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Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

The title belongs to an Agatha Christie novel and to a three-part television adaption of it which recently became available on BritBox, and which I strongly recommend to anyone who likes This Sort of Thing.

The sort of thing is a murder mystery featuring: an English village in the early 20th century; much beautiful photography of the village, the countryside, and great houses; a beautiful, witty, and brave heroine; a handsome and brave hero; the village church and its vicar; sinister aristocrats; a sinister doctor; names like "Bassington-ffrench"; a highly improbable story with a satisfactory resolution. And a light touch throughout.

I haven't read the book, but the series strikes me as being just about perfect as a Christie adaptation. It doesn't involve Poirot or Miss Marple, but rather two young people, Bobby Jones and Lady Frances ("Frankie") Derwent, the hero and heroine mentioned above. It's directed by Hugh Laurie, who also appears as the sinister doctor. Apart from Laurie, the only name I recognized among the cast was Emma Thompson, but they are all excellent. 

I found it completely delightful, as did my wife. The only falling-off from this near-perfection is one utterly incongruous use of the f-word. I suspect that in the book it's "bloody" or something of that sort that was pretty strong language in Christie's time, and that the writer(s) or Laurie thought it needed updating to something at least mildly offensive to 21st century ears, as the character who says it immediately apologizes. Or maybe there is a formal requirement in England that every program must include at least one instance of this word. Anyway it seems impossible that Christie would have used it.

There was one other small thing that struck me as slightly off: Bobby's friend "Knocker" Beadon is played by an actor who seems to be Jamaican (or some other formerly British West Indies place). That seems unlikely given the time and place, but I suppose it was not impossible, and in any case the character fits in very well. 

Here's the trailer. I had not seen it before watching the series, but it would certainly have made me do so. I cannot abide most trailers these days, which give you only a series of jerky quick cuts showing sensational moments which add up to nothing more than a rough impression. This one, in contrast, gives you a complete little scene, and a real sense of the characters.

There must be something about the book that makes it seem suited to dramatization, as this is the third one, fourth if you count one episode of a French TV show. One, from 2011, is reworked to include Miss Marple. That was unnecessary. Bobby and Frankie are just fine.


"Run, y'all!"

Another one of the many bits of C.S. Lewis's writings that rattle around in my head is one in which he discusses a phenomenon which troubled his youthful Christianity: he was not able to feel things that he was told, or at least that he felt, he should feel. It may be in Surprised By Joy. Or maybe it's a discussion of his reasons for writing allegorically in the Narnia stories.

Anyway, I have the same problem. In a few days I'll be attending various Holy Week liturgies, and in some of them, especially the Stations of the Cross on Friday, I will be contemplating the Crucifixion and quite likely, depending on the texts, be reciting words that say I'm weeping, filled with grief, and so on. But for the most part I won't actually be feeling these things. For whatever reasons, having to do with long familiarity but not only limited to that, I don't feel the intense emotions I rightly should feel about the Passion. I don't mean that I'm indifferent, and sometimes  am touched, but mostly my reaction is somewhat abstract: I think very cosmic thoughts about the awesome significance of it, rather than feel simple human grief for this innocent who is so wrongly tortured and killed.

I did feel those emotions very powerfully once, long ago, watching a TV show. Sixty years is a long time not only to remember a TV show but to be touched again by the pity and sorrow which it produced. I'm pretty sure I would find myself having difficulty speaking if I were to try to tell the story out loud. 

The show was the old General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. I thought I remembered that much, and thanks to the Internet I was able to find more exact information: the episode was called "The Patsy," and it was first broadcast in February of 1960. So I was eleven years old. 

It starred Sammy Davis, Jr., whose name is probably not as well known as it once was, at least not to younger people. He was one of the most successful and best-known black actors of the time--well-known even in comparison to his fellow members of the "Rat Pack"--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. In the show, Davis is the titular "patsy" (a dupe, a scapegoat, the butt of jokes--I point that out in case that old bit of slang is no longer generally known). He plays the only black member of a squad of soldiers. He's naive and maybe somewhat simple-minded, and the other men are constantly making fun of him, playing practical jokes on him, and so forth. If I remember correctly he does his best to take it good-naturedly but is clearly hurt by it.

