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Archive for the ‘women’s film’ Category


Elizabeth Moss as Offred (Handmaid’s Tale, 2016, “created” by Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano

Friends,

It may be that nothing could be fundamentally further in mood (dystopian horror) and genre (fantasy gothic or science fiction) from a Jane Austen novel, or any of the film adaptations (except perhaps P&P and Zombies: The Violent Turn) than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, only short-listed for the Booker at the time), with its two iterations, the 1990 Volker Schlondorff/Harold Pinter 109 minute cinema Handmaid’s Tale, and now this gargantuan mini-series of 10 one hour episodes Bruce Miller/Reed Morano Hulu Handmaid’s Tale. But this is such an important production of a now clearly prophetic woman’s novel, however or because problematic at moments, we cannot ignore it.

The book is not just prophetic; it’s an allegory of today, of the way the men in charge of the US gov’t want to control women and the world. Every violation a woman can know is meted out; many men are equally powerless; you are hung for being gay, transgender, speaking unacceptably … what is problematic is the over-the-top violence: is it part of an inuring process which leads to acceptance of torture in many forms ….

The book is hard, harsh, not easy to assimilate: it begins in medias res and immediately you are immersed in a closed environment where the narrator, Offred, is cut off from any information beyond her immediate environment, itself laced with lies, and surrounded by treacherous fearful and ruthlessly bullying people (in this mini-series, immediately aggressively violent). The narrator grips you from the start — rather like Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and MarlenHaushofen’s The Wall. We are seeing this world from a single point of view — Offred (Natasha Richardson, far too lovely, and now Elizabeth Moss, her face all hard angles).

The book begins with Offred in her single room and going downstairs where she is about to go shopping. Slowly it emerges from her mind how she has come to live with the commander Waterford (Robert Duvall/now Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway, now Yvonne Stahovski). The way records are completely under the control of gov’t agencies (which has been true for a few decades now), so that when the coup is accomplished, that very day our heroine cannot reach her bank account. The money she is told is not validly hers. When she gets home, she is told that her husband can reach it and it’s telling he doesn’t mind this. Suddenly then women are not allowed to own any property. The next day she is told by her boss –- as are all the other women in the office – they are no longer permitted to work. She must go home and be an obedient housewife. The boss looks very sorry to do this – he’s losing his staff – but he is under threat of terrific retaliations, he says. Return to the present: As Offred goes about the house we meet the Marthas (in long brown dresses); a male Guardian, Nick (now Max Minghella) at his car and where he lives (woman-less as a powerless man).

The novel is far softer, more subtly nuanced than either film: it begins with some sense of sympathy for Serena Joy as herself vulnerable (reminding me of the plantation owner’s white wife who hates his black concubine in Valerie Martin’s Property). But she seethes with resentment and hatred as she is forced to use Offred’s vagina (her own “barren”) to conceive a child, all she can justify her existence by. She moves from pretend concern for Offred when she thinks Offred is pregnant, to brutal kicking when Offred turns out to have her period. As the novel proceeds, Serena Joy encourages Offred to take up with Nick in order to conceive a child, and there is this appalling scene where Serena Joy has given Offed a single cigarette, and Offred has to practically beg to get a single match from one of the kitchen staff. Psychologically interesting scenes include those between the commander and Offred as they begin to be people to one another (as in their game of Scrabble). Lots of the details are vivid and appropriate — reminding me of the use of metaphor and landscape in Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye (one of her finest novels) and Lady Oracle (brilliantly about romance novels, the gothic).

The things that are done to the powerless heroines (all women are powerless but the apparent bullies, Aunt Lydia types (Ann Dowd) are horrible but not over the top so that they are not believable. They are parallel to what goes on in the US and elsewhere today. The hatred of gays, the desire to destroy women’s vaginas (one pregnancy test is an invasive procedure by doctors), the continual presence of military people, the ruthless disproportionate punishments, the way the hanged are dressed (like the tortured people in Abu Ghraib). A key motive in the book and both films: the narrator wants to survive and is willing to kowtow to anything, do or say anything to avoid bodily pain — it’s so easy to kill someone. I recently reviewed a crucial anthology, Speaking about Torture, where this drive to carry on as well as an assertion of individual self through talk and memory enables survival for a very few.


Max Minghella as Nick in the mini-series — he is hovering around the edges, looking like someone with a still alive conscience

The book’s ending is quite different from the first movie’s and since this mini-series has already gone well beyond the book in harrowing chilling inhumanity (the word seems so inadequate), I expect its ending will differ too. The book reaches its climax in the club where Offred comes upon Moira (she did not manage to escape), with Serena Joy discovering them having an apparent good time, and precipitates a crisis. One of the troubling aspects of the book and first film is how many of the women hate (or appear to hate) the other women. While reading I found detail after detail were simple exaggerations or night mare versions of our present political arrangements, what one sees in social clubs say — masquerades that expose.

The heroine in the book “goes out” — seemingly to her death, and the feel or sound is that of a great explosion. The 1990 film ends with a revolt, Nick enables Offred to escape to a trailer high in the mountains well beyond this terrible empire where we see her pregnant, relieved to be left alone, waiting for him — presumably the people who make such decisions insisted on an upbeat close. It did not feel tacked on: this is a pregnancy not dreaded. This mini-series has made Offred’s daughter central and she says she is staying alive to try to be there to protect her daughter (if she can), rescue her.


It’s worth noting that both are dominatingly white film — thus far Samira Wiley is the only black major character in both movies (Moira here, was Elizabeth McGovern)

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Episodes 1-3


Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s friend from the past (Offred now has a “real” name, June)

Episode 1: The film-makers made an atmosphere of complete appalled terror and horror. From the moment we see the family in flight, to their capturing Offred and her child. The use of violence is continually there and the film punctuated by heartless humiliation, regimentation, breaking of all taboos that are there to help people stay together naturally. I found myself shaking at moments. I was shocked by use rape to destroy people, and to make women (including Offred) attack someone viciously and ferociously.  Offred joins in, is even first to start beating the man labeled rapist mercilessly. The women are like dogs who from the punishment and the rage they feel are then drivne to wreak their vengeance on another helpless person. I worried Ofglen, the woman whom Offred goes shopping with, and seems to be making friends with, is not a traitor. Everyone is treacherous. But she is “disappeared” by the third episode. Some moments reminded me of the first movie. Moira in both is violently beaten and stipped naked, put to bed. The horror of the “maid” used as a receptacle for sperm while the husband systematically fucks her and she is made to lay in the wife’s arms. How the wife hates this. t. Offred witnesses the husband going into an elegant dinner party with the wife shut out in both iterations. The use of far shots is fascinating: these make us see the characters as so many tiny figures in a glass bowl, de-humanizes them into a maze.


The commander


His wife, Serena Joy

Episode 2: I can’t take more of this kind of thing than an hour in a row so waited another night before watching again. This is transition. The ever so gentle Mr Waterford (the commander played by an actor who reminds me of Ralph Fiennes when he plays these gentle loving brother-types so this is high irony; he chooses to impose scrabble on Offred nightly -(One Austen connection is with Emma! — Caroline Austen suggested one source for the depiction of Mr Woodhouse at backgammon with Emma was a real older male relative in the Lloyd family who tyrannized his granddaughters into nightly backgammon … for one night might be amusing but not continually.)
 
There is throwback to Offred’s memories of a having her child normally by her husband, but tellingly, the film makes that experience not altogether blissful: she is controlled by others as she fulfills routines taught, and her husband scoots out at the first opportunity. This mini-series has the nerve, the daring to bring out the analogies of “normal” life to this dystopia.  The bully woman in charge is so hypocritically proud of Moira for breast-feeding.  (I refused to breast feed the second time, I found myself after a vast hemorrhage asked if I wanted to try to breast feed — I told them you must be mad but they never blinked  — I could go on with this about how I was unknowingly dragged into some vast room where women were being taught to breast-feed, it took strength and never with that ridiculous IV to walk out).  Nothing is to be trusted: the woman Offred had started a relationshio with, Ofglen is replaced by another woman claiming to be her. Ofglen had told her not to trust the Commander’s driver, Max Minghella.

There is no gratuitous physical violence but the emotional violence through repression and perversion is continual and far sharper, a sort of continual emotional abuse which destroys pesonalities.


