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Posts Tagged ‘women’s film’


Vivian Maier from the archive and film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (review by Manohla Dargis: “Nanny as Sybil”)


Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (review by Richard Brody: “There’s a voice left out”)


Sally Mann: What Remains, a film directed by Steven Candor, reviewed by Ginia Bellafonte)

Finding Vivian Maier, a complex film about a complex woman surrounded by complex people. As in the film, Kedi, on cats in Istanbul, the portraits by interview of those Vivian lived with as remarkable as the couple-of-hours portrait and Vivien. Another great poet of the camera (Dorothea Lange, and Annie Leibovitz the two I wrote of earlier this winter season). I allude to Cleo in Roma whose voice is also unheard for the most part; I bring in Sally Mann, about whom at OLLI at Mason this winter we also saw a film about; I used an Emily Dickinson poem as suggestive explanation …..

Friends and readers,

This was a season for nannies, from the meretricious new Mary Poppins, to the (however silent) heroicizing of Cleo (the film has now won the Bafta for Best Picture), and at OLLI at Mason, John Maloof’s slow emerging portrait of Vivian Maier, a brilliant street photographer, amateur in the best sense: she took pictures as a vocation, as a quest to record the actual world around her, seemingly against being ignored. In life “we” may not have paid any serious attention or respect to her, but she paid alert attention, respected unsentimentally us. I’ve blogged twice on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, about a course I’m taking in films about women photographers: the first on Dorothea Lange; the second, Annie Leibovitz. Last week was Sally Mann, and this Vivian Maier.

It is so hard to tell original fine sincerely-meant authentic art & a film about it from the exploitative (which I think Mann’s photos of her children may be, carefully, it seems, posed like Diane Arbus to arrest our attention, shock, voyeuristic); and from the well-meaning compassionate and true to memory and actual experience (Roma) film.  If the criteria is selflessness, impersonal and distancing, so varied and yet intimately observed, Maier’s photographs pass the test. Just look at some of them on Malouf’s website. I was by turns riveted, bemused, fascinated, put off (some are too Diane Arbus),


A common type by Maier: the older hard over-dressed rich woman walking in the streets: here our eye is made to look at the unfortunate mink whom her camera makes look so alert, alive, sad …

touched,


Young black man looking up with a sort of uncertain hope, Central Park

fascinated by the enormous unexpected variety of images. Like Dorothea Lange’s of a terrified horse, this one of young African American riding a horse down a New York City Avenue under a raised subway is a revelation, though quite what of I can’t say:

There are photos capturing tragic existences: a black man who is a beggar on the street and has no legs. Vivian can capture the self-satisfied arrogance, or hardness of a face, someone all body or all clothes whom we grasp is all carapace. The ridiculous. She was liberal in her politics. Asked by someone what or who she was, she said “a sort of spy.”


I’ve walked in just this square in Central Park (which I so love) many times, including during snow

Her story is now well-known: the film is set up as a sleuthing expedition so there are ironies along the way: the professor who invites us to read his Ph.D. dissertation which he suggests proves his point that Maier had a faked French accent is followed much later by Malouf finding that Maier was born in a small village on February 21, 1926, in France, traveling there, meeting what’s left of her family, photos of her and her mother. At first we feel for the exploited nanny who is low paid and over-worked but gradually it emerges her employers were long-suffering and generous too: they gave her enormous space for her hobby, one made friends with her, another let her be part of the family. She worked briefly for Phil Donahue. Then we learn that she could be mean and cruel to the children under her care, and probably had had some traumatic experience in her teens, perhaps from a man.


But here with her charges she reminds me of my aunt and my cousins (and me) circa the Bronx, 1950s

She sought out pain — as when she insisted on photographing animals about to be killed to be made into meat or clothes (sheep).


Avert your eyes


She still has pride and dignity intact

She was utterly silently gregarious, and at the same time solitary. Someone says she dressed like one would expect a working class women in the Soviet Union, 1950; I think she looks more like someone from a lower middle class village in France. She would have been in dire distress late in life but that two people whom she was nanny for supported her.

There needs some explanation for her insistence on utter privacy, her never trying to publish her photos that she takes obsessively and ceaselessly that they are the point of her existence. I know how hard it is to publish, how hard to interest people, negotiate, how they judge you immediately as to class, rank, self-esteem. But she never put herself forward in any way at all.

She died before Maloof found and sought out and put together her corpus; she left only a few precious written documents; so it’s just us, the gov’t and church records, and 100,000 photographs.


The pity for the child afraid and the child neglected is palable

There are just so many sites on the Net of her photos, and I’ve casually counted what looks like 6 excellent books. I am (as usual) late, this time four years: the film was produced and received its nominations awards in 2019.

The New York Times critic of the film is too hard on Maloof as a salesman. It is true that Maloof is now making a living from his find, but he worked long and hard — though my guess is he had money inherited or given to him at some point during the years of sheer gathering (including looking everywhere and anywhere, from flea market to garage, finally to those she worked for one of whom had kept the material in a huge container), archiving, scanning. Maloof began on line with a blog, then twitter. He couldn’t get museums to take an interest for years, and even now after some hugely successful exhibits, he has not found a permanent home for Maier’s legacy. I spoke of Roma on my Sylvia II blog, and don’t want this blog on Maier to go on beyond what’s necessary to alert someone who may not have heard of Maier.

I’m ceded, I’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a crown
— Emily Dickinson, refusing to accept the identity imposed on her, choosing another; what did Vivian move around the world for?

I also ask the serious question of photography, when is it art, if always, what kind are Mann and Liebovitz’s work. Lange I think is beyond question a great poet of images and after looking at Malouf’s site I trust you’ll agree that Maier is an authentic sincere heartfelt and ironic poet too. I don’t want to be hard on Mann: read her site and you discover, one of her sons killed himself.


A rare color photo

Ellen

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Mary, Queen of Scots: Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan in intimate flirting friendship scene

Don’t miss the latest Mary Queen of Scots: while it has its flaws, it is very much worth the watching. This is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of this icon once again. What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. … Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized. Elizabeth as icon is also traced. After being initially all pageant, the stories are effectively dramatized. I disagree with some of Guy’s interpretation (especially over Bothwell) and say why. Moray’s importance emerges. There are fine performances, wonderful color palates.

Friends and readers,

Quite a number of women, even queen-centered films this winter: two on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG, On the basis of sex), two on nannies, one poor and absurd, the other a masterpiece (Mary Poppins, Roma), the courageous reporter (A Private War), and the big budget costume drama variety updated to include what might seem to be uninhibited sex scenes: The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been nearly alone in calling out The Favourite for its repulsive, gut-level anti-feminism and have mentioned only in passing what makes Cauron’s Roma a compelling masterpiece. Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots (the screenplay has as little complicated language as one could get away with so as to keep the film popular) shows some of the same obsessive masculinizing violence in women as The Favourite: Ronan as Mary is depicted on horse wherever possible; she’s as eager to shoot something as any of the crowd of men that crowd in, dominate the movie-screen. Still, I recommend going to see it, even if you are not fascinated and interested in this Tudor-Stuart Matter. If you are, this is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of these icon queens once again.

Mary is still or once again the victim; her downfall is once again (made explicit in this film) her erotic engagement with men, marrying, bedding, thinking she can rely on law and custom (towards divine rulers) to control rivals. Elizabeth has returned to her 19th century role as perhaps Machiavellian, and ghastly dried-up old maid by film’s end (because she must be this way since she never married, never had children).


Elizabeth with Dudley (also called Leicester)

During the film punctuating Mary’s story are swift suggestive moments of Elizabeth, now with Leicester (Joe Alwyn called Dudley), now Cecil (Guy Pearce); she gets small pox and looks just hideous for a time. Staring down at flowers because she hasn’t had children:

The scenes with Elizabeth are too stilted — popular depictions just don’t want to give Elizabeth I credit — in literary studies we have gone beyond choosing sides … but it is very rare for anyone to present her as the brilliant political success story. If people really wanted a heroine who made a success out of grim beginnings (including as a teenager harassment by her step-mother Catherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Howard, and accusations by Mary Tudor of plotting against her), it’s Elizabeth Boleyn Tudor.


Margot Robbie as the aging Elizabeth: a clown-face of grief (very similar to the way Elizabeth appeared in a recent Metropolitan opera production of Donizetti’s trio)

What has changed to make this pair once again palatable to the 21st century female film-goer? Make no mistake this is a film intended for women: when I went the audience was all women, except the husbands who came along: it was playing alternatively in the same auditorium as On the Basis of Her Sex (even in local art cinemas women’s art ghettoized). Nothing much for Elizabeth. For a while it seemed she was becoming the sentimental queen, first in love with Leicester and then Essex (Helen Mirren’s film with first Jeremy Irons and then Hugh Dancy as Essex); but here we revert without even giving Elizabeth any Machiavellian traits. Mary has changed; she is now ceaselessly pro-active, aggressive, and free of conventional restraining conventions and beliefs (see anibundel’s accurate assessment for NBC), at moments fierce.

This is the new type heroine from Offred/June in the second season of Handmaid’s Tale, to Demelza Poldark in the rebooted version, to Brianna Fraser in Outlander. Feminism turns out to be doing what you want, and complaining when you can’t.


