Posts Tagged ‘performing masculinity’

Luckington Court, Wiltshire: Longbourn in the 1995 P&P (scripted Andrew Davies)

Dear friends and readers,

Back from my trip to Boston to watch the US National Ice-Skating Championship, and am delighted to report that the book that most helped me get through a long wait for an airplane to go to Boston, long hours in our hotel room when I had caught a bad cold and could not attend the skating was Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Unlike the several sequels to Austen’s novels that try to create something new within the close confines of sticking mostly to Austen’s original characters and stories, Baker’s Longbourn is alive with effective powerful characters, presents a story that is persuasive, holds your attention, has passion and unfolding subtlety.

She has performed this considerable feat by using the same method or ploy as Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (out of Hamlet) and Valerie Martin in her Mary Reilly (out of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Essentially we stay totally with the characters mentioned in the margins of the original fiction, in this case a butler, Mrs Hill, two housemaids, and James, the coachman (all explicitly mentioned), in their world upon which the highlighted strongly remembered events of the original fiction impinges as its story moves along. All three new texts (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Mary Reilly and Longbourne) depend on your knowing the story in-between, or enough of it to make do with the sketch of this other story upstairs more or less merely suggested. (I’ve an idea Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is another example of this kind of sequel.) So Baker is not in the position of having to herself re-invent or bring to life a character Austen dwelt in, because the main characters of Austen’s novels are only seen or felt in passing, and Baker is clever enough to use the original words from the novel whenever possible.

Longbourn is also a text that emerges as much from the Austen film canon (especially the 1995 A&E P&P) as it does from the two Upstairs/Downstairs (U/D and Downton Abbbey) long running serial dramas. So the rules of how footmen dressed, how people behaved at table, and much else owes much to the dream books (printed on art paper, plenty of colorful stills) that accompany the films as historical paraphernalia.

Sarah first seen in novel doing hard heavy morning chores the way Daisy is seen here (Sophie McShea)

The whole conceit of taking us downstairs is an outgrowth of the Upstairs/Downstairs patterning of so many and recently the Downton Abbey pattern. Arguably, Daisy from Downton Abbey is central to the central characters of Longbourn: Mrs Hill as a girl servant when she got pregnant, and now Sarah, Mrs Hill’s protegee, an orphan rescued from a poorhouse. The P&P film most in mind is the 1995 one where there is most information. The long sequence of James’s adventures and ordeals about 3/4s the way through the book (his back story) are closely reminiscent of Darcy’s ordeal (played by Colin Firth) in the 1995 P&P. There’s even a scene where like Darcy, James consults a girl of the streets who is clearly willing to give him sex for the money or expects to, and he does not ask this at all but feels for her.

Darcy and woman in streets (his ordeal test)

I felt numerous of Baker’s scenes were sketched with a movie in mind: James, her hero does not move into anguish where we are invited to experience this with the character; instead most of the time we see him and others from afar and are left to imagine his inner world. The effect of reading a number of her scenes is that of a screenplay where the dialogue and descriptions of settings have been thrown into the conventional prose of a novel. The way the characters we are with watch the upper class characters live their luxurious easy lives has the effect of watching a super-rich costume drama at a distance from us. It’s self-reflexive. We are also continually made aware of how the point of view in costume drama as a genre is that of the upper class or privileged because suddenly the troubles of most of such characters (even the downstairs set) seem as nothing to the threat of homelessness, starvation, pressing, flogging, rape, ruthless exploitation such as the group of characters who inhabit the kitchens of both Longbourn and Netherfield in this book know.

Within its own terms Longbourn often makes us piquantly see Austen’s novel from an angle many of us would not have considered before. I’ve read countless times how wonderful it is that Elizabeth Bennet goes traipsing through the fields and mud to reach Jane, not caring about how her dress fared: we are to admire her physical stamina, prowess, nerve. What’s omitted is how the maid might feel about such a petticoat and nice pelisse getting filthy. We see Sarah’s raw hands, how hard she must work with a few chemicals, rubbing, beating, boiling garments to make them spotless (ahem) again. I suppose I most enjoyed re-seeing such acts from the servants’ point of view. When Sarah passes by the young man being flogged, we are made to see and feel the full humiliating horror and pain this man is subject to.