Aunt Lydia — the actress is made to look like people typically put into domineering intimidating roles, with expressionless faces, hard dense bodies ..

Episode 3 shows us in fragments how an originally semi-free society (ours) was turned into a dictatorship with women as slaves. First their bank accounts are frozen, then they have no money, then they are fired. Offred’s husband doesn’t mind it seems; he’ll protect her. But he can’t. Demostrations are seen, people beaten shot in the streets, especially women. All these remind me of what I see on TV when black lives matter people demonstrate, when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was brutally scattered, and people in the streets maimed for life. These are fragments of memory of Offred: she is thought to be pregnant and is phonily treated as precious. But after a hideous interrogation (she is given electric shock treatments each time she violates some speech prohibition or shows the least independence) she gets her period back and is again driven as a hated thing by the wife.

In each of the separate incidents, every profound violation a woman can know is done — I assume the last scene of the girl with a bandage over her vagina means she’s been subjected to female genital mutilation. raped, beaten, used utterly sexually, hung to death. It is moving slowly and instinct or some knowledge of long watching of these mini-series tells me it’s going at the speed of Outlander (16 episodes = 1 book much longer than Handmaid’s Tale) but it’s been so long since I read the book. A couple of allusions come from recently — about the constitution. Recent allusions I’d say are prophetic unless the writers had in mind Trump winning with Pence as his vice-president (Pence will not be alone in a room with a woman he says).

Note that I have not re-capped the mini-series; those wanting recaps must go elsewhere but here is an abbreviated review (by “anibundel” of I Should Have Been a Blogger) more or less done with an eye to the audience member who wants a recap. One should of course reread the book carefully, and then re-see all three episodes and then move on to the fourth. What is troubling about this mini-series is the hundred-fold increase in violence from book and first film: we are inured and most be given horrific behavior it seems before we are affected, and what this does is inure us further. I am worried that like Nabokov’s Lolita, this is an art work which invite us to revel in the subjection of women (especially since romance, marriage and motherhood are treated a holy subjects), while claiming through irony to attack the patriarchal bosses. See Francine Prose in the New York Times and think seriously about this.


A close-up landscape — from a later episode not yet aired on Hulu

Ellen

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Charlotte Heywood (Amy Burrows), Felicity Lamb (Bonnie Adair) Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan)

Diana’s letter: [Susan] has been suffering from the headache and six leeches a day for ten days together … convinced on examination the evil lay in her gum, I persuaded her to attack the disorder there. She has accordingly had three teeth drawn, and is decidedly better, but her nerves are a good deal deranged … Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Though he had not the character of a gamester, it was known in certain circles that he occasionally played well, & successfully; to others he was better known as an acute & very useful political agent, the probable reason of his living so much abroad — Of Mr Tracy, Anna Lefroy’s continuation

Dear friends and readers,

Today a friend sent me a news item that the first “period costume drama” of Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon is slated to be filmed, in an advertisement that says this is the first filmed Sanditon. Well not so. Chris Brindle’s play from Jane Austen and Anna Lefroy’s Sanditon is, and it’s the argument of this blog it’s probably much more in the spirit of Austen than the coming commercial one.

First, the ad suggests a cosy, creamy film (rather like the recent Love and Freindship), with the completion written by Marie Dobbs. Dobbs turned a satirical and highly sceptical story whose focus is a group of people seeking to make money on the false promises of a seaside spa to cure people, into a melodramatic romance, complete with an abduction, an elopement and three marriages, the accent now on love. Yes box office stars, Holliday Grainger for Charlotte and Max Irons for Sidney Parker have been cast. And much better — reasons for thinking this might be another strong Austen film: the screenplay writer is Simone Reade, who has to his writing credit a fine movie from R. C. Sherriff’s powerful WW1 Journey’s End and the 1997 Prince of Hearts. In addition, the director is Jim O’Hanlon who directed the 2009 Emma scripted by Sandy Welch and starring Romolai Garai and Johnny Lee Miller. And Charlotte Rampling is to play Lady Denham!

Nonetheless, I wanted to recommend not waiting and availing yourself of Chris Brindle’s production of Sanditon, available on DVD from http://www.sanditon.info. I’ve watched it three times now, and went back and reread (as I’ve done before) Anna Lefroy’s continuation, which, together with her aunt’s fragment are the basis for Chris Brindle’s script. It has that Jane Austen quality of telling real truths while leaving you somewhat cheered.

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Shots of the English countryside near the seashore occur between scenes

This interlude between the two acts captures the brightness of the production; the singer is Amy Burrows who plays an appealing Charlotte. She also narrates the good 40 minute documentary available from the site about Anna Lefroy’s life and other writing and relationship with Austen as well as the circumstances surrounding Austen’s writing of Sanditon: Austen, as we all know, was fatally ill knew it, often in bad pain; this was her last piece of writing.


Singers: Amy Burrows and Nigel Thomas (click on the YouTube logo to go over to hear the song)

Brindle is an ancestor of the painter of a miniature of Anna Lefroy, and has interested himself in the landscape, houses, and culture of the era.

First some admission or warning-preparation. The people doing the production had a very small (or no) budget and parts of the play are acted in front a black screen; several of the actors are half-reading the scripts. I found this did not get in my way once I became interested in the play and characters and that was quickly. These parts of the performance reminded of good staged readings I’ve attended.

On the many pluses side: like Catherine Hubback’s Younger Sister (Hubback has also until recently not be a favored subject for the Austen family so that it was hard to get hold of her continuation of The Watsons), Lefroy clearly knows more of the direction Austen meant to take the story in than we can see in the extant text. In her Mary Hamilton she captured something of her aunt’s tone in Persuasion: here she continues the peculiar comic feel combining real hypocrisies, delusions, with a comic control from distancing style. Lefroy’s continuation was not widely known until 1977 when it was published in a good edition and is still ignored, partly because Anna’s close relationship is her aunt is downplayed in favor of Austen’s relationship with the richer Fanny Austen Knight.

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His carriage overturned, Mr Parker demands that Mr Heywood (Adam Bone) produce a surgeon ….

In the film, the parts are very well-acted, especially of the key figures, Mr [now given the first name of] Tom Parker (Vincent Webb) and Lady Denham (Barbara Rudall). What Lefroy did was to bring out the implications of her aunt’s story: Parker is fringe gentry desperately trying to make money to support his gentleman’s lifestyle, overspending to make an impression, a physician-chaser (he deliberately allows his carriage to overturn where he thinks he will meet with a physician whom he can bring to Sanditon to allure the sick into believing the spa will cure them. For Mr Parker, there is just enough lightness of humor to make them sympathetic figures, without overlooking his actual predation, which is however registered by Mrs Parker’s querulous fretting (Bonnie Adair). It’s more than hinted in Austen’s fragment that the sanguine Sidney, the younger brother (played by Pete Ashore), is an intelligent decent man (a sort of Mr Knightley figure) who rescues Parker from bankruptcy. Lefroy’s text adds a villain-friend of Sidney’s, a Mr Tracy (Adam Bone) whom she characterizes in a more worldly way than any of Austen’s heroes: Tracy is rather like one of Trollope’s semi-rakes; he lives high off his rank, cheating just enough on cards and here as a speculator in a local bank, to sluice money off other people; his creditors don’t call his debts in because they keep hoping to be paid in full. Brindle adds further that Tracy also takes advantage of the delusionary conceited Lady Denham (a sort of Lady Catherine de Bourgh figure) to bankrupt her account.

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Lady Denham disdaining Clara Brereton in a scene between egregiously rude dowager and put-upon heroine that repeats across Austen’s oeuvre

This open emphasis on money as the girding understructure of the society is matched by a development out of Austen’s text: Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan) is a paid companion to Lady Denham, who exploits and bullies her; she is also being seduced by Sir Edward Denham, Lady Denham’s nephew. They have to hide this from her and Austen’s text ends with Charlotte spying them seated on a bench where Clara looks very distressed. In Austen’s text Denham is an admirer of Richardson’s Lovelace, and Clara may be seen as a short version of the name Clarissa. Brindle adds (somewhat improbably) that Denham is pressuring Clara to put some poisonous or sickening compound into Lady Denham’s medicines to do away with the old woman. Brindle has picked up a view of Austen’s Mr William Elliot I have and think may be seen in the 2007 ITV Persuasion (scripted by Simone Burke). Mr Elliot pretends solvency but is actually near broke; that’s why he is hanging around his uncle, Sir Walter and is willing to have a liasion with Mrs Clay to have evidence he can use against her if she should try to marry Sir Walter. Sir Edward Denham is in type a Mr Elliot: a really bad man, desperate for money. I found it an ambiguous feel was given this simple characterization when the same actor played both the good man (Sidney) and the bad one (Denham): Pete Ashore. The choices for doubling are effective: the simple good Mr Heywood, the smooth calculating crook Tracy: Adam Bone.