First impression

What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. So you can learn where the icon has moved now. Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized: however briefly, her time in France and first husband, Francois. The nature of her relationship with Darnley (Jack Lowden, he was central to Dunkirk and can be seen in good BBC serial dramas), her second husband: at first she did fall in love with him, but when she saw what a dullard he was, and felt his attempts to domineer and control her, she turned to her musician, David Rizzio. Apparently nowadays Darnley is “accused” (the word is accused) of homosexuality and in this film has sex with Rizzio. That was not part of the narrative in the older books and the way it’s presented here shows homophobia is by no means gone from movie audiences. We have the two murders, first Rizzio, horrifically violent with Mary pregnant there. Time for touching scenes of her with a baby boy, and (much later) a poignant effective scene of her being forced to part from an older child and him crying for her.

and then Darnley in the courtyard. In this version Mary is not at all guilty of Darnley’s murder, not even complicit.

I’m someone who has been reading biographies of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots since I was 18, and I know in the older biographies Mary was either accused of plotting to kill Darnley (pretending just collusion) as revenge and also simply to get rid of a nuisance; or she allowed it to happen. So the film whitewashes her here. More importantly, it denies she was in love with Bothwell. I remember being thrilled by Stefan Zweig’s, and then disagreeing with Antonia Fraser’s first revisionist story. It was she who began the idea that the letters Mary is said to have written Bothwell, her third husband: these first surfaced, suspiciously enough in a casket after her death, and were used to damn her as a “harlot.” Alison Weir’s best-selling biography makes the case for them as basically false and forged, conceding only there seems enough reality in them from Mary that they might be a set of letters tampered with and re-written.

Here is one of Mary’s poems, whose provenance no one has doubted:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

The denial of the letters depends on ignoring Mary’s poetry, a whole body of lyrics and sonnets in French, a number to a lover-husband who could be Darnley but it more likely Bothwell. The Casket letters come from the same mindset of self-doubt, self-berating, depression behind the French sonnets, both religious and of of enthralled love. Yet a third infatuation (the first Darnley, the second Rizzio) does fit Mary’s character and makes sense of events after the murder of Darnley — some time elapsed — and Mary’s flight to England. One of the sites (dungeon tower fort) I saw in the border country of England and Scotland (debatable land) is presented as famous for Mary coming there to meet with Bothwell. She probably did. Many feminists just don’t want to believe in the casket letters. Sophia Lee’s powerful Recess (early gothic novel, 1782) about Mary’s unacknowledged twins by Bothwell doesn’t help increase belief since this romance is as fantasy and erotically driven as Outlander.

Nonetheless, there is credible evidence of a late miscarriage (or some illness) — from Bothwell (Martin Compston here), because who else? She was not promiscuous. In the time after Darnley’s murder, and Mary’s imprisonment, Mary did enter into the civil wars that her presence and poor (non-)diplomatic acts (like trying to get Catholicism accepted by showing herself tolerant of protestantism) engendered. She did fight with Bothwell too. In the film she is forced to marry him. But who would do that? it was not in her step-brother, James Moray’s interest (yes that’s James McArdle inside all that hair and beard). In the film she is (confusedly forced) and we see Bothwell rape her; this moves rapidly and the man we remember (rightly too) is Moray.

The film moves rapidly into Mary and Bothwell’s defeat by Moray. All along we’ve seen Knox inveigh against her: she is not legitimately the monarch because no woman can rule, because she’s Catholic (Mary tried to use the “toleration” card — she would tolerate all Protestanism but as this did not work for James Stuart II more than a hundred years later, it did not work for her) and anyway is a “harlot.” David Tennant offers a fierce old man (he too almost unrecognizable because of flowing hair and beard). Now the two sets of armies converge, and we fast forward to a council which in effect de-thrones her, gives her son to Murray, and leaves her isolated.

Next her on the shore with what ladies are left; cross to England and incarceration awaits her. Montage takes us through uncounted years (during which we see the aging Elizabeth grieve over her lack of child, writhe over the demands she execute Mary) and we have the confrontation, which never took place, first invented by Schiller. It is done at length in this film, and Mary (somewhat improbably) is driven at last to insult Elizabeth by telling her she Mary is the rightful queen. I agree that Mary Stuart thought Elizabeth a worthless bastard when it came to rank or illegitimacy but even she never would have thrown this idea in Elizabeth’s face.

The film opened up with the execution scene, and we revert back, re-see some of it, but this time are taken through the beheading and gruesome carrying of a head. Saoirse Ronan is accurately dressed: Mary did get herself up in black with white lace, pull the outer gown to reveal a martyr’s red shift. And so it ends with Elizabeth sitting there hollowly: this icon goes back to Scott, but in the 20th century was first realized by Bette Davies her film of Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex (recently re-done with Helen Mirren in the parts as a sympathetic sentimental queen first loving Leicester and then the treacherous Essex).

All that said the movie is worth it. The music is good, the color palates fascinating and effective.  Grey and blue for Mary except when happy, then warm reds, oranges, golden light; garish red and greens for Elizabeth, cool white light. (Too much computer enhancement on Scottish scenery.) We see how Mary as a young woman could not realize all the pretense of respect when she first arrived in Scotland was fragile veneer. We see how Knox’s fierce anti-feminism was her first obstacle, which she failed even to address. The film however indirectly and as a sort of bye-blow of what’s happening that it was James Moray, her step-brother, who played the pivotal role at important moments and ends up inheriting the throne as regent and the boy as his ward. The film begins as grim and then luxurious pageant and progresses to dramatic effectiveness, with many effecive performances, e.g., Brendan Coyle as Darnley’s father; a couple of the actresses as one of the four Marys. The two queens are juxtaposed repeatedly, twinned

I would like now to read John Guy.

Ellen

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Drums of Autumn (detail from original 1996 cover)

Friends and readers,

Having queried three lists, I discovered that there is very little in the thousands of pages Diana Gabaldon wrote for her Outlander series on Christmas. The rational presented for this is that in Scotland after the repression of medieval customs by the Presbyters, hardly anyone keeps Christmas. Instead the winter solstice is celebrated on New Year’s Eve and day as Hogmanay. I pointed out that Catholics surreptitiously kept up Christmas even in the later 17th century in Scotland (see The Days of Queen Anne [Hamilton]), and that parts of the Outlander books occur in Boston and North Carolina. I was told that in A Fiery Cross (No 5), there is a brief mention of Christmas, Jamie gives Claire a kitchen utensil that looked to my eyes like a thin spatula, and a celebration of Hogmanay occurs (Chapters 31-33). As far as I could tell, the emphasis is not only this ritual holiday.

But there is a long passage in Drums of Autumn where a Christmas story is made doubly central. I’ve linked in the story line of this fourth Outlander novel, and baldly retold the way it’s being dramatized this year – without the many interludes – the novel seems ridiculous. Jamie mistakes poor Roger for Briana’s rapist, beats Roger up badly, and with Ian, sells him to the Indians; Briana has become pregnant by Mr Bonnet (the actual rapist) and is almost persuaded to marry Lord John Grey, who happens to be visiting her Aunt Jocasta at River Run ….

What saves this resort to patently obvious contrivances are these long interludes where little overt action in term of story moving occurs and we get long meditative sequences, sometimes about a victim they come across, sometimes an idyllic fantasy of Gabaldon’s own, e.g., Jamie and Claire walking in a lush forest come across a field of strawberries. There are sequences where the idea is to present them as colonial settlers, coping with the different classes, upper establishment and middling rebels (against unfair taxes), floating down river, building their house, furniture, getting stock together, he hunting, she sewing.


Outlander winter landscape

In one of these where they are building their home together, he goes out in the night to bring back an animal to cook for a meal, and seems never to return. It’s late December, snow everywhere. She worries after several hours and goes to seek him. She finds him wounded and nearly frozen in a sunken sort of meadow. Claire tells Jamie Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to help keep him awake and both of them warm while they are stranded in the snow late in December, having built themselves a nest out of logs, leaves, their cloaks; and where she remembers also being stranded in the snow more than 20 years ago inside a car with Frank and Brian as a child where Frank Randall told the story to Briana, with Claire filling bits, as they huddled in their car amidst blankets.

Here is the passage: Drums of Autumn, Chapter 21: “Night on a Snowy Mountain, December 1767


From the serial drama Outlander: Promotional Snow scene (not sure if this is Scotland or North Carolina ….)

Jamie’s hair and shoulders were lightly dusted with snow, and flakes were settling on the exposed backs of his legs. I pulled the hem of his cloak down, then brushed the snow away from his face. His cheek was nearly the same color as the big wet flakes, and his flesh felt stiff when I touched it.

Fresh alarm surged through me as I realized that he might be a lot closer to freezing already than I had thought. His eyes were half closed, and cold as it was, he didn’t seem to be shivering much. That was bloody dangerous; with no movement, his muscles were generating no heat, and what warmth he had was leaching slowly from his body. His cloak was already heavy with damp; if I allowed his clothes to become soaked through, he might very well die of hypothermia right in front of me.

