Okay, okay, I know that these illuminations aren’t of Henry V, but IS ANYONE ELSE SEEING THIS?! Tom Hiddleston could have stepped straight out of any one of these drawings!
Okay, okay, I know that these illuminations aren’t of Henry V, but IS ANYONE ELSE SEEING THIS?! Tom Hiddleston could have stepped straight out of any one of these drawings!
If he tried to say what drew him to her, he would only find a handful of gestures. Her first refusal to perform on the harpsichord; her focus beyond the window in a room crowded with friends and strangers; her glances, which were as direct and unblinking as a hawk’s. The feeling of her hand an inch from his arm. He does not consider himself a lonely man, and yet he needs something in her gaze. Honesty, perhaps, or conviction.
I actually finished this book a week ago and I’ve been trying to work out what to say about it. For a book in which three people die, it’s an oddly quiet story that’s a little bit out of focus, like a flashback in a movie or tv show. It’s not bad-fuzzy. It’s as though most of the colors are a little washed out and nothing’s sharply defined.
This is Katy Simpson Smith’s first novel, though in her capacity of adjunct professor at Tulane, she previously published a study of motherhood in the South between 1750 and 1835. The Story of Land and Sea is in three parts that are not in chronological order, and it’s hard to describe it without giving things away.
Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is it’s a book about how people deal with the death of loved ones. Set in the years around and directly after the American Revolution, the story looks at the impact of two maternal deaths in childbed and the death of a ten-year-old daughter on the fathers, husbands, and grandfather. It incorporates complex relationships with faith, the land, the community, and, of course, the sea. It looks at friendship, marriage, slavery, and the impact of choices even years after the initial action.
Since it’s a new publication I don’t want to say anything that will give away plot points, and for all that the book is dreamy and slow, there’s not much excess.
It’s not a story that invokes strong emotion – I neither laughed nor cried – but it was gripping, and I wanted to keep reading. And really, isn’t that the best thing you can say of a book?
Next Up: Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner
If some parts of his conduct made Captain Dobbin exceedingly grave and cool, of what use was it to tell George that though his whiskers were large, and his own opinion of his knowingness great, he was as green as a schoolboy? that Rawdon was making a victim of him as he had done of many before, and as soon as he had used him would fling him off with scorn? He would not listen: and so, as Dobbin, upon those days when he visited the Osborne house, seldom had the advantage of meeting his old friend, much painful and unavailing talk between them was spared. Our friend George was in the full career of the pleasures of Vanity Fair.
I keep intending to post once a week, but I also want to have made it through a certain amount of the book of the moment between my posts.
I’m not liking Vanity Fair as much as I’d hoped to. Generally speaking, there are two reasons for continuing to read a book that wasn’t assigned in a class. You either like the characters and feel invested in their eventual successes, or you hate the characters and feel invested in witnessing their deserved downfall.
It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost as though we, the audience, aren’t spending enough time with the primary characters to know if we like them or hate them. Except we do spend a lot of time – it’s just through the narration, which has a very removed-from-the-scene feel to it. The narration reads like someone reporting second- or third-hand, rather than in the moment, which is weird, of course, given the text is delivered in the third person past tense. It naturally SHOULD feel removed from the moment, except it’s somehow more so than usual. It’s like he’s describing some other book he read, perhaps.
I suppose it suffices to say that I’m finding it difficult to stay engaged in the story for more than very short bursts. The chapters about Brussels and the Battle of Waterloo were gripping, but then he dropped it suddenly, shifted forward by a year within the course of a paragraph, and started talking about the elderly Miss Crawley’s will. AGAIN.
I’m accustomed to the fact that nineteenth-century novels take a while to build their momentum, but even the notoriously verbose Dickens hooks you in by halfway through the book. I’m going to stick with it, because I’ve read that Vanity Fair is infamous for starting slowly, but I’m halfway through the book. It’s been 400 pages. Surely that’s a little too slow!
Today I learned, while reading Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre, by Ethan Mordden, that the origin novel of the famous musical Showboat is by the same author as the origin novel of the 1931 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, CIMARRON.
