Two Bleak House Dramatizations

Both are from the BBC, naturally, and are serials made for television, each running roughly eight hours in total. The first was made in 1985, the second in 2005. Both are worth seeing, but all in all I think the second is superior and the best choice if you're only going to watch one.

The 1985 one, like the Dombey and Son dramatization I mentioned recently, took me back to Sunday evenings in the '70s and '80s watching PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Comparing those with more recent similar efforts, you can sort of see the improvements in technology and, probably, financing. Visually, for instance, Bleak House 1985 is often less sharp, clear, and bright than Bleak House 2005. (I think I'll refer to them just as "1985" and "2005" for the rest of this post.) This is especially true in outdoor scenes, especially in London, where it actually is effective: the creators apparently wanted to portray the city as extremely dim and murky (which is certainly consistent with the book), and they succeeded. The slum called Tom-All-Alone's is nightmarish, as such places probably were in reality.

The two are pretty different cinematographically, and I don't know how much of the difference is technological and how much a stylistic choice. I recall, watching 2005 when it was originally released (almost twenty years ago!), thinking that the way the faces of characters often filled the screen almost entirely was a little annoying, reducing or almost eliminating a sense of the space in which they existed. But on this viewing I didn't really notice that, which makes me think it's a change in style to which I've become accustomed in other works. There was one small but irritating thing in 2005 which I think was a sort of fashionable device at the time, perhaps, and I hope, out of fashion now. That's a way of doing transitions with a literal bang. We're switching from London to Bleak House, say: wide shot of house BANG; quick cut less wide shot of house BANG; quick cut to closer shot of house BANG. Then on into the actual scene. After maybe half the episodes I got used to it, but I did wonder why someone thought it was a good idea. Maybe appropriate in some kind of noisy hyperactive contemporary movie, but for Dickens?

Changes in acting style are also apparent. In general the approach in 1985 is a little broader and more blunt. It seems, on one level, more acted, or stagey, while 2005 is perhaps more subtle--but then I don't know enough about acting to talk about it intelligently in a general way, so I would do better to compare specific characters. 

Like any male of my age, I am an admirer of Emma Peel Diana Rigg, and so it pains me a little to say that she did not make as powerful a Lady Dedlock as Gillian Anderson, whom I had of course enjoyed as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, but whose ability as a more serious actress I had doubted. The big difference is that Gillian Anderson does icy very, very well, while Diana Rigg--whether by nature or by actor and director choice I don't know--is warmer and more openly vulnerable. I vaguely recall from my first viewing of 2005 that I thought Anderson's performance was a little weak compared to the others, and that her English accent seemed somewhat forced and not entirely real. Well, I didn't feel that way this time. A little stiff, maybe, is the worse I would say about the accent. I was very critical of it in her more recent portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, as well as in the crime drama The Fall in 2013. I don't know what to make of that--surely her accent didn't get less authentic over the past twenty years or so, as she has lived in England for much of that time (and lived there for a significant portion of her childhood). But anyway, applause to Scully Anderson for this performance.

Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in 2005 is surely the ultimate. And I'm pedantic enough that when I use the word "ultimate" I mean it pretty literally. (I'm always annoyed when I see an advertisement for something like "the ultimate PC," something which will be more or less obsolete and certainly surpassed within months.) Not ultimate as in chronologically final, but ultimate in the sense of unsurpassable. I suppose someone someday might prove me wrong, but I just can't imagine a more convincing and effective portrayal of Tulkinghorn, nor one more in keeping with the character as he's portrayed in the book. The Tulkinghorn in 1985, Peter Vaughan, is fine, just not in the same league for mystery, menace, and intelligence.

Anna Maxwell Martin, as Esther Summerson in 2005, also seems more convincing to me than 1985's Suzanne Burden. And so on--as I look over both cast lists, I think 2005 takes first place in most instances. There are a couple of characters who don't seem all that effective in either one. Sir Leicester Dedlok doesn't have the mountainous snobbery and pomposity I imagine, but maybe what I imagine is impossible. Nor does either fully convey to me the noble generosity of his reaction to the family's crisis. I somehow think John Jarndyce should be more colorful than he is portrayed, but again, that may be my misreading, or at least eccentric reading. Slimy little Guppy is good in both. 

