Picnic at Hanging Rock, novel by Joan Lindsay, film by Peter Weir

October 19, 2021 at 12:30 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Historical fiction)

  Picnic at Hanging Rock is an Australian film released in 1975. I don’t know exactly when I first saw it, although I suspect it was not long after that release date. I do know that ever since that initial viewing, it has haunted me. That this is the case for many others who have seen it, I feel sure.

Set in Australia in the year 1900, this is the story of a group of adolescent girls who attend Appleyard College, a live-in prep school of sorts. It’s an elite institution – or at least, one with pretensions to such a distinction. It is presided over by the eponymous Mrs Appleyard, a classic battle-axe type, played convincingly by Rachel Roberts.

As the film begins, we learn that the girls, along with a young French teacher and their math tutor, are being treated to a special outing: a picnic at the foothills of a striking geological formation known as Hanging Rock. They are excited and eager; they apparently have very few occasions like  this to look forward to and enjoy.

The chief substance of the film concerns what happens at Hanging Rock. If you are thinking that it cannot be good, you’re quite right. I will only say at this point that it may the strangest, most evocative tale I’ve ever seen on screen.

In the Wall Street Journal last month, author David Bell recommended the book, written by Joan Lindsay, on which the movie is  based (The title is the same.):

This Australian novel has been overshadowed somewhat by its 1975 movie adaptation—a classic directed by Peter Weir—but it deserves better. On the surface it’s a mystery story, set in 1900, about a group of students at a girls’ boarding school who disappear in a remote area of Australia. But affixing the label “mystery” to this tale is inadequate preparation for its complexities.

I immediately downloaded the book – $8.99 on Amazon Kindle. (The local library does not own it; no surprise there.) To be concise, it was not just good. It was terrific. The writing was wonderful. Lindsay spins her narrative with a light, ironic touch that seemed, to me, exactly right for the material. This kind of storytelling, the subtle deploying of a particular tone that enhances the reading experience, is a mark of mastery of the craft of novel writing, a quality I find sadly lacking in much contemporary fiction.

Here, the girls and their two chaperone/ teachers get their first glimpse of Hanging Rock. Irony has receded, replaced by a vivid sense of wonder (Edith is one of the pupils, normally a rather whiny chatterbox.):

The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated  with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.This splendid spectacle, as if by prearrangement between Heave and the Headmistress of Appleyard College, was brilliantly illuminated for their inspection. On the steep southern facade the play of light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, other grooved and fluted by prehistoric wind and water, ice and fire. Huge boulders, originally spewed red hot from the boiling bowels of the earth, now come to rest, cooled and rounded in forest shade.

  Peter Weir was  given this book by an Australian TV personality whom he  barely knew. She’d seen an earlier film of his and thought he could make an even better one from this novel. In his own words, in an interview:

I read it from cover to cover, was gripped by it and  the  fact that there was an unsolved mystery. And I was burning with it, I mean it was just like electricity through my body.

What a great description of the way in which inspiration can grab an artist and not let go until it is fulfilled. It helped, probably, that he was in his early thirties at the time – “…to be young was very heaven!” as Wordsworth says.

Several aspects of the film need to be pointed out. First, the cinematographer by Russell Boyd is outstanding. Boyd won the BAFTA Award for this achievement. (BAFTA is the acronym for The British Academy of Film and Television Arts.) Never having been to Australia, I was spellbound by the beauty and strangeness of the place.

It needs to be pointed out that Hanging Rock is a real place; it’s some fifty miles north of Melbourne:

This huge geological formation looms above all the actors in this drama. It is sinister, implacable. It is witness to the truth of what happened that day in 1900.

The acting was excellent, plus I feel like I have to mention the meticulous re-creation of life in the 1900s as it was then lived Down Under. The costumes make a major contribution to this effect. The girls especially, in their white muslin dresses…

The soundtrack was likewise a careful assemblage of original music composed by Bruce Smeaton, Gheorghe Zamfir playing ethereal melodies on his pan flute, and short classical selections from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. Over and over, we hear the adagio movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor.” This music is, to me, almost unbearably poignant, surely one of the most beautiful and evocative works in the classical repertoire. And here I can’t resist placing my favorite video performance. It features the legendary Maurizio Pollini, with his son Daniele Pollini conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. The adagio begins at 21:00, but do yourself the favor of listening to the entire piece, and seeing, at the conclusion, father and son together acknowledging the applause.