Quite frankly, that explains a lot about both.
Edna Ferber’s stories, apparently, were known for featuring strong women and weak, beautiful men. In both cases, the woman marries a man (against at least one parent’s wishes) who seems like a dashing hero, and finds herself pretty much having to fend for herself. In the case of CIMARRON, Sabra and her children are abandoned for years at a time, victims of her husband’s wanderlust. In Showboat, as I recall, Magnolia marries Ravenal, and after a few years of increasingly difficult circumstances resulting from Ravenal’s addiction to gambling, Ravenal flees because of his sense of shame at not being able to provide for wife and daughter.
In both stories, the woman goes on to make a vast success of herself. Sabra heads up a publishing empire and eventually goes into politics, while Magnolia becomes a wildly successful singer and actress. In both cases, when the husband resurfaces after an absence of over TWENTY YEARS, the wife joyfully welcomes him back.
I have no real point to make – I just thought it was an interesting bit of trivia and it explained why CIMARRON felt vaguely familiar, as if I’d heard that story before.
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450 years after the birth of one of the world’s most influential and often-quoted writers, it’s still astonishing to realize just how much of our perception of the major figures of that time is influenced by Shakespeare’s writings. Until the discovery of the skeleton of deposed usurper Richard III, there was no solid evidence that he had any kind of physical deformity, yet we all think of him as the hideous hunchbacked demon of the play RICHARD III. Representations of Henry VIII’s “Great Matter” are still colored by Shakespeare’s depiction of events, especially the infamous moment in the Blackfriars court when Katherine, called by the bailiff, instead kneeled at her husband’s feet and made an impassioned plea, then got up and left. There is some contemporary evidence for this, but still – what a great moment for a playwright to use.
Shakespeare was writing the sixteenth-century equivalent of propaganda films. They’re entertainment, first and foremost, but he’s careful to ally himself with the side that won at Bosworth Field in 1485.
We still revere Henry V, and think of Agincourt because of the play. Yes, he appears to have been the medieval ideal – young, handsome, militarily successful – but he also continued decades of war and then conveniently died before he could solidify his winnings. England spent the next 150 years steadily retreating from France.
In some ways, I think it’s a pity Shakespeare never got the chance to write about the Stuart kings. Imagine what he could have done with Charles I.
Without further commentary, I present to you this famous monologue from HENRY VIII:
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12 Years A Slave (Best Picture, 2013)
So, as a middle-class white girl, this is a tricky movie to review. If I criticize it too much, I come across as a racist jerk, and if I gush about it I’m just saying what everyone else has already said. Just thought I’d put that out there. Food for thought.
In spite of the fact that this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture while it was still showing in theaters, I waited until it was out on DVD to watch it. I expected, rightly, that I would want to pause and walk away for breaks sometimes. That said, I’ve had the DVD in my hands for over a week and have been experiencing severe approach avoidance. I think it is fair to say that if I had not embarked on this project to watch all Best Picture winners, I would never have watched this film. I admire its tackling of difficult subject material, and I applaud the Academy for recognizing its merit, but I don’t like it. As a friend of mine, the blogger over at Cinematic Excrement, remarked, “It’s the best movie I never need to see again.”
We all learn about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in high school history class. That law, enacted as a part of the Compromise of 1850, allowed Southern slaveholders to track escaped slaves even into the Northern states. It seems that the effect of the law was many more cases like that of Solomon Northrup, the protagonist of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, in which a free black person could be “identified” as a fugitive and taken back to the South as a captive. Instead of bringing North and South together, it pushed them farther apart as abolitionists, fired by publications like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, protested the law in word and deed.
12 YEARS A SLAVE, however, begins in 1841, nearly a full decade before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.
The outstanding performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o have garnered much deserved praise, and I cannot say more of them than has already been said in many other far more prestigious places. The only word for both, especially Ejiofor, is “astonishing.”
