Sunday, February 28, 2010

DVD Review: The 39 Steps(2008)

Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps has been praised by many critics for its witty dark comedy, its atmospheric handling of different settings, and for some fetching performances, especially that of the star, Robert Donat. Donat plays an innocent man accused of a murder on the run from both the police and the group of spies who are actually guilty. While the plot borders on the silly at times, the film has a kind of innocent charm—with Madeleine Carroll and Donat chastely handcuffed together in an old Scottish inn and its dark scenic shots of the chase through the Scottish countryside, not to mention Donat's bravura impromptu speech before a political rally and the shooting at the Palladium with the villain jumping to the stage a la John Wilkes Booth. And, of course there is the iconic image of the woman's scream merging into the whistle of the railroad train carrying the fleeing Donat.

Still despite the fairly positive criticism of this early work by one of filmdom's great directors, The 39 Steps is a film ripe for remake. Although the plot does have its moments, it has its problems as well. Character motivation is an issue. The plot can be somewhat confusing, and the climactic revelation is something of a letdown. Moreover, the script is quite an embellishment on the actual source material. So it is not surprising that it was revisited in 1959 in color and then again in 1978. The latter is the version that is credited with being closest to the source.

Now comes a 2008 BBC adaptation newly available on DVD. This version stars Rupert Penry-Jones as the innocent on the run and Lydia Leonard as his companion in flight and unlikely love interest, and while closer to the novel than the Hitchcock, it probably takes more liberties than the 1978 film. Overall this new adaptation emphasizes the thriller aspects of the story; there is a lot more gunplay, an airplane attack, and some tumbling down hillsides in front of oncoming cars, just the kind of thing we have come to expect from modern action heroes chasing spies. There is less of the dark comedy that distinguishes the 1935 adaptation, and what there is lacks the Hitchcock charm. There are certainly some beautifully filmed scenes of the Scottish countryside. Location shots of Scottish castles and manors are excellent. Most importantly, the plot is not quite as farfetched, and most of what is most difficult to swallow is explained by surprise revelations, which is better than nothing.

There are some nice little bits of homage to Hitchcock: some shots of running legs, a shot of the two killer spies from the rear dressed in coats and fedoras, and a merging of a little girl screaming and the attempts to start cranking a car motor (which seems to echo the classic railroad whistle/scream). But for the most part, this is its own movie. It does a fine job of evoking the feeling of pre-WWI England, beginning with the stuffy London men's club and the Scottish manor house to an accurate portrayal of the British attitudes to the Germans before the beginning of the war. Although as it was pointed out when the film first aired there were quite a few historical blunders in the film's use of planes with machine guns and trains which were not available in 1914.

Performances reek with BBC restraint. Penry-Jones is dashing and noble as Richard Hannnay the bored engineer newly returned from Africa unhappy in stuffy old London who learns, under duress, to value his country. Every once in awhile he meanders towards James Bond, but he never really gets there. Lydia Leonard's Victoria Sinclair is a modern woman looking for a greater role in the world and capable of taking on that greater role. She is less a damsel in distress than a reliable partner in crime. Although some complain that she is an unnecessary addition to the original. Patrick Malahide is the gentleman villain, ruthless but understated. Eddie Marsan, Inspector Lestrade in the new Sherlock Holmes film, plays Scudder, the spy who sets everything in motion when he runs into Hannay's apartment and gives him the code book before he gets killed.

While there is nothing especially memorable about this remake of The 39 Steps, there is no Mr. Memory shot at the Palladium, there is no one hanging from the hands of Big Ben, the DVD does provide a pleasantly entertaining hour and a half.

I might add, although it has nothing to do with the film, the DVD does contain a very clever advertisement for BBC America. Don't skip it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Friend of the Earth A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Narrative bounces back and forth between 2025 when the ecosystem of the world has fallen apart, and the late eighties and the environmental movement and eco-terrorism. Hero is a middleaged man who gets involved late in life in the environmental movement, and embraces outright warfare after a botched attempt at passive resistance. As a young-old man in the 21st century he works at saving wild animals for a Michael Jackson kind of figure. Book emphasizes what may be the futility of an attempt to save the planet.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: Charles Dickens by Michael Slater

When you decide to write a new biography of someone who already has a shelf full of tomes, with at least one of them claiming to be definitive, you need some sort of hook to hang it on, something to justify its existence. A trunk filled with newly discovered letters would be nice, or perhaps a newly complete collection of correspondence. A new journal, a long lost manuscript, a freshly resurrected contemporary account: any of these might do in a pinch. Such historical artifacts wanting, an author is left to find some novel intellectual approach to take to the material.