Still, Longbourn is (like Mary Reilly and Wide Sargasso) a woman’s novel, for it’s a heroine’s text mostly. The movies it comes out of are genres rightly identified with women. Nothing to be ashamed of; these are genres of great art. I enjoyed Lonbbourn as much as I did Emma Donoghue’s magnificent powerful Slammerkin (which I’ve now read twice too).

The central character whose consciousness we are in for 3/4s of the novel is, as I’ve indicated, a kitchen-housemaid, Sarah, whose work and characters are more than a little reminiscent of Daisy in Downton Abbey. Mrs Hill took Sarah from the poor house after her working class family died, was kind to her, but also works her hard as she works herself. The second character is Mrs Hill herself, from the same milieu as her Sarah, so we have an older woman’s perspective: as the novel unfolds we discover Mrs Hill was once as young as Sarah and at the time had a liaison with Mr Bennet (before he married Mrs B), which Mrs B, dull as she is, senses when she turns, as she does several times, to Mrs Hill to persuade Mr B to do this or that, assuming that Mr B will listen to Hill. Alas, from Mrs Hill’s point of view, Mrs B exaggerates her power over Mr B: he is as much his own man, as obdurate, irresponsible, and unable to control some of his family members or reality as Mr B in Austen’s novel.

Tom Jones (Max Beesley) looking back at the house at the moment of ejection (1997 Tom Jones)

The third character is James, the hired footman; he lurks to the side once he turns up, and only in the last third of the novel does his consciousness take over as we move into his past as Mr Bennet’s illegitimate son by Mrs Hill, and then a volunteer in the army who ended up enduring and perpetrating the horrors of the peninsula war, where driven by the cruel injustices of the time (including flogging, coercing him to murder animals as well as whoever gets in the way), he commits an act regarded as an unspeakable crime in the era, and deserts. Thus turning up a few chapters after the book opens as a newly hired coach and footman in one. I suggest Baker consciously meant this novel as a Tom Jones story where Tom is until the near end deprived of any just deserts from the place which ought to be his home.

Baker’s work is close to Stoppard’s because she stays with the original characters and invents as few extra characters as Baker’s plot-design requires, no more. A wholly invented character who stays within the confines of Austen’s fiction and opens it up suggestively for us is Mr Ptolemy Bingley: a mulatto who was born on one of Mr Bingley’s father sugar plantations and whose handsomeness, good education and good treatment by the Bingleys suggests an unacknowledged but understood half-brother. We see where the Bingleys got their money; and this sheds light on the supposed humane Bingleys attitudes towards people “beneath them” — the master’s generosity and limitations.

In the case of Baker this is still or also one of her limitations. Unlike Martin, she does not invent an idiolect or style which is a genuine living imitation of an earlier century’s speech naturalistically transposed (which Winston Graham is so superb at in his Poldark series), but basically uses a clear simple (but not vulgar) style — and she lacks the high poetic genius of a Stoppard (as seen say also in his Arcadia). This means her novel cannot quite be read (as Mary Reilly can) as a historical novel in its own right which happens (so to speak) to collide into or cohere with an earlier story.

Baker also does not thoroughly think or imagine things through to give her book the wider franchise of history: for example, the book includes an illegitimate son for Mr Bennet but rather than imply or build up the many complicated reasons within a patronage and family network system why a man like Mr Bennet might continue to refuse to recognize in any way his illegitimate child would not be recognized — not just shame, but as the father of the illegitimate would be pressured into providing for him or her and any spouse he or she married; given the interwoven kinship system, be repeatedly subject to appeals for money, seen as responsible for any wrong-doing his son or daughter did. Baker has Mr Bennet merely ashamed; it’s too thin. There is not the kind of serious research into an era one feels in say Graham’s Poldark novels or Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask. What there is research and knowledge of is Austen, Austen’s novels, the Austen film canon, though even there the focus is the fiction, not Austen’s life or letters. This last lacunae makes the novel old-fashioned as most newer sequels take into account a mirroring in the novels of Austen’s life. Some of the latest ones prefer the letters as text (e.g., Lindsay Ashford’s The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen).

