“….an existence so so splendid, so compelling, that the paltry realities of this world grew faint by comparison.” – Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison

January 23, 2015 at 12:52 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, France)

853693 This fanciful depiction of the maid of Orleans, or La Pucelle, is one of the images that haunted my childhood. This is another:

bastien_lepage_jules_joan_of_arc

Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien Lepage 1879 [click to enlarge]

This is one of  the first paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I came to know and love. My mother could hardly wait to show it to me. She knew that even at the age of nine, I’d be wonder struck, as she had been. (She was right, of course.)

I’ve never lost interest in the story of Joan of Arc. So when I read of Kathryn’s Harrison’s new biography, I knew I’d want to read it.

51RddlpwHaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,2001_   I did. It was wonderful.

Ever since she made her appearance in the historical narrative, shaking that narrative to its core, people have longed to know what Joan of Arc actually looked like. The sole contemporaneous likeness we have is a marginal doodle by Clément de Fauquembergue, a clerk in parliament.

405px-Joan_parliament_of_paris

He made this drawing in 1429 without actually having seen its subject.But he was correct in making Joan’s hair black. How do we know this? In the mid nineteenth century, a single strand, inky dark in color, was found embedded in the wax seal of a letter she had dictated.

Harrison tells us that

Likenesses made in her lifetime were destroyed upon her being condemned as a witch, rendering them dangerous devil’s currency.

The image used for this book’s cover is an engraving from the 1903 issue if the magazine Figaro Iluustre: tumblr_n91a4eGm8v1ra3thco1_500

The frontispiece of this book contains a single word: the scrawled signature of the Maid of Orleans:

The_Signature_of_Joan_of_Arc

I was stopped in my tracks. You want to trace the jagged letters with your fingers. (I did.)

‘I was only born the day you first spoke to me….My life only began on the day you told me what I must do, my sword in hand.’

Joan speaking to her voices, in The Lark by Jean Anouilh

Pictorial representations of Joan of Arc have proliferated down through the centuries. And the coming of the motion of the motion picture provided a whole new means of bringing to life her remarkable story.

Harrison quotes liberally from the numerous books and plays in which some version of Joan’s life has been depicted, among them Anouilh’s The Lark (quoted above), George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, The Maid of Orléans by Friedrich Schiller, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Saint Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht,  and Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson. In addition, the author place’s the events of Joan’s life in their proper context. The mindset of the people of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages is of course foreign to us in many ways. This is especially true as regards the intensity of religious feeling on the one hand, and the prevalence of superstitious beliefs and fears on the other. (A good way to get a vivid feel for the period is to watch Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal):

Harrison sums up the essence of this stranger-than-fiction individual thus:

Joan’s poise under fire demonstrated what she couldn’t by herself, even had she been erudite as well as literate. It’s one thing to assemble and polish a portrait of oneself, as St. Augustine, a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and another to demonstrate at nineteen an integrity that a chorus of scheming pedants couldn’t dismantle, their sophistry displaying Joan’s virtues as she could not have done for herself. Few trial transcripts make good reading; only one preserves the voice of Joan of Arc. While the words of the judges are forgettable – all despots sound alike – Joan’s transcend the constraints of interrogation. Even threatened with torture and assaulted by prison guards attempting her rape, she could not be forced to assume the outline her judges drew for her. That was their script, their story of Joan’s life, and, unlike other such medieval documents, it was reproduced, bound, and distributed by her persecutors with the ironic purpose of establishing their punctiliousness in serving  the laws of canon.

In other words, she ran rings around her tormenters. Her courage and resourcefulness, both on the battlefield and in court, were almost beyond belief.

It can be seen from the above paragraph that Harrison’s meticulous and powerful prose is more than equal to the telling of this extraordinary story. (I particularly love the locution “chorus of scheming pedants.”) I do have a small caveat, however: Harrison writes this biography from a distinctly feminist perspective, or at least so it seemed to this reader. I was not troubled by this, because while she makes no secret of the gloss she places on certain aspects of this story,  she does not harp on ideological convictions. They’re there, in other words, but not to excess. They do not detract – nothing detracts, really – from this incredible tale.

Yet another biography of the Maid of Orleans is due out in May. The author, Helen Castor, is a distinguished British historian.  JoanofArcCastor

A brief biography of Joan with excellent illustrations can be found at Live Science.

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Finally, I recommend the (silent) film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was made in 1928 by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The history of this film is in itself rather unlikely. For one thing, it was very nearly lost to posterity. For another its star, Maria (sometimes called Renee) Falconetti did such an uncanny job of bringing Joan to life that it’s almost as though she were channeling rather than acting. Dreyer himself called her “the martyr’s reincarnation.”

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Several full length versions of The Passion of Joan of Arc reside on YouTube. The variations have mainly to do with the soundtrack. Voices of Light, a new soundtrack for the film, was written in 1985 by Richard Einhorn. It accompanies the Criterion release of the film.

The version below has no sound at all and French subtitles only. The final fifteen minutes are extremely harrowing and need no words whatsoever.

 

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Further adventures in true crime

July 20, 2014 at 2:14 am (books, Crime, Film and television, Mystery fiction, True crime, True crime narratives)

[The first post in this series is Adventures in True Crime, Part One.]