Anyone who watches as many British crime dramas as I do will immediately recognize Phil Davis as Smallweed in 2005, also a noticeably superior portrayal to 1985's. He's often played similar characters, irascible, hostile, and creepy.  

I won't bother picking over the choices each version makes in tailoring the narrative for this length and format. I did quarrel with some, but I don't recall thinking that they were unjustifiable. It must be a difficult task.

Here's the, or a, trailer. Not an especially good one, in my opinion. Notice that they say "Charles Dance vs. Lady Dedlok." I didn't realize he was that well known. You can hear the end of one of those BANGs as it begins. 


Andrea Schroeder Sings David Bowie's "Heroes"

In German: "Helden."

I never heard of Andrea Schroeder until a few weeks ago when I was looking for cover versions of this famous song. You know it, right? If not, click here.

I was never much of a David Bowie fan. I didn't care for the whole glam rock, sexually androgynous thing, but, more importantly, I just didn't care that much for most of his music. I had a slightly annoying conversation about this on Facebook around the time of Bowie's death. I said more or less what I just said, and several younger people explained to me that it was a generational thing, and I Just Didn't Understand. 

Nonsense. Look, y'all (I said): David Bowie was a bit older than me. It had nothing to with age and everything to do with musical taste. I heard Ziggy Stardust several dozen times while I was working in a record store, and never cared much for it, though I had liked his earlier album, Hunky Dory, quite well. And I never listened to him much after that.

But somehow or other I did hear "Heroes," a basically very simple song which seems to have a mildly addictive effect on a lot of people. And, maybe in part because it's basically simple, yet deeply appealing, it seems to lend itself to some very varied ways of performing it. And maybe also because of the lyric, with its odd combination of defiance and despair. "Yes we're lovers" but "nothing can keep us together." And:

Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day

You can read the English lyrics here.

I like covers of well-known songs which rework them substantially. Or rather I should say they interest me, as of course they're not always successful. This one, I think, works spectacularly well. I like it just as much when I'm not looking at the screen with the beautiful Andrea Schroeder gazing deeply into my soul eyes.

I must definitely hear more of her music. She's German, obviously, and AllMusic doesn't say a word about her, nor does Wikipedia, but her own website has some impressive recommendations. 

My next-favorite cover of "Heroes" is by the metal-ish band Motörhead, and as you might suppose it is night-and-day different. I don't recommend listening to this one immediately after Andrea Schroeder's. If at all. It's hard rock.

Lemmy Kilmister, 1945-2015, RIP. One wonders, if one is a Christian, where such an apparently purely heathen soul goes.

A Note On Flannery O'Connor and Race

Having read a bit more about the unpublished Flannery O'Connor work mentioned in this post, I'm getting the impression that much of the discussion about it, and possibly the book itself, are focused on Flannery O'Connor's views on race. 

This interview with the book's editor, Jessica Hooten Wilson, by a couple of slightly obtuse Georgia Public Radio guys, is an instance. I'm sure they're smart guys who went to college and all, but this is the way they see the world:

Orlando Montoya: So I'd like to think that this story would have become Flannery's statement on race, that she might have come down on the right side, and that it would have clarified a lot of our doubts about Flannery and race. But it's also possible that she could have just ended up making some other point.

Peter Biello: Like, well, what other point?

Orlando Montoya: Religious.

Peter Biello: Oh, okay.

Orlando Montoya: A religious point. I mean, her entire body of work is just oozing, as you said, with this Catholic sense of the world. And so there's a reason Catholics just love Flannery. And to me, when I read Flannery and this story's no exception, there's just a lot of judgment, from everyone to everyone. And so that's why I kind of find her kind of difficult. Her pages are just dripping with judgment, this Catholic sense that there's going to be a reckoning and you better be on the right side. And these fragments are no different.

Oh, okay.

