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Goodreaders on The Summerhouse Trilogy; More Noir

Lat week when I wanted to check certain details about The Summerhouse Trilogy but didn't have access to the book, I looked around on the web a bit for reviews or summaries which might help. I didn't find any, but I ended up looking through all the reader comments at Goodreads. Most were positive, and at least one reader says that she reads the book every year. But the negatives...well, they say much more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Some seem not to have paid very close attention, as the full story is not "retold" in the three sections, but rather revealed gradually and cumulatively. Unless my memory is wrong, which it could be, or I missed something, the most startling bit is not revealed until the third section. But these folks didn't get it. Or maybe they're just that jaded:

I could have done without the third re-telling of the story.

I had hoped this final chapter would shed some light on things, but it really didn't. I wish I had given up after the first chapter spent time with a book I enjoyed.

And these two people, especially the second, seem to be the sort for whom anything not of the present day and culture is for precisely that reason dull and irrelevant:

Depressing first section in a supposedly funny British satire on trite callous middle class values.

Gah. This book did not age well at all. It was awful and prehistoric.

I don't see exactly how "callous" comes into it. I do have some sympathy for those who found the book dull, as much of it is subtle and without visible drama. Several readers complained about Margaret, the miserable girl of the first section--"a dishrag," one said. That's not unjustified, but it's an aspect of Margaret's problem. Still, these three apparently would have preferred a romance or thriller: 

A perfectly adequate, well written, thoroughly dull book. Not even hashish, sex and suicide could save this book from the monotony of the characters.

I am still reading this book, which is a book club nomination. It is awful! The characters are extremely unlikeable (except for Aunt Lily, and that is only because she is intoxicated most of the time and wears garish clothes). Even the dog has no name. It is the most uninspiring, slow moving, non-interesting book I have read.

Blecchhhh! I can't believe I finished reading this book, or that anyone would think it was interesting enough to make a movie out of! I hated it to the very last page.

At least that last one did push through every hated page.

This one I rather liked, and would suggest to the reader that she keep thinking about the book:

The author is an English Catholic whose work I’ve seen compared to that of Flannery O'Connor. She does not provide a nice, tidy, Christian ending or even tidy Christian answers. If I had read this book in my youth, I think I might even have interpreted it as anti-Christian.

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Detour is an excellent example of the noir genre, apparently considered one of the classics. It has a pretty simple plot, which makes it different from many of its type. A famous story has it that William Faulkner and another writer working on the script for The Big Sleep were puzzled by a plot point and asked Raymond Chandler for clarification--and he didn't know, either. 

A young man and a young woman are working together as a night club act in New York. They plan to be married, but the young woman leaves for Hollywood, hoping to become a star, and the young man stays behind. (It isn't entirely clear to me why he didn't go with her, but never mind.) Later he decides to follow her after all, and begins hitchhiking across the country. He gets as far as Arizona when he gets a ride from a man in a big expensive car. Thus begins the detour. 

Detour

It's a low budget movie, starring people I hadn't heard of before (Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and it's not much more than an hour long, but it really works. 

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I'm often struck in these older films by little things indicative of the degree to which many things have changed since the films were made. Many big things are striking, too, of course, but I mean the almost trivial ones. When was the last time you heard someone say "Give me change for a dime"? Or one which I think I may have heard as a child or a teenager, but which has disappeared for very good reason: "That's white of you." I mean that it's disappeared as a compliment. You may still hear it today, but if you do it will be  as an insult. 

Before the young man leaves for California, he calls his girlfriend. Remember long-distance calls? His brief New York-Los Angeles call costs him five dollars. That's eighty-two dollars in today's money, according to this site, which says that the dollar has lost 94% of its value since 1945. That sounds like a catastrophe, doesn't it? 

Another phrase you don't hear anymore: "sound as a dollar."


Alice Thomas Ellis: The Summerhouse Trilogy; A Couple of Noirs

I'm going to be more brief than this book deserves, because it's been several months since I read it and I want to refresh my memory about certain things, but I've just moved to a new house and almost all my books are still in boxes awaiting the resolution of questions about bookshelves. And I have no idea which box this book is in.