I also find the performances of certain of the white characters particularly interesting. Somehow it’s easier to see them as representing archetypes of this kind of story than as unique individuals. There’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who is currently appearing in Every Film Project Made, as a kind, sympathetic, but financially strapped slaveowner. His polar opposite is Michael Fassbender’s depiction of the more stereotypical harsh-to-the-point-of-bloodthirsty master, who is more than matched by his harsh, bitter, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). And of course the abolitionist Bass (Canadian, but somehow has a Southern drawl), played by Brad Pitt.
Speaking of which, what is it with Fassbender and characters who are devoid of morals? Who are, for lack of a better word, evil? There’s evil slaveowner who amuses himself by waking up the slaves in the middle of the night to dance for him (does that sound like a 19th-century CRIMINAL MINDS episode to anyone else?), there’s the incapable-of-feeling sex addict of SHAME, and of course Magneto in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Admittedly, Magneto’s merely reflecting his life experiences, but still. Hes capable of going to dark places and inhabiting such levels of anger that I’m a little afraid of him, to be honest.
In spite of the fact that this film was dark and difficult and it is unlikely to be one that I seek out for subsequent viewings, it was not quite as difficult to watch as I had anticipated.
As a final note, I’d like to add something I noticed in the credits. The names of the cast and the director (Steve McQueen) are well known by now. What I had not seen in any of the reviews, summaries, or lists of vital statistics is the fact that the film had the eminent historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as its history consultant. That, to me, is quite the stamp of approval.
Next Up: Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Best Picture, 2014
Cavalcade (Best Picture, 1933)
I wish I had been able to watch this one in its proper place in the lineup. However, until a few months ago, it had never been released on home video, in spite of the fact that it was not only the first Fox movie to win Best Picture AND the second most popular film of 1933. Due to the number of write-in votes, Fox finally released it on Blu-Ray and DVD last year, in honor of its 80th anniversary.
CAVALCADE is a grand sweeping epic that follows two English families from the relief of Mafeking in the Boer War in 1900 to New Year’s Eve, 1932. One family, the Marryots, is clearly of high society, and indeed become titled partway through the film. The father (Clive Brook) has no identified career other than soldier, fighting in the Boer War and World War I, while the mother, in a notable performance by Diana Wynyard, stays on the home front to worry and occasionally contribute to the war effort. Wynyard has particularly expressive eyes. This is useful for her character, who is both prone to despair and given many real reasons to experience despair in her life. Her elder son begins his honeymoon on the RMS Titanic, so we all can predict how THAT ends, while the younger survives four years in the trenches of WWI only to die in the final hours before the armistice.
The second family is lower-class, beginning the film as butler and head housemaid to the Marryot family. I’d just like to point out here that it’s unusual to find a period story that has two servants married to each other – not unheard of, but unlikely, you might say. That said, the story wouldn’t work as well if Coward had been strict about historical accuracy, and it’s always possible that there were more married servants than is generally known. The Bridges family comprises a father, Alfred, who goes to the Boer war and returns to run a pub and become a drunk who dies in a street brawl, a mother named Ellen who is kind of a stereotypical strong common woman who comes up in the world, and the daughter, Fanny, who has a gift for the performing arts and becomes a singer/dancer/actress. Naturally they continue to cross paths with the Marryots even after leaving service, and Fanny and the younger Marryot son have a love affair during the war.
It’s not that this movie is heavy-handed, though it is, and it’s not that it’s a bummer, which it is as well. As I watched, I was trying to figure out exactly WHY this movie had never yet been released for home consumption. It was the only Best Picture winner left unavailable, after all. It’s no worse than CIMARRON, and it’s certainly better than BROADWAY MELODY. What I read back when I was originally trying to find the film implied that though wildly popular when released, it aged badly very quickly. I’m not talking about the physical film reels!
There’s a style of acting distinctive to the late 20s and early 30s, and in this respect CAVALCADE bears a strong resemblance to CIMARRON in particular. It’s a grand epic spanning several decades and featuring a weak-but-strong woman at the center of the story. Unlike CIMARRON, however, Lady Marryot’s husband isn’t a complete waste of space. But I digress.
