have read a number of the texts).

Wilson did not write these plays in chronological order partly because it took time for such an aim to emerge but we read them in the order of the life and attitudes African-Americans ended up experiencing over the decades each one is intended to present, explore and realize powerful comedy and tragedy from. They are sometimes called the Pittsburgh cycle as most are set in Pittsburgh, from which city Wilson came and where he educated himself in the public library. Through his involvement and place in the African-American community there he was gradually recognized as the great playwright he was and given opportunities to stage his plays.  He was eventually given a position at Yale where the support of a few central or key dedicated artists in the drama department and theater his plays led to the staging professionally of his plays. Then some of them were performed to New York City theaters . In case you don’t know the titles and year of each, here they are:

Gem of the Ocean (2003): set in Pittsburgh in a symbolic retreat house (threatened with demolition) in 1904. The matriarch, Aunt Esther claims to be 285 years old.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984): set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. Joe Turner, was the brother of a Tennessee Governor, who would kidnap young African-American prisoners and force them to work in hard labor for a pittance for years on end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982): set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh). This dramatizes the individual black musicians’s characters, conflicts, and their forced subservience to white producers.
The Piano Lesson (1986): set in 1936 in Pittsburgh. It revolves around a piano, whose early owners bought the enslaved grandparents of the present African-American owners: a brother, who wants to sell it to buy the land the original white owners are now offering for sale; and a sister to whom it stands for bitter and precious memories of her murdered husband, and a way for her daughter to become a pianist.
Seven Guitars (1995): set in Pittsburgh in 1948. Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. I was not able to read this one as it is so drenched in supernatural ghosts I could not tell who was really alive and who not. One of its overt themes is the perpetual killing of black men with impunity by whites, which we see in most of the plays.
Fences (1984): set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his two sons; he betrays his wife Rose. It almost seems modeled on Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and is the most white and bourgeois of all the plays. No surprise that it is the one which has been commercially filmed.
Two Trains Running (1990): set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline; the city wants to seize and demolish it (just as it wanted to seize and demolish Aunt Esther’s house).
Jitney (1979): set in 1977 in an black people’s taxi station (one which has emerged because no cabs run by white people will pick black people up) threatened with demolition. It was Wilson’s first play.
King Hedley II (1991): set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. This is the darkest and bleakest of the plays: major characters murder or beat up or threaten people viscerally; the protagonist says:  “It used to be you got killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing.”
Radio Golf (2005): set in 1990 Pittsburgh, the last play he completed before his death. We are back in Aunt Esters home, still threatened with demolition to make way for real estate development in the depressed area (for whites). Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. I will probably not read this one as I have had to buy them all and will not be in the US for the last class (I will be in Cornwall) and I feel I have understood the cycle. But I regret not reading it.


Joe Turner Come and Gone — Roger Robinson and Marsha Blake (see NYTimes review below)

The plays have recurring characters, often move into symbolic realms and modes. While many are set in Pittsburgh, through the memories and backstories of the characters, places in the south, up north (Chicago) and elsewhere on the East Coast mostly are realized vividly so the plays do present a cross-section of African-American experience, including enslavement (with memories of the original kidnapping in Africa and hideous passage in torture ships), in most of the plays horrific violence inflicted on them by whites determined to keep them in subjection, the various forms of harsh injustice and discrimination typical of each era, and also the characters’ own strong effective will to survive and achieve some measure of self-fulfillment and joy and friendship, family life, their gifts (musical, from playing instruments and singing, and as central to their community lives), the important function religion plays for many.

The one flaw or lack that is seen in many is that these are written from a strongly masculine perspective; some plays have just one female character; females are in the minority, seen as wives, girlfriends, sisters, and presented as “good” and valuable when they spend their lives serving the males food, having their children, accepting their sexual promiscuity or mistresses, and just support the men absolutely. Some are comfort pillows (there for sex); others downright Victorian heroines transposed. The teacher called them angels. I found many self-negate, are all self-sacrifice but in a way that refuses to go aggressively after individualistic desires that presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal or conformist (and thus demanding of these males that they make good money) and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find yourself in. In Two Trains Running, there is a heroine who practices self-harm to keep others at bay. They can win out this way or be pro-active by holding onto lieux de memoires: in The Piano Lesson, Beatrice holds onto her precious piano and the memories that sustain her.  She was my favorite character across all the plays.  Wilson did not side with her (I found).

On the other hand, it must be said that even in these limited roles and small space allowed in the plays, Wilson empathizes strongly with many of women enough to transcend the limits they are circumscribed in and one can see were they allowed far more living space, realization of multiplicities of traits (as the male characters are) they could appear in Lorraine’s Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf — the only two plays by black women that I have seen and remember. There is an underlying current through much Afro- literature so I will also say the female types found in Wilson include those found in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and black British males in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and the writing of Zadie Smith. The question of who you are, what is your identity is central to Levy and Wilson.

Here is an excerpt from King Hedrick II where Viola Davis as Tonya explains in anguish to Brian Stokes Mitchell as her husband, Hedrick why she must get an abortion or has gotten one: she cannot bear to watch another daughter grow up and lead a life of violence:

I feel inadequate before these plays because as a white person I have not myself experienced except by analogy (having been poor, excluded by virtue of my class, parentage, and disabilities) and imaginative understanding (not the same thing as experience) what these plays put before us. I do know I was often deeply moved and could remember analogous experiences of my own, and found (much to my discomfort) that when in a classroom with others (all middle class white older people in the class, with the teacher a black man who is a librarian at Howard University) that I would risk my own emotional safety trying to explain to the others the roots of devastation these plays register in these characters’ reveries of deep emotional trauma, desperate, circumstances, often profound resentment and loss of self-esteem, anger at one another.