I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said of her sister Emily's creation, Heathcliff, that she was not sure that the creation of such a being was morally justified. I had a somewhat similar thought about Lili, the central character in this book. When I say that she is central I don't mean that she is what we usually call "the protagonist," that it is her fate which mostly concerns and engages the reader. But she is central in that she is the agent whose powers of action cause so much else to happen, or, more importantly in this case, not to happen: this is the story of a wedding that does not take place. And she is in a sense more than the others: not only her human self, but the expression, at least, of a powerful, mysterious, and fundamentally unholy force. If "strong female character" is one of your criteria for value in fiction, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this novel. 

In fact it is effectively an all-female cast of characters, though not all are strong. There are men present, but they're more or less stupid, unfortunate necessities. The book is not so much a trilogy as a trio of novellas (or three very long chapters) telling one basic story from the point of view of three different women. The three narrators are all very much a part of each other's lives, and the contrast between what each sees and assumes about the others, and the others' inner life, is striking--as striking as it probably would be in life. It's a technical tour de force, the points of contact among the narratives polished and precisely fitted. I recall one brief incident in particular, involving a dog's attention to a woman's foot, which is very different and rather more significant when seen for the second time and from a different point of view. 

The first section, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, takes us into the mind of Margaret, a young woman who is about to be married. The marriage would be against her will except that she doesn't seem to have much of a will. She has suffered a romantic and religious trauma which has sent her into despair, including the specifically theological sense of that word, resigned and indifferent to the pressures exerted by her mother and the suitor, a boorish older man, Syl. Significantly, Margaret's narration begins with a description of Lili. 

The second book, The Skeleton in the Closet, is the viewpoint of Syl's mother, Mrs. Munro, a somewhat embittered older woman who doesn't think a great deal more of Syl than does Margaret. Alice Thomas Ellis is not the only novelist to give us strikingly different views of a character from outside and inside, but the movement from the first section to this one is a particularly effective turn. Margaret has had much to say about her future mother-in-law, most of it negative and also inaccurate, and we are a little surprised--well, at least I was--to find her so different, and so much more sympathetic. She thinks Margaret is making a mistake. But she is as weary of and resigned toward the troubles of others as she is of her own.

The Fly in the Ointment gives us Lili as she really is and not as we have been seeing her through the eyes of Margaret and Mrs. Munro. She is among other things the sort of person who is often described, with a touch of envy, as a free spirit, or, with a touch of dread, as a force of nature. She is also more or less amoral in many ways. But it is she who not only sees the disaster into which Margaret is sleepwalking but acts to prevent it. I think I can promise you that you won't forget what she does.

When I finished this book I made this comment in an email to a couple of friends:

My reaction is a kind of astonishment, not 100% positive. I read the last paragraph, closed the book, and said "Golly, what a book." Not "golly" but "gah-LEE," the "golly" of someone coming out of a storm shelter after a tornado and taking a look around. 

This was a reaction not only to the closing incident but to the whole thing, superbly executed by an intelligence that sometimes seems a little malicious. The atmosphere is so full of feminine resentment, suspicion, and struggle that I found myself wondering if this sort of thing is what goes on in the minds of most women most of the time. There is an almost cold, almost merciless quality about Ellis's intelligence and wit (there is a fair amount of humor here). I keep the word "almost" because there is more than cold clinical skill at work. The quality which makes me think "merciless" is an unflinching willingness to see these people as they truly are, to let them, so to speak, get away with nothing. And in the end there is mercy, though it comes in such a manner as to lead one to the old question about good coming from evil. This is a religiously grounded work, but, like Flannery O'Connor's and in some ways even more so, hardly comforting. At least two reviews that I came across used the words "witch" and "witchy" of the author, and I can see why. 

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For various reasons, none especially good but some better than others, I've gotten almost entirely out of the habit of watching serious movies. My Criterion Channel subscription has gone mostly unused for months, and I've wondered whether I should keep it. But they're calling this month "Noir November" and are running a number of noir titles which piqued my interest. 