They're creatures of their time and culture who don't see their own as clearly as O'Connor did hers. And they are, in a limited way, admirers of her work. At least the one guy understands that the Catholic viewpoint is not just accidental to the stories. But to view the very glancing connection between O'Connor's views on race as more interesting and important than the theological-philosophical foundations of her work is indicative of a very defective understanding of it (and possibly of art in general, but never mind that now).

Moreover, the clear implication here is that the Catholic aspect is something at least mildly negative, which certainly indicates a view of the work that is seriously limited at best. We have to put up with her weird religious obsession, they seem to suggest, but we can hope that she might, in keeping with our expectations of what constitutes progress, have set that stuff aside and talked about what we think is important, i.e. race, come down on "the right side" of the matter, and "clarified a lot of our doubts." (What does that mean, exactly? Remove our doubts, I suppose. "Clarified" could mean either confirmed or contradicted.) And if she didn't? Well, clearly our doubts must remain; Flannery O'Connor is "problematic." 

It's especially wrong-headed, downright ludicrous, for a 21st century progressive to complain of an excess of judgment, when the more zealous among them rarely stop judging everything and everyone in Western civilization, apart from themselves and the present moment, as inadequate if not evil. And let us note, too, that it is often precisely the harsh, stubborn, and ignorant judgmentalism of her characters that is seen to be under the judgment of God.

I sometimes wish I could be transported several hundred years into the future so I could participate in the establishment of the judgement of "history" on our own time. The confidence that we are on its "right side" is probably going to be one of the more risible things about us. Our culture has rightly rejected blatant anti-black racism, but influential sectors of it have embraced a long list of other absurd and harmful views, not least of which is another form of racism, in which white people are considered to be indelibly stamped with something called "whiteness," an ontological stain with which they are born and which can never be erased, and which requires perpetual acts of penance. Penance, not atonement, because atonement is impossible, except perhaps by civilizational suicide. (The parodic resemblance to Christianity has often been noted; it's one of the most visible motifs of post-Christianity.)

I've been annoyed for a long time by the treatment of "racist" as a binary condition rather than a thing, like any other single human vice or virtue, that exists in degrees. If that label can be stuck on a person, it works pretty much like the old death's head symbol for poison: you're either racist or not, poisonous or not, and sensible people will keep away. Real people, real hearts and minds, of course don't function that way. One can have mild and even harmless prejudices against people of another race or culture without being guilty of any serious moral wrong. A few years ago the writer Paul Elie published an article called "How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?" I didn't read it, though it was recommended to me, because I disliked the "When did you stop beating your wife?" tactic of the title: in a culture where anything and anyone who can be plausibly tagged with the word "racist" is to be condemned without reservation or nuance, it seemed a poisoning of the well. (This tactic has been overused to the point where it may not be effective anymore. I noticed a few years ago that many of the taggers have switched to "white supremacist.")

The truth is that race is just not a very significant aspect of O'Connor's work, which deals above all with universal questions, posed by means of an extraordinary skill in evoking those questions within a very specific, concrete, and limited place, time, and culture. Whatever racism she was personally guilty of is pretty mild stuff (and if you don't think it was mild you've led a sheltered life). She seems to have granted the basic rightness of the civil rights cause, which a serious racist of the time would not have done.

In that interview Jessica Hooten Wilson says, in defense of O'Connor's treatment of black people in her work, that

...she only knew how two Black people would talk when a white woman was in the room...

Well, of course. And she recognized that that was the situation. I think she mentions in one of her letters that she understands that what she sees--what any white person in the segregated South would see--in black people is often a carefully mannered façade, and she didn't feel able to write from within the consciousness on the other side of that façade. Call that an artistic limitation if you want to, but it's not a sin.

Although she was my parents' age, I grew up in the same segregated rural Southern world that she did. I was in high school when the passage of the Civil Rights Act began the process of putting an end to that world. It is a personal and living memory for me, not something I've read about. And I can testify that when she does picture, in her work, black people as seen by white people, the two so near and yet so distant, she is very accurate. Do the people who worry so much about her opinion of black people not notice that she doesn't think very highly of white people either?

Examination of conscience is much more easy, pleasant, and rewarding when the conscience being examined is someone else's. Those who want to put Flannery O'Connor on trial would do better to read, or re-read, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."