I cannot say I enjoyed the class because I found it a stressful class to be in. The contexts presented were not literary but became personal: intertextuality beyond the inevitable Bible was not recognized or just didn’t interest these people. You might say the identity crises in Wilson’s plays transferred to these readers. I wish I could have gotten myself to say less.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore. …
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, from his poem Harlem (1951) — but what if you never had that dream …

FWIW, I found Joe Turner Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson to be the finest masterpieces of the ten.  Piano Lesson shows the characters getting what they want; it has buoyant comedy at moments.  Gem of the Ocean is a summing-up parable (like Shakespeare’s Tempest). Great anger in Ma Rainey, poignancy in Two Trains Running. I saw the movie made from Fences and while it was superbly well done (Denzel Washington was perfect as Troy, Stephen Henderson as Bono, his loyal friend), and I felt for the son, Corey (like Biff in Death of a Salesman), so liked the son, Lyons, rooted strongly for the wife, Rose (Viola Davis did win an Oscar), I felt the justification of Troy perverse (based on shoring up his punitive masculinity). It has a recurring type: the male so traumatized that he lives in a child-like state (Gabriel, his symbolic name in this play). King Hedley II is as tragic and desperate as Lear; I felt the black people there (representative of the 1980s) had been Americanized much (gun culture on display and deadly, fatal) to their own detriment; they are insecure, unsafe, paid no attention to by those whites whose access to technology, contracts and justice the black people need. Jitney is revealing as a first play and there is a valuable staged reading to watch in YouTube form:

There are numerous good essays on Wilson if you know where to look. Unfortunately on the Internet, much is behind paywalls except for immediate reviews of particular plays (which are highly uneven), but there is Ben Brantley’s powerful Wilson’s Wanderers, Searching for Home (New York Times, April 16, 2009) on Joe Turner Come and Gone. I also recommend reading John Lahr’s Been Here and Gone (New Yorker, April 8, 2001), or the introductory essays to separate volumes, especially those published by “Theater Communications Group; also an afterword essay by Paul Carter Harrison called “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics” in a volume called August Wilson’s Three Plays; this has an introduction by Wilson plus his own notes to the three chosen plays.

But the best thing is to read and to see Wilson’s work, and there is a superb dramatization of the whole of The Piano Lesson on YouTube, so gentle reader now take the time to feel deeply, be uplifted, and come alive with the actors.

Ellen

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


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

Dear friends,

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

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


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

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

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

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


Joan Smith

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

and a re-boot has been successful


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grim

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

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


Promotional shot of Soller and Pirrie as the Birlings still cheerful

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

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

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

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

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


Iain Glen

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


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


Fiona Shaw as Coleman (a sort of M)

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

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


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

Ellen

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Scarlett Johansson by Annie Leibovitz — although Johansson is not capable of nuanced subtlety she was right for Mary Boleyn (the comments has a biography of Mary Boleyn)


Johansson with Javier Bardem (I remember Before Night Falls), another Leibovitz concoction

Instead of the famous “Art of Losing:”

I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain
— witness the diameter of my hatband
and the depth of the crown of my hat.

I will be correct; I know what it is to be a man.
I will be correct or bust.
I will love but not impose my feelings.
I will serve and serve
with lute or I will not say anything.

If the machinery goes, I will repair it.
If it goes again I will repair it again.
My backbone

through these endless etceteras painful.

No, it is not the way to be, they say.
Go with the skid, turn always to leeward,
and see what happens, I ask you, now.

I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
and many colors dropped out.
The rigid spine will break, they say —
bend, bend.

I was made at right angles to the world
and I see it so. I can only see it so.
I do not find all this absurdity people talk about.

Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands
and everything works.
— I am not sentimental.
— Elizabeth Bishop,

Friends,

One blog which should have been two: I got carried away with a woman artist and foremother poet , but it is really not overlong (if you will only visit twice; come two times — why not?):

The second woman photographer the OLLI at Mason class on American Woman Photographers was to watch a movie about and discuss was Annie Leibovitz. In the event, there was a weather report telling everyone in Northern Virginia we were in for some mighty brutal cold and it would rain ice, snow, and just pelt us all. Since the gov’t agencies in charge of cleaning and making the roads safe are underfunded in Fairfax (where the OLLI at Mason resides), all schools were closed as of the early morning. I can’t say the day was warm, but we were nowhere near Antartica, and the precipitation began around 4 when it was still 39F, so it began to rain and eventually it did rain ice for a while and then later 3 inches of snow. The next day the same story: everything closed when it need not have been. So the American Poetry class on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry was also cancelled.


Recent photo

However, the kindly and well-meaning (and frustrated) volunteer teachers sent everyone the URL to the American Masters film of Leibovitz we would have seen, and I watched it by myself and now share it with you

What the film suggests is that Annie Leibovitz is not a woman who can articulate or talk about her art in any coherent reasoned way, at the same time as she takes brilliant shots, has an eye for the arresting costume, gesture, featured actor or actress or somehow semi-numinous person and can capture a portrait of them either in movement among others or facing the viewer which is intensely revealing or (less articulately) riveting to the memory so that we remember the image and want a copy ourselves.


Nelson Mandela

This is unexpected since her longest life partner (15 years) was one of the more articulate writers and speakers of the 20th century, Susan Sontag. Years ago I went to an exhibit of photography by Leibovitz featuring Sontag’s life. She said in the film she loved best photographing beloved family members and friends and those she had been intimate with, could feel utterly comfortable with and hoped her subject felt likewise: ““You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of intimate work except with the people you love, the people who will put up with you. They’re the people who open their hearts and souls and lives to you. You must take care of them.”

She had three daughters (two by surrogate mothers) who mean a great deal to her. Iconic with a dog:

Beyond the bare outline offered by wikipedia, you can read this life story. The magazine Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker have been important in her life. In the film she admits she had periods where taking drugs with her subjects and alone took over too much. Although presented to tempt a student into buying an essay and submitting it as his or her own (plagiarism), this critical analysis of Leibovitz’s art should give us pause: there is voyeurism, sensationalism and a strong bent towards the commercially riveting. You will not find on this blog the notorious photograph of John Lennon clinging to Yoko Ono as if he were cat seeking comfort from his mother, in fetus-like posture. Also not here her many nudes. She photographed to make humane political arguments (so to speak) but also powerful and vulnerable people whose reputation or integrity has since been questioned (see A Decade of Power). She’s published books of photographs, of celebrities; many glamor shots of stars looking ethereally or sexily beautiful. Men too. She captured Mick Jagger and his band leaping through the air.