In the course of reading and doing research in the area of true crime, I’ve become fascinated by the way in which actual crimes have served as the basis for fictional narratives. There are quite a few examples of  this phenomenon in the literature of suspense and crime fiction – more than I had originally thought. So I decided to come up with some sort of schematic to help organize this information into a coherent form. Another part of my purpose here is to note instances where true crime narratives also exist.

I wanted to include two of my favorite films as well. And of course there’s plenty of relevant material on YouTube. Even an opera made it into the mix!

With the help of my computer whiz husband, I’ve created this grid. The tables were generated by Microsoft Word, and in the process of importing into the blog, I encountered a number of problems with spacing, some of which I was able to correct, but not all.

The project is not quite finished, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of Hannah Willix, New Hampshire, 1648 Drawn from a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop, dated June 4, 1648. Source: http://articles.latimes.com/1991-05-21/news/vw-2453_1_strange-death-of-mistress-coffinFrom a blog entitled My Maine Ancestry – http://mymaineancestry.blogspot.com/2012/03/unsolved-murder.html :My 10th Great Grandmother was murdered in New Hampshire in May or June of 1648. Her name was Hannah (or Annah) Willix. She was traveling from Dover to Exeter when she was attacked, robbed and her body “flung” into the river. I found a document online called “New Hampshire Homicides 1630-1774” that contains this information: Hannah “was founde in the [Piscataqua] River dead; her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.” The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, by Robert J. Begiebing – 1991http://youtu.beRHjr7sjFvhA********************mistreeecoffin

 

 

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Murder by James Yates of his wife and four children in 1781 in Tomhanick, NY “An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J————– Y———– Upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781” Anonymous article appearing in The New-York Weekly Magazine, July 20, 1796* Wieland: or The Transformation: An American Tale, By Charles Brockden Brown – 1798   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieland_%28novel%29

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Murder of pregnant mill worker Sarah Maria Cornell, in Fall River, Mass., in 1832 Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder, and Justice in Early Industrial New England, by David Kasserman – 1986 1005 The Tragedy at Tiverton, by Raymond Paul – 1984418I+wd8hnL  averyAvery’s Knot, by Mary Cable

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Murder of Anethe Christensen and Karen Christensen by Louis Wagner at Smutty Nose, in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, in 1873 “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter, for the Atlantic Monthly Magazine* http://seacoastnh.com/smuttynose/memo.html The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve – 1997

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9780316780377_p0_v2_s260x420

 

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Eight unsolved murders, primarily of African American servant girls, in Austin, Texas, in late 1884 and 1885 “Capital Murder” by Skip Hollandsworth, in Texas Monthly, July 2000: http://www.texasmonthly.com/content/capital-murder A Twist at the End, by Steven Saylor – 2000

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Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of New York City resident Mary Rogers in 1841 The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the invention of murder, by Daniel Stashower – 2006{82058D59-B209-4940-B155-5047C8D14163}Img100 “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” short story by Edgar Allan Poe – 1842 http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/rogetb.htm

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of John Hossack in Iowa, in 1900 “The Hossack Murder,” by Susan Glaspell, in the Des Moines Daily News, 1901*midnight-assassinMidnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland, by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf – 2005 “A Jury of Her Peers,” short story by Susan Glaspell – 1917http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/story/fulltext.html
Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette, in Herkimer, New York (Adirondacks) -1906 Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon – 1986 An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser – 192564481  theodore-dreiser-an-american-tragedyA Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly – 2003*********Film: A Place in the Sun – 1951 http://youtu.be/wEuFNnJSIw8

An American Tragedy: opera by Tobias Picker – 2005   http://youtu.be/2Um_jfEpjD0

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of Albert Snyder by Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in New York City – 1927 “The Eternal Blonde,” by Damon Runyan, from Trials and Other Tribulations – 1927*Included in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum – 2010 Double Indemnity by James M Cain – 1938****Film: Double Indemnity, from Cain’s novel, with Raymond Chandler writing the screenplay – 1944 http://youtu.be/yKrrAa2o9Eg
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http://youtu.be/vN9THMXxndw

*Included in True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008

 

 

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Paris on my mind

September 1, 2012 at 6:15 pm (Film and television, France, Short stories)

“Thank you for the Light,” a previously unpublished story by by F. Scott Fitzgerald, appeared in the August 6 edition of the New Yorker Magazine. The piece was recently discovered by Fitzgerald’s heirs; they were perusing his papers in preparation for an auction at Sotheby’s. Several commentators have dismissed this sad, brief tale as facile and sentimental. I think Sarah Churchwell’s piece in the Guardian comes much nearer the truth.

When Fitzgerald originally submitted this story to the New Yorker in 1936, it was rejected. His heirs offered the magazine another crack at it. This time around, unsurprisingly, they accepted it.

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“An Affront To Love, French Style” by Agnes Poirier appeared in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. This article was written in response to a recent Parisian phenomenon: locks affixed to the railings of the bridges over the River Seine. These locks  purported symbolize the commitment of the lovers who place them there. However, Poirier and others find them erroneous and misguided, and worse: utterly at variance with the French way of loving:

At the heart of love à la française lies the idea of freedom. To love truly is to want the other free, and this includes the freedom to walk away. Love is not about possession or property. Love is no prison where two people are each other’s slaves. Love is not a commodity, either. Love is not capitalist, it is revolutionary. If anything, true love shows you the way to selflessness.