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Diana’s anguish (wildly antipathetic comedy found more in Austen’s letters & juvenilia) is counter-checked by the clarity of Alice Osmanski’s delivery

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Arthur (Rickey Kettly-Prentice) nearby reacts

The best scenes though are those which don’t forward the plot directly. One set are those given where we have just Alice Osmanski as Diana Parker talking out Diana’s inimitable letters or place in dialogue with the Parkers, Charlotte and different configurations of the other characters. She was brilliant, vivacious, half-mad and well-meaning all at once. Rickey Kettly-Prentice is too thin for Arthur, but otherwise utterly convincing as this falsely hypochondriacal young man who finds he does not have to work for a living. Working for money in Austen’s novels is presented positively again and again, but Arthur is the first male to himself almost self-consciously enact a drone role.

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Miss Lamb’s hard face while she tells Clara her history

The other are those where the plight or hard circumstances of young women without money or status are made central: the characters who carry this are Charlotte Heywood (not brought out clearly in Austen’s fragment because as yet she is not sought by Sidney Parker), Clara Brereton and Miss Lamb, her given the ironic first name of Felicity. Austen tells us only that she is a “mulatto,” very rich, brought by a governess along with a few other girls in a seminary arrangement to spend time at the seashore. Brindle has her tell a story to Charlotte and Clara that reminds me of the story of in the 1808 anonymous epistolary novel, The Woman of Color. Felicity is the daughter of a slave-mistress of her father, both badly treated by the man, with strong suggestions that she was sexually abused by Lamb at age nine. Fittingly for Austen’s fragment, Brindle has disease (a factor in the West Indies for the English who had not built up immunities) do him in. He loses all his relatives but Felicity, and ends up semi-dependent on her while she is there, and sends her to England in order (in effect) to buy a white husband in order to to produce whiter grandchildren for himself. In her intense conversation with Clara and Charlotte Bonnie Adair as Felicity seethes with anger and hurt and shows no disposition to marry anyone; she wants independence and liberty and the play ends without her having engaged herself to anyone.

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Denham pressuring Clara

Brindle also fills in Clara’s story: Lucy-Jane Quinlan speaks with a cockney accent throughout and is given a sort Dickensian deprived background, which is poignant. As it’s understandable that Miss Lamb should not be keen to marry any man, and want to control her money so it’s understandable the portionless Clara should be willing to submit to Edward Denham’s bullying, insults (there are brief moments of this) in order to marry him. It’s her only way to provide for herself she says to Charlotte.

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Sidney saving the day

Telling it this way brings out the undercurrents of melodrama and harsh realities that actuate the crises and character’s hypocrisies. The appeal of the piece, its piquancy, is like poor Susan’s miserably over-medicated existence (appropriately Susan is played by the same actress who plays the hard-worked maid, Daisy, Ruby O’Mara), kept muted most of the time. Susan and Daisy don’t say much: Susan is continually using a handkerchief, writhing quietly; Daisy is kept busy. Only in the moments of exposure — such as when Sidney saves everyone by exposing Tracy (and declares for more building up Sanditon), or Mr Parker finds he must admit he is nearly without funds, and the hysteria of Lady Denham for whom a proposed income of £100 a month or a year is horrifying. Fatal. Otherwise how have a happy ending for Clara. I’m sure Brindle has also read Emma where Jane Fairfax’s happy fate is the result of Lady Churchill’s sudden death.

This is a play and production which does not turn Austen into complacent romance or uncritical social comedy. Not that Simone Reade’s production necessarily will. Brindle says in the documentary he meant to do justice to Anna Lefroy’s continuation, her writing and life relationship with her aunt. He does so. Perhaps the delight or feeling that this is world where there are good people whose strength has not been undermined or twisted by circumstances inheres most in Amy Burrows’s character and performance. She does not seem at all your moralizing exemplary heroine, just someone (as she says) who has been lucky to have kind (if not very rich) parents. She is given several wry choral asides for turns in the story.

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Delivering an aside

Try it, you’ll like it if you give it a chance.

Ellen

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Carrie Fisher (1956-Dec 27th, 2016) and Debbie Reynolds (1932-Dec 28th, 2016)

I write about those days at a great distance – not only in terms of time. I cannot feel close to the young woman who went about with my name long ago … she is often strange to me, sometimes antipathetic, now and then, but for the self-conviction that stares at me from the printed page. There too I am at odds with her — Elizabeth Robins, suffragette-actress, who left an autobiography

I am the custodian of Princess Leia — Carrie Fisher off-the-cuff at a signing event

Friends and readers,

Not everyone coming here will recall that for a while I was writing a series of blogs on actresses, most of them 18th century, but my idea was to focus fairly on the profession of the actress, its history, and individuals. If Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher were not actresses, where are actresses to be found? I wrote about them on my Sylvia blog a few days after Carrie Fisher died of a massive heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the next day of deleterious heart event given the non-technical name, “broken-heart syndrome,” and stroke, in other words, intense grief at the loss of her daughter.

My daughters seemed to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. As a mother to daughters, I felt so touched over how the mother died, her grief too strong for her strained heart to sustain. Since then my (temporary) identification, interest in actresses, and curiosity has led to me to read about them, and feel empathy and much respect for both.

I didn’t realize the photo I found (and now prefaces this blog) came from Reynolds’s last appearance to pick up a much-merited reward for a life-time of performance from the Screen Actors Guild in January of 2015. Both American sweethearts at age 19 (that was Reynolds’s age when she famously starred in Singin’ in the Rain): there is something about their particular permutation of the white gene pool — the round face, wide-apart eyes, uplifted nose, blue eye, blonde hair — and the way they presented themselves that lent themselves to this. It was easy to find out this kind of thing and much about both their careers and Carrie Fisher’s writing over the next few days. No less than 5 articles in the Washington Post appeared the day after her death, one of them on the front page and continuing in the front section. There was an obituary in the New York Times.

But the way my younger daughter talked of her, I began to realize she was famous for her writing and what I’ll call her “solo performances” on select stages beyond her roles in the original two Star Wars films (1970s), it sequel (1983) and (very recently, much older) its prequel (2015). These made her, like her mother, before her an icon for a version of America’s sweetheart. After this she became a screenplay writer, wrote fictional versions of her life and relationship with her mother, most notably Postcards from the Edge, made into a film (which won awards that year) with Meryl Streep as Carrie, and Shirley MacLaine as Debbie: how’s that for four icons all at once? But important as these were, partly because she was so candid about her private life (sex and marriage), her depression and drug problems, perhaps the solo performances were the most striking reason for her following.

In the several histories of actresses and the rise of respectability of actresses (see my blog review of Sandra Richards’ The Rise of the English Actress), I concluded that central to the growth of respectability for actresses was the actress-autobiography (a sub-genre of autobiography one might say). The writing legitimized her, she was seen as a serious person; the earliest ones were in the 19th century, but some of these were also by women who also got up on the stage alone and did monologue, solo performances. Why is this important: in these they regularly broke out of the conventional roles they were pushed into in films and stage plays. We are familiar with this under cover of the stand-up comic: Joan Rivers did it with pizzazz, and electrified audiences by breaking tabooes in her talk about sex.

What Carrie (using just her first name as so many do) did was to tie these monologues openly to her life, and include in the monologue people she worked in the industry with (say George Lukacs, the first director of Star Wars). She’d do it unexpectedly and at awards ceremony where the person named and at moments bitterly satirized would be sitting. I noticed she’d quickly turn the talk into more compliment, and by the end seem to buy back into the values of the crowd, but everyone had heard the mordant take on the realities of the movie industry and women’s lives. Married briefly to the thoughtful song-writer and good musician, Paul Simon, with other disappointed love affairs (known) with a daughter too, Billie Lourd (a minor actress), Carrie evolved a character in public, much of it frankly her which girls in the later 20th century could identify with and find solace. She capped it off (so to speak) by dying relatively young.