I was startled by the film, for I found some images I had been drawn to and taken off the Net to save were by her. Especially this of Keira Knightley as Dorothy on the yellow brick road; her famous friends are actors who I recognize but cannot place

In sum, her art is arresting, voyeuristic insightful — she captures the gothic within us. Susan Sontag. Her Three Children too.

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This photograph pf Elizabeth Bishop is not by Annie Leibovitz:


The line from one of her poems: “the island within” is its caption, and that she was “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

She is wondrous at traveling through books: her opening lines are often her best moments and her thesis:

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete
Concordance”

Thus should have been our travels:
serious, engravable.
The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
innumerable, though equally sad and still,
are foreign. Often the squatting Arab,
or group of Arabs, plotting, probably,
against our Christian Empire,
while one apart, with outstretched arm and hand
points to the tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher.
The branches of the date-palms look like files.
The cobbled courtyard, where the Well is dry,
is like a diagram, the brickwork conduits
are vast and obvious, the human figure
far gone in history or theology,
gone with its camel or its faithful horse.
Always the silence, the gesture, the specks of birds
suspended on invisible threads above the Site,
or the smoke ising solemnly, pulled by threads.
Granted a page alone or a page made up
of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles
or circles set on stippled gray,
granted a grim lunette,
caught in the toils of an initial letter,
when dwelt upon, they all resolve themselves.
The eye drops, weighted, through the lines
the burin made, th elines tha tmove apart
like ripples above sand,
dispersing storms, God’s spreading fingerprint,
and painfully, finally, that ignite
in watery prismatic white-and-blue.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
amog the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.
And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly.
Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,
crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.
In Mexico the dead man lay
in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes
glistened like Easter lilies.
The jukebox went on playing ‘Ay, Jalisco!’
And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies
splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eye.
In Dingle harbor a golden length of evening
the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.
The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all:
A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,
one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin
open to every wind from the pink desert.
An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid
with exhortation, yellowed
as scattered cattle-teeth;
half-filled with dust, not even the dust
of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there.
In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on amused.

Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity whlie we were at it?
— the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkles, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets
— and looked and looked our infant sight away.

In a way she’s competing with the pictures: I’ve read
it somewhere that the essence of poetry is in the line;
the unit the line. Each of her lines is a world in itself,
and filled with more serious true content than the
illustrations she looks at.

She begins with the idea that the illustrations tell us what we should have seen, but soon moves on to suggesting that they tell us to be false tourist and not to see what is there.

What is there? This poem comes from a 1955 book called _A Cold Spring_, and we see that the anxiety, fear and prejudice against those who are
different from us which is fuelling the nonsense of the “war on terror” so that we are to ignore every and all statements of the people who rebel against the US in the countries we occupy or use our military to enable other powerful groups to occupy. All these people are simply plotting with hatred against the Christian empire — we are told.

She is as sceptical as Jhabvala. This is the content of the non-western women writer of women’s books, but note here it’s not used to argue for accepting individual repression or escaping it. This world is too relentlessly simply what it is: each living unit intensely going about its egoistic appetitive unexamined life. Bishop records some compassion: the dead man in Mexico, dead nature, the little pockmarked prostitutes.

Yes it is all very frigthening. Maybe better to look at the 2000 illustrations and study the concordance to them and keep our mind on them.

Nothing explained. What have we been missing all this while. What as children we are to allow our time to pass entertained in this way. We should be looking at that dark ajar.

This seems to me as great a poem at Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Maybe Bishop is however distracting us by these illustrations

I find I never wrote a foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79); much as I’m deeply touched by some of her life-writing poetry, her plangent controlled desperation, I find her use of geography and mythic creatures makes up a wall of avoidance I can’t get past except by speculation, which is unsatisfactory. The biography sent us omitted her lesbianism, her years of ceaseless alcholism, that her positions as a teacher were gotten for her by the elite clique of American poets she belonged to (by origin, her family she came from the Boston Brahmin group, which included Robert Lowell who was physically abusive to her as he was to Elizabeth Hardwick). Her early life was very sad, but so too her later sometimes harrowing one abroad and in the US. Strange the flight to Brazil: what did she think of the reactionary gov’ts? No clue is offered. She could not have ignored them altogether — or could she with her books, maps, illustrations. Her work & life crucially significant. Her sad life, her wonderful poems. I print unusual ones: her art of losing through books, illustrations, maps, and alas alcohol and retreat


Don McCullin, from Landscapes: Somerset Levels Near Glastonbury 2010

This New Yorker essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont is superb: Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing. She left a fat book of letters, many on punctuation. She is said to be “the most popular woman poet” after Emily Dickinson (!). I can only understand that if it’s like the popularity of Robert Frost: from misreading or preference for distanced strangeness (and geography) Many of her poems will be well-known to readers of modern American poetry, but here is one you may not have come across:

Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow.

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, hat sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep

She was mistress of the sonnet form.

And this is so kindly to another women poet whose poetry is deliberately set up to keep her life and us at a distance, who apparently was unable to get from under her tyrannical narrow-minded mother’s domination, not even to find an apartment of her own far away from far off Brooklyn:

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemcals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rollng of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capefu of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bride, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

Apologies for not being able to replicate the stanzas.

Bishop to Moore, Elizabeth to Marianne is a beautiful beautiful love poem of longing, friendship as love. It reminds me of a poignant letter by Jane Austen to Mary Lloyd, looking forward so eagerly to when they will be together again. I’m glad to see Jane and Mary did have their night on the floor together, their reading, walking, talking. It appears that Marianne in Brooklyn did not make it to Elizabeth in Manhattan.