“Wake up!” I said, shaking him urgently by the shoulder. He opened his eyes and smiled drowsily at me.
“Move!” I said. “Jamie, you’ve got to move!”
“I can’t,” he said calmly. “I told ye that.” He shut his eyes again.
I grabbed him by the ear and dug my fingernails into the tender lobe. He grunted and jerked his head away.
“Wake up,” I said peremptorily. “Do you hear me? Wake up this moment! Move, damn you! Give me your hand.”
I didn’t wait for him to comply, but dug under the cloak and seized his hand, which I chafed madly between my own. He opened his eyes again and frowned at me.
“I’m all right,” he said. “But I’m gey tired, aye?”
“Move your arms,” I ordered, flinging the hand at him. “Flap them, up and down. Can you move your legs at all?”
He sighed wearily, as though dragging himself out of a sticky bog, and muttered something under his breath in Gaelic, but very slowly he began to move his arms back and forth. With more prodding, he succeeded in flexing his ankles—though any further movement caused instant spasms in his back—and with great reluctance, began to waggle his feet.
He looked rather like a frog trying to fly, but I wasn’t in any mood to laugh. I didn’t know whether he was actually in danger of freezing or not, but I wasn’t taking any chances. By dint of constant exhortation, aided by judicious pokings, I kept him at this exercise until I had got him altogether awake and shivering. In a thoroughly bad temper, too, but I didn’t mind that.
“Keep moving,” I advised him. I got up with some difficulty, having grown quite stiff from crouching over him so long. “Move, I say!” I added sharply, as he showed symptoms of flagging. “Stop and I’ll step square on your back, I swear I will!”
I glanced around, a little blearily. The snow was still falling, and it was difficult to see more than a few feet. We needed shelter—more than the rock alone could provide.
“Hemlock,” he said between his teeth. I glanced down at him, and he jerked his head toward a clump of trees nearby. “Take the hatchet. Bi branches. Six feet. C-cut four.” He was breathing heavily, and there was a tinge of color visible in his face, despite the dim light. He’d stopped moving in spite of my threats, but his teeth were clenched because they were chattering–a sign I rejoiced to see.
I stooped and groped beneath his cloak again, this time searching for the hatchet belted round his waist. I couldn’t resist sliding a hand under him, inside the neck of his fringed woolen hunting shirt. Warm! Thank God, he was still warm. His chest felt superficially chilled from its contact with the wet ground, but it was still warmer than my fingers.
“Right,” I said, taking my hand away and standing up with the hatchet. “Hemlock. Six-foot branches, do you mean?”
He nodded, shivering violently, and I set off at once for the trees he indicated.
Inside the silent grove, the fragrance of hemlock and cedar enfolded me at once in a mist of resins and turpenes, the odor cold and sharp, clean and invigorating. Many of the trees were enormous, with the lower branches well above my head, but there were smaller ones scattered here and there. I saw at once the virtues of this particular tree—no snow fell under them; the fanlike boughs caught the falling snow like umbrellas.
I hacked at the lower branches, torn between the need for haste and the very real fear of chopping off a few fingers by accident; my hands were numb and awkward with the cold.
The wood was green and elastic and it took forever to chop through the tough, springy fibers. At last, though, I had four good-sized branches, sporting multiple fans of dense needles. They looked soft and black against the new snow, like big fans of feathers; it was almost a surprise to touch them and feel the hard, cold prick of the needles.
I dragged them back to the rock, and found that Jamie had managed to scoop more leaves together; he was almost invisible, submerged in a huge drift of black and gray against the foot of the rock.
Under his terse direction I leaned the hemlock branches fan-up against the face of the rock, the chopped butt ends stuck into the earth at an angle, so as to form a small triangular refuge underneath. Then I took the hatchet again and chopped small pine and spruce branches, pulled up big clumps of dried grass, and piled it all against and over the hemlock screen. Then at last, panting with exertion, I crawled into the shelter beside him.
I nestled down in the leaves between his body and the rock, wrapped my cloak around both of us, put my arms around his body, and held on hard. Then I found the leisure to shake a bit. Not from cold—not yet—but from a mixture of relief and fear.


Frank and Claire’s Boston apartment (Season 2)

He felt me shivering, and reached awkwardly back to pat me in reassurance.

“It will be all right, Sassenach,” he said. “With the two of us, it will be all right ….
“All right, all right,” I said. “What if I tell you a story, instead?”
Highlanders loved stories, and Jamie was no exception.
“Oh, aye,” he said, sounding much happier. ‘What sort of story is it?”
“A Christmas story,” I said, settling myself along the curve of his body. “About a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“An Englishman, I daresay.”
“Yes,” I said. “Be quiet and listen.”
I could see my own breath as I talked, white in the dim, cold air. The snow was falling heavily outside out shelter; when I paused in the story, I could hear the whisper of flakes against the hemlock branches, and the far-off whine of wind in the trees.
I knew the story very well; it had been part of our Christmas ritual, Frank’s and Brianna’s and mine. From the time Bree was five or six, we had read A Christmas Carol every year, starting a week or two before Christmas, Frank and I taking it in turns to read to her each night before bed.
“And the specter said, ‘ I am the Ghost of Christmas Past…’”
I might not be freezing to death, but the cold had a strange hypnotic effect nonetheless. I had gone past the phase of acute discomfort and felt now slightly disembodied. I knew my hands and feet were icy, and my body chilled half through, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I floated in a peaceful white mist, seeing the words swirl round my head like snowflakes as I spoke them.
“…and there was dear old Fezziwig, among the lights and music…”
I couldn’t tell whether I was gradually thawing or becoming colder. I was conscious of an overall feeling of relaxation, and an altogether peculiar sense of déjà vu, as though I had once before been entombed, insulated in snow, snug despite desolation outside.


Boston Christmas — Roger visiting from Scotland

A memory within this subjective narrative:

As Bob Cratchit bought his meager bird, I remembered. I went on talking automatically, the flow of the story coming from somewhere well below the level of consciousness, but my memory was in the front seat of a stalled 1956 Oldsmobile, its windscreen caked with snow.
We had been on our way to visit an elderly relative of Frank’s, somewhere in upstate New York. The snow came on hard, halfway there, howling down across the icy roads with gusts of wind. Before we knew where we were, we had skidded off the road and halfway into a ditch, the windscreen wipers slashing futilely at the pelting snow.
There was nothing to be done but wait for morning, and rescue. We had had a picnic hamper and some old blankets; we brought Brianna up into the front seat between us, and huddled all together under coats and blankets, sipping lukewarm cocoa from the thermos and making jokes to keep her from being frightened.
As it grew later, and colder, we huddled closer, and to distract Brianna, Frank began to tell her Dickens’s story from memory, counting on me to supply the missing bits. Neither of us could have done it alone, but between us, we managed well. By the time the sinister Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had made his appearance, Brianna was snuggled sound asleep under the coats, a warm, boneless weight against my side.
There was no need to finish the story, but we did, talking to each other below the words, hands touching below the layers of blankets. I remembered Frank’s hands, warm and strong on mine, thumb stroking my palm, outlining my fingers. Frank had always loved my hands.
The car had filled with the mist of our breathing, and drops of water ran down inside the white-choked windows. Frank’s head had been a dark cameo, dim against the white. He had leaned toward me at the last, nose and cheeks chilled, lips warm on mine as he whispered the last words of the story.
“’God bless us, every one,’” I ended, and lay silent, a small needle of grief like an ice splinter through my heart. It was quiet inside the shelter, and seemed darker; snow had covered over all the openings.
Jamie reached back and touched my leg.
“Put your hands inside my shirt, Sassenach,” he said softly. I slid one hand up under his shirt in front, to rest against his chest, the other up his back. The faded whip marks felt like threads under his skin.
He laid his hand against mine, pressing it tight against his chest. He was very warm, and his heart beat slow and strong under my fingers.
“Sleep, a nighean donn,” he said. “I wilna let ye freeze.”


Three different covers thus far

This retelling is fun because so many readers enjoy realizing that we remember the story with others. I do. I feel less lonely tonight at the thought.

I am just now watching Outlander Season 5, episode by episode, and listening to Davina Porter read the novel aloud in car (audiobook in CDS) and next year, Season 5, I’ll again watch and listening to Porter again read the next novel, A Fiery Cross, and should be able to supply the scenes of Hogmanay.

Ellen

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Kate Winslet as as Myrtle (Tillie) Dunnage sewing (The Dressmaker, written & directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)


Annie Starke as the young Joan Castlemain “helping” her professor husband, Joe, writer (The Wife, directed Bjorn Runge, script Jane Anderson, 2018)

Friends and readers,

Finally at the end of summer, four good women’s films. Two weeks ago The Bookshop and Puzzle, where in each a heroine seeks a new life, and now, The Dressmaker (based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) and The Wife (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), where in each two heroines wrest back what they have lost. They were gripping because was kept happening next was unexpected as women broke through taboos to become or take back herself after a long endurance. I recommend going to The Wife and renting or streaming (or buying) The Dressmaker as strongly as I did seeing The Bookshop before it leaves the theaters. In order to convey why they are rivetingly or quirkily surprising as we move along, I tell the stories but it’s the acting out as each turn comes that will hold you.


Glenn Close as the aging Joan Castlemaine reading The Walnut, a novel attributed to her husband as fiction, but one she wrote about her life with him

The Guardian says Glenn Close delivers the best performance of her career. She does make the movie the emotionally affecting experience it is, but I can think of other movies I’ve seen her in where it was she who made them extraordinary (Alfred Nobbs, with John Malkovitch, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paradise Road, the box office winner Fatal Attraction).

It’s done through flashbacks with two sets of actors: we begin in present time with Joe Castlemaine (the character somewhat based on Saul Bellows) played by Jonathan Pryce, winning the Nobel Prize, and the couple going with their son to Stockholm for the award ceremony. They seem to be joyous over this crowning recognition, but have an intensely strained relationship as a couple. Through irritants, and promptings of memories at her husband’s bad behavior He denigrates and treats with mild contempt the son’s, (Max Iron as David Castlemain) writing; he incessantly controls her eating, drinking, smoking, being by herself at all, when he is the one who is ill, taking pills to stay alive, and (as we see) promiscuous with young women wherever he can be. Joan’s mind moves back to how they met (Harry Lloyd as the young professor and Starke as student at Smith College), how he seduced her while he was married, and their first successes: she is working as a secretary at a firm seeking good authors and brings his (it seems) books in. The cyclical weaving is very much a woman’s structure and we gradually realize we are seeing and feeling everything out of her older mind.