So this remains a sequel, but a strong one. She stays with most traditional interpretations, including later ones that have grown dominant. She makes strong case for Mr Bennet’s selfishness as well as the stupidity and vacuity of Mrs Bennet. He will accept Lydia after someone else supplies the money, but he will not lift a real finger to help his only son. We see him guilty and remorseful by the end of the novel, but unpunished and carrying on in the usual way.

Benjamin Whitlow as Mr Bennet here fits the bill

We see the kindness and well-meaning gifts of Jane and how after she gives Sarah a present she dismisses her from her mind. Wickham’s uglyness of character is considerably deepened (as is Mr Bennet’s); Darcy becomes the powerful rich man who pays little heed to the lower world. We don’t see enough of the others except perhaps Mary who we feel for. Mr Collins is made sympathetic by taking on Tom Hollander’s sensitive rendition. One can see some of the actors in Austen’s characters’ roles taking over here.

One of Baker’s great strengths is the ability to be really inward inside a character. So when James goes off to the Peninsular war we hear of no larger issues. Graham re-imagines the peninsular war from the perspective of a wide and far (not too far) landscape where this side wins here and that there; I assume Baker did serious research into the battles of the war as you can trace James’s trajectory through a series of battles that did occur, but once this outline is established, the fiction returns to the older mode of say French heroic romance: wholly private happenings with no world-stage characters or events recorded.

The modernity or contemporaneity of the novel resides in its violence: we witness atrocities (horrible) not only in Spain but at “home,” the home counties where Austen’s action takes place. Sarah passes by the man who is flogged (and mentioned in passing as so much news by Austen’s ironic narrator) and we are made to feel the scene from his point of view, rather like a novelist who is writing a novel against capital punishment shows us the indifference or hostility of all to the person murdered from the man’s point of view. Of course after such a scene, what matter a lack of roses on dress shoes?

Perhaps most interesting are the ways this perspective turns things discussed so intensely in Austen criticism, into sheer selfish talk of the over-indulged. Darcy’s high pride (or arrogance) appears merely as the way a super-privileged young man might walk by the wholly unimportant maid: when at the close of the book Sarah has been made a lady’s maid to Elizabeth at Pemberley and finds the life of stifling and wants to leave it, Mr and Mrs Darcy sit down with her to ask her (puzzled) why? has she not everything she could want? no hard work. They cannot see she wants a life.

And tellingly the life she choses or ends up with is reminiscent of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. James has been forced to flee in the night when he tries to protect a young girl servant from the depredations of Wickham. Wickham is presented as a false treacherous man here (and unlike Lost in Austen it’s no joke), and as James once refused wantonly to destroy some horses and ended up committing a murder himself, so he intervenes, to be told by Wickham, Wickham has suspected him all along and will have a quiet word with someone to investigate James. (There was no liberty for the lower orders in earlier centuries either). Sarah leaves Pemberley to seek James out.

And then we get our fairy tale idyllic ending, the dream that Naomi Schorr defended in her book George Sand’s fiction as the way women’s novels critique our lives by presenting the fulfilled dream. At the close of Indiana, the two lovers flee to a paradisal island; the ultimate paradigm is the ancient romance of Daphnis and Chloe, the 18th century version, Paul et Virginie. Sarah goes seeking James and finds him amid a crew of working agricultural laborers and joins them.