One last:

“Crusoe in England”

A new volcano has erupted
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being boonr:
at first a black fleck – basalt, probably —
rose in the mater’s binoculoars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island’s still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books got it right.

Well I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides —
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off …

My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters — their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much …

I often gave way to self-pity.
“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must,
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.”
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiar=ly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
….

There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects,
and so I made home-brew. I’d drink
the awful, fizzy stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries,
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.

Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough fo something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems — well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flesh upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss …” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I’d dream of tings
like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, evntually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came,
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman …
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
— Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides? …
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber …

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
— and Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

(Geography III, 1976)


A painting by Doreen Fletcher of vanishing England (“The architecture of the ordinary”), the area in London called Spitalfields, caught by her and her colleagues with scrupulous reverent meanness (to paraphrase a Joyce phrase for his Dubliner — another course I’m taking) — Bridge over Regents Canal Bow, 2018

Ellen

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

Friends,

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


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

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

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

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


Mia Wasikowska as Penelope (at Cinema art theater)

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Shakespeare’s lovers on the beach

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


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

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

Ellen

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Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect series)

I, too, dislike it — Marianne Moore

Friends,

I’ve embarked on a reading journey through an area mostly unfamiliar to me, and Polonius-like, can come up with only the clumsiest of labels: the mystery, detective, suspense, gothic, spy thriller, crime, murder novel. Most of the time even with the most generally admired, about half-way through I grow tired of the formulas, and either give the story up altogether, or skim-read to the end. That’s what happened yesterday when I read for the first time Dashell Hammett’s much-bepraised The Maltese Falcon. Or I get to the end, and think what a good book this has been, until three minutes thought assails me, and I see it for the claptrap anti-feminist thing it is and become seriously annoyed. That’s what happened the other day when I finished Winston Graham’s Merciless Ladies.

I admit I can be hooked by a film serial; especially late-at-night, with a female hero, be drawn intensely in by its mix of ingredients blended into my more favored fare: that’s what happened with the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. I can like the “Golden Age-1930s mold” even with a wholesome male at the center and a sermon at close: my favorite time for watching James Norton in Grantchester was 1 in the morning.


Typical cheap paperback cover illustration for the era …, now published by the New York Review of Books as a worthy book, became a remarkable 1950s movie by Nicholas Ray

But I’m no more fooled than Raymond Chandler in his debunking “The Simple Art of Murder,” or Julian Symons in his truly brilliant and entertaining Bloody Murder: “it is an inferior thing, but a thing with its own particular and unique merits. Nobody condemns Restoration comedy outright because it lacks the profoundity of Jacobean drama” (20), as with most film noir and ghost fiction.

I’ve embarked on this because I’ve embarked on a book on Winston Graham, his Poldark novels and Cornwall (working title). I don’t intend to read every work he ever wrote, or study every film made from said work (some in each kind are dreadful). To understand the man and his genuinely creative books, one cannot ignore 30 odd volumes of suspense set in our contemporary era, a few of which have been much admired, with one famous title (even had an opera made of it last year, i.e., Marnie, and some time ago a very good play by Sean O’Connor). One chapter I’ve told myself.

I’ve been reading these desultorily, out of order for a few years now, depending on what I thought I could stand: The Forgotten Story, written the same year as Ross Poldark, historical Cornish, deeply reflective of the trauma of WW2, Angharad Rees starred in the now wiped out serial; The Walking Stick, with its fine movie with David Hemmings; The Little Walls, won prestigious prize; Angell, Pearl and Little God, despite its godawful title, said to have been considered for a movie with Brando in a leading role. Graham has a number of novels with (to me) unappetizing titles, many first published with embarrassing covers.


I like this 1960s Bodley Head cover illustration of Demelza used on all four of the Bodley Head publications of the first four Poldark books

But now it will be my project, give me some kind of goal for a biographical book of my own, one I think I can do for real, and which is called out for — there is no book on this man whose work is so well known, liked, has made a great deal of money for so many. And I’ve corresponded with his son who for now has no objection. All the reading and love I’ve put into my study of biography and continual reading of literary ones (now there is a genre or book type that when done right I don’t tire of but read on however slowly to the end) — could just emerge in one of my own.

So I’ve begun steadily working through Graham’s early ones in the order they were written, and when revised, cut down, rewritten (several were) even comparing the two texts. And I’ve found myself engaged, e.g., The Giant’s Chair, 1938, became Woman in the Mirror, 1975. Alas (for Graham’s mature judgement of his own work), the earlier version is much better. I’ve heard this said of the first 12% longer version of Ross Poldark. The Giant’s Chair set in 1920s Cornwall, with attention paid to geology, geography, local feel, has an idiosyncratic charm, a traumatized secondary hero, disabled son, unjust death (not by murder), with believable heroine who has Radcliffian adventures, lesbian sexuality, becomes a weak hard-boiled thin bloody murder read, albeit with some stronger lines and passages — and more coherent clarity.

Tomorrow if I can get through the byzantine “security” procedures of the Library of Congress (whose real effect is to curb research, lest the cowardly congress be at risk as they place their iron heels on 90% of us), I shall read the relatively rare 1937 The Dangerous Pawn. It fetches $2000+ on the open market.


Jeremy Brett — the 1980s Sherlock Holmes

For tonight I thought I’d introduce one aspect of this fantastically successful genre, which the reader may not know or not mind being reminded about. (Beyond how necessary it is to find delight and solace in its central detective figure0. How flexible it is all the while keeping its recognizable furniture. It can accommodate so many kinds of stories & materials because one can tell anything to Sherlock. Two weeks ago I watched a remarkable modern-type BBC film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s real novel of quality, The Woman in White (1860), arguably one of the pattern forms. I remember reading it in two days when I lay sick with flu — 1973 that was, we lived at the top of Manhattan with our dog, Llyr. The Italian Fosco was the origin invention that gave rise to the book of Marion Halcombe, the spinster who I defy anyone not to like. About the subjugation of women. The lady gone mad is not in the attic but wanders from her asylum across moors.