On the plane Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, biographer, approaches the Castlemains

The real story is also dragged out because the couple is stalked by Nathaniel a young man determined to write a truthful biography, to make a career out of exposing this celebrated author. He follows the Castlemains on the train, and begs for permission and is rejected, told to go away. He remains at the bar of the hotel they are staying at and when she escapes Joe for an afternoon she is lured into drinking and smoking with him, as we listen to him ask her to tell him the truth that she wrote the books, not Joe. Joe (we have seen) doesn’t even know central characters in the stories. Then when the son escapes, Bone insinuates himself into being a companion, telling the young man who then startled with this explanation for his bad memories, confirms Bone’s theory.


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

Unfolded before is a Laura Ingalls and Rose Wilder story: what began as the husband writing poor novels and the wife being taught (perhaps wrongly) that women’s novels are ignored, not read, will not sell, or if they do, not be respected. This is conveyed by Elizabeth McGovern as the embittered women writer:


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

It at first seems the writing turns into collaboration and then (since he does not know what makes a good book, is dishonest about himself, superficial) an acted out lie: she hides away from children and world writing the novels while he takes (less than adequate) care of the children, cooks, makes money as a teacher, and takes all the credit for the books. What we see at first grating is the way he thanks her for enabling him to find time to work, devoting and giving up herself to his art, his creativity. The incessant gratitude as a cover-up drives her wild; it’s about as much as she can endure on top of his continual domineering demanding (he wants sex when she doesn’t) condescending ways. She has to smile and smile at the phony admiration, the adulation he receives so ecstatically.


In the car alone her face frozen, the husband trying to make up to her

Lying is at the core of this woman’s life, lying as an enabling and silencing mode of being. The movie made me think about what Rose Wilder might have felt because her books were attributed to her mother. The situation was so different: Rose Wilder chose to re-write and then write her mother’s books to project an Ayn Rand reactionary vision, to cover up the abysmal poverty of her childhood in rural America, and she got away with this because her publishers did all they could (as much of the media at the time) to castigate FDR’s turning the US into a more decent society for all (the New Deal, now in its death throes), to tell the false myth that anything is possible in individualistic uncontrolled capitalism. Closer are the faculty wives who spend years next to their husbands in libraries taking notes, typing his manuscript, perhaps “helping” him collaborating, who knows writing for him, and then thanked in a concluding line of acknowledgements. We see at first hand what pain this can be for such a woman, especially if he is someone who has affairs with his students or other faculty.

But there is continual ambiguity, different valid angles. The situation was more complicated than merely a bad husband, all self-sacrificing wife. As the days wear on, and she finally explodes and says she has had enough and is leaving him, they quarrel fiercely and it emerges she was complicit; he is accurate when he charges her with having liked being hidden, having liked getting rid of the children, of being rich (which as a woman writer and without a professorship she would have been), of him caring for the children, cooking and doing everything they pretended that she did. We see the beautiful houses they had.


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

We have seen how complacent she can be, and again how fierce in anger. How pained. She weeps at the end hysterically because when he suddenly as a heart attack. She is so persuasive and strong at that moment, I found the falling snow in the window behind her a false overdone note. Yet in the last scene on the plane with her son she tells the biographer if he tells the story of who wrote the books she will sue him as malevolent, and then turns with a look in her eye we see she is at the same time at long last free. She turns to her son and promises to tell him the truth of her life and the books when they get home. Will she? She fingers a notebook. Will she begin to publish under her own? or carry on writing producing books she will say were unfinished and are now coming out posthumously. She was ferocious with the biographer on the plane.

It’s arguable though that The Wife is a conventional movie in comparison with The Dressmaker. At the time it was in the theaters while it garnered many awards, non-professional and many professional critics alike lambasted it as peculiar, not making sense, erratic, unbelievable, and yes improbable and meandering (the last two charges commonly hurled at women’s movies). And at first I was startled and felt an urge to turn it off: why should this super-successive costume designer return to a filthy impoverished shack of a home with her hateful aging sick mother, Molly Dunnage played brilliantly by Judy Davis (a persistently fine actress, ever in good movies, unrecognized because not iconic).


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

Why go to a small town picnic dressed for the Oscars? What could be the point? Well give it a chance and you begin to see and then are on her side, wanting to see her get revenge on what was done to her and to her mother.

It’s a strange film, bizarre: Tillie begins to gain power because these dowdy jealous women want her to dress them the way she dresses, and she begins to make money as she determinedly ignores or over-rides her mother’s protests and cleans the house, her mother, and sets up a daily decent routine of life for them. What women seem to want, what they dream of themselves looking like is when seen startlingly artificial and grotesque


The movie ends with an album of all the actresses in all the (a cornucopia) dresses made and worn over the film (costume design Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce)

What emerges, in jarringly odd scenes is a female gothic story. When Tillie was small, she was bullied cruelly by a Evan Pettyman’s (Shane Bourne) mean stupid son, Stewart, and she was accused of murdering him in retaliation. She was hounded out of town and her mother disgraced. What gradually emerges is Tillie is Everyman’s illegitimate daughter by Molly; that Pettyman’s present wife has spent her life drugged by this husband before and worse after the son died. In flashbacks we see how the child was ostracized and harassed and when the boy tried to smash her head, she stepped aside and he rammed his head into a brick wall. Another reason she has returned, is she does not know what happened and is determined to discover how the boy died. The town is exposed as bigoted, hypocritical and brutally indifferent to anything but each person’s own ego pleasure. Tillie had a young man who was liked her; grown up now, Liam Helmsorth as Teddy McSwiney slowly reveals he has a mentally retarded brother whom the town despises and mocks, a mother who (like Molly) is impoverished and they live apart, in a tin shack with him making what money they have as a mechanic.

Needless to predict, Tillie and Teddy fall in love and become lovers, Molly emerges from her shell to show she loves her daughter after all, or can love her. They sew together:

There are wonderfully comic moments where Molly calls herself a hag and her daughter a spinster in need of such a man:

The three go to the movies and make fun of what they see: there is an older movie shown which probably is meant as an allusion but I couldn’t make out which one it was.

Wedding scenes, church, as the story is exposed, scenes of intense anger, scene where Pettyman hires another woman as a dressmaker to rival Tillie, only this dressmaker is nowhere as daring, bold, good a seamstress. But colluding and frightened people are exposed as knowing and hiding the truth, Pettyman’s wife awakened to the truth tries to cut his feet off (this reminded me of how Stella Gibbons’s mocked the gothic), and just as we think the evil people who hid everything will get their comeuppance and our trio (Teddy, Tillie and Molly) live happily ever after, Teddy too full of himself, slips down a man hole, gets caught in a vise and is killed. There is a moving funeral. This means his brother and mother can escape the town’s obloquy only by leaving. Molly determines to help her daughter and now dressed respectably, sets forth for help from those townspeople with hearts (they are some):

But in a tense tiring public scene, recalling or anticipating what happens to Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish assailing the witch power-center of the town in The Bookshop, Molly has a heart attack and dies before she can see justice begin to be done. So we have another funeral. The heart attack of the aging weakened person who sallies forth to help the heroine is not the only parallel with Fitzgerald’s tale as filmed by Coixet. In a final scene of rage, while the mostly indifferent town is caught up in another social public event, all of the women now dressed by Tillie, Tillie sets fire to the old cabin she and her mother had lived in, and takes a long red carpet and fills that with lighter fluid, hurling it out towards the town, where it slowly sets the central streets of the town on fire. The movie ends with Tillie re-dressed as the Parisian dressmaker she had become and leaving:

An important character in the drama is Australia itself. The film is made by an Australian film company and was filmed there. It’s filled with stunning shots of the bare and hard landscape, which the camera nonetheless seems to have a love affair with. We first see Tillie against this hard backdrop:

One of the good or remorseful characters, Hugo Weaver as Sergeant Farrat takes blame for Tillie as policeman, seen against the same landscape at another time of day:

A townspeople scene: they look up at Tillie and Mollie’s ruined home:

It is as deeply satisfying a film as one can hope to see, and it uses the power of a woman through one of her most characteristic skills: sewing. Moorhouse is unashamed to both caricature and celebrate high fashion and sexy dressing. It is also unsentimental in just the way of The Bookshop.

Two more women’s films not to miss, to revel in.

Ellen

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Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in the meadow contemplating opening her bookshop (2017, The Bookshop)


Kelly MacDonald her first visit to Robert, sees she can indulge in her secret passion, doing puzzles from among many many that at home she stashes away (2018, Puzzle)

Reading books & doing jigsaws — what’s not to like?

Dear friends and readers,

Among the kinds of blogs I’ve not been getting to recently, which I used to place here regularly — women artists, foremother poets, translation studies — and keep vowing to return to, is the summer woman’s film. I have more excuse for this last than mere lack of time and finding myself holding to a higher standard of sheer information: I’ve not seen any women’s films this summer until very recently, and then suddenly, two: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb novella of the same name; and Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, scripted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. My jump off point: I take the opposite view expressed by Neil Minow about Bookshop, which he thinks “never comes together,”, and Christy Lemire about Puzzle, which she finds “a lovely surprize.”

I think differently. These are from the once hallowed Roger Ebert site, which is not what it was when he was alive and its most frequent contributor. In both cases, the writers begin with a set of expectations: The Bookshop is supposed to be about books themselves, and is missing (so Minow thinks) critiques of books: why do we not hear how good Lolita is? or what the young girl clerk who so grates on Minow’s nerves, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) thinks of it or other books:


Florence and Christine reading together

On the other hand, Lemire was not expecting the wife of this utterly conventional family: garage mechanic husband, stay-at-home housewife to leave her husband. She does not even know how to operate a cell phone nor does she understand why one would want such a gadget, and has brought up two sons who expect her to serve them hand-and-foot:


Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, Austin Abrams as Gabe, David Denman as Louie (the sons and father) staring expectant at Agnes

Lemire is therefore just delighted that we are not stuck in this family-centered story, but move out from there to follow the wife’s adventures alone.