Such, of course is the problem awaiting any would be biographer of Charles Dickens. There is a contemporary account of his life by his long time friend John Forster. There is a G. K. Chesterton life that some credit with a Dickens revival at the beginning of the twentieth century. There is a massive two volume scholarly biography from 1953 by Edgar Johnson, which makes a reasonable claim to tell us everything we ever might have wanted to know about the novelist, and if we still had any questions, Peter Ackroyd added another equally massive one volume tome in 1992, and dished a little Dickens dirt while doing so.

Faced with this problem, Michael Slater's Charles Dickens, a new biography of this most eminent of the eminent Victorians, focuses on the prolific author's impressive output in the variety of lesser genres, those often given short shrift in contrast to the understandably lavish attention given to the novels. He says in a short preface that he has "been particularly concerned to place his novels in the context of the truly prodigious amount of other writing that he was constantly producing alongside the serial writing of these books, and to explore the web of connections between them and it, as well as connections with his superlative letters and his personal life." He goes on to point out that while these "other" writings contain much that is both characteristic of Dickens' major works and useful in understanding them, they are little known by any other than the Dickens aficionados and specialists.

Slater has a point. Dickens was a prolific writer. While working on his novels, he wrote sketches, letters, reviews and occasional essays for contemporary periodicals. He wrote pieces for the stage. He wrote shorter tales, travel books and a history for children. Some of this writing, like the annual Christmas tales were among Dickens most popular with his contemporaries, despite the fact that it is probably only A Christmas Carol that remains popular today. And as Slater's impressive scholarship shows, this work is indeed a neglected goldmine filled with nuggets of insight into the novels' themes, characters and plots, and in some cases an intrinsic value of its own.

If at times, Slater seems more concerned with the writing than the life—he barely mentions, for example, the birth of Dickens' son Walter, concentrating instead on the author's labor pains with Barnaby Rudge--who can gainsay him. After all, the only reason we are reading Dickens' life is that he wrote Barnaby Rudge, well maybe not Barnaby Rudge, specifically, but the novels that it stands for.

Still while the details of Dickens' life are here, they are sketchy at best, and if a reader is looking for a complete account of the writer's life rather than insights into his work, there are certainly better places to go.
Slater's Dickens biography is probably better suited to the scholar and the enthusiast than it is to the general reader, to the reader who wants to learn something about "The Mudfog Papers," The Haunted Man, Sunday Under Three Heads, and countless other minor pieces. The story of his life is here, but the reader will have to dig through a lot of ephemera to get at it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review: The Bronte Myth, by Lucasta Miller

“Virginia Woolf came to the conclusion that the facts of biography ‘are not like the facts of science–once they are discovered, always the same. They are subject to changes of opinion; opinions change as times change.’” This observation quoted from Lucasta Miller’s study of the ever changing image of the Bronte sisters may well serve as both a motto and the raison d’etre for her work. She is not so much concerned with getting at some ultimate truth of who the Bronte sisters were, what they were like, why they were able to accomplish so much, what it was that made them tick; that would be nice were it possible. The problem is that it is not possible. Most of the factual information is missing, but even if it were available, even if there were diaries and an abundance of letters and detailed reports of contemporaries, all that information would still be subject to vagaries of the biographer’s interpretation and the fashions of the day.

What is not possible is an objective portrait of the artist. What is possible is an examination of what other biographers and writers have done to try to determine just what their biases, cultural and individual may have been, to measure what they have done against the facts available, to see clearly the myth they have created.

And myth there has been aplenty.

Beginning with Charlotte’s own “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” which she wrote for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights where she tried to defend her sister against the charges of coarseness by painting her as a country mouse unschooled in the ways of the more cultivated society. She allowed her readers the impression that Emily had never been beyond the Yorkshire moors that dominate the melancholy setting of her novel. She doesn’t mention that Emily accompanied her to Belgium, for example. Charlotte had an agenda, and she suited her portrait to that agenda.

