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Posts Tagged ‘Mary beard’

Andrew Marr on Winston Churchill: a superlative treatment of Churchill as a painter, showing, explaining, contextualizing many of the paintings:

What unites the best of popular documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks).

The particular pleasure of these documentaries with favored character-personalities at the center is how much I like to watch and re-watch them. Far more than a fictional narrative movie.

During this profoundly worrying summer when it appears that a minority party, the Republicans, as headed by a criminal liar, is readying up to prevent the majority of US citizens from voting or having their votes counted lest they rightly throw out of office these people who are doing all they can to inflict harm, take away economic security, ruin the environment, make warring arms deals & money with the worst dictators around the world (consider 150,000+ Americans dead in 5 months, and a devastated economy), not to omit destroying even the ancient post office, it would seem understandable that no one notices in print the prevalence of documentaries in on-line movie theaters.

Or on YouTube — many a nowadays virtual conference places part of their presentations on YouTube. Comedians, people lecturing on areas of concern to subgroups of people (Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin on Aspergers and autism), universities sharing lectures, to which are nowadays added thousands of people coming online to cheer one another up: reading whole novels, reading poetry, playing instruments, doing dungeons and dragons. I’m there too with my “The Modernity of Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset.

Let’s admit among all this outpouring, some are inevitably very poor (if well-meant), many banal (there needs no ghostly presence come from an ipad to tell us this), more troublingly, some made by crazed fantasists (QAnon, people who hate others and encourage hatred and violence), and political groups, nowadays many fascistic (see above) determined to spread misinformation, to screw up democratic elections.

More commonly as on popular TV stations, some are superficial, gimmicky (this is true of too many of Lucy Worseley’s — exceptions are Jane Austen At Home and Suffragettes), disappointingly insidiously right-wing under a patina of liberal wit (alas too often Marr himself in for example his History of Modern Britain), too compromising (Spaceship Earth), too careful, guarded, worried lest they give offense (“Just one of those things:” on Ella Fitzgerald), which seems odd as the makers cannot really believe they will gain a large audience outside those sympathetic to their subject.

It is also true the professional or paid-for movies are probably there because the movie-theater operators are holding off on their movie “block-busters” for when all the millions of people are (it is imagined) to begin to return to going out to crowded movie-theaters once again. I would not hold my breath.  (Maybe 2022?  but not in the same way.)

Yet many of these are within the terms they set out to cover, on their own terms, remarkably good, excellent — as the above by the famous BBC interviewer, journalist, once strong man of the left, and now a centrist maker of documentaries, Andrew Marr about Winston Churchill’s incessant hobby and apparently real achievement as a painter of effective contemporary pictures. These (along with online university level courses when they are good, e.g., Future Learn) are the silver lining in a dark and frightening time.

What unites the best of documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks)

Not all are this way: it’s the distinction of Frederick Wiseman to remain absent from his severely controlled documentaries. They are famous for nothing much happening at intervals except the rain or quiet daily life. In Central Park, a duck goes upside down in the water to capture a fish and eat it. Wiseman, let me say it, makes genius level films with serious insightful critiques of the way organizations are at the heart of reality. Cathy Come Home (Tony Garnett), Culloden (Peter Watkins), and other British radical political films are unforgettable. When the subject is a revered or political hero, the documentary maker may make him or herself secondary. So in the documentaries about John Lewis, Malcolm X. Ada DuVernay wants us to pay attention to what the realities of African-American life have been since the inadequacy of the 13th amendment, how it has been undermined almost from the very beginning. But I think the most popular type documentaries, the ones where the documentary maker keeps making them are those where the documentary maker is our chief character, whom we are made to delight in

I’ve written about a few of both types these over the years: Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians some years ago; more recently Mary Beard’s excursions into classical history across Europe on her bike. John Lewis: Good Trouble. But you can’t do better if you are looking to cheer yourself with a realistic (not fatuous) slice of life than Ceyda Torun’s Kedi: Cats of Istanbul. All three women. Women do documentaries: I don’t say they prevail in numbers, but their woman’s point of view is not the usual rare minority. Lucy Worseley is a case in point.