Carrie at American Film Institute

I’m writing because I don’t see her “act” talked about in this way: we are told her quips (good one-liners) and ceaselessly it’s repeated how she openly talked of her “drug problem” and “bi-polar” (a cant word nowadays) state. It is still daring to present your sex life as she did openly (see my blog-review of Kristin Pullen’s Actresses and Whores.) She is presented as a Dorothy Parker manque: but Parker never acted, did monologues on stage, and her writing was much much stronger, far more consistent, genuinely reaching tragedy (the story, “Big Blonde”), and she was brilliant in verse. This is not to knock Carrie Fisher but say she broke out of stereotypes and was able to talk about what it is to be woman as an “actress” in front of audiences. As far as I can her other two novels were much weaker and her autobiographical books (3 of them) weaker yet: they are put-together anecdotes meant to make money and promote herself to get more opportunities for stage solos and participation in movies. She had a TV show, was in dozens of movies, three worth mentioning as serious (where real acting was called for).

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Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher — many years ago, when Carrie was still singing as part of her mother’s nightclub act

Carrie also from a very young age, worked with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, on stage. The mother was grooming her to become a singer and nightclub entertainer. In the film, Bright Lights (see right below), we hear Carrie sing twice and she’s very good — a hard yet mellow resonant register like Judy Garland’s. In the film too, one of Reynolds’s rare remarks about herself and her daughter is repeated twice: she is deeply disappointed Carrie did not go in for a career as a singer; Reynolds attributes this to the source (as Reynolds sees this) of her talent, her relationship with her father, Eddie Fisher.

Which brings me to the crucial background out of which Carrie’s career, character, personal fulfilment and crises came: Debbie is not so much Princess Leia’s mother as Carrie is the daughter of the woman Eddie Fisher deserted for that vamp, Elizabeth Taylor. Anyone alive in the later 1950s and 60s who doesn’t remember the extraordinary publicity Reynolds manipulated on her own behalf to make herself the ultimate victim probably never read a newspaper or watched the news or went to a movie. I admit there too I had a lot to learn over the past couple of days. As I thought the extent of Carrie Fisher’s significance was as this skewed icon — America’s sweetheart no longer the girl next door, but first some bizarre fantastic innocent girl who is made the victim of a sadist — remember the metallic outfit and a chain around her neck, and then a general. (To this in our fascist militarized culture are actresses reduced who want to be seen as strong miscalled feminism sometimes: they need to be as violent as American macho heroes at vital moments. Princess Leia strangles the fat [naturally] monster who is imprisoning her with the very chain holding her down.)

So I thought Debbie Reynolds had made a career out of enacting unexamined American ideals: the unsinkable Molly Brown. She was the all-American mother and wife in the honeymoon-like Bundle of Joy. After Fisher left her, she had married twice badly (I had read somewhere), both times seeking glamorous men with money, and both times the relationship ended badly. The second husband, millionaire businessman, Harry Karl, turned out to be an addictive gambler, who lied to and bankrupted Reynolds. The third a very wealthy real estate developer. From what is said in newspapers I had the impression of someone ambitious, determined, and capable: she re-made herself each time through working in nightclubs and more popular movies. Like Ginger Rogers, she was hired for her looks, not her skill as a dancer, and like Rogers, Reynolds made herself superb. For “Good morning” she is said to have endured bleeding feet (recalling Hans Christian Anderson’s poor mermaid). She sang songs one of which became as great a hit as any of Eddie Fisher’s: Tammy from Tammy and the Bachelor.

But as with her daughter, the popular perception of her is inadequate: though not as badly. She had a career on the stage (won a Tony), could really act, especially in comedies (she’d win Emmys for TV shows) and developed her own act and material. She too did solo performances, but here the resemblance ends. She stayed doll-like all her life, at the edges of her monologues making fun lightly here and there of American values, and in her later years referring to her daughter and herself, but never telling much, much less anything untoward. From what I read it seems that part of the conflicts between mother and daughter were precisely the mother pressuring her to be intensely conventional. She was the kind of actress most familiar since actresses were allowed to be respectable, only instead of enacting on-stage female stereotypes, she kept to them off-stage too. Not that I’d knock this: she was ultimately supremely successful from a financial standpoint, and in the film Bright Lights we can see that both Carrie and Todd are comfortable due to her efforts. Her act has become grotesque at moments, especially when with her body she tries to enact the old coquettery, the kind word is gallant.

Bright Lights, which, while I regret to say is a weak film, can end my portrait of these two apparently admired and well-known actresses because more is revealed there than was intended certainly by Reynolds, and perhaps by Fisher.
There is a good recap of the film by John Boone at Entertainment Tonight. I watched the film on HBO at the appointed time (both rare acts for me: I didn’t even know what channel HBO occupied) fully expecting to weep as I had felt emotional over the imagined relationship of a supportive mother-and-daughter. I also thought the new perspective or new context of their shared death would affect me and the material.

I remained dry-eyed throughout. Like Fisher’s solo performances, finally it was not that deeply revealing of Carrie Fisher, though the suggestions that were made by Carrie about her character and history were frank, believable, had an honesty not common: she was throughout presented as when all is said and done, the obedient daughter, taking every care of her mother, good-hearted, well-meaning, forgiving her bastard of a father at the end (“reaching out” it’s called). No hard truths beyond the citing of her “bipolar” problems — we learned how she has had to lose weight for the coming Star Wars roles. Nor was it admitted that Reynolds preferred to live the naive life, and pretend to not examine anything, unless called upon for some explanation of something really bothering her (like her daughter did not take up the career of a singer).

By contrast Joan Rivers’s bio-pic of herself, A Piece of Work, is multi-faceted, novelistic, and Rivers presented many unpleasant, suposedly unadmirable aspects of herself; she asked interesting questions about values underlying celebrity careers, showed us the cost of ambition itself, which was to end up alone, except for her loving daughter, Melissa Rivers, whose career she fostered. Rivers was glad she had re-vamped herself to display ideals of gorgeousness as long as she could. We also saw her kindness to the vulnerable, unlucky in small ways (she collected street people she knew for Thanksgiving), her real philanthropic activities, and good working relationships with those who helped her keep her career up. Nothing like this is in Bright Lights.

I’ve just cited some of what’s revealed. We also see that in the last couple of years Debbie Reynolds had become senile and very frail. It’s often said how they lived next door to one another for years, in semi-bohemian (but very luxurious) compound in Hollywood. We see Carrie taking her mother food; reminding her to eat; immediate memory loss is bad. Reynolds’s last appearances in nightclubs (where everyone in the audience is very old) required the help of many people (and a scooter); and the picking up of that last award was engineered by both Carrie and her son, Todd. For that last they got her dressed, got her to get into the car, up the stairs, onto the stage. Carrie was next to her mother because she needed to be. Carrie talked of how good a time they had had, but they were hardly there at all; upon receiving the award, the Carrie and her brother drove the mother safely home, and then had dinner, drinks, and good talk (and singing) with a couple of close friends.

So one reason Debbie wanted (as she said in her last words as recorded by her son) to “be with Carrie,” is cagey to the last, she knew without her daughter she could have no independence. The two women film-makers had given no sense of this, of what the woman was under the mask. I envied her the day she died because I too have experienced “broken heart syndrome:” about 5 months after Jim died, the faux heart-attack, but I recovered. I am now weak on the right side. I am not as strong in my need and determination as she. There is a real person beneath that mask — we could have seen it daily in her daughter and her relationship.

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As Boone says, Eddie Fisher’s is the absent-presence, appearing in clips from his career, one of him interviewed later on TV saying he had not been a father “there” for his children, and one recent film of him near death looking terrible, hardly able to do more than agree with the aging daughter sitting near him and talking and making gestures of love. If both children knew much psychological distress and apparently opted out of full careers (having money enough from their steely finally successful mother), this was not just a function of being the children of an hard-working actress who demanded conformity of herself on stage and probably off. He disappeared, he deserted them and their mother too. It was traumatic. Again we are told Carrie had a voice, could have been a successful, belting out sorrowful songs; Todd sings for couple of minutes, showing he too inherited, in his case the light tenor that underlay Eddie Fisher’s voice. But as if they had been stung by an adder, they turned away — both at times to drugs to get through. His career was not destroyed until after Taylor left him for Richard Burton, another marriage, and his inability to adapt to the somewhat changed mores in the mainstream by the later 1960s. Which Debbie managed, just. He couldn’t act it seems.