I had thought a genre I am familiar with, have long loved in the dyptich, historical romance, historical fiction, was very far from suspense novels. I was wrong. As in Graham’s oeuvre, characteristics, motifs, character types slide across one another co-terminously. It is not that uncommon to alternate between them. Police procedures can combine with women’s subjective novels, which historical romances are a version of in disguise. The great Breaking Bad belongs to this genre.

And today LeCarre is one of those who have made of them philosophical politically engaged books. I suppose the road was opened for this first by Hammett (1931, The Glass Key is not far off his rewrite-collaboration with Lilian Hellman from stage to film, Watch on the Rhine, 1941). I remember first reading LeCarre’s early, A Small Town in Germany (1968) which I thought was a fable about integrity very like Trollope’s The Warden (a similar retiring male at the center).

Trollope by the way knows the drill. In his parodic dark The Eustace Diamonds he has the de rigueur fuss about key, locked room, weapon (depends for working on some mechanical device), not to omit the importance of the exit/entrance and mappable space. By reverse logic, it stands to reason Trollope had no feel or urge to write historical fiction. He didn’t care what happened at “exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning” fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.


A Nancy Drew introspective cover, as Umberto Eco says at the opening of Il nome della rosa,

Naturalmente, un manoscritto

I have almost written myself into admiring this stuff. As I write myself into wakefulness and a feeling of cheer. Now if only I could find real pleasure in reading it. It can be fun to read about it on the train and watch it obsessively at 1 in the morning.

Ellen

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


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

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


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


Chartwell in both films played an important role.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

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

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


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

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

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


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

Ellen

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From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories — Thomas Chatterton Williams, a NYTimes Magazine semi-fluff piece on Spike Lee

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.


Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Lucky
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.


Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned, one of my favorite films of all times; as the wordpress search engine does not go back before 2012 I see I shall have to rewrite that blog)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.

It was a sort of shocking experience. To be amidst a group of people where the existence, outlook, experiences of some 2/3s of them were ignored, distorted, marginalized. It was like being in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not that I have not had this experience. I taught for 23 years at George Mason University: in no catalogue was my name ever cited, when I left there was nothing recorded about it. But that was long range, done ever so cleverly, indirectly. However it’s such experiences that make African-American films and their political outlook undersandable to me; often there I can guess how they will vote. The highest ratings I ever had as a teacher occurred when my classes were predominantly African-American. One summer, the summer Barack Obama was running to be nominated for president for the Democratic party for the first time I had a class of 11 students for Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences. I had two European-American (white) students in it. I got a 5.10 out of 6, and my only letter of commendation in all the years I was there signed by Rick Davis, then dean of humanities (or some such title).


Tracy Camilla Jones in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

So a little, however inadequate, and here too women were secondary, basically chorus or scolds, on Do the Right Thing. First the full context I’d give it is bell hooks’s take on She’s Gotta Have It: “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment, Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” See Chatterton’s paragraphs describing this film which is about a promiscuous female who finds herself by finding the right male partner. His great film, said the teacher, is Malcolm X, who in Haley’s rerwrite in acceptable English (readable) of Malcolm’s autobiographical diary notes frequently uses bitch as a synonym for women, though it is reserved especially for white women. It was the English freshman community text for adjuncts to use one term I was teaching at American University (as an adjunct); need I say, I didn’t assign it? You could find a substitute: mine was James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket; now I’d use Ta Nehesi-Coates Between Me and the World.


Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Of the group the most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job (that’s her one function beyond being the mother of his son), but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year, one by a woman: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.


Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …

Ellen

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Lucy reading Sarah’s letter telling of the coming of Mr Turner (Staying On, 1980)

“We should write to Cooks,” suggests Lucy, “and ask them to put us on the tourist itinerary. After the Taj Mahal . . . the Smalleys of Pankot” (she is not without a sense of humor)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been posting so much less because I’ve been reading books and essays as parts of projects directed by aimed-at (from accepted proposals) papers, essays, talks, and teaching, not to omit a face-to-face book club (my first),listserv discussion groups (now I’m down to two at most) and a book project (Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark novels was its working title but my perspective has changed). However, I don’t want to give up blogging because I love this kind of communication: natural easy English, liberty. responses far more numerous and quicker than anything one gets from a printed piece because blogs readily reach people.

For the “Booker Prize Marketplace Niche” course I’m teaching the first novel has been the 1979 winner, Paul Scott’s Staying On, and I became deeply engaged by the book’s central presence, Lucy Little Smalley (yes the names in the Scott’s fiction are partly allegorical), in a re-watch the 1983 Granada mini-series, The Jewel in The Crown (how I wish I had time to reread the four books); as important was the class members’ careful reading of the novel and genuinely unbiased (disinterested is the better word for what I mean) debate and conversation in class.

Scott wrote that he had been much influenced by Anthony Trollope and certainly the political outlook of his books which shows how our most fundamental experiences are shaped by social, ethnic, racial class, position in a colonialist state is reminiscent of Trollope’s all encompassing political vision. I’ve written about the Raj Quartet, the books and mini-series as among the great achievements in fiction of the 20th century.

What is distinctive about Staying On? It’s colonialism told from the angle of the displaced lower status white European, a mood piece about two people living on an economic disaster precipice as the man’s pension is tiny and he is dying, and they are outsiders in the newly re-formed capitalist, colonialism, multi-racial Indian societies. Lucy our heroine maintains herself in sanity by holding on to her dignity and composure in the midst of her husband’s continual inflicting on himself brooding over petty and large raw humiliations. Scott has always been deeply sympathetic to the feelings of the aging elderly people. A large question is that of identity: who are you in this global world? we see the outside of Tusker (a name redolent of elephants) an irascible man alienated and disillusioned after a lifetime of service (as he saw it) to India. One of the things that’s remarkable about the book is how slowly it moves.