Miller points out that the same can be said for Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell in her famous biography of Charlotte herself. Mrs. Gaskell, Miller argues, typically Victorian in her attitudes towards women and their role in society, was uncomfortable with the notion that a woman author could be solely a woman author, and this despite the fact that she was a well known novelist and critic herself. The Mrs. is the key. A woman may be a writer, but she must be a wife as well and a mother if possible. In her biography, she found it necessary to turn charlotte into a home body, a characteristic Victorian angel in the house, busy with all the little household chores and duties that filled the lives of ‘normal’ nineteenth century housewives. If she wrote novels, she did so in her spare time. Husband and family must be foremost in her life.

She created a Charlotte Bronte to meet her own expectations, as well as those of her contemporaries. She was more interested in Charlotte Bronte, the woman, than in Charlotte the novelist. She paints a picture of saintly woman giving up of herself to do her duty in the home, and it is this picture that gained currency through most of the rest of the nineteenth century. There is the story, for example, of the elderly servant who had grown too short sighted to peel potatoes adequately, and the selfless Charlotte breaking off from her writing to redo the peeling which Miller quotes from a collection of nineteenth century lives of women, Women of Worth (1859) to show the influence of Mrs. Gaskell’s work: “Every menial office in the establishment was exacted of the children, not more as a matter of necessity than of duty, and Charlotte continued to discharge them all until the year before her death, with the force of habit and the penchant of liking. Grates were scoured, furniture scrubbed, beds tossed, floors washed and swept, bread baked, and all sorts of plain cooking, done by these little, quiet, heartbroken-looking children, who did every one of the same things daily after they became celebrated women.”

This picture only began to change when the discovery of Charlotte’s letters to the Belgian schoolmaster, M. Heger, whom she fictionalized in her novel, Villette, was made. At that point and under the influence of the newly fashionable Freudian ideas about personality development, the portrait of Charlotte began to grow somewhat less saintly. The feminist revolution in the middle of the twentieth century marked still another change in the picture. For feminist critics and biographers, Charlotte was a woman ahead of her time and a victim to the prejudices of the society in which she lived. Post feminist criticism tended see her less as a victim and more as a forerunner of the modern woman–a feminist in the making. In essence, Miller shows that critics and biographers have cut Charlotte to fit the pattern of their preconceptions and created a woman that more than likely never really existed.

The same is true of Emily, and perhaps even more so, because there is even less factual material available–the less information, the easier to speculate, the easier to invent. Emily was the most reclusive of the sisters. Unlike Charlotte and Anne, she never seemed to seek the public eye; she never went out into the London literary society, dined with Thackeray or Mrs. Gaskell, corresponded with publishers and editors. Few letters are extant. Much of what we know about her comes from her novel and the juvenile tales she wrote together with Anne. And while there is much to be learned about a writer from her work, it is only too easy–and often only too wrong–to read biography from fiction.

If Charlotte began as the angel in the house, Emily was something quite different. She had produced a novel quite wild and unwomanly. Jane Eyre might have been a bit coarse, but Wuthering Heights was well nigh demonic. It was almost impossible to believe that a woman could have written such a disturbing book. Surely no woman could have done so–a more likely candidate was needed, and for many, one reared his head–the impassioned, alcoholic Bronte brother, Branwell. Surely he was more likely to have been the model for much of the book. Model? More likely he collaborated in its creation. Collaborated? Why not written it? This kind of wild speculation was characteristic of much of the work on Emily during the nineteenth century.

Later writers more impressed with her novel tended to focus on her literary forebears–seeing her novel as a result of her art rather than an imitation of her life experience or the experience of those around her. As more of her work became available–her poetry and the Gondal sagas– the Byronic elements and the Romantic mystical qualities began to be emphasized.

Like Charlotte, she became what her biographers and critics wanted her to be.

Lucasta Miller has written a well documented–every chapter has over a hundred footnotes–study of the Brontes as they have been perceived over the decades in scholarly works, in popular fiction and film, by academics and artists, by critics and editors. All to often these perceptions have been created out of whole cloth with little if anything to substantiate them.