This brings me to Midnight in Paris.    Several nights ago, Ron and I finally got around to watching Woody Allen’s blockbuster romantic comedy cum time travel fantasy. Let me just say right up front: we loved it! For those of us who’ve been fans of Allen’s work for decades, Midnight in Paris was a most welcome return to form. He has penned, in cinema format, the kind of affectionate love letter to the City of Light that, in earlier films, he frequently offered up to New York City. I loved the evocation of Paris in its glory days, He did a great job of summoning up the rich artistic scene of the 1920s. The viewer gets to share the same “Wow” factor that Gil Pender is experiencing. (Pender, an unmistakable Woody Allen stand-in, is played delightfully by Owen Wilson. He gets the stumbling, excuse-making Wood Man character just right!) There’s Scott Fitzgerald! And with him Zelda, already displaying signs of increasing instability! And what’s this: I’m talking to Hemingway! (That’s him all right: every sentence is a weighty pronouncement; there’s nary a glimmer of irony or humor;  but instead, he’s always gunning for higher profundity!  As you can guess, he’s not been a favorite of mine – but I did enjoy Corey Stoll in the part.)

And there are many more: Luis Bunuel, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas – all appear on the crowded canvas portraying the splendor of Paris in times past. My personal favorites were Adrien Brody’s delightful send-up of Salvador Dali in all his outré glory, and Kathy Bates as the hyper-intellectual, nonstop verbalizing  Gertrude Stein. (And what a treat to see Picasso’s portrait of Stein prominently displayed in her apartment! The painter himself, played by Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, appears in a brief cameo.) 

Allen is great at skewering pretentious pseudo-intellectuals, and he does it again here in the person of Paul Bates, played by Michael Sheen. Bates is an acquaintance of Gil and his wife Inez (played with marvelous bitchiness by the beautiful Rachel McAdams), encountered quite by accident at a cafe. My favorite scene with Bates/Sheen is the one in which he critiques the flavor of a wine he’s been sampling: “…slightly more tannic than the ’59; I prefer a smoky feeling.” Aargh! you’d like to shake him. (Ron’s invariable observation upon hearing a pronunciamento of this kind: “They’re making that stuff up!”)

The shots of the city, especially at the beginning of the film, are ravishing. Gil is positively childlike in his delight: ” This is unbelievable! There’s no city like this in the world!”  That just about says it.

Owen Wilson and Woody Allen at last year’s Cannes Film Festival

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(You may have to endure an ad before watching this trailer.If so, be patient; it’s worth it!)

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Los Angeles in literature

March 12, 2012 at 12:54 am (books, California, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

Today’s Washington Post Magazine contains an enjoyable feature on the literary landmarks of Los Angeles. Writer Bill Thomas first and foremost makes a point of how changeable the landscape of the “City of Angles” actually is. There is a restaurant, however, that is peopled with the ghosts of great screenwriters of the past. The Musso and Frank Grill, est. 1919, in its day played host to the likes of William Faulkner, Nathanael West, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, James M Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Ernest Hemingway. 

Says manager Mark Echeverria: “In the 1930s, and ’40s, the movie studios hired a lot of novelists to come out to Hollywood and write screenplays. Of course, the studios would hack their work to pieces. So, they’d walk over here to get drunk and vent.”

Nathanael West – born Nathan Weinstein in New York City – has long fascinated me. I read Miss Lonelyhearts in college. Thomas’s article has served to remind me that I need to read The Day of the Locust, considered by many to be West’s masterpiece and one of the genuinely great novels of Hollywood.   (West’s oeuvre, though celebrated, is slight in length.  In 1940, while on his way to Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral, he ran a stop sign and was killed along with his wife in the ensuing crack-up. He was 37 years old.)

Although much of the landscape of mid-twentieth century Los Angeles has been altered, the house used as the dwelling place of femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger, last name “Dietrichson” in the film version of Double Indemnity, still stands. Bill Thomas went to see it:

The colorful Spanish colonial house on Quebec Drive that was used in the movie doesn’t look nearly as ominous as it did in black-and-white, or grab your attention like the one Cain introduces in the first paragraph of the book. Insurance salesman Walter Huff (“Neff” in the movie), whose affair with a customer’s wife leads to homicide, tells the story in the form of a confession: “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”

  Last September, the Usual Suspects enjoyed a vigorous and enlightening discussion of James M Cain’s classic noir novel. Several of us also watched the film. While researching my blog post on that discussion, I came across a rather astonishing fact. Three years ago, in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist discovered that  some sixteen minutes into the film Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intensive study of this landmark in the film noir canon), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. The Guardian ran a piece on this remarkable find. And here’s the actual scene, rendered in both real time, slow motion, and even slower motion. (The music is Miklos Rozsa‘s chilling score):

Probably the most notorious actual crime that occurred in Los Angeles in this postwar period is the 1947 murder of  Elizabeth Short. Almost invariably referred to as the “Black Dahlia” murder, this case has intrigued novelists, filmmakers, and investigative journalists for decades. Bill Thomas provides the context:

A wave of violent crime hit L.A. in the late 1940s. Growing prosperity, a larger population and an influx of ex-GIs exposed to the brutality of war were all blamed at the time for the upsurge in lawlessness. Whatever the cause, there’s nothing left to remind anyone what happened here. The vacant lot on South Norton Avenue where Short’s body was found has been developed into part of a quiet palm-treed subdivision of modest ranch-style homes with manicured lawns, not what you’d associate with a grisly homicide.