Perhaps Neil Minow should have read Fitzgerald’s book, for then he would have understood the source is a story about how power works in a community: it’s about how a woman who has been exercising control over central experiences of people in her town, Mrs Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson) uses her connections, status, and subtle manipulative techniques fostered by the nature of the usually socially dysfunctional get-togethers (I say dysfunctional if you thought the purpose of getting together was to form friendships) to destroy another woman’s desire to find a function in life by using what money she has to sell books. I wrote an analysis of this book and others by Fitzgerald when Womenwriters@groups.io was having a group reading and discussion of Fitzgerald’s novels and Hermione Lee’s literary biography of her: Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop and Offshore; Charlotte Mew. It’s about how a widow without the least trace of malice (so Florence doesn’t recognize a determined hatred) and kind heart cannot preserve herself against hostile inexorable power. We watch Florence after years of solitude and withdrawal come out of her peaceful shell to invest in, create, and build up a thriving bookshop business, only to have it destroyed insidiously step-by-step by an elite woman who knows how to get a law passed to enable the local gov’t to take over the shop, how to pressure a banker, a solicitor, an unscrupulous BBC layabout to undermine and sabotage the shop to the point where Florence is left without any money or a place even to live.

The only person on Florence’s side is the reclusive Mr Brundish, who, unlike Florence, knows exactly what Mrs Gamart is doing, and attempts to stop her by confronting her:


Bill Nighy (brilliant as the nervous man with unusual tastes) demanding to Mrs Gamart that she leave Florence Green alone

Coixet’s film has flaws or difficulties. Much that happens in Fitzgerald’s book is not visible, and it is only after Florence sees the effect of Mrs Gamart’s undercover and underhanded endeavors in say the form of a letter, or a school inspector taking Christine away from the shop, or a court order about her window (with the offending Lolita in it) that she slowly realizes she is being strangled by an encircling malign octopus. A film cannot go on for hours and must be understandable so Coixet gives us dramatic (sometimes too melodramatic) scenes or visualizations that are not in the book. Nighy and Mortimer manage to keep their scenes to the awkward, piquantly and/or poignantly comic (they are directed to behave in stylized ways)


Far shot


Close up

But all too often the need for pace makes for a seeming “tear-jerker,” which the story isn’t. It’s paradoxically a story about courage; Florence shows remarkable strength, which is part of Fitzgerald’s point. All Florence’s courage avails her nothing. Commercialization also demands a happy ending, uplift, hope, so a scene is tacked on at the end of Christine having grown up and from her experience learnt to love books, to read, and open a successful bookshop. The real world of the novel has Christine pushed into forgetting about the shop and Florence ending quietly but in anguish standing with her one suitcase waiting for a bus to take her to another town. The worst change is Coixet has Christine set fire to the bookshop: Mrs Gamart’s excuse was she was going to open an art center in the old house. I asked a friend I was sitting next to, how that helped? or had any meaning except (exciting to witness?) arson, for Florence would lose all whether the building lasted or not. My friend who can grasp a coarser understanding said to many people this means that at least Mrs Gamart will not be able to get her hands on the building. That’s to miss the central idea: Mrs Gamart wanted control and power, not the building.

OTOH, to give the movie its due (and so often when one compares a book to its film adaptation, it’s an undermining process), a reader can come away from the book feeling a horrible witch-like woman malevolently destroyed another, a sort of misogynistic perspective (soap opera like). The movie makes sure we feel that Mrs Gamart could not have done what she did by emphasizing how all the various characters cooperated in the destruction of Florence. We see them at work while in the book we only gradually understand their treachery. The movie also brings back all the faces in juxtaposed stills just before we last see Florence carrying her suitcase to a ferry. Mrs Gamart could not have done it alone. In the movie even Christine’s mother participates in destroying Florence with less reason (the book brings in how Christine fails her 11-plus and how unjust the 11-plus system is).


Florence dreaming in one of the movies’ early cheerful scenes

The powerful fable hits us strongly in the gut because as with the book, Mr Brundish’s attempt to help Florence, the first time he has left his house in years, ends in his having a heart attack. He is that upset by Mrs Gamart’s performance of surprised innocence. And Coixet socks this loss of her one true friend to Florence as she adds Mr Gamart coming to the shop to lie to Florence to tell her that Mr Brundish had visited his wife to give her his support for an art center. Florence has no proof, and she becomes (at last) hysterical and screams “Get out,” and ejects the wicked old man forcibly.

There is a good movie about American black people making the rounds this summer called Get Out (which I advise my reader not to miss); also be sure and see So Sorry to Bother You.

By contrast, Puzzle is puzzling. It may be that I need to see the 2009 Rompecabezas from Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (a woman) to grasp why for at least one-half of the film we are in time warp: Agnes is a Donna Reed character, dressing and acting like a woman of the 1950s. Why Lemire is not bothered by this unreality I don’t know.  It is improbable that in 2018 Agnes should be so obedient to her husband; it seems utterly in another era when we find that she and her husband are not determined both their sons should go to college, but that the notion of college is one that needs to be introduced. Agnes is also made into a bingo-playing priest-friendly church-going Catholic:

who hides her least unconventionality in dreamy vulnerable-heroine moods:

Agnes’s one outlet is to do puzzles, of which she has many secreted away for afternoon bouts. Now it is not improbable that she might answer an ad in the newspaper by someone asking for a partner to do puzzles with for a contest, but could this woman suddenly start to deceive her husband, lie all the time in all sorts of ways in order to gain free time to take the train into NYC and begin a partnership with a completely unknown Arab man. Irrfan Khan has been in so many brilliant Eurocentric films (Namesake, The Lunchbox), showing virtuosity (he is usually as in this film kind, attractive, reasoning but can be vicious as in Slumdog Millionaire) that he carries off the character as utterly non-threatening. I find him very attractive and have been told the actor is a type found in Indian films: the intellectual.

The insistence in the film on then bringing out how Agnes immediately resorts to lying rather than saying she is going to NYC to participate in puzzle contests, how her husband is utterly faithful to her and never distrusts her (he feels only she gives of herself to others and not him too much), and then is willing to sell his favorite summer house to please her to get money to do something in the career area for the sons, gives the game away.  Also the intense sympathy given the husband who we see as within all his capabilities as meaning well as possible and even forebearing for not beating her (that’s how it’s presented). He says he can’t do it because he’s just not like his father.

This is a film (like Ladybird [scroll down]) masquerading as a woman’s film or point of view when it is told from the male point of view. The review on IMDB asked if the story is not about selfishness (hers) and deceit. For in the second half, as she begins to enjoy life doing puzzles, enjoys being independent, and especially winning she does start an affair with Robert. It quickly emerges that he is lonely, having been left by his wife. All these hard-hearted wives, you see.


Look at the promotional shot above: is she not coyly flirting?

The looming climax comes when Agnes and Robert have won to the point they must go to Belgium to be part of the final contest. It’s then Agnes must tell her Louie, but we are led to believe that guilt stops her from being willing to go to Europe with Robert. She does not phone him when she is supposed to, she looks very reluctant.  We might think she won’t leave her sons, and is going make sure about half the money will be used to send Ziggy whom her husband had insisted work in his shop to college to become a cook. That is what Ziggy loves to do, and what his father regards as unmanly and therefore unacceptable. Some of the other half (we are to assume) will go to Gabe who wants to travel around the world or the US with a vegetarian girlfriend.

I say some because just as we assume she is going to stay with her long-suffering if dull husband, we see her waiting for a train to go somewhere. We then see an airport and think to ourselves she is after all joining the disappointed Robert. But no, she is going to Montreal. She has to keep aside some of the money for herself, no?

Now, Montreal? There is a dialogue early in the film where she expresses a desire to Ziggy to go to Montreal on her own. Why? we are not told. To do what? we are not told that. I happen to know Montreal is a little north from the borders of Canada and cold. The radical point is that she is not going to escape the husband by running to the arms of a lover. But we are not told what are her ambitions or why? the ending reminded me of Ibsen’s Doll House where it’s enough that Nora goes out of the house, slamming the door behind her. The problem is this is not 1879 and a satisfied sly smile on MacDonald’s face aboard a plane to Montreal is not enough.

I don’t want to condemn the film as it is filled with quiet nuanced scenes, and slowly builds to an interesting ending, but suggest those who are praising it are doing so as a contrast to the perpetual high violence, action-adventure fascistic point of view of so many movies nowadays. It’s a gentle film, intelligently done, slowly unwinding itself.  My favorite line:  when Louie finally asks Agnes, “Are you having an affair,” all she can say is she “thinks” she is (not sure which astounds Louie) because what she has been doing is puzzles with someone and yes they did have sex but she “didn’t like it very much.” Now those are a woman’s lines.

I thought of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. Drabble turns to jigsaws to calm herself.

Are they a game? I think so: Drabble finds the earliest modern style puzzles are found in the Renaissance and first spread as a child’s game (think of the Alphabets in Austen’s Emma). Drabble suggests for the adult that you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place.  I like to do puzzles and my method resembles Agnes’s: first she makes the frame and then she works on different portions of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard and now you must follow the colors. For me since the competition is at a distance (I don’t go in for contests), it’s relaxed and I have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together. It’s a rare game I enjoy.