Again Ellis this time with Angaryrd Rees as Demelza: the two outcasts regarding the rest of the world as the junyard that does not matter, a world well lost — still come home at their close in each book (Poldark)

The novel picks up speed and it’s a few years and maybe a child or so later, and we are on the road with the pair of them coming home. Home is where? Yes Longbourn – for all along in the novel to James Longbourne and its world with all its hardships presents beauty, quiet order, routine, and yes a father he does not know is his father; it’s where Sarah knew a family as an infant and had some kindness from Mrs Hill, still there. It’s a moving moment as the pair near, and one that’s nowadays added onto to costume drama: the latest, the film adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu’s Wyvern Mysteries where our heroine and her child return to a house, place, landscape they knew some comfort, peace, refuge in. Other non-reactionary versions: Patrick O’Connor and Simon Grey’s film adaptation of J. L. Carr’s Month in the Country (with an early great role for Colin Firth as the nearly destroyed anguished artist), both sets of Cranford Chronicles with its communitarian ideals. Downton Abbey as a place of refuge is the heart of its appeal; it’s not its unreality which many people are aware of, but the dream itself asserted that its audiences and Jane Austen audiences want.

Opening shot of Downton Abbey

Rumor hath it a film adaptation of Baker’s Longbourn is “in the works,” one which uses the tropes of upstairs/downstairs as found in Downton Abbey heavily. I read somewhere that James Schamus, producer of many an Ang Lee movie is involved. I can hardly wait to see the mini-series film adaptation of Death comes to Pemberley featuring Anna Maxwell Martin (as Elizabeth) even though I’ve been told the P.D. James’s book is poor or disappointing; with a good book behind it, a decently humane politics, perhaps the coming film adaptation (if it’s still on), Longbourn will be a another fine movie to join the Austen canon.


Read Full Post »

Star-gazing Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel) and Edmund (Nicholas Farrell) (1983 Mansfield Park)

Star-gazing Fanny (Billie Piper) and Edmund (Blake Ritson) (2007 Mansfield Park)

I think [Trilling’s] very strange. He says ‘nobody’ could like the heroine of Mansfield Park. I like her. Then he goes on and on about how modern people today, with ‘our’ modern attitudes ‘bitterly resent’ Mansfield Park because its heroine is virtuous. What’s wrong with a novel having a virtuous heroine?” (Audrey Rouget, Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan)

that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society, Elizabeth, who, murderess and wicked queen that she was confined her cousin, the lovely Mary Queen of Scots for NINETEEN YEARS and then brought her to an untimely, unmerited and scandalous death. Much to the eternal shame of the monarchy and the entire kingdom (Fanny Price, 1999 Mansfield Park)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday I sent off a proposal to give a talk on “What the four film adaptations have to tell us about Austen’s Mansfield Park and one another” at the JASNA in Montreal, 2014. I’ve been reading Austen’s strong novel, and re-watching all four films for the last several days, and found I like them all.

The best known is Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park, famously controversial, yet in many ways just another fusion of heritage, popular, romance, and Austen tropes:

Fanny (Francis O’Connor) and Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) spend just as much time walking and talking in this film as any of the others or the novel

The least known is Stillman’s Metropolitan whose apparently elite cast has roused intense class antagonisms and prevented some of the actors from developing a career out of a movie that at the time was much admired by high culture critics (Vincent Canby) and at the Cannes Film Festival. I have written briefly on Stillman’s in-depth exploration of the complex characters, their relationships (especially the love of Fanny-Audrey for Edmund-Tom, evocation of the worlds of young adults,

Outside the Plaza Hotel, 59th, we get our first glimpse of our Fanny-Audrey (dark-haired Carolyn Farina), Tom-Edmund (ginger-hair, trenchcoat, alone, Edward Clements) Nick (Christopher Eigemann) and his girlfriend, Jane (Alison Rutledge-Parisi), Audrey’s best friend

the theme of parental misconduct (abandonment and hurt of their adult children), the difficulty of launching a career in this apparently well-connected world and succeeding at it; its exploration of what is ethical behavior, to say little of its many allusions to Austen’s MP, also Persuasion and Emma (there is a game played where losers have to tell candid truths inside their minds and as Mr Knightley says we find such truths can be searing, destructive) and that it’s a melancholy New York Christmas movie,

Audrey at St Patricks while Tom tunes into Channel 11 for the Yule Log & Carols …

I’ve defended the ceaselessly abused Maggie Wadey’s (the screenplay writer)’s 2007 abbreviated (93 minute) Mansfield Park at least 3 times, for its defense of the natural world as opposed to falsifying artifice, its hatred of bullying and stifling social conformity, and its addressing British issues of the 21st century.

