February 2010 Miscellany

Two more short Turgenev novels, included in one volume, both very good indeed. Rudin is the tale of an idealist young talker who inspires love in the young Natasha, but when it comes to a question of action (eloping with her in the face of her mother’s disapproval) fails both Natasha and herself. The intensely moving, tragic and redemptive ending was apparently a much later addition to the book but without it Rudin would be a vastly lesser novel. In On the Eve on the other hand the brilliant and spirited heroine Yelena does defy her upbringing, family and societal convention by marrying and leaving Russia with the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov. Once again the ending is tragic but also again it is a tragedy which is redemptive and uplifting. These summaries convey a very false picture of the books much of which consist of quiet domestic interludes, lengthy conversations, family outings; it is in the contrast of the quotidian with the dramatic, even melodramatic, that some of the book’s power lie. In On The Eve Turgenev pulls off what is for me the pretty unusual trick of managing to write a really compelling and moving love story. I would not say that it is realistic. The realism of the book lies more in the hypocrisies of the society he portrays; above all in the figure of Yelena’s father who himself keeps a mistress yet is outraged that his daughter should marry for love. The scene in which he confronts her when he discovers the truth is a comic masterpiece. Turgenev has the wonderful ability to vary the tone and tenor of his writing from the comic to the tragic writing in all veins with equal assurance. Underlying both books is a deep melancholy although this is much more on the surface in Rudin; in On The Eve it is balanced by the confidence and assurance and vigour of Yelena and Insarov. With every succeeding book I read the more I like and respect Turgenev.

On television an outstanding performance by Julie Walters as Mo Mowlam in the drama Mo. This was actually much the best of the female bio-dramas of which I seem to have been watching such a glut recently (subjects being Blyton, Fonteyn, Fields, Piaf), and the reason for this was very simple; it actually explained, and more importantly showed, the reason why Mo Mowlam was such an important and charismatic figure. It was the failure of the other productions to adequately, albeit in differing ways, achieve this which laid the basis for their failure (although it must be said the level of this failure varied from the abysmal in Enid to the much more marginal in La Vie En Rose). However the success in Mo is the more commendable (and the failure in the others the more perplexing) in that one would have thought that it would be harder to convey a politician’s charisma in an era when their stock in the UK is so extremely low. Once the importance and charisma were established then everything else, including the tragedy of the downfall, flowed naturally in both a dramatic and psychological sense. Much of the credit for the success of the production undoubtedly lies with Julie Walters whose performance was nothing short of brilliant; certainly there was little in the direction (by Philip Martin) of much interest. although it was very well scripted (by Neil McKay). Mo was also noteworthy for underlining the sheer personal unpleasantness of both Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson; if the latter was expected (and he is something of a pantomime villain) Blair’s treachery and backstabbing deserve to be throughly underlined. What destruction and carnage this man brought on his country, his party, the world and as Mo demonstrated even those who thought of him as a friend.

Movies. 49th Parallel (1941) scripted by Pressburger and directed by Powell is the earliest of the PandP movies which I have been able to get hold of from Lovefilm, and actually the last of the three movies which they made where they receive separate credits before they formed the Archers (the others being The Spy in Black and Contraband). 49th Parallel is unashamed propaganda telling the story of a U-Boat crew who attempt to make their way across Canada to America (and, at that date, safety); the film is episodic, consisting of a number of encounters which the crew, under the command of committed Nazi Eric Portman make – the first with the inhabitants of a Hudson’s Bay Trading station notably Laurence Olivier as a French Canadian trapper; the second with a Hutterite community, mostly German, whose leader is Anton Walbrook and where a young Glynis Johns is a survivor of Nazi persecution of her family; the third with Leslie Howard as a writer researching the habits of Native Americans, and the last with an ‘ordinary’ Canadian. I think it quite right to use the actors rather than characters names here since each was no doubt deliberately chosen in part for their identification with specific aspects of the roles they inhabit, particularly Walbrook and Howard. Each incident is meant to show not only a particular aspect of Nazi ideology, but also to demonstrate how some reactions to the War are incorrect. Thus in the first we see Nazi racial ideology as they dismiss and then shoot down the Inuit settlement inhabitants whom they rank alongside black people and Jews as sub-human; we also see Olivier’s character dismissing the war as of no consequence to him and taking an ‘all governments are the same line’ (this is before the Nazis arrive and he pays for his error by death). In the Leslie Howard sequence we see the Nazi hatred of art and thought – rather improbably Howard has a Picasso and a Matisse in his tepee in the remote Rockies, along with a Thomas Mann novel, and we see the Nazis destroy and burn these. Howard too believes himself distanced from the War but he manages to redeem himself in time. The most important confrontation and the film’s centrepiece however is that which occurs in the Hutterite community. Here the question, a central one for PandP, of the non-identification of Germany and Nazism is raised. Portman assumes that because they are German the Hutterites will be Nazi and produces an ideological rant to the entire community full of references to the ties of blood, Aryan destiny and so on. He is answered by Walbrook (in a forerunner of the role he will come to take in Blimp) who utterly rejects him and says that they are German but their Germany has been destroyed by the Nazis; this is underlined when one of the Nazis turns out to be a good baker and wants to leave and stay with the community – Portman has him shot. 49th Parallel is brilliant and effective propaganda which explains very clearly the roots of Nazi ideology, why there can be no compromise with it and why everyone needs to be involved in the war to destroy it. It is also an effective and sometimes moving thriller. However visually and cinematically it does not really prepare us for the genius that was to be unveiled in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp two years later; it is good, effective and does its job in this respect but nothing more. Whether this was because it is in BandW or because PandP were not at this stage in total control I am unable to say. Some of their later work was in BandW and very good indeed so I am inclined towards the latter. 49th Parallel is magnificent propaganda and shows PandP to have a wonderful thematic control; it does not yet show their utter cinematic mastery.