A rehearsal shot

In Puzzle Robert teaches Agnes to follow the colors first, only when the competition begins she reverts. She trusts to her own instincts and methods — so there is a feminist “feel.” Robert also tells Agnes he does puzzles to give shape and meaning to life but does not elaborate on this idea, and it does not make as much sense as Drabble’s explanation.

Gentle reader, both these movies are worth going to see — as well as Get Out and So Sorry to Bother You. You can escape the Trumpite poisoned environment we live in in the US today to learn about living in normally hard worlds.

Ellen

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Claire Foy and Matt Smith as the young Elizabeth and Philip in the first phase of marriage

Friends,

Peter Morgan’s (with a little help from Stephen Daldry) strangely powerful The Crown has been for the past two years among the best serial dramas in the subtle naturalistic BBC English style anywhere. It was nominated for and won a number of prestigious awards and if the critical response was at times ambiguous, those who praised praised strongly. I put this first on my Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two area, but over the two days I’ve had it up, I decided to move it here — as a woman’s film even if the script writer and chief producer are men.

The films depict slowly, at length and consistently a development of inexorable embedded emotional burdens each of the major characters finds he or she has to bear as a result of engaging in life with others. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive. The individual situations of these privileged people are made to resonate with experiences the ordinary person can identify with, or watch Writ Large. Thus catharsis is achieved, at the same time as the British monarchical system is justified.

It belongs to a large number of films this year where a woman who has a questionable power is at the center of the film: from the PBS Victoria (with Jenna Coleman), Spielberg’s The Post with Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, Gabaldon’s Outlander with Caitriona Balfe the central core strength of all the stories. All tell the same tale of hidden power, power welded quietly, stubbornly and when at a price, still successfully. They descend from the old queen tragedies in the Restoration theater, the 17th century French romances by women, Shakespearean heroines all.

The key characters are Elizabeth (Claire Foy) with Philip (Matt Smith) as her partner, and their performances are extraordinarily convincing. At first I saw the films as a portrait of Elizabeth but by the end of the second season, he had emerged as important in the films as she (if not as powerful), because his presence constantly affects her, hurts her, leads her to betray herself (as does her staff).


Pip Torrens as Tommy Lascelles: he plays the repressive killjoy controlling the royal family (for their own good) — rather brilliantly, convincingly

It is curious how the villains and obtuse people in episode after episode are this household staff, as if the family and many politicians are helpless against them.

The two begin with an idealistic love, and after years where she is driven to not keep her promise to Philip to let him fulfill his desires and have a say in his choices equal to hers, and betray others like her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). Elizabeth allows herself to be bullied, as when she lets Philip force their son Charles to go to a school singularly unfitted for his character, so as to vicariously re-live own hard-won unexamined success over a wretched boyhood (Paterfamilias), they are barely able to endure one another. He humiliates her and threatens the monarchy by his semi-revengeful liaisons. She has made some wrong decisions (when she agrees to leave the house Philip was setting up for them and move to Buckingham palace, agrees to control his airplane flying, agrees to forbid Margaret’s marriage to a divorced man), but she remains queen (which is why she obeys) and that controls and gives her space and power.

Matt Smith is the program’s sly satyr, giving Claire Foy rare opportunities to know the pleasures of the appetite (including sex) divorced from duty. We see them come close together and then be driven apart. His advice, often cynical, is often proved right. For me the most moving scenes occur when they interact or their stories are told in tandem (as when at the beginning of the second season he is sent on a world tour). In the closing scene as he kneels and they bend over one another hugging, there is an acknowledgement of also a permanent estrangement, a gap never crossed again.


Ben Miles as Townsend, and we see in this photo how calm Margaret is with him

The other over-arching or major secondary story, which carries on through both seasons, depicts Margaret Windsor as thwarted from developing what talents she had, as not allowed to marry the man she loves and who loves her (except she give up her position and large income, which is of course unthinkable), and thus driven, as it were, forced makes a poor choice of an aristocrat, glamorous, cold, a cad, Matthew Goode as Tony Armstrong-Jones.


He renames her Beryl (second season)

Lesser characters contribute more over-the-top or overt drama. The Churchill myth is kept up by John Lithgow, with Kate Phillips as the in-love girl Friday, Venetia Scott. The Churchill matter seems to have stayed in the public consciousness (if recaps and commentary online tell us anything), and Lithgow is a powerful memorable presence. He fills the screen; like Ralph Richardson, our eyes immediately revert to him.


John Lithgow as Churchill charming Kate Phillips as Venetia Scott (who dies in the episode so eager is she to go to work in the fog)

But riveting also are the episodes featuring the resentful sneering de-throned Edward VIII (Alex Jennings); Alex Jennings is a Duke of Windsor unable to accept the position he choose; his clothes show him as pampered, perhaps rightly bitter at the way his family treats him, but also having lost perspective:


All Alex Jennings and Lia Williams as the ex-Mrs Simpson’s outfits are lavishly appointed and elegant

Maybe the most historically important episode in the series was the revelation of the Duke of Windsor’s knowing collusion with Hitler (Vergangenheit, second season): this is one of several episodes to include real film from the era, this case this Duke and Duchess and Hitler reviewing troops.

Some of the present debased or demeaning outlook on some of the prime ministers, such a Macmillan (Anton Lesser) was a weak cuckold (Sylvestre Le Tousel shows her continuing strength as a capable varied actress, here she is the appallingly mean adulterous wife), or Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) eaten up by jealousy of Churchill — all remind me of the way older historical Tudor dramas work. An re-enactment of Beyond the Fringe shows the public laughing at the ridicule the young intellectual actors threw at them, but the men (prime ministers) are too sensitive and become scapegoats. Emasculated males; once again, it’s the women who become the stoics holding on. On the other hand, the reactionary Mountbatten (Gregg Wise) is presented as kindness, gentleness itself, especially to the young Charles where Philip is asking too much with a narrow definition of manliness.

The expected is preferred, except curiously in the case of the Kennedys where an attempt is made to de-mystify them, which ends in scornful put-down of Jacqueline as utterly phony.

Among the tertiary recurring characters my favorites are the older women, especially Victoria Hamilton as the continuing to quietly grieve Queen Mary. One of my favorite episodes is about her attempt to retreat to a castle in the Scottish highlands and brief friendship with a minor aristocrat there who is not told who she is so that she can have an ordinary relationship with him (Pride and Joy, first season).


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother, Elizabeth

Note how in most of the cases the men are seen with women, with women as protecting, taking care of, or importantly mocking or undermining them. I love all the stills of Harriet Walter as Clementine:

Claire Foy’s face reminded me of Elizabeth Moss in Handmaid’s Tale, Caitronia Balfe in Outlander, Merryl Strep as Katharine Graham in The Post. All nominated or noticed for awards. They are all initially more trusting than most of the people around them. Then a mask forms round their tight jaws. Margaret is the woman gone neurotic, a common type in soap opera:

The two years of this serial drama have been rightly criticized on several grounds. First for the kinds of changes in real history and politics continually set in place. Of course history will be heightened, personalized, and our protagonists made somewhat sympathetic. But the very subtlety with which the actual historical record is interwoven with false perspectives suggests truer perspective could have been put in place.


Elizabeth with Jeremy Northam as Anthony Eden consulting her

Throughout both seasons Elizabeth is made to seem more pro-active than she was, and more compassionately concerned about the average person living in the UK. What is put before us is sometimes the opposite of what happened: thus it was not she who insisted on going to Ghana to mend the relationship but her gov’t ministers who insisted she go. In the first season (damningly), Clement Atlee, the man who did more to reform and make the UK into the decent social democracy with opportunity for all in a large community it became (until Margaret Thatcher put her hatchet to it, and the Tories and then Blair’s gov’t followed suit), Atlee is made into a minor non-entity in one episode, with Churchill’s time as prime minister becoming what was important and the key over-arching secondary story. Elizabeth is made to seem innocent or at least not at all to blame for the understandable revolt of the empire against the English, and that revolt not explained with any sympathy.

And of course it’s a white world: Nasser, the African leaders, I cannot find any stills online of these. It is unblushingly Anglophilic, even if there is perfunctory criticism of how the UK reacted to Nasser nationalizing the Suez canal. Eden’s behavior is seen as well-meaning and a political error. He is misunderstood and he misunderstands a new post-colonial world. A tremendous idealization of George VI goes on, astonishing speeches put into the mouth of the queen grandmother (Eileen Atkins) about the monarchy as if it were a mythic realm placed on earth by God for the good of the English people, far exceeding any divine right exegesis I’ve ever come across.


Eileen Atkins impeccably over-the-top theatrical as the Queen Grandmother — smoking on

I don’t find if marmoreal because of performances like these. Don’t underestimate Jared Harris playing the cancerous George VI, still slaughtering birds as he weeps over his daughter’s “hard” fates and sings “In the bleak midwinter.” Drenched in the sentimental.


Children with George VI admonishing them

All that said, the films function to build compassion and understanding, reciprocation as a basic stance towards experience. The good characters hold onto some kind of integrity and honesty not just because to make the public think they are so keeps them in power. They mean well, they feel guilt, they see themselves as involved in bargains. Each of the episodes is character driven, and while different recurring characters emerge as dominant in this or that or a couple of episodes, there are major presences we care about and watch age and mostly harden or grow old and move into retreat, often stubbornly trying to hold onto what they thought their lives were about when younger.

The scripts are superb and found online. One of the curiosities of the films is how little happens in any given one, at least outwardly. Yes sometimes there is a Suez crisis and we see much action, but more commonly we watch Claire Foy drink coffee. I often cried over a resonating pair of lines towards a given closure, such as Pilgrim’s Progress. This is typical of the woman’s film based on a woman’s novel. Elizabeth gives a new turn to old lines about how she is paying a heavy personal price for the sake of some larger whole or ideal, and I find myself unbearable touched.