The content was mostly the slightest of story-lines: the two women are preparing to go to collect Debbie’s last award; by the end they have achieved this feat, are home again, and Carrie belts out a song, partly to please her mother. Before their death it might have felt celebratory. Now it came across as nostalgia, melancholy. Along this is strung home-movies taken by Todd Fisher or Debbie. Todd, her son by Eddie Fisher, came in about half-way through, and we see his devotion to the mother too, and his candor. He too has had drug problems; he did not have near the career his sister has made; he was frank that the source of his core money is his mother’s legacy. Boone omitted the clips from the movie, Postcards from the Edge, as the relationship of its matter to Carrie and her mother was not gone into. One could see that Carrie Fisher was aware of how she when much younger enacted the worst grotesqueries of the hegemonic male culture as it imprints itself on women and that from around the 1990s she refused to do.

By the time my brief foray into this pair of women was done I was no longer sentimental over them, no more identifying than I did for Joan Rivers. Better than this I saw and see in them the difficulties of being an actress in the 21st century remain similar to those actresses had from the later 17th century. How they survived was similar. Where they suffered — from the relationships with men sexually that on the screen they had to control to draw audiences to them. I would not claim for Carrie Fisher anything like the original work and political vision behind the careers of say Helen Mirren, Harriet Walter, Emma Thompson (to cite familiar names) or the many women from the 19th through 20th century who wrote, worked as soloists, directed. But she belongs to their honorable group.

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Carrie Fisher not far from her Princess Leia role: note how Debbie’s smile never changes

There is lurking in my findings an possible essay on the mother-daughter relationships in acting where both mother and daughter are fellow supportive players. I liked this joke in one of the many articles to have appeared: by Ann Hornaday:

If St Peter is waiting, one can’t hep but imagine him a bit intimidated by Fisher — coolly observing the scene and taking notes for mordant future reference — and Reynolds, adjusting her hair and makeup one last time before wowing him with a showstopper of an opening number.

Ellen

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For those determined to keep up with the slightest touch of Austen,

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Renee Zellweger trudging along as Bridget Jones, heavily pregnant, bringing home laundry, food, her Christmas tree and whatever she needs in the snow

The third installment of Bridget Jones’s story is worth going to — if you can sit through the first 10 or say 15 minutes of excruciatingly stupid, vulgar, noisy montages to promiscuity; if you are someone who enjoys screwball romantic comedy (where there is believable “bonheur” over companionship however bizarrely achieved); and if you saw and enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Edge of Reason, and like Helen Fielding’s novels. That’s three “if’s.”

Get past that opening, and you find yourself in a problematic situation that has contemporary resonance. Bridget is pregnant and does not know who the father of the coming child is. The time-frame fits a new passing weekend tryst with Patrick Dempsey as celebrity male of some sort as well as a not-all-that-contrived an encounter with Colin Firth as a Mark Darcy. We are asked to believe both males care, that they want to accept a responsibility as fathers, but screwball comedies often have precisely this kind of woman-centered flattering (or shall I call it hopeful) delusion/illusion.

People (including me) love to imagine continuity and survival, so part of the deep pleasure of this film is to see the same actors turn up as father, mother, and aunt to Bridget. Still alive! This pleasure is like the ending of Voltaire’s Candide (for those of an 18th century disposition). A form of Austen nostalgia. (A fourth necessity is probably a deep love of Austen and interest in and enjoyment of most Austen films.) I don’t know who is the most effective: Jim Broadbent as father, Gemma Jones as mother, Celia Imrie as aunt. I also enjoyed the wry presence of Emma Thompson as Dr Rawlings, gynecologist and obstetrician who tells Bridget, she doesn’t need these men. These fleeting moment between these actresses matter.

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Raw[lings] has herself endured the bringing up of a child without a male it seems. At a crucial moment, she ushers both men out as useless. So stick it out. There are funny moments.

There are those who claim to find Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as one of the most Austen-like of all the nearly 40 Austen films now extant. Not so. It’s too upbeat; its very success shows how deeply it has successfully bought into complacency. Bridget Jones’s Baby may not be even a good movie artistically, but it is not complacent. What is worth seeing in Bridget Jones’s Baby is the aging tired face of Colin Firth, glad at last to resign himself down to caring for this desperately if comically seeking (a different note than Katherine Hepburn used to hit) woman in her early forties, with no job (Bridget does not fit in, and how easy it is to discard her), and despite her “face-lift” (for which she has been, so I understand, excoriated) the wrinkled aging face and body of Zellweger. We are all getting older together and need to tolerate and get along. Stronger together, anyone?

People have apparently accepted the implied idea that Hugh Grant is totally gone from the scene. Not so. The film opens with his funeral. The unlucky man has apparently gone down in some plane hit by these endless wars on terror. But all is not lost: at the close, the viewer is gifted with a small column in a newspaper, that after all this “playboy” survived. Having just watched Grant’s superlative performance in Florence Foster Jenkins and remembering him so long ago as the complicated cuckolded vengeful duke in Middleton’s Changeling (as important in his way as Bob Hoskins as Flores and Elizabeth McGovern as Beatrice), I understand why he can no longer cope with these screwball comedies. His face has too much depth: he appears to have a gravitas beyond Firth’s self-deprecating thinness.

Firth as Mr Darcy’s shyness, awkwardness, unwillingness to reveal himself, snobbery, high integrity, good manners — studio experts seem to assume will again provoke comfortable laughter. These “sites” (and Bridget’s memories) are the reference points (to imply that this new stability and security is fleeting) are some of many moments and touches worth staying on for: as an example of how to think about what you see, for those who are said to have swooned at Firth in the 1995 P&P, here’s Mr Darcy today:

51873706 Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Pictured: Colin Firth FameFlynet, Inc - Beverly Hills, CA, USA - +1 (818) 307-4813 RESTRICTIONS APPLY: USA ONLY

Come to that, what is sex life like for older women? this film doesn’t tell us but it asks the question. What about a lonely older man not keen to lay his soul bare (and for good reasons). It’s not 45 years but at least such questions are broached. As they are not in Clueless. And the questions do link back through the sequel trail.

It’s worrying to me that P.D. James’s and Juliette Towhidi through the genre of violent murder (Death comes to Pemberley) the diaspora Austen films, and wacky comedies (say Lost in Austen) can make these satiric courtship novels Austen wrote seem more available to thinking people (especially women) than the older romance mini-series or singleton semi-delusional romances.
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Hattie Morahan as Elinor stoically enduring her life alone (2009, Davies S&S, one of the last of the “heritage” dramatic romance Austen films)

Or maybe for now what is funded is the “appropriation.” Yet this year what had staying power in movie-theaters? Not P&P and Zombies but rather a Christianizing and cream-y version of Lady Susan.

So I’ll end on the question of genre. The first ever Jane Austen movie was made in 1940, an MGM Pride and Prejudice which was described as and is a screwball comedy with romance. Screwball comedy is one that makes no rational sense if you start to look at money, common things of life, probability, actual emotions. Since then there has been two other screwball comedies, with romance beyond the three Bridget Jones’ movies: the 1995 Clueless and the 2004 Bride and Prejudice (also an Indian Bollywood type film).

What genre of movie is the closest in movie terms to Austen’s texts? They are all women’s films; that goes without saying. L’ecriture-femme on film. Many have female narrators; POV a heroine or heroines, over-voice a woman, the woman character as linchpin to the stories. This fits Austen’s books. Now for typology.

Those who want to see Austen as comedy, and like the idea they are somewhat superficial or stay away from traumatic depths of emotion, praise the screwball comedies. More modern appropriations of these include Austenland (2104), P&P and Zombies (2016) and Death Comes to Pemberley (2013-14) have gothicized Austen as did the 1986 Northanger Abbey, the 2004 Lakehouse (out of Persuasion) and to some extent the 2007 Northanger Abbey (but Davies also parodied the form, and had an underlying feel of depth of emotion). There have been attempts at versions of comedies of manner, as in a stage play: 1991 Manhattan by Whit Stillman and Andrew Davies’s 2007 Room with a View (seen as a novel alluding to Northanger Abbey) comes to mind. There are the movies made from post-texts, including time-traveling ones (Lost in Austen), the Jane Austen Book Club.