In the final prank, one of the men drops a grenade which everyone but the patsy knows to be a dummy. The others feign fear and move away. The patsy throws himself down on the grenade and lies there yelling "Run, y'all! Run!," waiting in terror for it to go off. When he realizes it isn't going to, he just lies there, sobbing, still muttering "Run." 

At least that's the way I remember it. As a boy growing up in that post-World-War-II time, I had heard of this act of heroism, seen it enacted in movies. The thought of such a self-sacrifice was always moving, but what made it so very much so in this case was that the one giving his life was despised and rejected of men.

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I won't be posting again until next Monday. But I'm not going offline completely (probably should), and will still see comments, and respond if/when inclined.


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. 


Good Omens (TV series)

For many years I've heard the novels of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett recommended, often very highly and sometimes from people whom I know personally and who generally have pretty good literary judgment. I thought I might check them out sooner or later, but they weren't a high priority and I still haven't read anything by either of them. This 2019 TV series, based on a book which they co-authored, seemed like a chance to see what the praise was all about. Pratchett died in 2015, and the series seems to have been entirely under the control of Gaiman, as both writer and producer. 

The premise is that an angel and a demon who have been on the Earth beat since the Creation (the date of which, we are told, Bishop Usher was actually right about) have become more or less friends and rather comfortable with their 21st century simulated-human existence. The End Times have come, the anti-Christ is to be born. and the final war between heaven and hell is to commence. The pair have important roles to play in all this, but there's a problem: they don't want the world to end. They are pretty content with the way things are. So they set about trying to sabotage the apocalypse, and the whole thing becomes farce in the classic sense: "situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable." (Wikipedia) Right off the bat, for instance, they lose track of the anti-Christ, and waste a lot of time trying to steer the development of the wrong child. 

The series did not make reading either of its authors seem more urgent to me, and since Gaiman was apparently in control the blame can't be laid on insensitive TV producers. It's clever, but not that clever; funny, but not that funny. It leans too heavily on hackneyed conceptions of angels, demons, heaven, hell, and God. The last of these, for instance, is heard only as a voiceover (by Frances McDormand) and is the sort of limited wisecracking hardly-God-at-all construct which has been around at least since George Burns did the number in Oh, God back in the '70s. The angel (played by Michael Sheen) is an effete and timid fussbudget, apparently homosexual. The demon (David Tennant) is rich, witty, and glamorous, though most of the other demons are a really nasty lot. The angels are different but not really much nicer, slick inhabitants of a sort of empty white and glass space suggestive of a corporate office, behaving accordingly. Gabriel is played by Jon Hamm, who apparently had a key role in Mad Men, which I have not seen, but I suppose the association added flavor to the role for those who have seen it. 

The whole "isn't religion silly" vein of humor is pretty well played out at this point--"religion" here meaning mainly Christianity, or rather a pop-secular parody of it. People have been doing it for quite some time now, and there's no longer much adventure to be had in satirizing something that was already a parody. With "religion" now generally and openly despised by our most dominant and influential cultural forces, this kind of thing begins to seem like a big exercise in missing the point.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and would sort of half-recommend it. It's very elaborately and effectively produced, and there are a good many funny moments. The cast in general seems to be having a lot of fun, especially David Tennant. And I had fun identifying some of the actors playing characters very far removed from their usual roles. My wife heard a lot of "I know that face/voice, I just can't place it" from me. Anna Maxwell Martin is Beelzebub. Nina Sosanya, whose face and voice if not name will be familiar to people like me who watch a lot of British crime dramas, plays a nun (actually a satanic nun, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl). Miranda Richardson is Madame Tracy, a middle-aged (at least) woman who combines the occupations of prostitute and medium-for-hire. Mirielle Enos, the troubled detective (aren't they all?) of the American version of The Killing is War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The one that took me the longest time to get was an actor whose face I recognized but couldn't place until four episodes or so in: he is Michael McKean, who plays Chuck, the older brother of Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. He plays one of the last Witchfinders, and gets special credit for being a rare American actor who does a believable British accent. 

Here's the trailer:

Having watched the trailer again, I'll add that there is a definite philosophical or theological kinship here with Wim Winders's Wings of Desire. Worlds apart aesthetically, though. 