    James Ellroy, author of a highly praised novel based on this crime, knows from personal experience about the lawlessness of the Los Angeles of his youth: his mother, a nurse, was murdered in 1958. Just as with Elizabeth Short, the killer of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy has never been found.

Ellroy writes about this tragedy and how it affected his life in My Dark Places, a memoir that is both hard hitting and very poignant.

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  Two authors not covered by Bill Thomas are worthy of mention here. The first is John McPhee. His piece “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” originally appeared in The New Yorker Magazine  and was subsequently included in the collection The Control of Nature. There’s more than a hint of irony in that title. Controlling nature is exactly  what the denizens of Shields Canyon in Greater Los Angeles thought they’d succeeded in doing. The Genofile family were among those who dwelled in this typically paradisiacal residential community in southern California.

One night, after there had been torrential rain in Shield Canyon, Jackie and Bob Genofile heard a loud noise, which was followed by silence. They and their two teen-aged children looked out a rear window of their single story house. Jackie describes what they saw: “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.” What follows is one of the most terrifying descriptions of a natural disaster – or perhaps a better term would be natural/man made disaster – that I have ever read. The entire Genofile family came within inches of complete annihilation.

Thar’s just one incident – the first, in this long, mesmerizing essay, a form that has attained near perfection in the masterful hands of John McPhee.

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  Another who I believe ranks high in the pantheon of Southern California writers is Ross MacDonald. Ages ago, my lifelong friend Helene handed me The Zebra Striped Hearse. I was immediately hooked. I read as many of the Lew Archer books as I could get my hands on. I asked Helene what, in her opinion, accounts for the peculiar power of these novels? She replied that they’re like Greek tragedies. The destructive effect of warped family relations have rarely been depicted as so devastating and so inevitable. And for my money, this paradigm – which does indeed seem doomed to play itself out over and over again, with Lew Archer as the Greek chorus –  is nowhere more powerfully bodied forth than in The Zebra Striped Hearse.

Oh – and I love the spare eloquence of MacDonald’s writing:

The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.

Ross MacDonald

Nathanael West

James M Cain

John McPhee

James Ellroy

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‘Everett sat with his back to the window, the cool spring sunshine falling over his shoulder on to the canvas. Effie watched him as he ordered his materials….’

February 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm (Art, Book review, books, Film and television)

Then he moved towards her. He asked her to sit facing him, and then gradually turned her, so that her face was nearly in profile. A gentle shadow fell across her right cheek and a strand of hair brushed her temple. She went to tuck it behind her ear, but Everett stopped her. It softened her fine features. So they began.

  I first encountered the story of Effie Gray in one of my favorite nonfiction reads in recent years: Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose.  Effie’s story is the stuff of headlines: beautiful young woman marries distinguished scholar! Wed for five years; marriage never consummated! Resulting annulment causes sensation and scandal!

The annulment was granted in 1854. The following year, Effie Gray and the painter John Everett Millais were married. (They’d already been in love for some time; she had been modeling for him while she was still married to Ruskin.) Effie eventually had eight children by her new (and obviously far more satisfactory) husband.

  When I got wind of Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s new book, Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it….

My impatience was amply rewarded. Told here in greater depth than in Rose’s survey-style volume, it’s a cracking good story, as I suspected it would be.

Here are the main dramatis personae:

John Ruskin

John Everett Millais

In her book, Suzanne Fagence Cooper provides a window into the most intimate aspects of Victorian domestic arrangements. This fascinating era in British history and social life, which would seem to have already been so thoroughly parsed and anatomized by historians and novelists as to have yielded up nearly all of its secrets,  is still a repository of further unexpected revelations. Cooper tells us in her acknowledgments that in January of 2009, Sir Geoffroy Millais, a descendant of John Everett Millais, made available a fairly large portion of the family’s papers by lending them to the Tate Gallery Archive. “For the first time in a century, Effie’s letters from her father and mother, her sisters and her children could  be seen by someone outside the family.” Cooper adds, with gratitude, that she was given “privileged access” to these documents. (Every biographical researcher’s dream, I would imagine….)

I assume that the availability of this new information is at least partly responsible for the UK artistic community’s renewed interest the turbulent lives of this extraordinary trio. In addition to Cooper’s book, we have not one but two films on this subject in the works. The first out of the starting gate (UK release date June 2012) will be Effie, written by Emma Thompson and starring Dakota Fanning as Effie, Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais, and Greg Wise as John Ruskin. A terrific cast has been assembled  for this production. In addition to these three stars, the film will feature Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane, Claudia Cardinale (!), and David Suchet. Emma Thompson herself takes the role of Lady Eastlake, Effie’s enlightened and supportive friend in the latter’s time of troubles.  Here’s the full line-up for Effie. (Greg Wise, who played Willoughby in the 1995 production of Sense and Sensibility, is currently married to Emma Thompson. This is the sort of celebrity factoid greatly beloved by Your Faithful Blogger.)