The first season shows us the making of a woman, Elizabeth into a queen, from a young girl in love, engaged, dependent on her father (Lilibet), to her walking alone, alienated from those she loves in order to be this symbolic figure. The second season traces a gradual hardening where she is presented as now and again scolding (in effect) her prime minister and urging them onto a course of action she thinks the wiser: they don’t always obey but they don’t ignore her either. She grieves alone.


Elizabeth in the last episode, pregnant with Andrew, aware Philip has not kept his word to be sexually faithful

Even if by logic and space, we actually follow Philip’s story (including his young years in flashbacks) as much as Elizabeth, and the outer political world whether through the weather or political or economic crises, it is Elizabeth the film focuses on again and again, at each stage of her life. Here she is reading Walter Bagehot as a child and learning about the theatrical, the ceremonial (her) and the efficient, the legislative, the instrumental (everybody else):

Even if there are major parts for males, they are seen as the domestic woman experiences them, from a home-perspective. Other favorite episodes: on safari (Hyde Park Corner, the first season)

When Elizabeth hires a tutor to improve her academic knowledge (Scientia Potentia Est, the first season): I loved the actor who played the mussed-up uncomforable tutor clutching his briefcase.

The episode where we see her relationship with Porchester amid the horses today with memories of what was meaning a great deal more to her than him (she phones him, and he puts her off as an American lover walks into his room). This episode also includes the painting of Churchill in old age by Sutherland and Clementine’s burning of the canvas (Assassins, first season).


The Queen and Porchie

Some may like the episode where Mike Parker’s wife rebels and sues him for divorce based on adultery (A Company of Men, second season). What emerges for me are women standing alone. The bitterness of Margaret when what talents she had are not wanted and she finds herself living with a cold cad (Mystery Man, second season), so she renovates her quarters without regard to others. Most evidently Elizabeth by herself, apparently surrounded by aides, servants and of course swathed in money and protection, and yet somehow isolated and holding on. Finding herself pushed and prodded by conventions, turned into a statue, and having to pick out which customs are still operative and which no longer.

When I first started to watch the films, I loved the 1950s outfits,so carefully studied and accurate but gradually they are just the way one dresses, un-costumy.

I’m reading slowly the excellent thorough study of the time and film, Peter Lacey’s The Crown: The Official Companion. The history is corrected there. The changes justified. One of the pleasures are the photographs of the actual historical people juxtaposed to the actors: we see how closely aligned the choices for actors were, how their costumes are often recreations of the originals.

Some representative reviews, mostly ambiguous: The Telegraph rounded up a bunch and linked them in; from the New York Times on the second season (Goode was born to play the seductive Armstrong). Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair wanted to dislike the film but found it bloody compelling


Not quite gawdy?

I look forward to the third season, with a little trepidation that the change of actors will change the chemistry of the films too much or in directions I won’t care for. I don’t know the work of a number of the new actors: when I do, as Helena Bonham Carter for the aging Margaret, I can see it. I loved Olivia Coleman in Night Manager and can see her as a warm fundamentally sound older Elizabeth. Tobias Menzies (late of Outlander) as Philip when older is worrying: he often plays hard mean and cold people, yet he has his gentle psychological side as Frank Randall too (Paul Bettany said to have been considered would have been better at that).

It has emerged as something of a scandal that Smith was much much better paid than Foy; both my daughters informed me he is much better known, a star, while she with her superb performances as Amy Dorrit in Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit, the younger Nazi sister in the return of Upstairs Downstairs, as good as unknown. Even Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall doesn’t match Dr Who. I wonder. At any rate we are assured next year salaries will not be so gender unequal.

Ellen

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From Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship aka Lady Susan (Chloe Sevigny as Lady Alicia, Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan)

Dear Friends and readers,

Friday was a long day. The morning was filled with yet more “pre-conference” activities,” and from these, Izzy and I went to a dance workshop. We both enjoy 18th century dancing, and for this day she wore an 18th century day dress, a lovely shawl and a hat I bought for her at the “Emporium.”


A photograph I took of her on our balcony

It was great fun, the dancing, but I was tired afterward and went back to the room, and so forgot that I had intended to go to a special “event,” a lecture on the churches Jane Austen attended. Probably this was the first disappointment of the conference and it was my own fault. A number of the other special events (like the dance workshop) one needed a ticket for, but not this. So I surmise the organizers didn’t think too many people would go. A friend told me it was many slides, pictures of the basic churches Austen attended in Hampshire, Kent, Bath, and London, and had a contemporary twist. What these churches do today. As I don’t know their names, I can supply no more than that.


Gillian Dow

Then the first event of the conference proper: Gillian Dow’s keynote speech called “The Immortal Jane Austen and Her Best-Loved Heroine, 1817-2017,” it was not about Elizabeth Bennet (as I expected), nor Isabelle de Montolieu, which the blurb led me to expect (a French writer was to be compared); she rather spoke at length about Germaine de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy and compared Stael’s heroine to Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Gillian began by offering the usual connections: while in London in 1815, Austen had a chance to go to a party where Stael was and declined (or so Henry implied), in her letters she tells Cassandra that she recommended a man at an assembly (who may have been deaf and thus not connected to what was happening) to read Corinne, presumably as a very good novel (December 27,1808); Stael read Austen and is said to have pronounced Austen’s books to be vulgar (commonplace, banal). Corinne was of course one of many contemporary novels by women Austen read and described. Then she quoted Virginia Woolf on how hard it is to catch Austen in the act of greatness.


The most felicitious translation into English available today: Sylvia Raphael’s Corinne, or Italy

Well, using the Victorian English translator of Corinne, Isabel Hill’s comments on Corinne, and conceding there was a lot more commentary in the 19th century by other women writers on Corinne than Austen’s books (George Eliot in Mill on the Floss, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott), and comparing scenes in Emma to Corinne as well as other novels to Corinne, Gillian critiqued Corinne to show that Corinne is unacceptably sentimental, Austen’s heroines are more interesting and believable characters than Stael’s heroine, so Austen has a staying power with contemporary readers and writers that Stael nowadays lacks. The larger context showed the “aftermath” or afterlife of Austen’s books. She recited an appalling poem to Austen by Kipling, talked of the publishing history of these and the illustrations that accompanied them (Corinne is part travelogue).

Gillian wanted to argue for the value of studying other women authors contemporary with Austen, as a way of understanding her context and achievement. It was a strong speech, but by emphasizing how superior Austen is, and Stael’s flaws she may have reinforced what she set out to discourage: the dismissal of other novels of Austen’s era — at any rate to the popular readership listening, not the academics so much who might read for historical reasons. The same holds true for some of the treatment by Ellen Moers who was the first in the 20th century feminist movement in literature to treat Corinne for its serious treatment of how women’s lives are shattered by society if they disobey the restrictive conventions. For my part despite its flaws, I love the book: its meditations on history, on culture, on travel and Italy, on Scotland are deeply stirring. And here we see where Stael has qualities and an experience on offer Austen doesn’t begin to think of.

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Chawton House

It was then time to go to the break-out sessions of which there were three that afternoon. Suffice to say that the paper I had wanted to go to for the first session (A), Jeffrey Nigro’s on illustrating Austen was cancelled; he had become ill and couldn’t attend, and didn’t have a good back-up. One of the problems at this conference for me was the target content was not Austen, but her aftermath, her reputation, what people did with her (as in writing sequels, making films), her fan groups. Peter Sabor’s talk on “the Digital Godmersham,” was on his work on a digital recreation of the library Austen used at Godmersham Park for Chawton House; he knows some of the books, and is researching to find more. Had I understood this was the content of his talk, I would have gone.

For the second session (B) I listened to Ruth Williamson give a crowded room a sensible history of what happened to Austen’s letters after she died. James Edward Austen-Leigh’s (JEAL) daughter, Mary wrote that a majority of Austen’s letters were destroyed by Casssandra; that Francis’s letters to Austen (three packets he saved all his life) were destroyed almost immediately after he died by an irate daughter (Fanny Sophia); JEAL used what was left for his biography of his aunt. Fanny Knight Austen’s son, Lord Brabourne published a semi-censored edition of Austen’s letters, with Chapman the first scholarly attempt to publish all we have edited impartially. She told of individual responses, and attitudes towards letters we find in Austen’s novels. In the discussion afterward she was a bit more interesting, saying for example, that readers read Austen’s letters as by a woman. Austen’s letters are crucially important for understanding her and her fiction, and I would have preferred a close reading approach towards the letters themselves.

There was one at that time (B) on using Pride and Prejudice as therapy (“I want my Mr Darcy”), had “Deciphering Mr Darcy” by Monica Alvarez on how other characters beyond Darcy were the center of attention for 19th century readers been on at that time I would have gone: another later talk (Saturday) by Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost seems to have been on how Darcy was seen as a satiric figure before the 20th century; as described in the catalogue it looked like it was about which characters were most written about in the 19th century. Neither was (like Dow’s talk) engineered so as to try to give us insight into Austen’s text itself.

The last paper I heard, the early evening (C) session was Alice Villasenor’s “evidence from the archives.” She had diligently read contemporary local chronicles, especially about local elections (as these were reported on), but she had wanted to prove connections between specific big-wig individuals and Jane Austen, and there is no evidence, so it (seemed to me) was a matter of unsubstantiated nuances. She wanted to ferret out attitudes towards slavery of those few who got to vote and came up with the idea only “a small minority” (of a small minority of people) “wanted to keep the slave trade,” yet again the evidence was slim (in an election only 16 people voted against abolition of the slave trade). Again I might have done better to listen to Jane Darcy talking of “periods of anxiety and cheerlessness” in Jane Austen. I spoke with someone who had gone to that, and she said Ms Darcy talked about the underlying conditions of Austen’s characters, threat of genteel poverty, Emma’s father so frail and dying (perhaps). I think Austen’s texts are far more melancholy than many readers seem willing or able to understand.