The Squid Game

Anybody seen this? I'd been hearing about it-it's very popular right now--and watched an episode out of curiosity, slightly against my better judgment. Should've listened to my better judgment, because of course once I got to a certain point I wanted to see what was going to happen. And then I was sorry. 

It's a sort of variation on the gladiatorial game concept, or the Hunger Games concept. It's equal parts violent and creepy-weird, the sort of thing that makes you feel a little polluted for having watched it. Strongly not recommended. 


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:


Twin Peaks Revisited

(Spoilers!)

It's hard for me to believe that it's been over three years since I finished Twin Peaks: The Return and stated my intention to re-watch the original series and Fire Walk With Me. Here's what I said at the time: "fascinating but disappointing."

So I finally got back to this plan a month or two ago, accepting the fact that I would have to "buy" the series on Amazon if I wanted to stream it rather than spend a lot of time waiting for Netflix DVDs to travel back and forth. I made it through the episode in season 2 where the identity of the murderer is revealed, then watched Fire Walk With Me (on DVD).

I still love the TV series, though I will admit, with a little sadness, that some of the bloom is off the rose now. I suppose part of the delight of my first viewing was the unexpectedness of so much of it--the juxtaposition of the normal and two kinds of strange, the dark and the silly. Even the darker parts have an element of...not exactly silly, but of parody or caricature, as in the decor and atmosphere of One Eyed Jack's, and for that matter even the Black Lodge, with its "modern" furniture. Obviously startling juxtapositions can't continue to startle, though they certainly still amuse. Why were all those people in uniform--Navy, I think?--bouncing balls all over the Great Northern?

The movie, on the other hand, seems even better than I remember, but it is quite different from the series. The DVD that Netflix sent includes a thirty-minute documentary made in 2000 in which most of the major actors are interviewed. Several of them, most strongly Peggy Lipton (Norma), weren't happy with the film's seriousness and darkness, the absence of the comic-but-respectful treatment of what she refers to as "small-town values" in the series.

And whether one approves or disapproves, she's right about the difference. The movie is unlike the series in that it's almost entirely serious and dark. There's not much of the whimsy of the series, less depiction of young romance, more of sex. I don't recall anything comparable to, for instance, the video of Laura and Donna larking girlishly on their outing with James, early in the original series. There's a lot more of what we think of as normal-for-Lynch weirdness, like the mysterious boy wearing a bird mask, and the Black Lodge. There's no old-fashioned wise Major Briggs, and Agent Cooper is a more straightforwardly serious character, whom we see less of than in the series (partly because Kyle McLachlan was concerned about being typecast). And it gets pretty violent, close to horror movie territory at times. It's just not lovable in the way the series is.

But this is a movie, with a time limit of a couple of hours or so, necessarily focused pretty tightly, unless it's to be just another episode in a long and wandering story. A number of the plot threads from the series are either missing or only lightly alluded to. It delves deeply into Laura's character and the things which torment her, including the entity called Bob, and succeeds, which is not a fun ride. Laura is more clearly a lost soul here, in the sense that she is further gone in corruption than we saw in the series. But she's not so lost that she doesn't know it, as witnessed by her outraged intervention when Donna attempts to follow her path. And if I understand it correctly part of the reason for her death wish is that she wants to prevent Bob from taking possession of her.

There's a lot of interesting information in the Wikipedia article on the film. I was especially interested in the critical reception, which was initially quite bad but has grown more positive over the years. Count me on the positive side. I think it's powerful and profound, and although I haven't seen all of Lynch's work, of what I have seen I would only rank Mulholland Drive higher--maybe. I admit to being a little bit annoyed about a few things that I couldn't make sense of. What exactly does it mean in the last scene that Mike demands Leland's "pain and suffering"? I thought Mike had renounced the murder and spiritual cannibalism he had practiced with Bob. Or is it really Mike? I'm generally confused about Mike and The Man From Another Place. 

I had entirely forgotten a great deal from my last viewing of Fire Walk. Two especially powerful moments stand out: Ronette's prayer in the train car, and this exchange between Laura and James not long before her murder:

James: What's wrong with us? We have everything.
Laura: Everything but everything.