This acting style is somewhere in between utter melodrama and the broader, declamatory style of the stage in Noel Coward’s day. In some of the scenes of the film, you can hear Coward’s distinctive rapid-fire dialogue, but this film is based on one of his dramas, not a comedy. I can see how maybe it works better on stage – perhaps I should say “worked,” since according to the IMDB trivia page it’s never been revived. In the film format the style is extremely dated and comes across as somewhat fake. I’m reminded a little of a bit in one of British comedian Eddie Izzard’s shows in which he mocks the stilted style of British films. I suspect (though it’s unlikely he’s seen CAVALCADE) that he’s basing his mockery on films like this one.
So yes, it’s dated, and yes, it’s not going to be as wildly popular now as it was when it first came out. But then, neither are most of the Best Picture winners. When was the last time you heard someone talking about WINGS* or CIMARRON or TOM JONES? I still haven’t figured out why its release took so long and so much pestering of Fox. Hollywood loves an epic, after all, and this film involved 15,000 minor characters, 25,000 costumes, and one scene had 2,500 extras. And while I wouldn’t list it among my favorites of the lineup, it’s really not that bad.
So why did it take eighty years to return to audiences?
Next Up: Twelve Years A Slave (Best Picture, 2013)
*If you ask me, WINGS really ought to come up more. It was fabulous.
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For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
— Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare
George R. R. Martin’s sprawling fantasy epic A Game of Thrones is wildly popular – both the books and the critically-acclaimed television series. You really have to try to avoid having heard of one or the other, at least. Both have been recommended to me several times by many people. The theory is that I love fantasy literature (I did manage to get academic credit for studying The Lord of the Rings and related Tolkien works no less than three times) and I enjoy the kind of pseudo-feudal world Martin has created. Both are to some extent true, though I begin to suspect my preference is for specific authors’ creations rather than the genre as a whole.
I’ve tried watching the television show. It was well-done, I freely acknowledge that, and I greatly admire the performances of actors like Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. But I felt no great drive to continue watching after the first episode or two. So I didn’t.
I’ve tried reading the book – in fact, I am about 100 pages into my fourth attempt to read the first book in the series. Each time I have gotten about 200-250 pages in and lost interest. Even though I know I’ll never have time to read all the books in the world, the fact that I have so little interest in reading a well-written (if ridiculously LONG) series of fantasy novels that are so popular kind of rankles. Perhaps this time I’ll finally give myself permission to stop trying.
Part of my disinterest is that most of my reading material is nonfiction, and has been for several years now. After all, why read Game of Thrones, featuring the struggles between the houses of Stark and Lannister (and others), when I can read about the REAL, historical game of thrones, featuring the struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England? Also, seriously, Mr. Martin, you didn’t even TRY to be subtle on that, did you?
For the past four nights I’ve watched one of each of the four plays of Shakespeare’s Henriad, the tetralogy that covers the last gasp of the Hundred Years’ War and the start of the Wars of the Roses in England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In 2012, the BBC created four films of the plays and released it for television under the title THE HOLLOW CROWN. From Richard II through Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and concluding with the brief flash of military glory that is Henry V, the series is breathtaking. Indeed, there were entire scenes during which I’m not sure if I was breathing.
The cast lineup is phenomenal – performances by Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters, David Suchet, Richard Griffiths, Clemence Poesy, Rory Kinnear, John Hurt, Geoffrey Palmer, Maxine Peake, James Purefoy, and many others are all wonderful. Jeremy Irons turns in a masterful performance as the aged and unwell Henry IV, burdened by the guilt of his usurpation years earlier. One of the things they did to make this such a personal, moving, gripping production was to continue the trajectory of the masters’ evolution in filmed Shakespeare. Laurence Olivier declaimed his speeches as though onstage in a very traditional kind of theater. Decades later comes Branagh, who speaks Shakespearean English as though it is his natural manner of speaking, but still the great powerful speeches are meant to rouse the troops, and they come smoothly, as if practiced. In THE HOLLOW CROWN, some speeches are done as voiceover, such as Henry V’s prayer before the beginning of the battle at Agincourt, or Falstaff’s speech about honor at the end of Henry IV, Part 1. The intention and effect is to seem not just like that’s how the actors normally speak, but as if they’re coming up with the lines on the spot. It is, for lack of a better word, vernacular in style.