And written now and again on the epistolarity, female narrator (3 of the films have this), Chekhovian feel, wonderful poetry of the 1983 film — ignored as uninventive (! — it’s ceaselessly semi-original). Ken Taylor’s screenplays, tone and pace and similar choice of plain actors (e.g., 1984 The Jewel in the Crown) has been admired again and again, while David Giles’s direction are deemed a saturnine delight (e.g., 1982 Barchester Chronicles).


Fanny and Edmund intertwined (1983)

Well over the week I read reviews of all the films: a wonderful defense of the 1983 film: Jan Fergus’s “Two Mansfield Parks: Purist and postmodern (Jane Austen on Screen, ed. G. and A. MacDonald); a full book on Stillman’s films with several essays on their relationship to Austen’s novels (Doomed Bourgeois in Love, ed. Mark C. Henrie), lively defenses of Rozema that I agree with (Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield in their Jane Austen in Hollywood, Alistair Duckworth in Eighteenth Century Fiction (2:4 [2000]:565-72): I really newly admired the Rozema film. It’s so interesting the many different kind of filmic techniques she employs to make humor, sexiness, pleasure-filled moments, some of the wit (though words are not her strength).

Writing out of spirit of gaiety (1999 writer of Juvenilia, Fanny)

And she does continually choose women’s icons, women’s figures in the talk (Joan of Arc), brings out the feminist talk of the book (Fanny: why should I jump when any man asks me to marry him). I like the way Lindsay Duncan acted the much-put upon controlled Mrs Price this time round — her pain very real (though Lady Bertram as drug addict was overdone).

Stoic endurance of painful goodbye (Lindsay Duncan as Mrs Price), selfless

I listened to the over-voice commentaries of Stillman, his film editor, and two of the actors; of Rozema on her film, and was able to read the screenplays for Metropolitan and Rozema’s MP.

As the not-asked pair, Tom-Edmund requests the pleasure of this dance with Audrey-Fanny (1990)

I made some discoveries.

All of them react to the movie (or movies) that came before (except of course the 1983 as it is the first film adaptation of MP to have been made), and there is an increase in intensification over areas of Mansfield Park which many readers apparently do not like: either what’s there is eliminated, or inverted, or (in the case of Stillman) defended vigorously. I discovered that the 2007 Mansfield Park does not depart any more radically from the book than Rozema’s 1999: both skip Sotherton (rather like the 1940 P&P skipped the visit to Pemberley). They are a body of films, apart from the films adapted from her other books. They are all literary: in her commentary Rozema reveals she thinks Mansfield Park was originally an epistolary novel, and all but Metropolitan have deeply subjective complicated sequences of over-voice, montage, blurring. They all have beautiful dance sequences, moments with stars.

Odd angle puts Henry (Alessandro Nivola) dancing with his sister, Mary; and Edmund, dancing with Fanny, just out of sight (1999)

What is the true sublime?

Mary’s harp arrives in an Bergman-like scene (1999)

They all have strong heroines — Sylvestre le Tousel is internal strength itself and quiet narrator again and again. Wadey uses deep-musing subjectivity to make her narrator over-voice as a young woman remembering her childhood. Rozema makes a sort of show of her author, Fanny. Stillman does eschew his sort of thing, but in his commentary he made some sharp observations that apply to Austen’s novel as well as his film: the subject matter is embarrassing and automatically controversial because the area dramatized is social class, exclusion, he called it social pornography with its talk so explicitly about the pain of existence in an elite milieu where individuals can fall away, fall out.

Mr and Mrs Bertram, imitating the close of the 2005 Joe Wright P&P: they are Mr and Mrs Bertram

Home without his daughter as in the 1979 and 1995 P&Ps

Which leads me to concentrate on an aspect of the 2007 Mansfield Park which was wholly unexpected: the regulation humiliation scene found in most Austen movies, nay frequently in all sorts of movies, but paradoxically especially in costume drama (supposed meant for women viewers), this scene for the central female in ordinary movie after ordinary movie is not there!