Beyond calling your attention to the numerous good documentaries available at a single click for not much money or for free (once you’ve paid your electricity and internet computer bill) I mean to alert the reader of this blog to a couple of Marr’s lesser known documentaries about literature because they are very good, and may serve to divert the viewer’s mind from the over-arching calamity (Trump winning again, or stealing the election and then turning the US into a deeply dangerous rotten brutal fascist dictatorship) while leaving us with some relevant knowledge-food for thought and perspectives.

In his wider ranging work (like telling us “the history of the world”!), he often slides by serious and unexamined art. He has a ready wit with quips that can dismiss Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a memorable (if misleading phrase — for the sake of the joke) but in these two he is sincere, earnest even, taking us (and himself) back to the younger man who meant to make the world better and acted at times bravely, with some integrity. That’s why Noam Chomsky bothered to chide him.

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But in these on literary and art topics and with enough time given over, he is superb.  He is himself by birth a Scotsman (born in Glasgow).

I treat first (in time) his Great Scots, a 2014 three-part series where he explores some of the problematic aspects of Scottish identity and political and geographical history through meditations on four male Scottish writers and one English: Part One is on James Boswell, whose work cannot be separated from Samuel Johnson, and their famous tour to through Scotland to the Hebrides. Part Two is mostly on Walter Scott with Robert Burns brought in as a strong contrast. Burns, Marr rightly says, was a political radical who had to suppress himself, or communicate indirectly to protect what income he had (Burns nonetheless died at 37, partly from hard work and exhaustion, poverty) while Scott was politically high Tory and very much a unionist, though endlessly trying to do justice to specifically Scottish culture, sensibility and the old Jacobite cause (at least explain it).

The series was made in 2014, just before the referendum on devolution and it’s clear that Marr is on the side of “no” (stay, not leave England) in Part Three which he devotes to Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve): while Marr presents the beauty, depth of thought and interest of MacDiarmid’s poetry fairly and with high praise, he treats MacDiarmid’s separatist point of view as a fantasy which for a long time was not taken seriously by those who read him. All three hours have beautiful photography, the sections of the books read aloud are done brilliantly by actors and readers, we are taken to the truly appropriate interesting places. I knew nothing of MacDiarmind before I watched this hour and now feel I do understand something of the man; I know a great deal about Boswell & Johnson, Burns & Scott (I have read far too much Scott over my life — especially in my teens and early 20s) and can vouch that they are presented with real insight.

I do wish he had included a couple of women, at least mentioned one (?), and was hoping (when I learned of the series) for a survey, but I admit his choices are well taken and by sticking to three primarily he treats the writings of these men in depth. I wish even more that these were online for American viewers. At best there are podcasts, commentaries, and if you are lucky, you may find them reprinted on DVDS in sets of Marr’s work on Amazon at UK.

More recently (2016) he has made a quietly brilliant three part analysis and feelingful projection of the popular subgenres of the novels he identifies as Sleuths, Sorcerers, and Spies. I rejoice that these are on YouTube. First Sleuths:

Second Sorcerers:

And thirdly, Spies:

Marr’s persona comes across more strongly in these three than his series on Scotland or his political series: he portrays himself as decidedly un-aristocratic, far from a member of any elite or academia, a “smart-aleck” who is, if not anti-intellectual (he cannot present himself that way as he is so patently perceptive and analytic), at least not a self-satisfied public one. The subtext of these is a kind of vehement anti-snobbery: he wants to counter anyone who looks down on these “paperback heroes” (and heroines) and their best-selling authors to show that their books mirror the eras and worlds they wrote in and bring home to the alert viewer their deeper problems and anxieties and needs. He presents himself as uncovering the “rules” each genre follows religiously.

Yes, they are formulaic. It may be said he hams his material up, but the result is fun, and his interviews with working novelists and quotation from those no longer literally living are of real interest. As this is more popular entertainment, I cannot find a serious review — so perhaps he failed at his seeming aim. Not so, when you can watch them over and over.