Whit Stillman

Later evening there was a great treat: in one of the large rooms JASNA screened Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, a film adaptation of Lady Susan. (Despite his using a title of one of Austen’s juvenilia, this film had nothing to do with that.) I’ve written about the film in a blog so will not write about the film here. I had noticed (too late) that there were two talks in the conference on this film. One for the B session, by two people, Pauline Beard and Jennifer Snoek-Brown, where they proposed to briefy “overview” the novel, show clips from the film and then thrown the discussion to the audience on the topic of “moving from letters to narrative.” I’m not sure that Stillman’s film is a narrative. Another by Margaret Case proposed to compare clips from Stillman’s film with clips from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to see what they “illustrate” about “the ‘mix’ of violence” and “romance” in Austen’s novels. she labeled her talk half-comically, “seriously” perhaps because some fans refuse to take this Zombie movie seriously, but it can be treated seriously as another example of the ratcheting up of violence everywhere in US films (“The Violent Turn”).


From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Lily James as Elizabeth Bennet (2009, Sethe Graham-Smith)

Stillman’s talk was done as an interview by an Austen scholar, Peter Graham, who brought along carefully devised questions. Stillman mostly ignored these or turned them around to talk interestingly about his film and a novel he has written out of the film since, Love & Friendship (In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated). He did the same after Last Days of Disco: wrote a good novel taking off from the matter of his movie. Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is a sophisticated commentary on young adult life in the middle and upper middle class in the US in cities (which he had been part of), as well as books like Austen’s in genre (melancholy-satiric comedies of manners, a favorite kind with him). He was there partly to sell his second movie book. He told us about how he had been very depressed as a young man, and tried Northanger Abbey which he thought an essay on books in the form of a novel. Much later he went on to read Mansfield Park, and realized how Lionel Trilling had misread it. Stillman made Metropolitan to refute Trilling and turned Fanny Price into his heroine, Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina played the part). He so loved Kate Beckinsale in his Last Days of Disco, saw her as perfect as a heroine in a Cold Comfort Farm kind of book (by Stella Gibbons, and in his mind the same kind of satire as Northanger Abbey), so he wanted her for Austen’s satirically derived Lady Susan. He insisted Lady Susan is not an early book; if the manuscript comes from 1905 that’s a suggestion the book was written after 1805 not before.


From Stillman’s Metropolitan: Audrey Rouget aka Fanny and Edward Clements as Tom Townsend aka Edmund discussing Trilling on Mansfield Park (1990)

To him it’s a serious challenge to make a film from an Austen novel because these books are masterpieces; he didn’t feel confident that he could imitate an 18th century voice; turning to contemporary comic actresses and actors helps. He had wanted to write novels, but found this was not his metier, and turned to film as a substitute, trusting to a belief there were enough intelligent film-goers to react to his work as an attempt at realization. He then went into particulars of his film this time; he was trying to take the characters further, extrapolating out of what Austen had written. He likened Lady Susan to her as a (hidden, self-obscuring) social climber. He talked about how Austen never went as far as moral nihilism in her work, and instead as she grew older became more moral (his movie injects Christian themes into the text explicitly). He did not think Austen meant to repudiate her. He said how hard it was to make a period movie; you need and he had “very good people,” but he was limited by costs.

His talk on the whole had been about his own response to Austen, how she fitted into his life, and when I got back to the room I noticed there had been a talk that day (by Lisa Tyler) on “how Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Kate Boyle [an artist who painted], Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder and Ezra Pound perceived and acknowledged Austen’s influence.” All of these people were artists of the 1920s, pre- and just post-WW1. Austen is not usually thought of as important to this “Modernist” generation, though she was to Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster (who hated the Austen who emerges he felt from the letters). Those comments on Austen by these people I’ve read suggest they see the aesthetic value of her novelistic art (anticipating Mary Lascelles’s early book on Austen’s art), assume she was the spinster JEAL projected (and thus made her disliked by someone like DHLawrence). Wharton is more than an admirer; she imitates at a distance some of them. Austen is clearly important personally to Stillman, and that’s why he has made three genuine movies (Last Days of Disco has scenes imitative of Emma, and the two heroines are like Elinor and Marianne, a doppelganger).

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Isobel Bishop (1902-88), An Image of Austen or woman writer of the 18th century

I thought I’d end this second blog not with a poem but a brief commentary from Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen on post-Austen matters connected to the above talks: plays and films made after, about, in imitation of Austen. She was the keynote speaker the next day. In Looser’s chapter on early dramatizations of Austen (among others by Rosina Filippi), Looser argues they show the heroines in the novels as strong, assertive women, and argues they were popular because of this. They present Austen’s novels as centering on the interactions between women, she goes on to analyze several plays written in the 1930s derived from Pride and Prejudice.

What is interesting, Looser says, is how these scenes and playlets anticipate critical and popular outlooks on Austen since then. Among other things, what she shows is that a play by Mary Keith Medbery (Mrs Steele) Mackay began an emphasis on Darcy and changing of his character from the one we find in Austen which has taken over since then. MacKay’s Darcy is a kind of Heathcliffian or Bronte-like realization of Darcy. The best known of these is by Helen Jerome, partly because it was popular and then influential on the 1940 movie by Stromberg, featuring Laurence Olivier as Darcy, Greer Garson as Elizabeth: this movie aslo altered Austen’s emphasis on the book as Elizabeth’s story so that it begins to become Darcy’s story, says Looser. I own a copy of this play and read it in the light of what Looser writes. Yes, scenes are invented to make Darcy’s distant and arrogant character more likeable, and like Davies, Jerome fills in the absent time in the novel when we are to assume he changed his mind about Elizabeth with scenes of him working on behalf of Lydia.


Colin Firth as Darcy writing his letter of explanation to Elizabeth (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Several other aspects of Jerome are worth noting. In P&P there is hardly a scene between Jane and Bingley: Jerome writes several (Davies does his best to present pantomime scenes between Jane and Bingley) “to fill out this gap.” Looser suggests that Jerome identified with Lydia and Lydia becomes a more central character, not the fool she is in Austen, and Wickham a sexualized false cheating hypocrite who allures her by how he apes romantic males of the era in books and movie (Jerome endured a parallel relationship in her life). Jerome sentimentalizes Elizabeth (and she cries more than once), and most striking of all, Elizabeth apologizes to Darcy and he has the last word in the play. ritual apologies and humiliations are common for women in many many movies.

In a play called Dear Jane,written by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley, and directed and produced by Eva LeGallienne and her lover-companion or partner, Josephine Hutchinson, we are returned to woman-centered book, and lesbian reading of Jane and Cassandra’s relationship (I add it anticipates part of Miss Austen Regrets with Olivia Williams and Greta Scacchi in the roles). It does much more than this but this is the main thrust. It apparently failed very badly in the theaters, was understood by some critics and mocked. Looser says both this and the previous accompany new attitudes towards Austen which seek to end the view of her as a asexual (or frigid) spinster, give her a sexual life and independent character fit for a career characteristic of mid-20th century women.


From Miss Austen Regrets Olivia Williams as Jane and Greta Scacchi as Cassandra in one of their many intense scenes together (2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes)

All these plays increasingly present Mr and Mrs Bennet as happily married by the end – I was struck how in the 2005 Wright Pride and Prejudice, Wright made them into a sexually satisfied couple. Looser is much taken with knock-about comedy and face and she discusses a script that was never produced but intended for an Austen movie after the Stromberg film that turned P&P into farce, but wanted to include Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier to play Mr and Mrs Bennet in happy old age together.

Looser has a very long chapter on the production of the 1940s film. Many scripts, many endless changes, most of which show that until Huxley and Jane Murfin (the final screenplay writers) came on board, the last thing that interested MGM was to be faithful to Austen. They were very dubious about any popularity such books could have –- over in the UK there was more sense that these books did have a following (maybe since Speaking of Austen by Kaye-Smith and Stern a book discussed in the conference in the last Saturday afternoon session). The movie was in fact not the popular hit that was longed for (in the way of Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Mrs Miniver at the time) and there was no commercial movie of Austen in the cinemas until the 1990s.

As I wrote last time, Looser refuses to evaluate this material and clearly from the quotations some of it is drek. We do see what stage play and movie makers assumed were popular responses to the Austen, and how they turned her round to reflect their own lives (like Stillman). Even more telling to me is how Looser is showing the slow growth of popular celebrity for Austen and how this celebrity has nothing to do with the actual content, tone or nature of her books (often acid, anti-society, showing family life as internecine, unsentimental, not heterosexual), which seems in fact to be anathema to any wide readership.

On Janeites the other day Nancy Mayer wrote of how the sequels often have little feel for Austen’s texts. At the JASNA dinner I sat at a table where three of the people has read no Austen; two had seen a lot of the movies. At the front of the room was the familiar silhouette that has become a tiny symbol for Austen –yet there is no evidence for thinking it’s a portrait of Austen. It was found in a book connected to her. To my eyes the outline of the face does not look like Austen particularly. The emptiness of a celebrity image was my thought as I sat there.

Now, writing this blog, I remember how Gillian Dow mourned Austen’s early death, asking all to recall that she was cut off from she might have written had she lived. Q.D.Leavis was accurate in pointing to the similarities and repetitive patterns in the six published novels. They were after all in their final state written within 7 years. Would she have developed in a new direction?

Ellen

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