For the interview with Peter Weir, click here.

For the insightful and informative BAFTA commentary on the  film, click here.

The film has an alternate ending, which did not make the final cut. I wish it had. Watch the film first, then watch this clip, and see what you think.

Happily, our local library owns several copies of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s also available on HBO Max and Amazon. You’ll want to try your local library first, though, as those latter two options are somewhat costly.

Reading the novel and then revisiting the film has been a very gratifying experience. And am I still haunted? Oh, yes…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘….there must be no room for love in my heart now – I am quite alone, and I must stay quite alone.’ – The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

August 27, 2021 at 4:09 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him …

Thus begins a strange and haunting narrative…

I’ve wanted to read this crime fiction classic for some time, so when I heard that it was being adapted for television, I decided  the time had come.

The novel is compelling, but drags in places. It begins with the diary of Felix Lane, the nom de plume of Frank Cairnes, and then about half way through switches to an omnipotent narrator. I found the abrupt change of tone somewhat jarring. Felix/Frank’s diary entries are weighted down with an almost unbearable grief; the second part of the book is given over to a detached, almost clinical recounting of the steps taken to solve the murder. (I’d rather not divulge who’s been murdered, at this point.)

This adaptation is strange in many ways. It retains some elements of the novel, but alters a number of them, most significantly, the gender of the main protagonist: Frank Cairnes becomes Frances Cairnes. And the North Devon setting is changed to the Isle of Wight. Also, Nigel Strangeways (played by Billy Howle), the methodical investigator coolly at work in the novel, is here portrayed as a barely functioning police detective, subject to panic attacks and all manner of other unexplained emotional difficulties and who, near the end of the series, lets loose with a blubbering mass of face-contorting weeping that I, for one, found nearly impossible to watch.

Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, novelist and poet (Poet Laureate, in fact, from 1968 until his death in 1972), and yes, father of Daniel Day-Lewis. Sean Day-Lewis, Daniel’s much older half-brother, wrote a letter to the The Guardian about the TV adaptation:

….this version of the story is a bit of a travesty. I should know, as I was, in my father’s imagination, the six-year-old Martin or Martie… My father, the then-fashionable poet Cecil Day-Lewis, kept our family going with 20 detective novels written as Nicholas Blake. The father who saw the accident, and swore vengeance, was a detective story writer just like my dad.

In addition:

Considering the filmic attraction of Lyme Regis, it is hard to know why the TV version moves to the Isle of Wight as well as to an aggrieved mother. And by the way, Nigel Strangeways, originally a detective who looked and behaved just like WH Auden, was regularly on hand to achieve justice with mercy in all but one of the stories.

The TV version of The Beast Must Die possesses a bewildering number of characters, but one dark secret lies at the story’s heart. It is encapsulated in the chilling opening lines of the novel, quoted above.

The main reason to watch this series is to witness the performance of the lead actors. Cush Jumbo is a wonderful actress; those of us who followed her progress as the smart, irreverent attorney in The Good Fight already knew that. My husband objected to what might be termed Jumbo’s ‘uglification.’ It was hard to see what purpose was served by her painfully short gray hair and stark makeup. (Was she, in fact, wearing any makeup?) He says, and I agree with him, let’s allow beautiful people to remain beautiful, unless there’s a specific reason to degrade their appearance. Yes, she is grieving, but all the more reason to preserve her comeliness.

Cush Jumbo, as she appears in The Beast Must Die

Cush Jumbo in The Good Fight

A word also about Jared Harris, whose performance as the loathsome George Rattery is chilling and note perfect.He is, in fact, the best screen villain I’ve seen since Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

(The British seem to specialize in this species.)