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The group reading and talking together — seen through a porch

I suggest the movie genre that comes closest is the dramatic familial romance, lightened by parodic techniques and wit, the first instance of which was Fay Weldon’s 1970 Pride and Prejudice. There have been many of these since as mini-series, as one-off movies in theaters, heritage and appropriation alike; they can be Indian (Aisha) or deeply Anglo and traditional (Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma), post-colonial humor (the 2012 From Prada to Nada) or bio-pics, as in the melancholy 2009 Miss Austen Regrets.

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Olivia Williams as an older Jane Austen

For those interested, have a look at my list of Austen movies. I have not updated it in a while but most of the ones made are there, those not are in a handy list of the latest appropriation films in 2015. For individual items, see my Austen Miscellany.

Ellen

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Central hall for The Gathering (Outlander 4)

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Repeating scene for Rent: the line of male tenants bringing money or barter to Ned Gowan (Outlander 5)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been asked to review an excellent book, Descendants of Waverley: Romancing History in Contemporary Historical Fiction by Martha Bowden. I have begun reading it; and, though Bowden does not instance Gabaldon’s Outlander (nor for that matter Graham’s Poldark), I realize the Poldark and Outlander novels are two of the many-great grandchildren of the Waverley novels.

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Nineteenth-century edition

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A Penguin

For Gabaldon this is by way of DuMaurier, who also indulges centrally in romancing, allusive textuality, and fantasy myth-making.

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The Civil War politics of this novel makes it link as well as the time-traveling of DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand

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King’s General centers on a heroine (she is the subjective presence) who is crippled and must stay in a wheelchair thereafter due to an incident involving the wild ferocity of her lover, Rashleigh, in battle

I don’t want tonight to dwell on these artful and literary elements, but rather something more obvious: Episodes 4 and 5 of the mini-series cover a sliver of Gabaldon’s book, Outlander (Chapters 10 and 11, Oath-Taking and Conversations with a Lawyer) with intense elaboration so as to build a picture of a rich Scottish cultural world worth living in, and its many pleasures for men and women alike. Gabaldon and this mini-series show how the English colonialist armies, and resulting Scots and English protection rackets impoverished a subsidence people, and sought to exploit, kow, and punish them at every opportunity.

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Scottish farmers homes burnt, crops destroyed (Rent)

This is the post-colonial tapestry of the series that allures and interests me. Though I’ve put the first two of my blog on the first season on Outlander on my general cultural blog (Sassenach, and Castle Leoch and The Way Out), I feel these two episodes belong with 18th century matter. There is little movement forward of the story; instead what we get a dramatization of the reasons for Culloden, and how it came about. All Scott’s Scottish history Waverley novels center in some aspect of the Scots rebellion, dwell lovingly on its traditional culture, and if they come out on the side of progress, toleration, enlightenment (reason, “scientific” or probablistic explanation). Gabaldon differs mostly through the heroine’s perspective which is to try to stop this disaster for the Scots from happening. Through flashforwards (we could call Claire’s memories), we learn from Claire’s 20th century husband, what happened at Culloden.

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Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) on the field of Culloden (Rent)

The film-makers take Gabaldon’s anti-British point of view on board and make it stronger

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The band come across two crucified (tortured) dead corpses of Scotsmen

What I enjoyed was the loving recreation of Scots culture for two hours, and threading through these of continuing slow development of a friendly and trusting relationship between Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan): where she keeps him company, tends to him, and he in turn rescues, tries to understand Claire who he stops from a wild impossible escape to nowhere:

Jamie: “How far did ye think ye’d get, lass, on a dark night with a strange horse, with half the Mackenzie clan after ye by morning?
Claire: “Won’t be after me. They’re all up at the hall. And if one in five of them is sober enough to stand in the morning, let alone ride a horse, then I ‘ll be most surprised.”
Jamie: “Running away on a whim just because the men are drunk? On a whim?
Claire: “You know I’ve wanted to leave here for weeks. And I know exactly how many sentry posts surround the castle. And I know how to make my way through the forest and find the road back to Inverness.”
Jamie: “Well, that’s a very sound plan, Sassenach — Or would be, did Colum not post extra guards through the woods tonight.”

There is a real lyricism in their relationship with seeps across the episodes. It’s hard for me to capture that: it has to do with the feeling generated between the two, the words used, gentle and yet reaching out, and how the camera captures them talking and their body stances when in the same area. In these episodes this extended to Claire and Ned Gowan, Claire and her first meeting with the British officer who was disguised as a working person in one of the Scots villages (but turns up at the end offering to take her back to England in effect, rescue her from this Highland culture), and Claire with the women. With Dougal the atmosphere is testy and aggressive; by contrast with Frank her husband, their is a quiet blandness that is secure and feels peaceful but does not seem to go anywhere. In the 1940s scenes she is ever walking away or smiling enigmatically as he talks on ever so kindly but no poetry in it.

Many details are added but none contradict the thrust of the novel. My favorites are the conversations of the witty, thoughtful lawyer, Ned Gowan (played exquisitely well by a favorite actor of mine, Bill Patterson), with Claire. He may appear to tell her much, but only confirms enigmatically when she is beginning to see: she had thought Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish) was sluicing off money for himself (a second extraction from the deluded tenants) when he is gathering funds for an envisioned coming campaign. As when they speak a John Donne poem together:

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Claire: Absence.
Absence, hear thou my protestation against thy strength, distance, and length.
Do what thou canst for alteration
BOTH: For hearts for truest mettle.
She: Absence doth still and time doth settle.
He repeats: Absence doth still and time doth settle.

The verse also functions to let us know Claire is still missing Frank, longing to re-join him in the 20t century.

I’ve suggested the dramaturgy of Outlander is so much better than many of the episodes of the new Poldark and studying the scripts for these episodes has suggested to me why: Gabaldon’s film-maker trust her text. They feel no need to fill it out, to change the characters, to complicate the action by having parallel lines of stories, all quickly juxtaposed, lest we get bored or restless. They luxuriate in the text. There is time to develop the contradictions in relationships: it is humiliating to Jamie to have to strip his shirt off as an exhibit to seduce people into giving money, and his uncle must tear it off the first time; when Jamie threatens not to participate, the uncle threatens and pulls rank.

Time is taken out to develop a “sub-palate of colors: for example, while on the road the color of the sky is white, the land pastel, all softened shades to create a mood of quietude in the land and sky. And the characters emerge inside the patterns:

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Jamie addresses Claire against backdrop of tree designs

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More than once Claire voices how much she likes the culture even though it is so masculinist — she is forced to listen to continual male boasts about crude sexual prowess (they do this at her).

Gabaldon and her writers after her are comfortable in making Claire in continual danger: when she tries to escape from the gathering she is stopped twice by men seeking to rape her; when Jamie sleeps outside her door to protect her, his action is not superfluous. It ought to be troubling that Horsfield and her crew are far less comfortable with Graham’s transgressive women, and turn them back to domestic creatures (see Scripts & Problematic parallels). Gabaldon has no cruel vindictive women — which slant is added on to the Poldark snobbish women by Horsfield — and no salacious sluts; Horsfield unlike Graham and the 1970s writers find no excuse for promiscuity on the part of a woman.

The feminism here is again in Claire’s casual relationships with other women: in these episodes of Scottish highland culture, she seems to enjoy herself with the women even when they soaking dyed cloth in heated piss

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She as yet is willing to help Leoghaire attract Jamie (though female rivalry over the hero will come soon and be as strong as we find in Poldark) and this is used to bring out beliefs in love potions.
And she is deeply useful from her experience as a nurse in WW2. When during a boar-hunting in the Gathering, one man’s chest and thighs are severed by a boars tusks, and he lays dying in his chieftain Dougal’s arms, it is Claire who thinks how to ease the death by prompting from him memories of boyhood, home, and the beautiful places longing to live conjure up:

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Claire: “Geordie tell me about your home.”
Geordie: “It’s near a wide glen, not far from Loch Fannich.”
Claire: “What’s it like there? I’ll wager it’s beautiful.”
Geordie: “Ah, ’tis.”
Claire: “In the spring Yes?”
Geordie: “The heather’s so thick, ye can walk across the tops without touching the ground.”
Claire: “That sounds lovely.”
Geordie: “Wish I could be there now.”
Dougal: “Oh, you’ll be there soon, lad.”
Geordie: “Aye. Will ye stay with me?”
Dougal: “Aye.”
Claire: “Yes.”
Dougal: “There you are.”
Claire: “There.”