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How to close? Myself I’m a lover of Scots literature (as the reader to this blog and my Austen Reveries must know), went to Edinburgh for the equivalent of a honeymoon, and have visited Scotland now three times, once all the way to Inverness and up to the Hebrides (across the way, still the mainland on a bus). One of my favorite 19th century novelists is Margaret Oliphant. In my studies of historical novels and romance, I often find the authors whose books I so enjoy also wrote in this distinctively different genre (these thrillers are until very recently usually masculinist even when women write them) and try to understand the relationship between these genres in book and movie form.

My most recent reading for sheer pleasure and interest has been Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Gowk Storm, to learn the truth of a still wrongly maligned destroyed woman, Margaret Macaulay’s The Prisoner of St Kilda (the true story of the indeed unfortunate Lady Grange, shocking even today), Elizabeth Taylor Russell’s Tomorrow (it takes place on an island off Denmark — in the same kind of edge-marginalized culture).

But from years ago and more recently, I am a strong admirer of Liz Lochhead, a brilliant poet, playwright, polemicist too. So (as my title promised), first two poems by Liz Lochhead:

Rapunzstiltskin

& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come to almost love her tower,
along comes This Prince
with absolutely
all the wrong answers.
Of course she had not been brought up to look for
originality or gingerbread
so at first she was quite undaunted
by his tendency to talk in strung-together cliches.
Just hang on and we’ll get you out of there!
he hollered like a fireman in some soap opera
when she confided her plight (the old
hag inside etc. & and how trapped she was);
well, it was corny but
he did look sort of gorgeous
axe and all.
So there she was humming and pulling
all the pins out of her chignon,
throwing him all the usual lifelines
till, soon, he was shimmying in & out
every day as though
he owned the place, bringing her
the sex manuals & skeins of silk
from which she was meant, eventually,
to weave the means of her own escape.
All very well & good, she prompted,
but when exactly?
She gave him till
well past the bell on the timeclock.
She mouthed at him, hinted,
she was keener than a TV quizmaster
that he should get it right.
I’ll do everything in my power, he intoned, but
the impossible (she groaned) might
take a little longer. He grinned.
She pulled her glasses off.
All the better
to see you with my dear? he hazarded.
She screamed, cut off her hair.
Why, you’re beautiful? he guessed tentatively.
No, No, No! she
shrieked & stamped her foot so
hard it sank six cubits through the floorboards.
I love you? he came up with
as she finally tore herself in two.

from Part Three of Lochhead’s The Grimm Sisters collection: ‘Hags and Maidens’

Everybody’s Mother

Of course everybody’s mother always and so on…

Always never
loved you enough
or too smothering much.

Of course you were the Only One, your
mother
a machine
that shat out siblings, listen

everybody’s mother
was the original Frigid-
aire Icequeen clunking out
the hardstuff in nuggets, mirror-
slivers and ice-splinters that’d stick
in your heart.

Absolutely everybody’s mother
was artistic when she was young.

Everybody’s mother
was a perfumed presence with pearls, remote
white shoulders when she
bent over in her ball dress
to kiss you in your crib.

Everybody’s mother slept with the butcher
for sausages to stuff you with.

Everybody’s mother
mythologised herself. You got mixed up
between dragon’s teeth and blackmarket stockings.

Naturally
she failed to give you
Positive Feelings
about your own sorry
sprouting body (it was a bloody shame)

but she did
sit up all night sewing sequins
on your carnival costume

so you would have a good time

and she spat
on the corner of her hanky and scraped
at your mouth with sour lace until you squirmed

so you would look smart

And where
was your father all this time?
Away
at the war, or in his office, or any-
way conspicuous for his
Absence, so

what if your mother did
float around above you
big as a barrage balloon
blocking out the light?

Nobody’s mother can’t not never do nothing right.

And then she is online too — at the Edinburgh Festival:

Ellen

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Mary Beard

The truth is that ‘peeling away the encrusted myth’ of Cleopatra reveals there is very little underneath the ancient fictional surface, and certainly nothing that can be the stuff of a plausible life story — unless it is padded out with half-relevant background … the best we have is a possible ‘signature’ on a document authorising tax concessions and the report that in her final days she muttered again and again ‘I shall not be led in triumph — Mary Beard, “Cleopatra, The Myth,” Confronting the Classics

I don’t remember when I first heard the name, Mary Beard, nor how I came to acquire and read her Confronting the Classics (a short review), but since then I’ve followed her, nowadays on twitter, as well as off. I remember how I was bored silly by the to me inane Epic of Gilgamesh, and couldn’t understand how anyone could substitute this as an assignment in college as from the ancient world instead of Virgil’s profound, beautiful, intelligent Aeneid. And then I read Beard’s defense of Roman or Latin literature not as opposed to but as texts as interesting as these originally Greek ones. Beard was, is, also continually a fresh thinking original feminist. She is still the only writer I read, to talk about women in the ancient world in ways that make them living relevant presences.