Lucy bringing the box with papers and putting it in front of Tusker to deal with for her

A minor Colonel in the Raj. Tusker would not return to live in Engaland. They represent the last “withered survivors,” and now 25 years later they are living on a reduced income. Why didn’t he want to go back –- he said they could live better in India. Why else? He had served for a couple of years as an advisor to the Indian new army from which he retired; then about 12 years a commercial job (box wallah) with a firm in Bombay where they went once to London in 1950. It turns out he was wrong; they would have been better off returning to where they originally belonged. He is irritated perpetually, acid, falling physically apart; Lucy sees this and is frightened and has been trying to get him to tell her what she will have. He has been avoiding this, guilty, aware he has mistreated, not appreciated her all their lives.

His one friend is Mr Bhoolabjoy, Francis, Frank, who wants to enable him to stay in the quarters. Frank’s enormously fat wife, Lila, is driven by spite and greed to want to kick her Anglican tenants out after selling the building they are in. She is ambitious, ruthless, the new commerce is probably going to destroy her. Grotesque comedy comes from her size against her husband’s: he is ever serving her, waking up inside her enormous body. There is some stereotypical misogyny in the portrait of the wife. Mean, cold, exploitative, Lila bullies her husband, idle – as the book opens she had ordered Frank to write a letter to Tusker telling them in effect to get out because they have no legal lease. This demand and his failure to comply in the way she wants provides the thinnest skein of story line moving ahead – by near the end of the book he has written an unsatisfactory one, trying to be kind and when he finally does what she wants and gets to Tusker, he has this massive heart and we are back where we began, Lucy at the hairdresser with Suzy (having her blue rinse), people having to do something about her husband, now a corpse in the garden.

What is Bhoolabhoy like? Non-ambitious, has mistresses and does as little as he can get away with. Lila is gross, unscrupulous, could come out of Dickens who has many hateful domineering women. Francis and Tusker live for their money evenings together, where they drink, talk, dine, play cards. How does he treat Lucy? Not well. Not ambitious either of them.


Bhoolabhoy and Tusker

His wife, Lucy, is the book. Her parallel is much less evident as her primary relationship is with Tusker: it’s Susy, the hairdresser, Eurasian, living precariously on sexual earnings (from Francis, from Father Sebastian, see below) too. Susy Williams, I wish we knew more of her. Eurasian, born Chapel so an English dissenter, she does Lucy’s hair, she gets money from Frank by having sex with him – he doesn’t lack for appetite.

Sarah Layton has written to say that a man named Turner (associate of Saraha’s professor husband) is coming to interview her and in her loneliness – she says she and Tusker never communicate — she rehearses in her mind what she will tell him. And her tragic history (Chapter 10, pp 132-141) of thwarted talent. She begins by saying she was happy in Mudpore, a prince’s state and then remembers back to when she typed letters: made fun of by Mr Coyne, one of the bosses, as left over “Virgin of the Vicarage” (p 133). Her job in Litigation in England had been fun, she had been courted by Mr Coyne. She lived at the Y and Miss Martha Price took her under her wing, got her a flat – Miss Price we begin to realize is lesbian, loves Lucy – and is very hurt when Lucy falls in love with Tusker Smalley — as she loved her as an intense friend . Basically Lucy gives up everything she has built for herself for this man.


In the garden by their lodging next to Smith’s

She is fringe gentry (she is mocked in the UK when she takes a steno job which lowers her status), whose condition is parallel to that of subaltern women in her employ. The novel is told through the subjective soliloquies of Lucy (the prevalent presence), her Indian servant Ibrahim (who understands her and values his domestic position, the Indian landlady’s husband, Francis Boulabhoy, caricatured as subject to his ruthless wife’s erotic and cutthroat appetites, but like Lucy, having a dignity and moral position of his own. Tusker is there, but much less because his dark angers would change the whole tone of the book, which is ironic comedic plangent. It’s structured cyclically (as is his Raj Quartet), beginning with the sudden death from a massive heart attack of Tusker, and then arranged as flashback of memories and present experiences acutely realized.

The book is intertextual: Lucy had joined a dramatic society and despite her non-aggression had a chance at a part, which probably means she could act – The Housemaster – a play from 1936, Ian Hay, an all male school is destroyed when a woman and three daughters related to them disturb the peace. Very English. She did something similar in Rawalpindi.. She could have had a part in The Letteras Leslie Crosbie, a play by Somerset Maughan where Bette Davis played the part (she kills a man who rejected her and is acquitted) in a film by William Wyler. and Tusker discouraged her. A third play is called The Wind and the Rain – it was a popular ballad at the time. Very minor English plays of this era which were popular. Like you might go to a community theater today. Deeply uneasy comedies.

How much a dress meant to her; always low, looked down on but she learned rules of club and game and acted these out, and her reward at the end is to be left isolated. She’s cut off from her country of origin, her culture. I don’t think she is made fun of – she maintains composure and dignity until the last page when she loses it – her dignity hides her sorrows and is the source of her strength – that she goes through the forms. When he dies suddenly despite all the obstacles Tusker among others creates she is planning a dinner party. Gallant lady — for Susy, Francis and Father Sebastian, a black Anglican priest who has taken over the church, Father Sebastian; only Francis wanted to come.