The 1942 adaption of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key is a good one, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. I admit that I have a thing for Veronica Lake. After watching it I would have immediately picked up the novel, because I want to know whether the somewhat happy ending is Hammett's or not; I suspect not. But that book is also packed away.

The plot is complex, as one expects of Hammett, and the film is more genuinely dark than some of its kindred, especially in the sequence where the hero, Ed Beaumont, is held captive and beaten repeatedly by thugs. It's rare in these movies to see a depiction of the effects of violence that's remotely plausible. Beaumont is beaten almost to death, and we believe it. Far from bouncing back with a band-aid or two on his face, he spends a significant amount of time in the hospital. I have a vague childhood memory of William Bendix as a likeable cloddish sort of guy in a TV series called The Life of Riley, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him as a malicious brute. 

I also watched Call Northside 777 and This Gun for Hire. The former is not really noir, but it features Jimmy Stewart as a reporter trying to exonerate a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. The latter stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake again, so is automatically appealing to me. It's based on a Graham Greene novel, modified for an American audience in the midst of World War II, and maybe a notch below The Glass Key as a film--less plausible on the whole, for one thing--but still very worthwhile for those who like this sort of thing. And anyway, Veronica Lake. 

VeronicaLakeImage swiped from this site which sells prints. I'm not usually drawn to the Hollywood Blonde types, but there is something about her that charms me. 


Mare of Easttown

There was some discussion of this HBO series in comments on this post, in which all agreed that the show is very good and that Kate Winslet's performance is extremely good. When I last commented there I hadn't seen all seven episodes, but I have now, and so can make my concurrence final.

It's a crime drama, and the production as a whole is worthy of comparison to the best contemporary work in that line: Broadchurch, for instance. "Mare" in the title is the name of the principal character. As far as I noticed, the odd name is not explained until well into the series, and then only in passing: it's short for Marianne (Maryanne, Mary Ann...whatever). She's played by Winslet, and is a middle-aged, divorced, working-class woman living in a small Pennsylvania town, where she's a detective on the local police force, like her father before her. 

In addition to being a good and well-told story, the series is a realistic portrait of a failing culture: broken families, drugs, aimless young people, and all that. But there are a fair number of film and television productions that do that well. What really sets this one apart for me is Kate Winslet's performance. She is absolutely convincing, and the fact that she's English makes that astonishing.  The accent is a very impressive part of that effect, but not the whole thing. If I hadn't known otherwise I would have assumed that the actress playing Mare is a native of the area, because she seems so entirely a part of it. 

I don't see all that many movies, and as far as I can remember have not seen Winslet in anything else. I was aware of her as a famous actress, and I knew she was English and had been in Titanic, but that was about all. I figured the person who played the romantic lead in Titanic was probably a glamour girl, possibly not the greatest actress. Well, if she is or was ever a glamour girl, she certainly does not mind stepping into the persona of decidedly un-glamorous women. 

There was a time--and although it was a long time ago I was probably an adult--when I thought the craft of acting was over-rated. I think that was partly an impression from the big movie stars of my childhood and youth, who played pretty much the same character in every film, or at least were always instantly identifiable: as John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and even those of a later generation, like Jack Nicholson. I tended to assume that their one basic character was essentially the person him/herself, and so it seemed that acting was mainly a matter of memorizing one's lines and simulating the emotions of the role, and I thought of the latter as a fairly direct and broad thing. 

Of course "simulating the emotions" of the role is not an easy thing to do, even if you're more or less being yourself. But to become, in some not entirely figurative sense, another person altogether, and to speak and behave, down to the most subtle movements of the face, as that person...well, I can't imagine being able to do it. And as I've increasingly understood that, I've increasingly understood that acting is a very difficult art, and most impressive when, as with any performing art, the difficulty is perfectly masked by skill, so that you aren't conscious that you're watching something difficult. 