That seems a fitting summary of what's happened to Western civilization over the past century or so. And particularly so for Americans of Lynch's generation, and mine. I've wondered if Lynch's work will always appeal more to those of us who recall the pre-sexual-revolution, pre-Sixties culture of the U.S. But I do know of at least one person born in the '70s who likes it as much as I do.

I noticed two very small things that are very interesting in light of Twin Peaks: The Return. In an early scene, when the mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie with a bad southern accent) appears and delivers a strange rant, he says "I'm not going to talk about Judy." And one of the young people, maybe Donna, says "Laura's mother is kind of spooky," or something like that. Did Lynch already have in mind that there was an evil entity called Judy associated with Laura's mother, or did he develop that idea after the fact, and take the name from that seemingly insignificant bit in the movie?

I guess I'll finish out the second series, though I agree with what seems to be the nearly universal view that the show deteriorates. And watch The Return again?...I don't know...I guess. What I'd really like to see is Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, ninety minutes worth of footage that didn't make it into Fire Walk. But it doesn't seem to be available at the moment, either on DVD or streaming. 


The Dale Cooper Quartet: Metamanoir

I didn't know until I looked for information about this group that there is a genre--okay, subgenre--of music called "dark jazz." And I bet you didn't know how many subgenres of jazz there are: see this Wikipedia page for a list and brief descriptions. I often suspect that some of the many, many subgenres of popular music exist mainly in the minds of critics, or of a very small coterie of fans and musicians. 

Be that as it may, "dark jazz" is a pretty good description of much of Angelo Badalamenti's music for Twin Peaks--not the nostalgic Julee Cruise love songs, but the instrumental background music of the Black Lodge and other dark scenes--and also, as the name suggests, of the music of the Dale Cooper Quartet. The music for Audrey's dance, for instance (a brief snippet):

I could quibble--I am quibbling--about whether the word "jazz" is accurate, because this isn't really jazz in any usual sense. In both these instances there's no improvisation, no sense of spontaneity at all. It is the opposite of lively (though "deadly" is not the way to express the opposition; such is our language). The "jazz" part of the term refers to the predominant instruments: reeds, drums, string bass. But these are really, so to speak, flavorings, meant to evoke an atmosphere similar to that of a noir film: dim, smoky, mysterious, maybe sinister, somewhat antique. It's very cinematic music, a stylized nod toward the subdued and melancholy sort of jazz that would be appropriate for a scene where the private eye meets the femme fatale in a bar and begins to fall in love with her.

Like any Twin Peaks fan, I love the music, so when a group named for Agent Cooper appeared some years ago at emusic.com I immediately gave it a listen. The music pretty well lived up to the promise of the name, so I bought this album, and another one, the enticingly titled Quatorze Pieces de Menace (the band is French). But, as has often happened, they were caught up in the flood of inexpensive MP3 music I was purchasing at the time, and I didn't really give them the attention they deserved. My recent re-viewing of Twin Peaks reminded me of them.

DaleCooperQuartetMetamanoir

I listened to Metamanoir (Meta Manor?) first, for the simple and easy reason that it appears first in the alphabetically-ordered list my music player shows me. It's excellent. It isn't an imitation of Badalamenti's music, but it's very much of a similar ambience. Besides the jazz-ish instrumentation, there are guitar and electronic sounds, along with natural sounds and mysterious industrial-mechanical creaks, rhythms, and drones (also pretty Lynchian, or Badalamentian). There are vocals, but they're pretty minimal, and the lyrics, where they're understandable, evoke melancholy and uneasiness.

The song titles are all in French, and have a Rimbaud-like, or at any rate very French, almost surreal quality, juxtaposing words in unusual and not necessarily intelligible ways: "Sa Prodigieux Hermitage, or "His Prodigious Hermitage." "Eux Exquis Acrostole" is the second track, and Google Translate turns this into "Them Exquisite Acropole." "Acropole" seems to be "Acropolis,"  but "Them" surely can't be correct. Oh well, whatever. The preceding track, "Une Petit Cellier" ("A Little Cellar," I think) consists of slow heavy breathing, a rhythm-less saxophone, and an organ drone. Then at the end there's a female voice recorded in telephone fidelity, at first unintelligible (to me), then becoming words, first spoken and then sung, words which will be prominent in "Acrostole":

Try to run away
The darkness won't cover you
Run away
Run away

Note: the video has some scenes some might find disturbing, such as a man apparently receiving electro-shock treatment. (Is that Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?). You might want to sit somewhere else and listen.