Then years later, since my younger daughter, was a lover of Latin, minoring in it in college, and is a reader, I was actually anxious that she should want to read and enjoy Beard’s SPQR.  When I bought it for her for Christmas, was so relieved when I’d see her reading it — with avid interest. Tonight I was reading Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison, and am not surprised to find that she is writing about this woman and her peer, Eugenie Sellers, in ways no one hardly ever writes about admired people: telling the inward petty and crucially important personal politics that shaped their careers. It takes hard research to get to that sort of information. Were they and most of the people she is writing about not dead, Beard would now have as many enemies as the maligned journalist, Julian Assange, for this is how he began.


Don’t be satisfied with the tale of Harrison in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, for, good as Wade’s book is, she falls for the myth of Harrison as exposed by Beard; there is even more to Harrison’s achievement than is recorded by Wade

Then recently I opened up her Women and Power, two essays. The first is about how the public voice of women is treated: their sound is too high-pitched, so shrill, and not acceptable, their content emotional and when obviously knowledgeable school-mistress-y. She offers example after example of men silencing women, and several were close to my own experience. One happened the other day on Trollope&Peers! a male bully who hardly ever posts, suddenly got on to excoriate me for writing about Australia: how dare you? you are not Australia and show what an ignorant moron you are. No compunction whatsoever. She had the effect of validating my sense of this insult and revealed the pattern beneath it —

There are so many reviews of her books, that while I have needed her, I decided she does not need me or another blog or review to tell people what you are missing out on – for she is witty, idiosyncratic in her choices, personal, and I’m ever learning new information about another place, another figure, another work, or some unexpected insight. I also thought to do justice to her would take a book. All I could do is cite the books and urge you not to miss any. But about a year ago I started to feel compelled to write something when I came across an excoriating attack on one of her TV entertaining documentaries. Women as well as men castigating her for exposing the fallacy that when we look at naked bodies of women in art, we react to them viscerally as bodies, even when they are ever so tastefully done, and given learned names to obscure that they have most often functioned as pin-ups. The idea of the pompous Kenneth Clark unclothed (so to speak) was gratifying.


She allowed a drawing of her naked: this Guardian article brings out the Berger-take of the program

But when I started to watch her Shock of the Nude, I found she was misrepresented: far from dwelling on this (as it is so obvious) the programs were about how a single type of European woman has filled the space of what is reproduced when there are so many types of bodies, not to omit gene pools and ways of depicting bodies. It’s an elaboration on the specific topic from the perspective John Berger developed in his Ways of Seeing. We glimpse the actual motives of the people who made the object, the politics projected at an audience by an establishment “voice.” But to be as frank as she, what the men especially hated most of all is the way she looks. They cannot stand that she refuses to turn herself into as close a version of the Barbie Doll or socially comely academic woman in interview outfit for her shows. Her hair is unstyled (would be the word), her body lumpy, she wears only what make-up the film-makers must put on her to withstand film lighting. Those are her real long and discolored teeth. Of course it’s a pose, and she now has a trademark with her bike, but it’s a pose in another cause for candor as the only humane wisdom: this time what aging and other women actually look like.

Now I’ve just watched (and re-watched — a habit of mine) her early series, Meet the Romans, her contributions to Civilisations, and her [Ultimate?] Rome: Empire without Limit, and feel I ought to say something relevant to this dangerous and destructive era the Republicans, their Trump mascot, and all the wealthy and powerful people increasing a stranglehold of immiseration and downright murder on not only the US but people around the world variously connected to us: the theses of her two Roman series, which she makes convincing is that this ordinary village on this boot-like peninsula in the Mediterranean became a successful society, and extended out to become prosperous, educated, and (dare I say) a comfortable people because they were inclusive.