Dakota Fanning and Greg Wise

Also in the pipeline is the aptly titled Untouched, due out next year. This version will star the almost-too-beautiful Keira Knightley and Rufus Sewell, the latter day heartthrob – he sure made my heart throb, anyway! – of the three Aurelio Zen films.

Obviously the subject of the marriage-in-name-only between John Ruskin and Effie Gray gives off tantalizing, titillating sparks. But there’s much more to this story, incorporating as it does the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility and a number of other aspects of the world of the arts in Victorian times.

Having said that, I cannot resist quoting John Ruskin’s statement to his lawyer regarding  the source of his trouble with Effie:

“It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”

Well, golly; how’s that for a vote of no confidence! (See my post on Parallel Lives for Phyllis Rose’s speculation as to the possible cause for Ruskin’s repugnance at the sight of Effie’s “person.”)

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For your viewing pleasure: a John Everett Millais gallery:

Effie Deans

The Black Brunswicker

The Order of Release (Effie Gray was the model for the tower-of-strength wife)

Ophelia

Self-portrait

Effie Gray

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‘The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.’

January 18, 2012 at 2:07 am (Anglophilia, books, Film and television) ()

Oxford World's Classics edition

I have, of late, written of my great pleasure in turning once again to the works of Jane Austen. I speak in particular of Sense and Sensibility, an early work by this  author. I had read this novel once before – indeed, had read Austen’s entire oeuvre while a besotted undergraduate many years ago. I have, since that time, revisited them numerous times as rendered in filmed versions. Due to time constraints, rereading has been undertaken a good deal less frequently.

I found that on this occasion, reading Sense and Sensibility presented me with certain challenges. In a previous post, I described the first of these, encountered by me in the novel’s opening chapter. The problem centered on Austen’s setting out of the relationships of the various members of the Dashwood family. I reread this chapter, went on to the next, and became well and truly enthralled. The riches of Jane Austen’s tale of love found, lost, and ultimately  recovered lay before me and I feasted upon them, with the greatest pleasure imaginable. That is not to say that the challenges disappeared completely….

When reading a novel published in 1811  (the initial work on which was begun even earlier, in the late 1790s), one is bound to encounter some unfamiliar and/or antiquated vocabulary.  In  the course of one conversation, for instance, Willoughby makes this comment: “Perhaps…his observations may have extended to the existence of nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins.”

Come again?

Puzzlers like this are much easier to research now that we have Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon at our disposal. All three of the somewhat obscure terms uttered here by Willoughby relate to India. Wiktionary informs us that ‘nabob’ derives from ‘nawab.’ the term for a ruler in the Moghul Empire. Thus nabob has come to signify  a person “of great wealth or importance,” and or a person who in his style of living exhibits a ‘grandiose’ manner. (And who of my generation can forget “nattering nabobs of negativism,” that triumph of alliterative obscurity coined for Spiro Agnew in 1970 by columnist and speech writer William Safire?)

A palanquin is a litter, a conveyance born upon the (probably long suffering) shoulders of four bearers – servants, or in some instances slaves. 

‘Gold mohrs’ presented more of a challenge. I got the best result from searching inside an annotated text version of the novel on Amazon. A footnote contained the following: “Gold mohrs, or mohurs, were the principal coins used in British India.”

Jane Austen’s sentence structure can take some getting used to, as here, where Marianne’s temperament is subject to her creator’s keen analysis:

…Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable. appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common-place and mistaken notions.

In contemporary parlance, Marianne sees no reason to conceal or temper her feelings for Willoughby. There was no reason that the two should not form an attachment. Why should she strive for a severe comportment? She was young, high spirited, and in love, and she didn’t mind who knew of it.

At any rate, the reward for the reader in overcoming these admittedly minor obstacles is to have Jane  Austen’s richly imagined world made real. You enter that world and are filled with delight.  (Tis truly a delight, Gentle Reader, despite the presence of certain characters in the narrative whose behavior is so odious that you’d like to smack them! One has only to think of the scheming, tightfisted Mrs. John Dashwood and her milquetoast of a husband….)

I had seen the film version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslett, and Hugh Grant when it came out in 1995. As I made my way through the novel, I realized  that I was recalling the story as told in the film rather than in the novel. Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, made significant alterations in the plot and eliminated several minor characters from the narrative. Even so, her greatest challenge was in writing the dialog, as she herself explains:

The language in the novel is complex and far more arcane than in the later books. In simplifying it I’ve tried to retain the elegance and wit of the original and it’s necessarily more exacting than modern speech.

All I can say is, watch the movie and see just how brilliantly she has succeeded. (Emma Thompson is a graduate of Cambridge University, where she read English literature.)

  In the same year as the film came out, Thompson published a book containing her screenplay and also entries from the diary she kept during production. The diaries are a delight. Here are some of my favorite bits:

After screening a seemingly endless parade of potential cast members, director Ang Lee, in some amazement, asks, “Can everyone in England act?” Thompson and producer Lindsey Doran consult together on this question and decide that the answer is probably yes.

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Jane Gibson, whom Thompson describes as “movement duenna and and expert on all matters historical,” served as a consultant. Cast members learned a great deal from her:

The bow is the gift of the head and heart. The curtsy (which is of course a bastardisation of the word ‘courtesy’) a lowering of status for a moment, followed by recovery. [Gibson] speaks of the simplicity and grace of the time, the lack of archness. The muscularity of their physique, the strength beneath the ease of movement.