In a scene directly afterwards when he visits her “surgery:”

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Dougal: “You’ve seen men die before and by violence.”
Claire: “Yes. Many of them.”
Dougal: “Ye’ve done a fine job here as healer. Mrs. Fitz would have ye sit for a portrait if it was up to her. And, uh, I wanted to thank you personally for what you did for poor Geordie up there on the hunt.
Claire: “In truth, I did nothing. I wish I could have helped him.”
Dougal: “Ye did. Ye took him to a peaceful place, and that’s all any of us can ask when we pass …”

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He then requires her to come out on the rental journey with the band. She earns her place as strong, pro-active, competent woman who in effect competes with men in all areas — but sex. She is more than the token woman taken on the road.

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Riding out (The Gathering)

And of course, as I’ve said, in the over-voice, female perspective, control of the movement in time.

As the confines of the castle walls faded behind me like a bad dream, I took my first full breath in weeks. I had no idea where this journey would lead me, what opportunity might present itself. I could only hope it would bring me closer to the standing stones of Craigh Na Dun. If so, I was determined to reach them, knowing this time I must not fail.

Ellen

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Olive (Frances McDormand), Henry, her husband (Richard Jenkins), and their son, Christopher (at age 13, Devin Druid)

I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like — Austen on Emma

It is not enough for me to know what I have in me … [I want to be part of] Pierre and that young girl [Natasha] who wanted to fly away into the sky … so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live apart from it, but so that it may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony” Tolstoy’s Andrey in War and Peace)

Friends and readers,

Ever belated, I finished watching an unusually realistic and good mini-series, Olive Kitteridge (2014) (scripted Jane Anderson, directed Lisa Cholodenko, produced by among others Frances McDormand). adapted closely from Elizabeth Strout’s novel (2008) of the same name (won the Pultizer but that does not mean it’s necessarily bad, only that it’s deemed quintessentially mainstream American somehow and is good). I see it as a book directly in the tradition of quietly realistic ironically held at a distance novels, mostly by women, brought to its first fruition by Jane Austen. Olive Kitteridge is much more unlikeable than Emma (or Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, and I was led to the book and movie because a friend talked about how all but two women readers in her bookclub hated the book because they hated the heroine.

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Henry offering flowers

What did they hate her for? I had asked. I’ve found out why: Olive keeps saying aloud truths and/or perceptions she has of other people that would hurt those people were they are there, and do hurt those people around her and are involved. Her comments are remorsely critical of others, corrosive. Such behavior or language is not a small thing: people can hate you for this if you keep it up; I’ve seen this and felt myself withered and burning in my mind with my efforts to throw off the mean observation. Olive does this it a lot, and in many situations, and especially when inside her family (husband and son). Strout has loaded the cards by making Henry, her husband, a deeply tolerant, kindly, sweetly romantic (he brings her flowers, candy, gifts), someone unwilling to unable to answer back lest he hurt her or someone else or make things worse; Henry is ever turning what Olive utters back to something kinder by looking at whatever is happening from a charitable point of view. This makes us feel very uncomfortable, hurt for Henry continually, and puzzled at such a heroine.

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Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan) walking away

Beyond the rarity of making this character a heroine, Strout (and after her) Colondenko and Anderson, see Olive with sympathy, forgive her. At first it is hard to tell whether Olive loves or despises her husband or whether she is trying to lead her son to a finer career or is ashamed of him for not getting the very best grades in the classroom and thus intensely competitive. She is having or almost had an affair with a fellow teacher, in English, Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), who picks her and her son up every morning to take the four of them to school. The situation is resolved when Jim commits a suicide that is not admitted to because Jim drives his car into a tree while drunk. It’s hinted this is due to her rejection of him — and when her husband will no longer let him pick her and her son up for school and she accepts that. She is super-hard to the point of harassment over her son’s school-work; she allows no slack for him. When he challenges her with how generous she can be to others, she says I talk this way because you are my son. I say it’s one thing to insist on high expectations for your own, it’s another to denigrate.

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Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) with Suzanne (Libby Winters) at the engagement

Henry’s first marriage to an upwardly mobile, self-centered young woman, Suzanne (Libby Winters), and what happens at his wedding one of these fashionable prestige events can disclose how the son and father respond to her and why some of why she is so rebarbative. Olive cannot stand her prospective daughter-in-law and assumes Suzanne will make Christopher very unhappy with her obsessive (like her mother who is there) concern for admirable appearance and rising in the world.

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Olive, dress-making, POV Henry’s

Olive has made a dress for herself, deeply unfashionable, and somehow (like Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time) all wrong, an embarrassment. She worked hard on it: it’s lovely material, filled with images of flowers. When Henry sees her in it, he tells her she looks lovely. It is not clear that he thinks so, but he is trying to support her as he knows her dress just won’t do. And he knows it. But her behavior at the wedding is openly alienated and alienating, and helps no one, cannot change her son’s new mother-in-law or wife.

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But by the third and fourth episode when her son has married for a second time and lives in NYC, she has shown concern for who he married the first time, seems to pay attention to flaws in the second choice (two children by two previous men? well that’s the way life is now, Mom) and misses him. She is all alone because Henry has had a serious stroke, damaging his ability to respond to anything. She keeps him in the house as long as she can and then when he is put in an “assisted home,” she seemed devoted to him, coming everyday, checking on his condition, clearly bereft without him. Her only companion is her dog and radio. When she visits a friend who sends her condolences, she finds this woman loathes her for slights and punishments she inflicted on this woman’s son years ago and she now says the cruelest things she can think of. Olive is driven into further retreat and turning to Henry, but he cannot respond nor does he seem to know what is happening around him. It is too late to mend her relationship with Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) too. He’s at core deeply embittered; he has spent years at psychiatrists, which when he tells her about, she dismisses curtly. Now though she is alone, and in need of emotional support and company herself.

For myself I would have felt about Olive the way Christopher does at the end. I have a person close to me who similarly has a cruel tongue, partly out of irritation at me, and partly spite and embarrassment, anger at me for what I am. I find I cannot throw off such remarks and they dwell with me, I brood on them.

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Christopher in the morning, Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) getting children ready for school — Olive is crying hard to the side

Christopher tries and tries to keep up the relationship, to please his mother but every once in a while his hurt and bitterness break out. He ages and is clearly so tired. His new wife is not tidy; cannot keep up with her children. Paradoxically it’s in her later relationship with him we can see an “upside” to her continual corrosions. The father now dead and Christopher divorced and remarried, he invites Olive to come and stay with them for a week, for his new wife is pregnant, and has two children by two previous men. Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) could use some help. So while with this couple their older boy who is himself “difficult” keeps pulling at her dress and making a nuisance of himself and she cannot resist turning and slapping him. Her response reminded me of how Anne Elliot given such treatment in Persuasion, just takes it — and that’s not good either, for the child then begins to prey on her. For fun. Now her son and daughter-in-law are indignant at her and simply assume she’s wrong, she must apologize to the son and if the son can find it in himself to forgive her he will. This is nonsense. The boy was at fault. He deserved that slap. Olive is old, now alone, gives in, but rightly (I think) under such continual barrages of wrong-headed behavior on the part of the son and daughter-in-law leaves early. This prompts bitter recriminations by the son.

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Denise (Zoe Kazan) and young Henry (Brady Corbell)

The upside of Olive’s remarks is they are often accurate; she cannot bear the cant of the world, cannot bear the pretense of sentimentality. She seems to see too clearly how selfish is most behavior and how people are exploiting one another. Of course we could be charitable and say they are helping one another to sustain life decently. But often she sees the delusion and danger, self-destruction others seem to be headed for — this is not unselfish of her as often her jealousy is actuating her too. Henry becomes husband was attracted to a young girl; Denise (Zoe Kazan) he hired in his pharmacy who manifests a child-like dependence and worship of a young husband, another Henry (Brady Corbel); this Henry is killed in a hunting accident. (There are numerous deaths over the years in this story). The husband and another male friend had agreed to hunt with him, no one at all critiques hunting, though the husband is clearly no expert. It’s no wonder the friend shots the young Henry instead of the deer. Remarkable he did not also shoot the old Henry. Old Henry allows the girl to cling to him, and Olive resents this and sees the girl as a predator, but the way to stop the husband is not these bitter sarcastic ripostes, but to admit he is looking for someone else because she is so rebarbative, refuses to respond with kindness to his efforts to be kind her to her, cannot open up. If she sees this, she never acknowledges it. That would be to admit her vulnerability. Years later Denise who marries the other store clerk; Jerry (Jesse Plemons) whom she and old Henry encouraged to go to college and now has a very good job and is well educated; he now sees Denise as a fool and himself has as little patience with her as Olive. But what Jerry does not do is allow his remarks to become too explicit too painful.