It was their original idea to make everyone who came within the purview of their power and ever extending land-mass Roman, to welcome into their civilisation all sorts of people, and thus circulate the knowledge, skill, and yes labor and natural products of lands across the globe. Indeed much that the vicious regimes of the world today are doing (except the step-by-step process in the US, and jump elsewhere into terrifying dictatorship) is what what the Romans didn’t do: race hatred especially. I took down my daughter’s book for the first time and found that in SPQR are the theses for these documentaries (read Emily Wilson’s more detailed review). They were flexible when it came to changing laws; they went in for people power. It was a genuinely mixed society because in the province power was given to local elites. Join with Rome, and you too can have this salary, these benefits. Everyone above say the working class level and the enslaved gets a percentage of the take. And the enslaved can buy themselves back.

The book and these series are not about its decline and fall (which it did) but about why it succeeded for so long — besides ruthless fearful military brutality — she does not mince words over the cruelties and harshnesses of this empire. In one episode (Part 3 of Ultimate Rome) we see a frieze of a fierce Roman soldier subduing and about to rape a supplicant woman, an image of Rome triumphing over Britain. One episode of Meet the Romans she seeks out how the average Roman who lived in the city survived & shows them in tiny dark flats in apartment houses, where just about nothing was in the space except room to sleep: all other functions, including drinking water, bathing (defecating), eating had to be done outside this space which was heavily peopled. To her credit, she does bring out what life was like for the average person.

Perhaps the Roman story is still too upbeat. Unlike the books, she does omit women. She doesn’t lie. She warns that stories about the fun adulteresses might have had are masculine bad dreams; stories of fiercely violent Amazons are probably glamorized fantasies based on what the Romans saw in the violent tribalism of Scythian groups. (Anyway who wants to idolize violence?) It was not the brutality of the Romans that made for their ultimate success, just a first step (bad joke alert). In her Pompeii, she takes us into excavated homes of the victims; she tries to realize what a family life might have been. The figures chance immortalized at moments of terror do convey what people are up against in nature (as well as what is often missing in other episodes from one another)


Pompeii people

These programs have our present era very much in mind.


From Ultimate Rome, Episode 3

They are also wondrously enjoyable because they are travelogues to places you, I, or your package tour company is not going to think of going to. I did not feel as if I was looking at fake pictures of landscapes, but genuine filming of out-of-the-way places where Roman buildings, forums, monuments, roads, these circular stadiums (levels upon levels), acqueducts, left over remnants of households are still extant. She films in Northern England, along the Hadrian wall where archeaologists have been very busy, in Algeria, southern Spain, Turkey, western Germany. Even if I had the money and the profound unhealthiness of airplane and modern boat travel had not been exposed, as an ordinary person I could not see what she shows in museums, factories, not to omit Pompeii and Herculaneum. She is invited to go where the rest of us who are not in the profession can’t. You see people in the marketplaces and in Rome today too — in France, in London.


In Bath — where I have been

I admit I sometimes enjoy her straight lectures on YouTube more than I do her documentaries, which are meant for a much wider audience than my taste. Her patter to me can be contentless; if there is a line of argument, sometimes it is obscured by gnomic suggestiveness. She is unwilling to criticize where I think she should. One of her assignments on Civilizations was to showcase (would be the word) religious buildings around the world once Roman (Europe and the middle east as it’s called mostly), but had it been Simon Schama (he is the main presenter) he would have managed to include sharp observations on what religious practices can mesmerize people into accepting. Her books provide more honest scrutiny. She is inclined to be optimistic, altogether too cheery — during this pandemic, she has had BBC shows in her kitchen. That sort of thing …

But she is always intelligent. During the Brexit controversies when there was still time, to put a stop to this lunacy of some segments of the British upper classes and the ignorant deluded nationalist solutions to economic distress in working class people, her TLS columns were ever on point and I wished she was in Parliament. I still do. Probably my favorite book is also still Confronting the Classics.


Filming in Rome

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 — Elizabeth Bishop
“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”

Ellen

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