The rationale in Austen’s case is that indeed in her novels her heroines are taught rough lessons, and older essays about her books had titles like “The humiliation of Emma Woodhouse,” and “The humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett,” but it is arguable that the scene of confession, repentance, avowal to change one’s ways, is made more central in numbers of the films.

Doran Goodwin as Emma after Mr Knightley has left her scorched (1972 Emma)

Not all: it’s muted in Fay Weldon’s 1979 P&P, Davies just about omits it in his 1995 P&P by making Darcy’s ordeal the center of the story (he also makes Henry and Eleanor Tilney’s stories far more poignant, deflecting attention from the misogynistic anti-romance motif), but recently I’ve noticed it’s back in full force, as much in the free adaptations (Aisha and From Prada to Nada) as in some of the older ones (the S&S films all have it). Rozema’s Fanny is taught grim lessons by her biological mother to marry up (for money, Henry Crawford) which are reminiscent of the mother in Lost in Austen (you must marry is Amanda Price’s mother’s refrain).


Darcy (Elliot Cowan) reacting with great ferocity as Amanda (Jemima Rooper) in the wrong again – she is blamed for exposing everyone in P&P (Lost in Austen, 2009)

Well almost to my surprise, Maggie Wadey changes this. She uses the theme of the education of Sir Thomas to make the confession, repentance, avowal you were all wrong and at fault, Sir Thomas’s. The climactic moment is Douglas Hodge’s when he comes home (in a scene reminiscent of the scenes of Mr Bennett come home having failed to retrieve Lydia in the 79 and 95 P&P films) without Maria. He pretty well indicts himself thoroughly and we begin to see him unbend and change his ways.

Douglas Hodge as Sir Thomas telling what he has seen of himself

As if that was not enough, the scene (again justified by the book in part) where Edmund tells Fanny about his disillusion with Mary Crawford is turned into another self-reformation scene where Edmund asks Fanny to forgive him for being so blind. Lady Bertram is presented as knowing all along that Fanny loved Edmund (the “incest” motive is twice denied by having characters state strongly that Edmund is not Fanny’s brother and presenting Fanny’s love for William as part of her Cinderella story), Mrs Norris does really care for Maria (though she is corrosive in personality).

Wadey’s 1987 NA has not been liked, but it too eschews the girl done in by her reading by making the gothic far more real and changing language to make the famous speeches more pro-Catherine. I suggest this refreshing pattern has not been noticed because the movie has been so damned that people have not paid attention to its motives: I don’t say it’s a good movie — the loss of Sotherton and Portsmouth push it back to the one-hour TV versions of Austen which would omit visits to Pemberley (as did the 1940 movie), the Grants are dropped, and Mary Crawford made hard and mercenary,and at moments its pace and epitomizing scenes make it feel like dramatized cliff notes, so the critique of marriage is lost (but then it’s ignored by most movie-makers) and Henry Crawford oddly muddled. At least in 1999 he read Sterne’s passage about the starling who couldn’t get out, gives Fanny a wagon filled with these exhilarating birds, and is made (with Fanny) to enact the Harris Bigg-Wither proposal and morning-after rejection by Austen.

But Wadey’s script and this movie made from it breaks code in who gets humiliated, confesses, vows to do otherwise, is taught a lesson.


Embeth Davidtz as Mary Crawford “reasoning” with everyone

Having noticed this I began to see that Rozema’s also makes Sir Thomas’s conversion and remorse central, Edmund’s blindness and request for forgiveness explicit at the close of the movie. As a woman movie-maker determined to adhere to conventional notions of strength (and thus embarrassed by Fanny’s abjectness), she anticipates the 2007 movie. Not that there is no humiliation scene: there is, and it’s in Edmund’s scornful response to Mary’s long winded amoral suggestions about how to think about, what noit to do about Henry and Maria’s elopement and what they may hope for from Tom’s death, in a scene which gathers all the characters together as if this were a murder mystery. This is paradoxical and shows a lack of clarity in Rozema’s mind since Mary Crawford is a favorite character for her.