One particular incident she mentions deserves note as an emblem of the Bronte myth and as perhaps the “greatest biographical gaffe in the history of Bronte studies.” Virginia Moore, in her 1936 biography, The Life and Eager Death of Emily Bronte claimed to have paid “special and respectful attention to primary sources.” In doing so, however, she had great difficulty with the crabbed handwriting of her manuscript sources and misread the title of the poem, “Love’s Farewell,” as “Louis Parensell.” From this she deduced a preciously unknown lover of that name. And although the editor of the poetry corrected the error in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, “the mythic Louis went on to spend a speculative existence in the letters page of the
Poetry Review.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

From Good Reads Website

The Sunday Philosophy Club (Sunday Philosophy Club, #1) The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A lot of analysis of ethical problems, especially about lies and half truths, obligations to act on one's knowledge. Ultimately the ending is unsatisfactory, in that Isabel simply believes the killer's assertion that it was an accident. In the tradition of the unlikely investigator.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Survivor Again?

So the new season of Survivor began last night, and as late as seven thirty I was still undecided about watching. For eighteen seasons I had watched religiously, suffered thunder storms and sand fleas, rice depravation and exile isolation as the tribes dwindled down to a precious few, for eighteen seasons I had spent Thursday nights at eight glued to some not quite tropical paradise, African veldt, or Australian wilderness, and then last season something happened. I voted myself off the island in the middle of the third episode.

It's not that Survivor 19 was necessarily inferior in any way. It was after all Survivor tried and true. There were the schemers. There were the boy scouts. There were the struggles of souls caught between honor and venery. There were the Faustian bargains. It was a different cast, but the stereotypes were pretty much the same, and the cast was no better, or no worse than most of the previous eighteen. Maybe, that was the problem: after eighteen seasons of watching fellow human beings fighting the elements and each other in pursuit of a million dollars, maybe enough was enough. Had Survivor jumped the shark? To everything, especially television shows, there is a season. Had its season come?

Then along comes Survivor20. And there they are—Colby and Jerri, Rupert and Cirie, Coach and Stephanie. Just when you get out, they drag you. . . .you know the rest. Here they were back again—heroes and villains, the people you love to hate, the people you love to love. True there was Russell, but then there was Boston Rob complete with the ubiquitous Red Sox ball cap as well. James is there with that winning smile, and you have to wonder if he still has an immunity idol in his back pack. JT's coming back with his 'aw shucks' modesty and his million bucks. What's a guy to do? At eight o'clock, like an alcoholic sneaking into a bar after an AA meeting, I'm sitting in front of the television, watching as four helicopters deliver the twenty superstars to beautiful Samoa.

The first episode was a two hour extravaganza that had everything from lost bikini tops to broken limbs, wrung chicken necks to budding romance, and of course a good dose of preliminary scheming and back biting. There were tears. There was chest thumping braggadocio. There was humble pie. Of course there was beautifully photographed scenery. All presented with the customary Survivor manipulative editing.

The interesting thing about the Heroes and Villains hook they're using is that some heroes when clumped together with other heroes don't seem quite so heroic, and some villains turn into downright nice guys. Colby loses a challenge to Coach and suddenly Colby is ten years older, while Coach seems less the lying blowhard. Rob and Randy have at least something of a work ethic. Rupert, Mr. Dependable, can't make a fire with the flint. Cirie and Tom are every bit as Machiavellian as Russell and Parvati. Context is all. Spots are changing right before our eyes.

In the end when the saccharine Sugar gets voted out by her fellow heroes at tribal council after helping to screw up the immunity challenge, keeping everyone up at night with idle chatter, and turning off the straight arrow Colby with her temptress in the night machinations, you had to know it was coming. You had to know it was coming even after the red herrings thrown in by the editors to try for at least something that might pass for suspense. Perhaps the only real suspense came in the teaser for next week's show with Boston Rob passed out on the ground and getting medical attention. How can you not tune in? Although if there is a serious injury involved, you have to question the ethics of using it to promote the coming episode. In any case, we'll find out Thursday, if the news doesn't get out earlier.