There’s more. Jane Gibson’s insights exert a subtle but crucial influence on the actors, on how they move and carry themselves.

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The possibility is raised that Emma Thompson’s script might be novelized, i.e. made into a book which would constitute another version of Sense and Sensibility. Her reaction to this suggestion: “I’ve said that if this happens I will hang myself.” She adds: “Revolting notion. Beyond revolting.”

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The sheep in this film were numerous and photogenic:  “Very bolshie ‘period’ sheep with horns and perms and too much wool….Ang wants sheep in every exterior shot and dogs in every interior shot.”  To which Thompson added the helpful suggestion that sheep be included in some of the interior shots as well.

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In one of the film’s final scenes, Edward Ferrars, played by Hugh Grant, finally declares his love for Elinor (Emma Thomson). Ang Lee’s command to Grant: “‘This is your big moment. I want to see your insides.'” To which Grant replied, “Ah. Right-o. No pressure then….'”

Both Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant played that scene beautifully. I’ve watched it over and over again and I cry every time. In fact, the entire film is ravishing. The costumes are gorgeous; likewise, the magnificent stately homes.*  The English countryside, with its breathtaking beauty, seems a veritable Eden. And finally, and most importantly, the acting is superb. I see I have run out of superlatives. How can I help myself? Sense and Sensibility is now my favorite film in the whole universe!

There is one more thing I want to say about The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, and that is, that Emma Thompson’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into everyday life on a film set. It was not until I perused the diary that I realized just how little I knew about the process. Thompson makes it sound exhilarating, exasperating, and utterly exhausting – but never boring!

Here’s the trailer for Sense and Sensibility:

Emma Thompson won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for her screenplay. She was also nominated for best actress in both venues. In my opinion, she richly deserved that accolade as well.

In her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Award ceremony, Emma Thompson paid very special homage to Jane Austen:

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For a list of the locations where Sense and Sensibility was filmed, see the “Filming” section in the Wikipedia entry .

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‘I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.’ Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

September 17, 2011 at 1:31 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I’d seen the film several times but never read the book. So I was pleased that Chris of our Usual Suspects discussion group selected Double Indemnity for our September meeting. She got us started with some fascinating background on James M. Cain and his celebrated novel. This done, the discussion took off running (albeit dodging from time to time through a thicket of digressions and non sequiturs!).

My feeling is that this novel of lust, greed, and betrayal packs the same powerful punch today as when it first appeared. (Double Indemnity was initially serialized in a magazine called Liberty; it was not published in novel form until 1943, when it was included with two other works in a collection of Cain’s fiction called Three of a Kind.) I gathered that others in the group were largely of the same opinion.

We talked about the way in which people who are leading seemingly blameless lives can, almost without warning and when exposed to the powerful negative influence of another person, sink into the mire of depravity. This is what happens to Walter Huff (Walter Neff in the film) .

At their first meeting, there’s an instant attraction between Walter and Phyllis Nirdlinger (Phyllis Dietrichson in the film). A simple transaction concerning insurance becomes something else altogether. For his part, Walter gradually becomes aware that Phyllis has a whole other agenda. It involves insurance all right, but it involves other things as well, among them the use of insurance as a means to very sinister end:

A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.

These thoughts and sensations are coming at Walter fast and furious when Phyllis suddenly  queries him about accident insurance. Talk about sending up red flags!  Walter observes succinctly that “…there’s many a a man walking around today that’s worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don’t know it yet.”

Yes, the beautiful Phyllis Nirdlinger is destined to bring about Walter’s downfall, as well as her own. The inevitability of this outcome seems foreordained.  Anne said it put her in mind of a Greek tragedy. Her comment interested me, as I myself had been thinking of MacBeth: “I am in blood /Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

No sooner is the deed done then Walter develops a powerful aversion to Phyllis. He would do anything to escape from her clutches. But it is too late. The reality of his dire situation and its inevitable consequence is borne in upon him:

I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a a finger at me, and I would have to die. I had done all that for her, and I never want to see her again as long as I lived.

That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.

Barton Keyes, the claims investigator who utters so many truths unknowingly and who could never believe his friend Walter capable of such depraved  behavior, sums it up more prosaically but arrives at the same conclusion:

‘They’ve committed a *murder*! And it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.’

Walter is well and truly “stuck” with Phyllis. Her stepdaughter Lola, whose father they had murdered, belatedly awakens in him a yearning for the simple goodness that she embodies. No matter; it is too late: “I thought about Lola, how sweet she was, and the awful thing I had done to her.”  Walter is acutely aware of the savage and implacable irony of this outcome:

I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.

(Cain got the idea for this tale of murder and retribution from a real life case that he had covered as a journalist. In 1927, Ruth Snyder, a bored housewife living in Queens, New York,  convinced her lover Judd Gray to assist in the murder of her husband Albert. The previous year, Ruth had talked Albert into purchasing a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. Judd and Ruth went to considerable lengths to make Albert’s death look like a robbery gone wrong, but their flimsy staging of the scene and other clumsy maneuvers gave the game away almost at once. Click here for more on this stranger-than-fiction tale.)