Fanny a renter and chuser of books (for Susan) — making me think of Jane Austen on Trim Street in Bath, coming home with her books

I recommend as deeply pleasurable and instructive watching in tandem all the movies coming out of a particular Austen novel. It can be another way into the nature of Austen’s text and themes to see the them transferred into different filmic conventions. The way in is to use film adaptations: when you have a group of them from one book you can examine the different kinds of relations between the successive films and the novel and the cultural and entertainment work they all perform.

Jane Austen left three thick packets of letters to Francis (whose daughter destroyed them after his death) (1983 Fanny, Wm and Edmund’s sister-bride)


Read Full Post »

Lady Gaga, a mainstream image, twilight faux feminine innocence

Lady Gaga, performing masculinity

Dear friends and readers,

File this under a “and now for something competely different” category but please do not think it irrelevant to Austen who herself has become an numinous icon whose presence and about whom stories are told which have hardly anything to do with her books: the origin of her cult is in the publication of her novels even if it first took off in 1870 when her nephew unwitting produced the terms which would enable the cult to get started (see my “Continent Isolated: Anglocentricity in Austen Criticism:” Re-Drawing Austen: Picturesque Travels in Austenland [English translation of Italian title], edd. Beatrice Battaglia and Diego Saglia. Napoli: Liguori Editore, 2005. Pp. 325-338, and comment). Nor is the soft-core parodic porn irrelevant, for Graham-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies presents just such material.

I got into a conversation on Lady Gaga with anibundel whose insightful intelligent blog (I should have been a blogger) has been featured in Atlantic and who is my older daughter, Caroline. On one level (as my comment afterward, which I also include, suggests) Caroline-anibundel shows the pornification of our culture. Insightfully we see how not only the masochism of girl rock culture today, but also how women dressing as man are perform masculinity the way homosexual men dressing as woman are perform femininity. On another. we see an attempt to make oneself into one of these numinous icons (such as Marilyn Monroe and other celebrity women, including princesses have become). I don’t think Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta quite succeeding, and it would be interesting to understand why. I suggest Lady Gaga is not coming across as unguarded and enigmatic enough; there’s something pathetic going on.

Caroline-anibundel wrote as follows (suitably edited for this blog):

1. This is Lady Gaga’s biggest hit to date, “Bad Romance.” In it, she is trying to temper what was originally a wildly sexual piece into something (mostly) far more mainstream. (But note her microphone looks oddly like a dildo.) The faux old english ballroom setting was what caused me to ask if Dr.Who was going to suddenly materialize in his TARDIS. I apologize for the commercial at the front of this video. This is what network TV does now.
In comparison, here is the original video for “Bad Romance”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrO4YZeyl0I

2.This is Gaga’s latest release “Edge of Glory” reworked for the piano, and performed in what looks to be the dining room in Downton Abbey. This should give you a good sense of the odd pretentiousness of the proceedings, and why I said it was a bit near-Great-Performances parody.

3. I am a touch irritated that I can’t find her rendition of “Orange Colored Sky” which was the best number by far. Sadly instead everyone’s pimping the “White Christmas with an extra verse” that she did from that same setting. This setting with a small jazz band was the best showcase for her voice. (Again, obnoxious 1min long commercial alert)

4. As to why people call her a Lesbian cross dresser, well, here. This was her summer release:

You’ll note there’s a tribute to Bette Milder and the mermaid thing (Gaga even appeared at one point with the fishtail in the wheelchair when promoting this video.) You’ll also get a sense of the “weird’n’wacky” outfits that Gaga wears normally. But the part that caught everyone’s attention was the shots in the cornfield. The “New York Italian tough” sitting on top of the piano that she’s singing to in her shift is actually herself, in male drag. Originally it was meant as a masturbation reference. Once she got wind that the most shocking part of the video wasn’t the odd outfits (and that no one under the age of 35 remembers bette milder) but that the idea of her in drag, she changed tactics and started doing all her public appearances in character as this new york italian tough who is gaga’s secret boyfriend from back home. That lasted maybe all of 6 weeks, which was when the next single came out.