Here's the trailer for Mare of Easttown:


Auden (et. al): Night Mail

Some months ago I picked up Humphrey Carpenter's biography of W.H. Auden from the discard shelf at the local library. That it was there is a sad state of affairs, and I almost made it sadder when, after a few months of seeing it on the shelf and leaving it alone, and under a self-imposed mandate to get rid of books that I'm pretty sure I will never read, I decided that I probably didn't really want to read five hundred or so pages about Auden's life. I'm generally unenthusiastic about biographies of artists, and Auden is not my at the top of my list of favorite poets (high, but not at the top), though several of his poems are near the top of that list. So I decided to throw it back into the library's giveaway pile and hope someone else would give it a good home.

But before doing that I leafed through it, read a few bits and pieces here and there, and decided it seemed interesting after all, and that if nothing else I'd like to read about Auden's conversion to Christianity. That required getting some of the background, so in the end I decided to keep the book at least long enough to read the whole thing. 

I'm glad I did. I'm less than halfway through it, and am finding it quite interesting for the most part, though like most biographies it occasionally frequently goes into more detail than I care to follow. 

For six months or so in 1935-36, when Auden was in his late twenties, he worked in the Film Unit of England's postal service. I know, that sounds very strange--why did the post office have a film unit? But it did, and it made a documentary called Night Mail about the train that made a nightly mail run from London to several cities in Scotland. Auden wrote some verse for part of it, and Benjamin Britten provided music.

On YouTube there are several clips of the few minutes that include Auden's poem:

Several of the YouTube commenters say that it's an early form of rap. They sort of have a point.

I'd really like to see the whole film, which is less than half an hour long and which, on the basis of that clip, is very poetic in a very 20th century inter-war period way. But the only place I can find it is at the British Film Institute's streaming service, and I don't want to see it badly enough to subscribe. 

"Inter-war period." What a ghastly thing to say, but it really is a reasonable way to describe the 1920s and '30s. 


Trainwreck: Woodstock '99

I'm about two thirds of the way through this three-part Netflix documentary on the 1999 attempt by some of the original Woodstock promoters to revive, twenty-five years later, the glory that was Woodstock in 1969. I was vaguely aware of the 1999 festival, saw news reports that it had not gone very well, and that was about the extent of my notice of it. But apparently it was much worse than I had realized. 

I have a pretty jaundiced view of the original, and am of the opinion that Woodstock was not really Woodstock until the movie and the soundtrack album came out. My college roommate at the time had attended, and had no particular illusions about it: "A lot of people doing drugs in the mud and listening to music coming from a distant stage." According to him, it was not the hippie bands that got the most enthusiastic reception, but the good-time funk of Sly and the Family Stone. The movie made the myth. But though it may not have been the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (or maybe it was, and maybe that's not necessarily a great thing) it was not a trainwreck. 

The further I get from the '60s counter-culture, the more negative my view of it has become. How dense did one have to be to believe that peace and love are the natural and probably inevitable result of  turning people loose to do what they really feel like doing? The film features interviews with promoters, employees, and attendees who emphasize that the whole thing was badly planned from the beginning. And I have no doubt that it was. But the explanation for the fact that things turned so dark has to take into account the change in American culture, particularly in pop music, over the thirty years between the two Woodstocks. 

It seems to me that this is a much meaner country than it was in the late '60s. I won't explore that question in detail at the moment, but I think it's a valid generalization to say that although there was certainly plenty of meanness prior to 1970, it was not as generally diffused and intense as it is now. The political and cultural polarization which are so much a part of life now was just taking shape at the end of the '60s. And there is no question that by 1999 there was a whole lot of violent rage in popular music that was not there in 1969. 

In 1999 various forms of extremely angry metal or metal-influenced music were quite popular--nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. If you've never heard these bands, or, even more convincing, seen them perform, watch this clip of Limp Bizkit's Woodstock '99 performance. You won't be the least bit surprised that the festival ended in violence. This was the only the second day. Things would get worse. 

There is no pleasure to be had from watching this documentary, but as a cultural artifact it's fascinating. I don't think the particular kind of rage on exhibit here is still as much a part of pop music as it was then, but from what I occasionally hear it doesn't look as though the change represents anything I would call progress.