In spite of the fact that Irons gets top-of-the-top billing, the three performances to watch for are Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Simon Russell Beale as John Falstaff, and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/Henry V. Beale’s was recognized by the director of the two parts of Henry IV as one of the best, if not THE best, of the past century.
I’d never actually seen any of these plays all the way through, though I read Henry IV, Part 1 in college and have seen parts of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. My impression of Falstaff as a character was fat, drunk, comic relief. I hadn’t understood from my earlier reading that the man’s a weasel. He’s a lying, cheating, thieving coward. Literally. It is incredibly difficult to feel any kind of sympathy for him, and yet, at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 when he tries to rejoin the newly-crowned Henry V’s company only to be publicly, harshly repudiated, you do feel grieved for him. In Beale’s performance you see a man who is stunned as if struck a heavy blow. Falstaff suddenly looks old, scared, and confused. At first he is in denial, believing he’ll be sent for privately, but then he and his companions are all arrested. By the start of Henry V he’s a defeated man, and though he has no lines in the play, is said to have died of a broken heart.
Tom Hiddleston, known to many of my friends as Loki from THE AVENGERS charts the young prince’s transformation from what can only be described as a fifteenth-century frat-boy to the ideal medieval king – young, athletic, and militarily victorious. He looks the part, too. Instead of trying to look like the extant portraits of Henry V, which feature the frankly unflattering haircut reproduced by Branagh in his version, the film’s designers worked with what they have, which is a man who at times looks like energy personified and at other times looks as though he might have been carved from marble, so perfect are the angles in his face. His pale eyes laugh at times, look sad at others, and can blaze and pierce you right through the screen.
The winning performance, however, is Ben Whishaw, who dives headfirst into the complicated role of doomed king Richard II. Richard II is one of the more troubling medieval kings of England. He ascended the throne as a child, and dealt with the Peasant’s Revolt at something like age fourteen. And yet he was not hugely popular as an adult. He was considered extravagant, morally questionable, and in short, the barons did not entirely approve of him. Even Shakespeare is unable to make him all sympathetic or all wicked. This is no Richard III, in which you know who the bad guy is. Richard II is all shades of grey. In fact, it was originally titled “The Tragedy of King Richard II,” and he is indeed a tragic character. In one analysis I read, the author writes, “Pathetic and yet too self-conscious to be entirely tragic, sincere and yet engaged in acting his own sincerity, possessed of true feeling and elaborately artificial in expressing it, Richard is the distant predecessor of more than one hero of the mature tragedies, who suffer in acute self-consciousness and whose tragedy expresses itself in terms that clearly point to the presence of the weakness that has been, in part, its cause.”
Whishaw’s performance is redolent with the air of otherworldliness that you see in someone like Michael Jackson – he is always on stage, always acting a part, and not entirely on the same wavelength as other humans. And yet you sense that in spite of the magnified presentation, his feelings are real and deep. In the making-of featurette to Richard II, the actor and the director spoke of Richard’s sense of himself as an almost messianic figure, and they worked with that. The image of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows also arises more than once, and the production does an admirable job of never quite straying into heavy-handed religious imagery. It’s there, it’s impossible to miss, but you don’t feel like it’s beaten into you.
This is an extraordinary set of films. I heartily recommend it. I suspect I will be returning to it to watch it many more times.
I HAVE LOCATED A COPY OF CAVALCADE.
Maybe the Academy heard about my project – CAVALCADE, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1933, was finally released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2013! I’m third in line for it at the public library, so hopefully I’ll have it within the month, and then I will enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes from having completed the set so far.
I have to admit, I’m kind of hoping that AMERICAN HUSTLE wins at the Oscars ceremony in a few weeks, if only because I think I’d rather watch that than what seems like the likely winner, TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE. On the other hand, THE HURT LOCKER won over AVATAR, so you never know what might happen.