Lately “she” has begun to appear without her signature frilly cap

My reply:

The first video and the last used masochistic and punitive imagery; probably the first “Bad Romance” was better as it had less gadgetry and more a single mood, but it is a woman (women) offering herself (themselves) up to men to do with as they please. Masochistic over-the-top. That’s softened in the mainstream by having the guys dance too, but the use of a dildo as the mike offsets that. Nos 2 and 3 are boring in comparison, but yes mainstream and she makes these gestures she assumes or wants to be part of her signature act/performance. She has a hoarse individual voice. I agree the plush stuff comes from PBS kind of masterpiece theater or other pop norms. Glamor is the pretense. The last video had some startling self-harm stuff. Her feet, the heels and ankles bleeding. Vagina dentata with naked behinds, all got up military style. I did see right away the person on the piano was her as well as the one seated. The image that came to mind was her offering to fellatio him (only “him” is her).

On the whole, the first and last are what’s called the pornification of mainstream by second wave feminist.

But you’re right. This is not a lesbian act. Nonetheless, the imagery is imagery gay people often find entertaining especially some of the uses of grotesquerie, of big and little.

The young girl — Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (I wonder if these are really all her names, it’s a parody of a type of naming) — is super thin and anorexic in Video 1 is very Italian New York. There is an attempt here at compensatory iconographies of victimhood. She is trying to make herself into one of these super-numinous icons — from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna, from Mary Queen of Scots to Princess Diana to Jane Austen: these are women who became female icons which function as symbols women and men pour their own needs into. In Lady Gaga, the compensatory portion is not strong enough; Helen Mirren for example, comes across as having iron in her veins, she walks the walk as they say, a queen, a Marlene Dietrich. Lady Gaga is too much the twilight princess.

So I don’t think Lady Gaga quite succeeds, and offer this explanation, but to tell the full truth, I am not really sure why. Maybe it’s more that she’s not bigger than life. Helen Mirren who I likened her to is a second rank icon. Beyond that though Lady Gaga doesn’t have “it” the way Madonna has — I saw through her act to the Italian New York teenager, just a little coarse who would otherwise be going for “big hair”,a large diamond ring, a Mrs and a nose job, to say nothing of a big house in suburbia and husband in a suit.She looks like Barbra Streisand too.

Digression and coda: The above conversation took off from something the admiral in our house said (our captain). His argument was originally about 18th through 20th century cross-dressing, cross-dressing on the UK stage and television (there’s still very little of it on US TV or the stage — except maybe these teen videos). He argued that there is a difference between a woman playing a man’s role and a woman in breeches part. Breeches part you have one sex dressing as the other and it was done so men could look at women’s behinds, calves, and thighs: it is not performing masculinity but rather calling attention to women’s legs, especially their calves and behinds; breeches parts please heteronormative sexually oriented people. When women played men’s roles in complete disguises (the way Sarah Bernhardt did Hamlet or Peg Woffington Sir Harry Wildair in The constant Couple) they were not sending up heterosexuality so much as literally trying to be men, suggesting a strong lesbian impulse which validates heterosexual norms. When Lady Gaga in that last video doubles herself as a woman before a man and a transvestite male, she suggests a lesbianism as she performs masculinity in her male guise just the way homosexual men dressing as woman perform femininity.

Peter Capaldi as Vera Reynolds (from Prime Suspect 3).

It’s a form of gay entertainment. It’s not normalizing but sending up.

Thus the admiral. I chose Capaldi in Prime Suspect 3 because he goes well beyond sending up. He makes the typology poignant-tragic.


P. S. I apologize for the UTubes which did not appear. I am not good at making UTUbes appear. Those that are not here may be reached by taking the URL and feeding it into your Firefox (or whatever you use) and hitting “enter.”

Read Full Post »