The problem is that before that there is another reality based decision to make. The Amazing Race, season 16 begins Sunday. For fourteen seasons I have religiously watched. . . .

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review: Dimanche and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky

With the enthusiastic reception of Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky's 1940 panoramic novel depicting the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, discovered by her daughter fifty years later and published in English translation in 2006, there has been an ever increasing interest in any and everything else of the neglected author's work that might be resurrected. Two other volumes followed: Fire in the Blood, a novella in 2007 and a 2008 collection of short works, including the novella, "David Golder." Now a newly translated collection of ten of her short stories, Dimanche and Other Stories has become available from Vintage Books.

While three of the ten stories, deal with the period around the beginning of WW II, indeed two of them, concerned with refugees of one kind or another fleeing the approaching Nazi army, could well have sat nicely in Suite Francaise, six of the other stories are set between the wars and the seventh is set in a pre-war Ukraine. Moreover, the tone of most of these stories is reminiscent of no author so much as Anton Chekov. Nemirovsky's Russian heritage translates well into the Parisian cafes and drawing rooms of these stories.

"Dimanche," ("Sunday:" all titles are given in French and then translated) the feature story, parallels in counterpoint the story of a mother in her forties trapped in a passionless marriage and that of her daughter just twenty and beginning to experience what she thinks is love. It is a bitter sweet story illustrating how quickly youthful passion turns to gray middle age, and it is all played out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon as the various members of a family of four go about spending their day. The daughter goes off to secretly meet her lover; the father leaves after lunch for a tryst with his mistress. The mother stays at home with the younger child. Little happens, but as in a Chekov story, everything happens.

"Les rivages heureux"("Those Happy Shores") also deals with the loss of youth contrasting a young woman's happiness in her love affair with the plight of an aging tart she meets in a café as she waits for her lover on New Year's Eve. Although, Christiane, the young lady in this story, seems much more worldly wise than Nadine, the naïve young lady of "Dimanche", the suggestion is fairly clear that age will be as unkind to her as it seems to be for everyone else, be they mothers or tarts.

In "Fraternite" ("Brotherhood") an older Frenchman, paradoxically named Christian Rabinovitch, who has spent his life fleeing from his Jewish heritage meets a poor old Jewish man at a train station. Christian is on his way to a weekend with gentile friends whose daughter his son would like to marry. Christian has some qualms about the marriage, both from his own pride and his fear that though friends they may well reject a Jewish suitor for their daughter. The old Jew at the station functions as a doppelganger, evoking in Christian the brotherhood of the title. This is quite an interesting story given the charge of self hating Jew sometimes leveled at Nemirovsky.

"La Femme de don Juan" ("Don Juan's Wife") takes the form of a long letter written by a dying servant to the daughter of an old employer revealing her mother's dark secret. Le sortilege ("The Spell") is the story set in Russia. It is a story about an adult relationship told through the eyes of a young girl who really doesn't understand what is happening. Liens du Sang ("Flesh and Blood"), the longest story in the volume, examines family relationships as a pride of older children gather together to deal with their elderly mother's sickness and their own hopes and fears, jealousies and pettiness. In Le spectateur ("The Spectator"), an aging dilettante from a neutral country trying to leave France at the beginning of the war, discovers that neutrality is not necessarily going to keep one safe. Each story focuses like a laser beam on the vagaries of the human condition, and the ironies that abound in human relations.

Whether she is describing the torturous impatience of a young girl waiting for a lover who doesn't show up or the labyrinth of relationships in a large family no longer close, Nemirovsky is always the most astute of observers. And always those observations are presented with a typical understated irony. At the end of Le confidente, the husband who has learned the truth about his recently deceased wife from a woman he thought was her friend explains why that truth is irrelevant. It is characteristic Nemirovsky: "He now understood that he had loved an illusion, a shadow. He knew with absolute certainty that he had at last learned the truth. But he was more tormented than ever because he understood what Camille could not grasp: that his wife's soul, her wit and intelligence, were of no importance—all that was superfluous. What really mattered was the gentle movement of her shoulders when she turned her head toward him, the shape and warmth of her breast, the expression of her face, her tone of voice, the quick, bored way she pushed him aside when he approached her when she wanted to escape him (and now he knew why). This was what he would never get over."