X-Men Origins:Wolverine (2009) is directed in a competent but distinctly uninspired way by Gavin Hood and forms a respectable, though far from exciting addition, to the X-Men mythos. It is not nearly as good as any of the X-Men trilogy and this is not entirely due to the absence of Patrick Stewart (although he has a very brief cameo here) and Ian McKellen (although they leave a large hole); the X-Men work precisely because there is no over-emphasis on any one character as none of them can sustain this (with the exception of Phoenix and the movies were unable to match the cosmic expansiveness of the original comic book story-line there). Wolverine is simply not interesting enough. Actually for my money no comic book character ever is, which is why I prefer the teams and a multiplicity of story lines which do not allow the reader or viewer to pause and consider the manifold weaknesses of the superhero genre. Still for any fan, and I certainly count myself as one, of the X-Men mythos there is enough here to provide an enjoyable if fleeting pleasure.

Toni (1935) is, in the opinion of Geoff Andrew who gives a short talk on the DVD, the first of Renoir’s major films, and also a cinema landmark as a precursor for the Italian neo-realists. Shot on location near Marseilles it tells the story of Toni an Italian immigrant worker who falls in love with Josefa; she however marries Albert who turns out to be a brutal wastrel; Toni marries Marie whom he abandons to protect Josefa. Josefa shoots Albert and in turn Toni is shot as he flees after attempting to portray Albert’s death as suicide. This plot summary is absurd because it sounds melodramatic, when in fact the film is anything but. Renoir is concerned with the detail of ordinary life, with the mundane, but this is transformed not magically but certainly with a sense of poetry. The landscapes are anything but romantic but they are still memorable, especially the aquaduct which frames the opening and closing sequences. These sequences are parallels – immigrant workers arriving bringing with them their songs and culture and hopes; at the start we have Toni, at the end a new batch as Toni lies dead on the aquaduct. Life goes on. Renoir in no way romanticises his working-class characters but it is very clear that his sympathies are wholly with them. The word for this movie – and it is central to Renoir – is humanist. My own view is that there is still some way to go before his full cinematic genius will be revealed and I would not say Toni is a great movie – but it is certainly a significant advance from Boudu and in terms of theme is revelatory.

Duplicity (2009), written and directed by Tony Gilroy, stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as a couple of ex-spies who are trying to pull off a big con together and also seeing if they can have a relationship. It is an attempt at a retro-style (60’s) spy rom-com which does not quite come off because the plot is not clever enough, the visual devices not fresh enough and the attempts at seriousness misfire. There have been much better, cleverer and more entertaining episodes of the BBC TV series Hustle (which in its early days was a riveting watch – original, sparky, funny ; it has now run out of interesting ideas and merely recycles plotlines which is fatal for this kind of endeavour) which attempted a similar thing with much more success. Duplicity was just about watchable, mainly due to the presence of Roberts, but was tiresome in places and never fulfilled even its own limited ambitions.

One concert. The CBSO conducted by Andrew Manze playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (soloist Ronald Brautigam) and Schubert’s 6th Symphony. I was not at my best when we went to this concert but was still captivated and utterly absorbed by the Beethoven. Less so by the Schubert and my feeling was that the concert would have been better the other way around (ie Schubert first) as the Symphony seemed lacking in weight after the Concerto; however I know that this is not the correct order of things (why I have no idea!). This is the second time this year that I have enjoyed but not been really enraptured by Schubert, so I think I will have to conclude he is one of those composers I don’t quite ‘get’ for the present. A television viewing of a NY Met production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on the other hand was utterly magnificent.

And one play. A Rep production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. This is a very sad play and I am unable to understand its description as bittersweet; it seems to me almost totally bleak; indeed the closing monologue in which the narrator describes the events of the play and the year in which they occurred (1935-6) as almost magical seemed at odds with what we had actually witnessed. It may be that this was a result of the emphasis of this particular production, or of the fact that the actor playing this part (Barry Ward) was not very compelling or convincing in my view, but to me the entire play has something of the threnody about it and such happiness as there is seems forced and desperate; unnatural. Given this the play comes over as a bitter attack on the way in which rural life stymies and distorts, the way in  which small communities are both rigidly coercive and dismissive of human possibility. The fates of the five women at its centre are all tragic (and of course the play stacks its argument here by having Agnes and Rose live horrible lives when they do leave; in fact we hear of another woman who has left and gone on to have a rich and fulfilling life) and the sense of human waste is appalling. I am also far from convinced that this is in anyway a feminist play as one of the cast claimed in the programme; certainly it shows five fascinating women but whether their fate is any worse as women than the men of the play and neighbourhood is not really clear to me. The only really happy character in the play is Jack, but he is happy because he is mad which hardly seems a convincing assertion of male difference (this is not to say that rural Ireland in the 1930’s was not a deeply patriarchal society – I am sure that it was – but that the play is not over-concerned with this). No for me it is a lament and a tragedy. I enjoyed but was not wholly gripped by this production which was generally well-conceived and acted (with the exception mentioned above).

One thought on “February 2010 Miscellany

  1. ellenandjim

    INteresting and very full, Nick. I’ll pass on the URL to Trollope19thC for the Turgenev. I saw Duplicity and felt the same; I like Brian Friel plays but have thus far felt they are somehow over praised. They are good to read.

    I like this insight into what is wrong with most bio-pic movies: “it actually explained, and more importantly showed, the reason why Mo Mowlam was such an important and charismatic figure.”


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