Ibrahim yawning

Second most frequent POV is Ibrahim, though it might be Bhoolbhoy has more interior monologue. Who is Ibrahim? He is the central servant of the house and they are continually firing him. Mrs Bhoolbhoy is refusing to take care of the grass, to fix anything and Ibrahim hires Joseph (another remarkable presence, so glad to have any job, so servile apparently) to do this demeaning work. He is one level of Indian and Mr Bhoolbhoy another. He maintains a comic impartiality. He helps his memsahib whenever possible. He does the shopping, cooking, keeps them all going. Note the quiet ironies:

Ibrahim regretted the passing of the days of the raj which he remembered as days when the servants were treated as members of the family, entitled to their good humours and bad humours, their sulks, their outbursts of temper, their right to show who was really boss, and their right to their discreetly appropriate perks, the feathers they had to provide for the nest when the nest they presently inhab- ited was abandoned by homeward-bound employers. Ibrahim had been brought up in such a nest. He still possessed the chits his father had been given by Colonel Moxon-Greife and a photograph of Colonel and Mrs. Moxon-Greife with garlands round their necks, Going Home, in 1947. He had also inherited and preserved the two letters which Colonel Moxon- Greife had written to his father from England. Finally he had inherited the silence that greeted his father’s two letters to Colonel Moxon-Greife inquiring about the possi- bilities of work in England …

We have three people trying to make sense of their worlds, who they are, and they can’t – Lucy, Mr Bhoolabjoy and Ibrahim. Smaller characters: Father Sebastian, a black man, Anglo-Catholic and now in charge of the church. Reverend Stephen Ambedkar – administering to people’s spiritual needs takes generous swigs of wine.

Scott objected strenuously to the usual comparison, that ensues early in discussions of Scott’s fiction: with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. That too includes rape but it is kept to the margins and the book told from a male point of view, while in Staying On Scott keeps up female subjectivity as his major medium. Forster’s people are gentry who visit; they are tourists, part of an imperialist overlay of job and place-seekers, or on holiday. Scott’s characters are embedded in the central work of the society, administrative, church, political, economic, social capital is what they depend on. A habitas if you will. He saw the work of the colonial administration as the expression of their ideology; when the ideology failed, was exposed for the hypocrisy it was, so they were crushed. In his books we see Indians, Hindu and Muslim crushed by the imperialists. Staying On differs because the petty powerful local Indian people have taken over as they often did in local instances, and Hindus, Muslims, and any whites that get in anyone’s way of profit destroyed. A strong idealism underwrites the books. Racial and ethnic and religious persecution are motifs that emerge early in other books. People in close units all dependent on one another. Feed off and prey on another but also sustain one another.


Moment of frenzied behavior by Tusker over papers

A little on Scott’s life (the lamp):

Paul Scott. Born 1920 and died 1978. So not long lived. Given how frequently and fully he wrote about India and also other places abroad in the British commonwealth (Africa once) you might think he grew outside the UK borders. Not so. He grew up in London and as he said many times his use of India and the history of colonialism and exploitation seemed to him a metaphor which could reach out and cover far more than the class, gender, money, and by extension school, status, rank system he grew up in. You at once expanded your vision. At one level Lucy Smalley is still the “old” vicar’s daughter from 19th century novels displaced, the marginalized subaltern governess married off to a fringe gentry person.

It’s important to know he was a closet homosexual: he lived an outwardly heterosexual life because in his time you still were punished in all sorts of direct ways. You could call him bisexual – hermaphodite. What’s really remarkable is how heroines are central to all his books – they are the subject narrators, he writes a kind of l’ecriture-femme like Henry James. He was much influenced by Trollope who as far as we know was straight heterosexual but Trollope too leans heavily on women’s points of view. Raj Quartet: opens with rape and the girl who is raped is our first central voice, then Edwina Crane, a missionary never married, spinster, attacked on the road, burnt herself to death in a suttee when the man she worked all her life dies in this incident; the nun-nurse, Sister Ludmilla, the companion who becomes an outcast, Barbie Bachelor, and the traditional deeply humane “virtuous” in the modern ways heroine Sarah Layton (Geraldine James) – all women have sex, Sarah is driven by her family to have an abortion.

Schooling he went to Winchmore Hill Collegiate School in London, a good school but left at 16 to become an accountant. His family were commercial artists, interacting with the lower echelons of London Bohemianism in its entrepreneurial artistry. They wanted him to have the safe remunerative career. He married in 1941, Nancy Avery, herself a novelist, short story writer, they had two daughters, he lived quietly with them and groups of friends.

World War two was transformative. He was sent to India in 1943; there for three years the first time as an officer cadet in World War II. As an air supply officer he traveled widely throughout India, Burma, and Malaya, moving easily in the varied society of civilians and military, of British and Indians. After returning to England from India in 1946, heworked his way slowly up to become part of a literary commercial world. He used his accountancy degree to join a small publishing firm, Falcon and Grey Walls Press, as company secretary. In 1950 he became a director in a firm of literary agents, Pearn, Pollinger and Higham (later David Higham Associates). He had written poetry and drama during and after the war, but now he turned to fiction and produced five novels between 1952 and 1960, when he gave up his work as a literary agent to devote himself to writing the longer and more substantial novels that he had been wanting to attempt for some time.

In 1964 he returned for the first time to India, financed by his publishers, and there found inspiration for The Raj Quartet and Staying On. The British Council enabled Scott to make further visits. In 1976 and 1977 he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died of cancer in London in 1978, shortly after receiving the Booker Prize — but the first film was in the offing. He knew Staying On was to be filmed, but never saw the film, and he could not have foreseen Christopher Mornahan’s Raj Quarter which he would have loved.


Lucy enlisting Ibrahim

The seeds of Staying On at the end of his ilfe: in 1972 Scott returned to India and saw the world as it was evolving in the provinces; stories about left-over sahibs being published. Scott’s friend Mollie Hamilton showed him a letter by her mother, Lady Kaye, a widow, lonely harassed pitifully vulnerable; he was influenced by the stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (e.g., A Backward Glance). (Years later Jumpha Lahri tells of Indian versions of such women.) Another friend, Maisie Goodbody’s husband died suddenly while on the toilet in a hotel. Goodbody would tell Scott of how they had to haggle at the bazaar and every week were harassed and would think they coudn’t get through another week and yet would. This couple living in decaying hotel – opposite people, Goodbody the elegant wit, and his wife, ill natured, raw, sarcastic. There was a Eurasian woman like Susy, manufactured cameras trying to make money.