The whole interest of the novel is in the significance of Olive’s tongue, truthfulness if you see it this way, counter-productive tactlessness if you don’t. No one wants to admit she has any truth on her side. It’s so inconvenient. People consult ease and convenience in the here and now first. In the movie there is no explanation for why Olive is like this. We do not see her childhood. There is no over-voice and we have only her behavior to watch and most of it in social situations. In the book the narrator keeps her distance, does not delve. When Olive is alone at story’s end we see her grieving but we also see her stoically just enduring everything as if she was not at fault for what has happened, which in a sense she was not. I want to stress that she’s accurate: her son’s first wife is materialistic cold horror, her son’s first wife’s mother-in-law one of the world’s typical phonies mouthing cant and pretending to have all sorts of happy feelings and all the while endlessly showing off. Denise is a limpet. She did drive her son to go to a better college and become a doctor (podiatrist).

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Olive with Henry when they are aging and with their dog

Her problem is she is unable to express her point of view frankly as that would reveal her vulnerability. She is all guardedness. She pays heavily for her tongue in the end. As long as Henry is alive, she has the comforting pillow companion who smooths all. When the hospital staff pretend to obey her, do not contradict her idea that Henry can still react to her, it’s not out of kindness again, but as the easiest thing to do. When she is out of sight, they will care for Henry as they think appropriate — not much attention paid beyond the physical medicine and care for cleanliness.

Olive is not justified but her response to society is shown as understandable, or it’s forgiven. She weeps real tears; she is hurt herself. She seems not to understand that she has so hurt others.

I was a little grated on by the ending. She says she will stay alive as long as her dog lives. He grows very sick and has to be “put down.” So now she determines to kill herself.

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Olive late in life with Kennison (Bill Murray) walking in a wintry park

In the meantime she has (as if it’s the easiest thing in the world) made an acquaintance with Jack Kennison (Bill Murray) of a man who is a widower; his wife died of cancer. He says life is now hell and she agrees. So he is like her: he can tell the truth. Yet they do not get along because their conversation is continually rebarbative: he is somewhat reactionary and a person who was at an Ivy League colleague (so above her in status) and she cannot bear to listen to Rush Limbaugh talk. yet in her loneliness, she invites him to come to dinner at a restaurant, and they begin to have such a direct spat, she gets up and leaves, takes a cab home. It is after this that we see her trying to kill herself with a gun in the woods.

Jack had condemned her for not trying to phone her son after the husband died when she told him what her son had done to her and complained of when she visited him; she replies he didn’t tell me when he gets married for the second time. Jack says she should have called Christopher nonetheless, but also says he has not spoken to his daughter for two years. As she is sitting with the gun to her head, the phone rings. We have seen scenes where Christopher tries to get Olive to get herself a flip or cell phone and she refuse — she does not want to be at someone’s beck and call. We realize that after for years resisting getting a cell phone she has one. It’s her daughter-in-law, Ann, phoning her to say the baby has been born. The camera only allows us to see her bent over from the back: I thought it was the face of the agon of existence and left to our imagination. What a twisted tortured state of mind the woman must have. She turns and puts the gun away. As she then turns to us her face resumes her usual carefully neutral expression. But the next day she visits this man with flowers and lays next to him on the bed and they begin to talk about, and it seems they will become friends. he puts his arm around her shoulder. I thought this a kind of cop out. I have to believe in a good ending or it makes me feel worse Strout pulled down the curtain at a happier moment to give the story a semi-happy ending, or upbeat. Of course the next moment they could fight.

A friend said of this “What I liked about the ending of Olive Kitteridge was not that Olive found a new lover, but that the Swiss-cheese-like holes in her were finally acknowledged and covered by someone else. That’s sometimes the best we can hope for in love.” I can see the ending by no means negated all that had gone before, and in a sense confirmed it. But experience has taught me as an older widow, men do not go for older widows, people do not open up this way. Making a new relationship is not something easily done after a lifetime of disillusioning experience and becoming a very particular character. The novel and film suddenly dropped the pretenses of realism – which are its strength.

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Alone now

I am alone now too but for the Net and think this is due mostly to my situation — it’s not a punishment. As Graham Swift says in his masterpiece, Last Orders, the important thing is not to take what happens in life as a punishment. I’ve been told Olive Kitteridge is a portrait of Strout’s mother. So maybe like Christopher she is exorcising this ill spirit. One could say that Olive being alone at last is meant to be a kind of punishment for what she is, which I take as problematic, but the fiction and film are truthful enough to hint that whether Olive had had a kinder tongue or not the world would have cast her aside once her husband was gone, because it would have no use for her. Only if she would give in, be like others, smile, let things pass, accept what is, will it smile at her and keep her company.

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Maine snow, part of opening sequence of paratexts

The book performs as an Olive itself and so does the movie giving us the a truthful portrait of all the characters we pass by who are part of this rural Maine community. It is a study of small town life in Maine. Much attention is paid to scenery, to the modes of economic life. We see the sea so often, snow. boats. This means much to Strout (see Craig Morgan Teicher, “Maine Idea,” Publishers Weekly 255.5 [4 Feb. 2008]: 32). It’s an ethnography the way Annie Proulx’s or George Eliot’s novels are. I have bought both Olive Kitteridge and her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton. It belongs to the kind of novel I especially love: out of Austen, out of women writers of the 19th century, and men who write such novels too, often using a female at the center (Trollope sometimes, Henry James a lot, Colm Toibin all the time – I read each of Toibin’s novels as they appear).

I found the mini-series therapeutic. I thought the performances of all the actors superb. The music was slow and touching, full of codas. The filming of Maine caught key aspects of the place. I have tried to get down the experience for others and myself so as to share and try to understand it better. Unlike Olive, I welcome comments.

Ellen

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Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) amid the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 3, The Way Out)

Friends,

I am returned from Cornwall and have begun watching Outlander, Season 1 for the fourth time. At midnight usually.

Yes. I have snapped stills from all 16 episodes thoroughly. I have read the novel as a script. I have downloaded all 16 scripts from a site which specializes in TV scripts. I have gotten myself Outlandish, a companion. What could possess me? (Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog.)

Rather than pay money for yet a fourth tier of TV (surely I give Comcast enough money each month), or joining Amazon Prime where it aired on British sites (so I’m excluded anyway), I’ve tried other paths. I asked Daughter No 1 to download the series off Pirate Bay. She doesn’t have the time. Daughter No 2 is very law-abiding. So before I left on my trip, I ordered it on-line and have to wait. But this morning a friend told me she bought a copy of this second season on ebay for $16. I went over to ebay and discovered I must use paypal. Jim told me never to use paypal and I have a vague memory of reading warnings about what can transpire. I have just been fleeced, truly robbed of a lot of money, by Expedia. Beyond that it seems I must participate in bidding. Yuk.

Désolée.

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Mr (Desmond Barrit) and Mrs Allen (Sylvestre Le Tousel) in Andrew Davies’s 2007 Northanger Abbey, come to invite Catherine to at long last try Bath.

Then I remembered Mrs Allen and reread NA, Chapter 6, and found what did more than help; Austen suggestively amused me:

Isabella Thorpe: “It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before; but I suppose Mrs. Morland objects to novels.”

Catherine Morland: “No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself; but new books do not fall in our way.”

Isabella: “Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.”

Catherine: “It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining.”

Isabella: “Do you indeed! You surprise me; I thought it had not been readable.

I have always remembered this passage as poor Mrs Allen endlessly rereading this unreadable book because not many books come her way.

I no longer feel as alone in my state of deprivation.

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Ellen considering the nature of Austen’s humor and how through her wry irony comfort is on offer, bonding author and reader together.

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