Between the short, punchy sentences and the longer ones that seem to wind around a desperate fear at dead center, the writing shows Cain’s mastery of the hardboiled style. There’s not a wasted word anywhere. My Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition of Double Indemnity runs to just 115 pages. Carol praised the novel’s brevity, and I’m with her there. I’ve read too many overstuffed crime novels recently with Byzantine plots I could barely follow and a cast of characters so large that it was hard to feel empathy for any one of them.

There’s no question in my mind that this novel is worth reading. That said, it has to be conceded that it’s very hard to talk about the book without discussing the movie at the same time. As with The Maltese Falcon, the film Double Indemnity has attained an almost iconic status in American film history – in American history, period. Images from films like these burn themselves into your brain and seem to supersede the works of literature on which they’re based. In many cases – certainly in the case of Double Indemnity – it’s both edifying and gratifying to return to the source.

That said, Double Indemnity is a terrific film, which Ron and I recently had the pleasure of viewing once again. Plenty has been written about it; Wikipedia has a comprehensive and fascinating entry.

Reading the book, I was surprised to find that whole sections of the movie’s dialogue did not originate with the novel. The screenplay was  written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Their collaboration was apparently fraught with conflict, but one instance where Chandler won out was when he insisted that the portions of the dialogue composed by Cain would not work on film. (He had a couple of actors read it in front of Wilder in order to drive  the point home.)  Thus, much of the snappy repartee exchanged by Phyllis and Walter as the film gets sunder way was actually written by Chandler:

The passages of introspection, the plumbing of the soul, the evocation of the descent into a kind of Hell on Earth – these came from the pen of James M. Cain. 

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In 2009, it was discovered that Raymond Chandler appears in a cameo in Double Indemnity. The scene occurs sixteen minutes into the film. Here it is:

It seems rather amazing that film scholars missed this for decades. Apart from a brief snippet from a home movie, it’s is the only film footage of Raymond Chandler known to  exist.

Our group spoke  for a while about the characteristics of noir, both in film and in fiction, where the style is usually referred to as hardboiled. A cogent analysis of these features as they appear in both the movies and the novels and stories can be found in the book A Girl and a Gun by David  N. Meyer

Here’s how Meyer describes the “fortuitous clash of cultures” that gave birth to noir:

As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style….The hard-bitten, American pulp energy of James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Raymond Chandler, and others was filtered through the refined, ironic sensibilities of cultured European directors.The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.

Meyer sums up: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

The title of Meyer’s book is taken from a quote by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”

So – Does that mean that a girl and two guns would be even better?

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Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ

April 23, 2011 at 2:34 am (Art, books, Film and television)

I recently wrote a post about a limestone relief from the Middle Ages in which the taking of Christ is depicted. This, and the fact that we’re approaching Easter Sunday, put me in mind of Caravaggio’s masterpiece:

I googled the painting and discovered a marvelous BBC documentary posted on YouTube in five parts. I just watched it all the way through, and while there are a few minor glitches in transmission, most notably in the synchronization, or lack of same, of speakers and voices, the video quality is superb and the commentary is fascinating.

The story itself, stranger than fiction, is told by Jonathan Harr in his immensely readable book:

In order to view “The Making of an Easter Masterpiece: The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio,” click on a playlist of all five videos.

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What is that music?

January 11, 2011 at 9:14 pm (Ballet, Film and television, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Here are two separate musical encounters: the first, a new and welcome experience; the second, an equally welcome return.

The first one began with a video of the great Natalia Osipova.  At the time of this film, she was seventeen years old; now in her mid twenties, she is a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet. Click here to see Natalia Osipova performing Liturgy.

Of course, I loved Osipova’s dancing. And I loved her choice of music. Then, much to my astonishment, I heard that music again in a most  unlikely place, or so it seemed to me: the opening credits of the police drama Southland:

Intrigued by this odd confluence, I did some digging and found out more about Cancao do Mar, or Song of the Sea. The vocalist is Dulce Pontes. According to  Wikipedia: “Her songs contributed to the 1990s revival of Portuguese urban folk music called fado.” Here is a video realization of this haunting melody.

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It’s been a long wait, but the BBC film versions of Reginald Hill’s venerable Dalziel & Pascoe novels are finally available on DVD. We first viewed these on the A&E network many years ago and have not seen them since. This would account for our having forgotten who composed the soundtrack. As soon as we fired up the first disc and heard that music, we looked at each other and smiled…

Yes, it’s the work of Barrington Pheloung, whose legato saxophone riffs and notes of embedded code were so powerfully identified with in the Inspector Morse series – Ah yes, Inspector Morse and John Thaw, of blessed memory:

(My heart aches, whenever I hear that music…)

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Somerset Maugham: works and days

January 4, 2011 at 2:55 am (books, Film and television)

In a previous post on The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, I wrote primarily of  the author’s childhood, youth, and early days as a successful playwright. I was planning to follow this with two more posts, one on Maugham’s works and another on his travels. I see now that such an approach to  the material is not feasible. These two vital components of his art and life are inextricably intertwined.