My MP3 copy does not include "and the Dictaphones" in the band's name. I'm not sure whether that's part of the official name of the band or the name of other participants in the album. In any case, if you like this, by all means seek out the album. It's available on Bandcamp

My re-viewing of Twin Peaks on Netflix, by the way, as I feared, did not come anywhere near completion of the whole original series. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it was removed from Netflix at the end of June, and I was only able to get as far as episode 5 of season 2. As fans will immediately note, that's still several episodes before the revealing of Laura Palmer's murderer, after which, by near-universal opinion, the quality falls off. Feeling compelled to see it at least up until that point, I resentfully paid Amazon $20 for access to the whole of season 2. I expect to watch episode 8 tomorrow, and the climactic episode 9 soon after.  

I'm not quite as enchanted by the series this time around. But that still leaves me pretty enchanted.


The Crown Series Four

This has been out for some months now, and although I enjoyed the first three series a good deal, I was dreading this one a bit. The previous season had taken the Queen and her story up to the late '70s, so this one was inevitably going to deal with Charles, Diana, and Thatcher. And that was, also inevitably, going to be painful at best. Apart from the pain intrinsic to the Charles and Diana story, I know that the hatred of Margaret Thatcher among the sorts of people who run the BBC was and is at least on the level of the hatred of Ronald Reagan among the same sorts of people here. 

So I can't say I was disappointed by the treatment of those two stories. They were no worse than I expected. Well, not much, anyway: Charles is treated as more or less a monster crushing the gentle dove Diana, with a fair degree of assistance from the rest of the royal family, and I wonder how much justification there was for that. I certainly hope it was not as bad as portrayed.

The Thatcher story could have been worse. There was some attempt to treat her as a human being. But that aspect of the series was severely handicapped by the strange and unpleasant manner in which Gillian Anderson portrayed her. I admit that I doubt Anderson's ability to act on the level of those superb English actors. But even if that's not the case and these were conscious artistic choices, this particular portrayal struck me as pretty awful. She's utterly stiff, cold, and just plain weird. For some reason--and I assume there must be some real-life reason--whenever she's in conversation she tilts her head oddly, almost unnaturally, in a way that finally began to make my neck hurt. By the last couple of episodes I was actually looking away. 

I couldn't imagine that Anderson's version of Thatcher could ever have won an election. Wondering if she was really that off-putting, I watched several videos of Thatcher speaking, and while she was certainly no one's idea of easygoing, she was in those clips far more relaxed and normal in her speech and general manner than this series portrays her.

I suppose anyone reading this who's interested at all in the series has already seen it. But in case you haven't and are on the fence: I don't especially recommend it. It's extremely well produced and acted, apart from Thatcher. And Olivia Colman as Elizabeth is great again. What an actress she is!--as convincing when playing a middle-class policewoman (Broadchurch) as when playing  Queen Elizabeth. But in addition to the unpleasant aspects I've mentioned there is the frustration of never knowing how much, apart from public events, is history, how much is reasonable filling in of blanks, and how much is pure invention, with an agenda. And apart from the question of accuracy there's a certain cruelty in treating in raw detail the agonies of real people, most of whom are very much alive. I would not want to be William or Harry watching it. 

GillianAndersonAsMargaretThatcher

Addendum: here, for the moment, is the trailer. I say "for the moment" because I noticed that my link to the series 3 trailer (in this post) is no longer valid:

 


Probable Last Word on Dark (German TV series)

I have a feeling that nobody who read my post about this series last November watched it. But in case you did, or in case you still might, but haven't yet seen season 3: well, it is my sad duty to tell you that it's...frustrating. At best. 

I'm not saying "sad" as a formality. I really am saddened, because there was so much I liked about this series: the atmosphere, the acting, the characters, the music. When I wrote that first post, I had only watched season 1. Season 2 was good, but something happened in the last scene of the last episode of season 2 that I thought was a mistake. It threatened to tip the scale from "overly complicated" to "incomprehensible." I'd like to explain that, but it would involve a very big spoiler, so I'll restrain myself.

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