He finished the book in 1976 and a friend in the theater saw potential for a film with Ralph Richardson as Tusker and Celia Johnson as Lucy. Tusker contains strong elements of Scott. It was a bleak and bitter time in Scott’s marriage. In brief, his wife had not been able to work at her career the way she could have. He had become alcoholic with incessant work and self-repression. He did love her but not sexually. She started proceedings for divorce when he got his position at Tulsa, she would not communicate with him. He asked her to stay and she refuses. The daughters conflicted. He wrote a letter like Tusker’s closing one to Lucy, revealing his understanding of his failure, only Tusker is kind, loving while Scott’s is harsh, raw, unforgiving how he didn’t get to go to university, how he pours himself into writing – very egoistical, felt himself in this letter a sense of waste and failure.

A little on Scott’s earlier writing:

The Alien Sky is an earlier slender novel also set in India, which deals with a theme that becomes the issue of Staying One: tragic alienation that comes to a man who has dedicated his life to India and Indians and is now rejected at Independence, his former proteges unwilling to shake his hand. The character of Tom Gower is skillfully drawn and encapsulates the moral dilemma of the colonial who genuinely feels that his work, now discredited, has been worthwhile. The second major character in The Alien Sky is an American, Joe MacKendrick, who is traveling in search of his brother’s past. The pattern of memories juxtaposed with present experiences that echo the past and the figure of the solitary traveler who seeks to piece together a story became familiar modes of presentation in Scott’s later work. The Corrida at San Feliu is about himself as a writer, how he writes novels.


Daphne Manners (played by Susan Woolridge (Scott said he began the novel with the image of a girl fleeing violence …)

The Raj Quartet itself:

Raj Quartet is a story that begins with a rape, and folds out in layers of responses and development of the original cast of characters involved directly and indirectly. Alas it reminds me of our own culture only make the Indian young men blamed for the rape into Black young men in Central Park; beaten up, sent to jail for years and never properly publicly vindicated. These crimes are skillfully linked to the political turbulence of the “Quit India” riots of 1942, and the response to the civil unrest forms the major part of the novel, with the reactions of civil and military forces, of Indian judges and English memsahibs, of petty criminals and Indian princesses all woven together to give the novel its rich texture and alluring moral complexities. Not only do different characters reveal different views of the same incident but they present them through a variety of literary forms. The reader must evaluate letters, memoirs, formal reports, a journal, a legal deposition, and omniscient flashbacks, all dealing with basically the same events seen from different points of view. As Scott adds layer upon layer of detail to the plot, it becomes clear that making any kind of moral judgment of the events or the people involved in them is going to be hard. Trollope’s first novel is about a young Catholic Irish man accused of murdering an English officer and he ends up hanged because the people running the state make him a scapegoat for revolutionary Catholic Irish groups. The Macdermots of Ballycloran.

Daphne Manners is willing to go out with Hari Kumar but when they are attacked she shows her racism by refusing to tell the truth: the two were having sex in the Bigighar Gardens; and by getting him to promise not to tell, and not standing with him she condemns him to helpless silence. The characters we see cannot escape being racist. Sarah Layton, the traditional and decent heroine who is a major voice in the second novel involves herself with an Indian Muslim man but she marries a white professor. She accedes to pressure and has an abortion when she gets pregnant by someone else. Scott does not present us with unreal victims and innocents. Barbie Bachelor, Mabel Layton’s companion, turned out as soon as the kind high officer’s wife dies, is one of the untouchables of English society – hers is the chief voice of the third book. The last book deals with the partition and brings in world historical characters.


Hari Kumar (Art Malik), the hero of the Raj Quartet, kept off stage most of the time — Scott invested a lot of himself in this deeply betrayed character

Put another way, Staying On, set in 1972, satirizes the new India of sophisticated, wealthy businessmen and politicians, corrupt property dealers, and fashionable hairdressers, as Scott depicts the now elderly and fragile Tusker and Lucy, who first appeared in The Day of the Scorpion as rather dull but useful appendages to the military station in Pankot, still making their home there after the other British have gone home. The profusion of characters found in The Raj Quartet has been distilled to these two figures. Tusker’s death at the opening of the novel leaves the remainder of the narrative–with most of the emphasis on Lucy’s thoughts … a miniature Raj Quartet in low key. We look at character’s memories through flashbacks, very delicate approaches to corruption and emotional pain.

I culled the above this from various books I read, the brilliant literary biography by Hilary Spurling (which I read years ago), Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. Jaqueline Bannerjee’s Paul Scott (a slender concise perceptive study), K. Bhaskara Rao, Paul Scott, a Twayne product filled with clear information and background. Two very good articles: Chotiner, Isaac. “Revisiting the Raj,The New York Times Book Review. September 10, 2017,p. 13; Weinbaum, Francine. “Staying on after the Raj,” Journal of South Asian Literature, 17:1 (1982):225-29.


India photographed in the movie (POV Lucy in a car)

As to the movie, Staying on is a gem of a TV film featuring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard who were so brilliant and compelling in Brief Encounter. The acting throughout is pitch perfect, but perhaps Saeed Jaffrey stands out. Written by Julien Mitchell, directed by Silvio Narizzano, it is more comic, less poignant until near the end. The film does not begin with Tusker’s death, but with a scene of Tusker’s drunken humiliation in his decline. In general it moves forward in chronological time, using only occasional present time flashbacks; Celia Johnson speaks aloud a number of the soliloquies Lucy thinks of herself as speaking to Mr Turner. It is accompanied by alluring Indian music, filled with shots of India. Her final words in the book and film:

but now, until the end, I shall be alone, whatever I am doing, here as I feared, amid the alien corn, waking, sleeping, alone for ever and ever and I cannot bear it but mustn’t cry and must get over it but don’t for a moment see how, with my eyes shut, Tusker, I hold out my hand, and beg you, Tusker, beg, beg you to take it and take me with you. How can you not, Tusker? Oh, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, how can you make me stay here by myself when you yourself go home?

I wish I had taken down what the various people in my class said about the book and film. Subtle and fine readings. I’ll content myself with the one woman who said at first she couldn’t understand why this book would receive such an award, but after immersing herself, she understood.


Lucy busy about the house

Ellen

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