Maugham was ever the restless wanderer, to Europe, to America on numerous occasions, to the South Seas, the Far East, India. Everywhere he went, he collected stories to work into his fiction, creating worlds rich in atmosphere and incident. While young, Maugham and his friends frequented the Isle of Capri, off the coast of southern Italy. Having been to that magical place for the first time in May of 2009, I was delighted to revisit it via this book. At one point, during the First World War, on one of Maugham’s visits to the island, his friend Compton Mackenzie and his wife took up residence in the Villa Rosaio in the township of Anacapri. This is the same house that Graham Greene lived in many years later, as Shirley Hazzard recounts in her memoir Greene on Capri. Maugham set his poignant, elegiac story “The Lotus Eater” on this island, a place of intense yet evanescent happiness.

In 1916,  Maugham set sail for the South Seas. From this journey, both arduous and exhilarating, came “Rain,” probably his most famous short story. Selina Hastings calls this tale of a zealous missionary battling to save the soul of the prostitute Sadie Thompson “brilliant and terrifying.” I just read it for the first time and I agree with her. “Rain” had a fruitful afterlife, being made into a play and  three separate films, with top notch actresses taking the title role: Gloria Swanson in 1928, Joan Crawford in 1932, and Rita Hayworth in 1953.

Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore in "Miss Sadie Thompson'

Sadie Thompson was a real person, met in the course of the author’s South Seas odyssey. Hastings informs us that “With his usual indifference to such matters, Maugham did not trouble to give the fictional version of Miss Thompson a different name.”

Maugham also used his new knowledge of this exotic locale in the writing of The Moon and Sixpence in 1919. his roman a clef based on the life of Paul Gauguin, an artist who fascinated Maugham. ( The symbol in the lower right hand corner of the book is a sign thought to ward off the effects of the Evil Eye. It appeared on numerous first editions of Maugham’s works, starting with the 1901 novel The Hero. For more information on this curious manifestation, click here.)

Maugham’s trip through China, undertaken with his secretary/companion Gerald Haxton, was another epic enterprise, the hardships gladly endured since the reward was so great: “Maugham was entranced by the beauty if the country, by the vivid green of the paddy fields, the little tree-covered hills, the graceful bamboo thickets that lined the side of the road.” From this journey came The Painted Veil. I approached the reading of this novel in hopes of an encounter as richly rewarding as I had experienced with an earlier work of fiction in the author’s canon, Mrs. Craddock. This did not happen. Maugham’s style in The Painted Veil is spare and elliptical; so different from that of the earlier work that at first it almost seemed to have come from a different pen altogether. I was dismayed at first, but my feelings changed as I got deeper into the narrative. 

There is one significant problem with this novel, a stumbling block that one also encounters in Maugham’s stories of the Far East: it has to do with the way in which the attitude of the colonial administrators toward the native – read non Caucasian –  populace is portrayed. I speak not only of casual denigration and the presumption of inherent inferiority. There is also contempt and outright repugnance. That same populace, while providing the governing class with an endless stream of personal servants and other low level workers,  is expected to be glad of the presence of the British overlords, with their superior intelligence and lofty organizational skills! Above all things, no challenge to the status quo will be tolerated.

This is a classic case of autre temps, autres moeurs, or as L.P. Hartley so memorably put it: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When situations like this arise, it is up to the individual reader to determine what attitude to adopt. In fact, it is up to that individual to decide if he or she can stomach the material or if instead, feels inclined to throw the book across the room. As a person who flinches when I encounter anti-Semitic sentiments in film or literature, I personally find it to be a question of degree and frequency. If the reference occurs only once or twice, and in a specific context, I can take a deep breath and keep going. If the point is repeatedly hammered, that’s another story.

(My own most recent experience of this type occurred when my husband and I began watching Mad Men. In the early episodes, a number of anti-Semitic comments were tossed off – enough so that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue with the viewing. But those references dried up fairly early on in the series. So we stayed with Mad Men, and we love it. Ironically, when we first watched Mad Men, I was forcibly struck by the way in which my own family’s experience was being mirrored. My father’s business prospered in the postwar years due largely to the revenue generated by television advertising. Ultimately, he rose to the rank of company vice-president, with a corner office in the General Motors Building at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan. The windows of his office looked out over Central Park.)

Getting back to The Painted Veil, I’d  to recommend this novel to my book group. For one thing, I’d like to hear what other readers have to say about the disparaging remarks that crop up in the narrative more frequently than one would like. I also want to get everyone’s take on the protagonist, Kitty Fane. Here’s what Selina Hastings says about her:

The portrait of Kitty Fane is one of Maugham’s finest fictional achievements. As with Bertha Craddock more than twenty years before, he displays an extraordinary empathy, an ability to create a woman as seen not from a man’s perspective but from that of the woman herself; he completely inhabits and possesses Kitty, knows her from the inside, down to the very nerves and fiber of her being.

This astute depiction was probably helped by the fact that Maugham’s social circle would have included a good many young woman who resembled Kitty Fane. As the novel opens, she is superficial, self-absorbed, and spoiled. Her growth and change, and the reasons for this alteration in her character, are what make The Painted Veil an absorbing read.

After I finished the novel, I watched the movie. Released in 2006 and starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, it is well worth seeing but differs in a number of ways from the novel, especially with regard to the story’s conclusion. I found myself very much wanting to discuss these divergent points with someone who had both read and seen The Painted Veil.

I will say this about the film: the cinematography is superb. China’s countryside, so admired for its beauty by Maugham, is simply mesmerizing. Some of it appears, albeit briefly, in this trailer:

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Still to come: Maugham’s tales of the Far East, and Maugham the spy.

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