On Not Watching Amazon's New Tolkien Series (probably)

There never was much chance that I would want to see this. As I've said before, probably to the point of tedium, in the end I was more negative than positive toward the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings, in spite of there being many good things about it. I won't bother to go into all that again. And I didn't even see the Hobbit movies, which seem to have been a fundamentally terrible idea, no matter how they were executed. And even if there were no other reason to avoid this new thing, I don't want a Hollywood spectacle burning its Tolkien-based imagery permanently into my brain.

The new series is based on stories mentioned in the appendices of LOTR and told in more detail in The Silmarillion. Within broad parameters, the writers are free to make things up. That's okay, but a year or so ago word got out that Amazon was advertising for an "intimacy coordinator" for the series, so that seemed to be pretty much the end of the matter.

Still, I can't help following the story. A few days ago this piece appeared at National Review. It in turn is based on an article in Vanity Fair which reveals more than had previously been known about the plans for the series. The NR writer thinks it gives cause for both hope and alarm. I don't see a whole lot of the first.

Then, while watching the Super Bowl (or rather the last half of it), I saw Amazon's "teaser trailer," and all detailed considerations about fidelity to Tolkien and so forth went out the window. It appears to be a big, loud, action movie, seasoned with cuteness and sentimentality, and that's enough to know about it.

Still, I add the "probably." It's unlikely, but I won't totally rule out the possibility that I might give in to the temptation to check it out. A well-imagined and constructed Numenor, for instance, might be a grand sight....

This article at Crisis is a pretty good appraisal: negative, but judicious and reasonable. 

A question for anyone who's more familiar with The Silmarillion than I am: is the portrayal of Galadriel as a warrior justified? I don't remember anything in The Lord of the Rings that would warrant it, but perhaps in earlier ages she took part in physical combat. I only read The Silmarillion once, and it was several decades ago. 


And speaking of Peter Jackson...

It's been twenty years since the release of the first film in his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. A youngster named Jack Butler, writing at National Review, gives what I think is a fairly good appraisal of the whole effort. I say that even though my own view is somewhat more negative than his. I think the article is subscriber-only, so I'll quote liberally from it:

It is widely acknowledged that there are many serious differences between Jackson’s adaptation and Tolkien’s novel. Answers vary, however, to the question whether Jackson’s work maintains Tolkien’s spirit or ruins it. Ian McKellen, who plays the noble wizard Gandalf, has remarked that “the enthusiasts who have read the novels over and over may notice every change but in doing so they will miss the point.” On the other hand, Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son and literary executor, complained that Jackson and his crew had “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.”

Who is right? Both — and neither. Some of Jackson’s innovations do make sense, at least when considered in light of the exigencies of filmmaking..... Other of Jackson’s changes are blatant concessions to Hollywood blockbuster sensibilities..... 

There are also some fairly egregious changes to certain characters....

Even more notable is the mutation of Aragorn. Jackson’s version is unsure whether he is worthy of assuming his kingly destiny. His story becomes much more a standard hero’s journey. Tolkien gives Aragorn the occasional stumble, but he is largely intent on his destiny from the moment we meet him. Jackson’s alteration of Aragorn partly recenters the movies on him and his internal conflict, somewhat shortchanging Frodo and the hobbits in their respective journeys.

Bradley J. Birzer, a Tolkien scholar and professor of history at Hillsdale College, believes that Tolkien would not have approved of the films. “They’re too violent and have too much action with not enough focus on the philosophical elements of the books,” Birzer has said. There is some truth to that observation, too. Some of the thematic depth of The Lord of the Rings, such as what Tolkien called its “fundamentally religious” (Catholic) nature, is mostly (though not entirely) subdued in Jackson’s trilogy.

Whatever the flaws of Jackson’s films, they captured Tolkien’s spirit and much of the work’s philosophical core. As [Tolkien scholar Tom] Shippey put it, they preserve some of Tolkien’s more important themes, such as “the need for pity as well as courage, the vulnerability of the good, the true cost of evil.”