 

 

I didn’t feel that the title of the novel needed explaining; nevertheless, Blake/Day-Lewis does explain it, at the very end:

In the first of Brahms’s four Serious Songs, he paraphrases Ecclesiastes 3, 19, as follows: ‘The beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die.’

 

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Grandchildren, and the endless curve of learning and loving

September 16, 2018 at 4:13 pm (Family, Film and television, Music)

On a recent visit to my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, the children introduced me to a movie called Song of the Sea. I’m not normally a fan of animated films, but this one, made in Ireland, had a charm and a mystique that was oddly appealing.

One of the characters in Song of the Sea is a Selkie (variant spelling is Silkie). The Selkie legends, a component of Scottish folklore, have come down to us from Orkney and Shetland. It posits the existence of beings who are seals in the sea and, by shedding their skins, become humans on dry land.

I was reminded of the song sung by Joan Baez, The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry. The version she sang was drawn from Francis James Child’s landmark collection of English and Scottish folk songs, a multi-volume work published in the late 1880s.    The song relates the havoc and heartbreak wrought by a male Selkie during his sojourn upon the land. Song of the Sea, however, ends on a happier note, as you wish stories to do that are told to children.

I cherish this version of the song by the Unthanks, with Julie Fowlis singing in Scots Gaelic.

Anyway – back to the grandchildren: Here they are, going back to school, earlier this month:

Etta, age 7, and Welles, age 4

And Welles turns FIVE today. Happy Birthday, Welles!!

 

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Escape with me to the Twelfth Century….

January 9, 2018 at 2:14 am (Anglophilia, archaeology, Film and television, London 2017)

So this small fellow came to us a few days ago, courtesy of the British Museum Gift Shop:

He is a replica, fashioned in clay, of one of the Lewis Chessmen; specifically, the King piece. Below is a three quarter view of the King:

And here is the back, courtesy of the British Museum’s image gallery:

He is about four inches tall.

In her 2015 book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown advances the theory that the famous chess pieces were in fact the work of a woman, specifically an Icelandic carver named Margret the Adroit.   Well, adroit she must have been, to have created these little marvels made from walrus ivory. (For more on this intriguing story, see The Economist article, “Bones of Contention.”)

Here’s the picture I took of the Chessmen at the British Museum:

Why did I feel the need to own a replica? Author Nancy Marie Brown, who got to handle the eleven Chessmen currently housed in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, expressed their allure nicely:

Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The British Museum puts out a myriad of publications. Among them is a series of booklets entitled Objects in Focus. I bought and read this one:

It’s beautifully illustrated and tells not only the story of the discovery of the Chessmen but also the history of the game of chess (a game, I should add, that I’ve never learned to play).

It turns out that there exist several versions of the story of the finding of the Chessmen. I particularly like one that originated in  book entitled The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, written by Daniel Wilson and published in 1851. Wilson describes the way in which the action of the sea demolished a portion of a sandbank, thereby “exposing a small stone chamber.”

A local peasant investigated the structure and was alarmed to discover ‘an assemblage of elves or gnomes upon whose mysteries he had unconsciously intruded.’ Shaken and fearing for his safety, the peasant described what he had discovered to his fierce wife, who made him return to the spot and gather up the ‘singular little ivory figures which ad not unnaturally appeared to him the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore.’

(Naturally I addressed our new acquisition thus: “What about it? Are you a pygmy sprite of Celtic folklore?’ He remained judiciously mute.)

Nancy Marie Brown notes that the Chessmen are clearly identifiable in the first Harry Potter film. Now I’m one of the few humans on the planet who have not seen this movie, but I was able to verify her statement with this YouTube clip:

All of the above has put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In this film, made in 1957 and set in the Middle Ages, a disillusioned Crusader Knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes could not be  higher.

Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Bergman recalled visits they had made when he was a boy to various historic churches. Many of these contained distinctive wall and ceiling paintings; this was particularly true of Taby Church  in Taby, Sweden:

Brown says that the chess pieces used in the film were modeled on the Lewis Chessmen.

Here is the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal.

 

 

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From Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in several not so easy leaps

July 23, 2017 at 8:05 pm (books, Film and television, opera)

It begins with an achingly beautiful duet: “Marietta’s Lied” from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt:

Korngold based this opera on Bruge-La-Morte, a short novel written by a Belgian, Georges Rodenbach, in 1892:

It tells the story of Hugues Viane, a widower overcome with grief, who takes refuge in Bruges where he lives among the relics of his former wife – her clothes, her letters, a length of her hair – rarely leaving his house.

From the Wikipedia entry for the book.  The following is from that same source:

The novel influenced many later writers, including W.G. Sebald. The plot of the book may also have influenced the French crime novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo in 1958.

D’Entre les Morts (Among the Dead) came out in 1954. The authors  were Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud; the latter wrote under the pseudonym Thomas Narcejac.

Of course, that passage above has a decidedly speculative ring to it: “…may also have influenced“…. James Gardner makes the same suggestion, though, in a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Incarnating the World Within.”

Vertigo is one of my favorite films.

 

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More mysterious musings

June 20, 2017 at 10:55 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

The noir sensibility would seem to having its moment – again…

I like this trenchant observation made by Megan Abbott in her recent New York Times review of You Belong To Me by Colin Harrison:

Noir has always had a complicated relationship with nostalgia, alternately rejecting the past as a psychological prison and romanticizing it as the lost Eden that predated our fallen present. At its heart, however, the hard, hungry gaze of noir has always been fixed instead on the future. It’s a genre filled with the kind of characters the novelist Laura Lippman calls “dreamers who become schemers.” The dedicated employee who decides to steal from the boss, the drifter who wants the rich man’s wife, the low-rent crooks who try to pull off the big con.

  Megan Abbott is the author of the excellent You Will Know Me.   As for the subject of this particular review, I immediately downloaded You Belong To Me and started reading it. I’m now  55 pages in – eighteen per cent, as the Kindle Reader helpfully informs me – and let’s put it this way: it’s not my usual thing. For one thing, the thoughts attributed to various characters can be exceedingly harsh, judgmental, and cynical; I’m not comfortable quoting them here. Nevertheless, assailed by a kind of coruscating wit one moment and provoked to astonishment and dread the next, I can’t seem to put the book down! (Judging by where I am currently in the narrative, the novel can best be described as Henry James on speed. It’s a quintessentially New York novel of manners, all right – but updated to  the twenty-first century. And what manners!)

Interviewed in the latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine, writer and critic Eddie Muller offers these thoughts on the essence of noir:

It was the artists who created it and fostered it, not the executives….Some of the films made money, sure–but this had more to do with artists feeling a sense of liberation after the constraints that the Depression and World War II put on them to be “uplifting.” Now they could write adult stories that didn’t have to end well. And that often meant making “bad guys” of the protagonists, which was really the revolutionary, subversive aspect of these films. The central character didn’t have to be a good guy–but he or she was relatable and even someone with whom you could empathize. That’s sort of how I define noir, both literary and cinematic.

  Meanwhile, while trying to control my compulsion to devour You Belong To Me in several gargantuan gulps, I’m also reading Earthly Remains, the latest entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series.   From the standpoint of pacing, this novel is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Harrison’s mile-a-minute thriller. I’m a third of the way in – sorry not to be more specific, I’m reading it the old fashioned way – and almost nothing has happened. Brunetti is taking a solo vacation in a house owned by his wife Paola’s wealthy relations. So far, he’s done a lot of rowing, bicycling, reading, and eating. Sounds pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly make for riveting reading.

Still, I’m inordinately fond of Guido Brunetti, so I don’t mind hanging out with him in this way – for a while. And I was deeply moved by the novel immediately preceding this one: The Waters of Eternal Youth.And I do sense the presence of something indefinably ominous in the air. Ah well – pazienza….

  Meanwhile, I shall make it my business to get hold of Dark City, Eddie Muller’s highly praised book on noir. And I want to take this opportunity to remind those who have an interest in the subject of David Meyer’s terrific work A Girl and a Gun. I shall here quote Meyer as well as myself, from a post I wrote in September 2011 on the occasion of a discussion of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

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.” 

 

 

 

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“….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.

 

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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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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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