Even an imperfect representation of that essence puts Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy leagues above much of the dreck that Hollywood produces today.... But whatever complaints one may have about it, the deserved and enduring popularity of his original trilogy will continue to point new generations of readers to Tolkien’s work. And that will remain a virtue in itself.

I'm sure I've said this before, but it's probably been a while, so: I found that the further I got from the films the less highly I thought of them. My view now is closer to Christopher Tolkien's and Bradley Birzer's, though I still acknowledge that the films have their virtues and are considerably "above much of the dreck that Hollywood produces today." And I've never wanted to see them again, not so much because I disliked them as because I didn't want Jackson's often misguided imagery to take over my mind completely. I've only been partly successful in that effort.

There's a line in one of John Berryman's Dream Songs in which "Ol' Possum," presumably T. S. Eliot, says that he seldom goes to the cinema, because it's too powerful--or words to that effect. I have no idea which of the several hundred Dream Songs that occurs in and don't want to look for it, though it's most likely in 77 Dream Songs which was once and probably still is his most popular book. ("Popular" of course is a much more limited thing in modern poetry than in, say, film. Or even in literary fiction.) I understand Eliot's reservation, though I indulge to excess in moving pictures on the much smaller screen in my house. The visual impact and persistence of cinematic images is extremely strong and often unwelcome.

I think Peter Jackson's conception of Aragorn, for instance, is seriously flawed, not only for the reasons given above but simply visually. And I suppose that's partly the fault of the actor. But at any rate I still have it in my head. And I'm still annoyed by that stubble which looks like about a week's worth of beard, and neither grows nor disappears. When I see a celebrity going around like that (it seems still fashionable) I want to say "Either grow a beard or shave, dammit."

At the turn of the year this blog will be eighteen years old. The very first post, January 4, 2004, was a brief review of the third film in Jackson's Lord of the Rings. I more or less agree with what I said there, though as I say I'm a little more negative now than I was then. I still think this is probably true:

...it surely is the best possible screen treatment of the book. I do not mean that in a philosophical Panglossian but rather in a very straightforward sense: it is the best for which we could reasonably have hoped.

I could have added, for clarity, "considering the nature of the movie industry."

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Amazon, as you may have heard, is producing some kind of Tolkien-based film project. As you may also have heard, they advertised for an "intimacy coordinator" to work on it. It will be surprising if whatever they produce doesn't justify another sentence from that 2004 post:

I fully expected that the movie industry could not touch such a work without soiling it.

A fantasy series called The Wheel of Time is currently being released, one episode per week, on Amazon. Because of a general weakness for fantasy, I've watched the first couple of them. I don't recommend it to anyone who doesn't really like fantasy, and only with reservations there. And I don't want to bother saying anything more about it than that it's well-produced and socially conscious entertainment. The first of those is a compliment, the second is not.


The End of "The End"

Extremely idle question to which a very brief search did not yield an answer: when did movies stop saying "The End" at the end? 

Or maybe some of them still do, but I don't think I've seen it for a long time. 


If You've Thought About Subscribing to the Criterion Channel...

...but haven't, and/or if you like film noir, you might want to consider subscribing now. See this for their November new arrivals, which feature a lot of noir, including many with Robert Mitchum, who's the star (along with Jane Greer) of my favorite in this genre, Out of the Past. I wrote about it in the 52 Movies series.

Also among the new arrivals is Thunder Road, which appeared to be available on Netflix back when I first subscribed, when it was all or mostly DVDs by mail. I put on my list but it soon went into the "Saved" category, from which few titles seem to return. I've been wanting to see it again for years. I thought it was great when I was about twelve.


Martin Phipps: From the Soundtrack of The Crown

When I watched the series I was so struck by this segment that I went looking for the soundtrack. It's called "New Queen," with apparently semi-ironic intent, since it occurs at the end of Series 3, Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee.

I absolutely love that piece. I just wish it went on longer. There are other good things in the soundtrack but nothing grabbed me as much as this.

Here's the whole scene. I take it for granted that the series gives a picture in some ways false, but whatever might be said along that line, Olivia Colman's performance as Elizabeth is outstanding: