Monthly Archives: February 2014

Parade’s End, part I

parade's end bookIt’s been about a year since I watched the Parade’s End miniseries on HBO. I had never heard of Parade’s End before then, though the name Ford Madox Ford sounded familiar. Anyway, it is supposed to be one of the definitive books about World War I, probably right behind All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Of course, that one is written from a German perspective, whereas Parade’s End is so quintessentially, entirely, inescapably British.

Parade’s End is actually a tetralogy–4 novels. To make my life easier, I’m splitting this one into two posts. This one is about the first two books in the series: Some Do Not… and No More Parades, from 1924 and 1925 respectively.

The first book opens with two men in a train-car. A brand new, gleaming, perfect train car, with two men of a class who ‘administered the world’. One of these men is Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch in the miniseries).

The reason Ford opens with this gleaming, punctual, swift train carriage is the same reason I was very interested in this book.  I’m a little obsessed with the Victorian era, which is (technically) 1837-1901, the period that Queen Victoria reigned.  For a while, nearly 15 years, the incredible success of the Victorian era spilled over into the new 20th century. England started the century at its absolute zenith. By the end of WWI, that reflected and lingering glory is mostly gone. Ford sets his novel in those last moments of England’s place as the world superpower. Just before it all falls apart.

The basic points of the story (of all 4 books), revolve around 3 characters. Christopher Tietjens is a brilliant, honorable, slightly belligerent, extremely stubborn Tory from Yorkshire.  His wife, Sylvia, is a conniving, sadistic, painfully beautiful and selfish woman, who married Christopher out of desperation (she was pregnant with another man’s son).  In the miniseries, she was played by Rebecca Hall (who looked so beautiful in it that it makes me want to throw myself out of a window):

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If the books were set in high school, Sylvia would be the Queen Bee, the Regina George. The other woman in Christopher’s life is Valentine Wannop, a bad ass suffragette.

8015647016_03c759c327_zI have already decided that this will be my Halloween costume this year, because suffragettes are my heroes, and how often in life do you get a chance to wear a sash? Valentine is innocent and young, but she’s also very strong, very smart, and incredibly capable.

First of all, I must say that Ford Madox Ford is awesome at writing female characters. He gives them the same amount of agency, of morality, of wrath, and variability, that he gives to male characters. They are not paragons or whores, they are complicated and multi-faceted, and that’s lovely to see. Especially from a book that is set 100 years ago.

But I also have to say that Ford Madox Ford is not great at creating an easy-to-read narrative. He does not hold your hand and walk you through the craggy bits of rock to get to the plot points he has scattered about. He jumps back and forth in time, from soliloquy to dialogue with very little direction for the reader. You have to pay attention and hold your end of the bargain in order to follow where he goes.  But if you can follow, you get a lot of great tidbits and aphorisms.

Remarking on the famous stiff upper lip of English people, he talks about ‘self-suppression in matters of the emotions’, how in small matters, the Englishman ‘will be impeccable and not to be moved’, but in ‘sudden confrontation of anything but physical dangers, he is apt …to go to pieces very badly.’

And Christopher Tietjens is very much the epitome of that sort of English man.  Even in his own thoughts, he is strangely blank about emotions. It is difficult for him to even think some of the horrible thoughts that come upon him, such as the fact that his son and heir is probably not his child, and that he was tricked into marrying a witch of a woman, and now his own sense of duty and honor prevent him from divorcing her.  Sylvia, being a Catholic, will definitely not be divorcing him.

Tietjens is in love with Valentine Wannop very quickly after they meet. But even though his wife has strayed from him, multiple times, he cannot bring himself to do something as dishonorable as cheat on her.  Even though most men think it normal (‘there’s no reason why a man shouldn’t have a girl…’), and the gossip mills already believe Valentine has had his child in secret. He knows Valentine loves him, and ‘his passion for her was a devouring element that covered his whole mind as the atmosphere envelops the earth’. But the two of them are too moral to begin an affair.

The one chink in that resolution is when Christopher is on leave, back from France during the beginning parts of the war. He’s about to leave again, and he does ask her to be his mistress. Ford makes a point to show how this 19th century honor falls apart relative to the awful truth of World War I. The terrible truth of the outrageous body count, the long and pointless fight on the front, and the number of soldiers returning home in pieces. But the two never get their night together.  There are some people who do that sort of thing, but these two are very clearly part of the eponymous ‘Some Do Not’.

Though the action of this tale starts before the war, and much of the action revolves around the two women who are (obviously)  not in combat, the entirety of this story is about the war.  It’s about a type of life that existed before the war–Sylvia’s type of life. Society, money, pretty gowns, shows of imperial might, often a real lack of morality…  After the war, it doesn’t exist anymore. That old way of living in the height of the English Empire has slipped away. Though many don’t realize it, it’s already gone by the time the war begins. Ford talks about this in a lot of different ways.  He has Tietjens reminisce about God, comparing him to an English landlord, ‘Benevolently awful’, and heaven is an English Sunday.

The ‘Parades’ in the title, refer to specific military drills and marches, but also to anything with former pomp and circumstance. The last generation was able to cling to tradition, ceremony, ritual.  All of that gave them an inflated sense of purpose. After World War I begins, all of that illusion is gone. There can be no real sense of importance in elaborate dinners or literary salons or royal occasions, in a world where people were blown to bits by howitzers or burned with mustard gas.  Or making it back to England, but blind or broken. That world just stops existing once it is confronted with the utter destruction of the War.

We see part of Christopher’s experience in the War during these first two novels.  Ford shows a complete chaos, organizationally. First, Tietjens is asked to manipulate statistics to show incorrect numbers of men that England was supplying to the allied front.  He refuses to do so, and resigns his place at the Statistics office. He ends up in France, in charge of sending men out to the front line.  More chaos.  He gets conflicting orders about where and when the men should go. They head out in one direction, and come back 6 hours later, because the French resistance has blown up the bridge they need to cross.  General Campion, a senior officer and Christopher’s godfather, also expounds on the chaos of the English forces. Campion proves he is not as honorable as the English like to believe they are (he ‘was not overpoweringly sentimental over the idea of the abandonment of our allies’). It better suited English interests to protect the Eastern colonies, rather than helping the French on the Western front. But if the English did abandon France and Belgium to their fate, they would run into a serious problem getting the English troops back across the channel. The French would attack them when they attempted to retreat.

Some of the best scenes of this story are the utterly ludicrous things that happen in war.  Tietjens and his fellow officers, educated in Latin and in poetry in elite schools, are ill-prepared for the realities of war.  In a moment of strange desperation, Tietjens and another officer both try to prove their intellectual worth by utilizing those skills, which are of no other use in this time and place. As Tietjens says later, ‘it is not a good thing to belong to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries in the twentieth’. Tietjens describes himself as ‘the English public schoolboy’. And look how ill-prepared he is for life in this new world that dawned in the 20th century.

At the end of the second book of the series, Tietjens is about to head to the front lines, after his wife has come to France to embarrass and harass him. Bored with only torturing him, she also makes eyes at several other young men hovering around the army-commandeered hotel.  She comes all the way to war-torn France to see if she can make her husband grimace.  Well, she does.

The thing to understand about Sylvia is why she wants to make her husband grimace. She, not unlike Estella from Great Expectations, measures her power with men in the pain she can cause them. It is difficult to make Tietjens cringe with pain or insult, so she must resort to despicable behavior to do so. For her, it is proof that he still cares for her, if she can cause him pain. It’s not admirable or pleasant, but I think it’s fairly easy to see how a woman, brought up to be a society darling, graced with incredible beauty, might learn to interact with men this way.

So even though he is a brilliant man, with good connections and money, Christopher is off to the front to put his life at risk because of some ludicrous idea of honor. Sylvia, who really does want him to love her (and shows it in the only way she knows how), refuses to loosen her grasp on him. Valentine vows to erase him from her mind, because there is no reason to believe he will come back from the front.  And all the characters are miserable, forced by morality to do things that can only destroy them in future.  I know what happens next, because of the miniseries, but reading the books will hopefully add another layer of depth and comprehension to the story.

“I Give It a Year” with Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall

i-give-it-a-yearNetflix, knowing me so well, has created a tab of British movies. I came across this one last night and, honestly, I had never heard of this movie. Was this released in the US? Google tells me it was released here last August, but I have no memory of a single commercial for it.  Anyway, I decided to watch it because a-it’s British, b-it’s set in London, c-Stephen Merchant is in it.

There are actually a lot of great actors in it: Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) and Rafe Spall (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) play the newlyweds, Nan and Josh. i-give-it-a-year-movie-poster-11

They’ve only been dating for a few months when they get engaged, and then married. We don’t even really see them before their marriage, the movie starts with a sort of ‘first moments’ montage, and then the wedding is just finishing when we are really brought into the action.

Minnie Driver (who I love) plays that friend (who hates her husband as often as she loves him) that says ‘I give it a year’.

The action switches back and forth from the first moments of their marriage (disasters aplenty–the minister comes down with a hideous cough just as he is about to announce them man and wife, and Stephen Merchant gives one of the most horrific best man speeches in human history) to many months later, when they are beginning couples therapy with the worst therapist in the world (Olivia Colman).

There are little quibbles they have with each other. Josh is too lazy to take out the trash, so he ‘compacts’ it, so that he can wait a few more days without taking it out. Nan persistently sings incorrect lyrics to songs (We built this city on the wrong damn road, I travel the world in generic jeans, etc.)

Throughout that first year of marriage, the couple is orbited by two alternate choices. Chloe, played by Anna Faris in a bad wig, and Guy, played by Simon Baker:

I-Give-It-a-Year-Simon-Baker-and-Anna-FarisCan I just ask who came up with the names for these people? Josh and Chloe are normal enough, I suppose. But Nan and Guy? Sounds like they belong in a ’50s musical about an upcoming sock hop. But I digress.

Chloe is Josh’s ex, a relentless do-gooder with almost no other personality traits that I can remember. Guy is a business mogul who immediately develops a crush on Nan. This crush is fostered by the fact that Nan hides her wedding ring when she’s working with him.

Both Josh and Nan slip from focusing on their marriage and both come very close to an affair. But the couple are determined to make it through the first year of marriage, because someone told them that ‘if you can make it through the first year, you can make it through anything’. Josh doesn’t correct Nan when she sings the wrong lyrics, and he takes out the trash when he should.

And they do, they make it to the exact anniversary of their wedding.

And then, that very night, they split up. They are so glad to be rid of this marriage that they’re almost ecstatic to get a divorce. They both run off to find their other, better matches. And these two separate new couples ride off into the proverbial sunset.

And here’s my big problem with this movie.  It’s not that it’s a bad movie, or even particularly inaccurate about the trials and tribulations of living with one person as your partner in life.  My boyfriend bites his fingernails, and it drives me completely insane. He is also guilty of the trash smushing maneuver. He’s kind enough not to point out my annoying habits, but I’m certain there are many–like me constantly asking him not to bite his fingernails, I would guess…

This movie tries to show how marriage does not always end in ‘happily ever after’. It shows you what happens after the fairy tale wedding, when reality hits.  Okay, good, I’m in favor of that.  But, in the end, when Josh and Nan break up and immediately form relationships with other people, the implication is that if you do match up with the right person, then ‘happily ever after’ is almost guaranteed. Every relationship in real life is more like Nan and Josh’s than the fairytale relationships Nan and Guy or Josh and Chloe will have.  It really irritated me to end the movie with just a simple swap and everything is fine. They haven’t learned anything, except that they’re not right for each other?  And Chloe and Guy are pretty lacking in personality. They just wait for the other two to come around and want to be with them. And then, easy peasy, they do a swap and everyone is happy and everything will be perfect from now on.

In the end, the good acting almost saved this movie for me, but since the very end was the most disappointing, it left a bad taste in my mouth.  I wish I’d liked it more, because I like everyone in it. All the hype about it being from the same producers who made Notting Hill and Love Actually...it is nothing like those movies.

Also, I found this very strange French poster for it, i-give-it-a-year-1where the translated title is English Marriage.  Apparently the French have different problems in the first year of marriage?  Maybe there was no similar idiom in the French, and they don’t cynically predict a couple’s demise while still celebrating their creation. But if I was going to predict which country is not cynical enough for something, the French would not be my choice. And why is only one of the umbrellas the Union Jack? So many questions for whomever changes DVD posters for foreign releases..

Obligatory 2nd anniversary post

TheMainEvent2years

Yesterday was my 2nd anniversary of starting this blog. In the last two years, this blog has racked up over 40,000 views, which is approximately 38,000 more than I ever thought it would.  Last year, I confessed my addiction to the Stats page, watching my view count tick up, and especially my need to fill in all the countries on the map.  I made a lot of progress on that last goal this year. My number one goal last February was to get an elusive view from Mongolia.  I did not get a view from Mongolia; I got 17! Life = complete!  I also got a host of views from new countries this past year: Bolivia, Paraguay, Mali, Senegal, Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, Liberia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Yemen. Plus a host of small countries/territories/islands that happened to find my blog one or 2 times: Grenada, the Seychelles (love your flag, Seychelles!), Palestine, French Polynesia, Martinique, Syria, New Caledonia, the Maldives, Faroe Islands, St. Lucia, El Salvador, Macao, Haiti, Andorra, Guadeloupe, Malawi…the list goes on.

Of course, I’m still hoping for a real dictatorship/censorship state to get through.  Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Cuba…join the party! I promise to corrupt you with my western ways!

My most popular posts, by far, are the informative posts about British vs American stereotypes, education systems,

In this year’s edition of weirdest search terms that led to my blog,

images‘Martin Freeman Naked’ is still the overwhelming winner.

Followed by these strange and terrifying combinations of search terms:

‘van buren facial hair’

‘stove kettle’

‘truck drivers heavy breakfast’

‘kristin scott thomas ice queen’

‘alec guinness brown face’

‘men alone in the house images’ —this one scares me

‘thranduil erotic’ —also scary

‘i have a list of paraphrased quotes in my book, can i use a bibliography?’

That last one might be my favorite, b/c this person has no idea how to use a search engine.  But the most terrifying one I’ve seen in a while is this one:

‘harry potter feet fetish’

Nope, nope, nope. Not even going to think about it. Wait, I just found a worse one:

‘soldier vomit’

Words cannot adequately describe how much I am frowning right now. Moving on…

This blog is mostly just fun for me, and a way to organize my thoughts about British cultural exports. It will never be the sort of blog that rakes in sponsors, or makes anyone any money.  Which, I think, is preferable.  I plan to continue offering up my thoughts on movies, tv, and books from Blighty, throwing them out into a totally ambivalent world.  I will be here to comment on Lady Mary’s 37 suitors, Sherlock’s confusing plot twists, and (of course) everything Harry Potter, including the new movies and the play coming to London.  And books.  tons and tons of books. I will continue to make this face

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when new Doctor Who episodes air, and will respond to any additional comments

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about the authorship of Shakespeare plays as follows…in fact, consider this my official response to anyone who believes the Oxfordian theory:

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To another good year wasting my time on the interwebz!

Starter for Ten

Starter-For-Ten-1-D25UKS4LJM-1024x768This movie was recommended to me months ago, and I just got around to seeing it.  I could not believe the amount of recognizable British actors that are in this one movie.  James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve, Mark Gatiss, James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Catherine Tate, Guy Henry, the list goes on.  Well, no, that’s about it, but it’s a pretty long list!

The movie is about James McAvoy, a working-class Essex boy obsessed with gaining knowledge, knowing the answers.  I can relate to that. Not the Essex boy part, the knowledge part.  He is accepted to university at Bristol to ‘read’ English literature.

He is leaving behind his 2 non-intellectual friends, played by James Corden and Dominic Cooper.

dominic cooperCooper is doing his best impression of Ralph Macchio in this movie. Or, if Ralph Macchio was a T bird:

Brian (McAvoy) has barely arrived in Bristol before he spots a poster for tryouts for the ‘University Challenge’ team. I think I remember watching a few episodes of University Challenge when I was in London.  I didn’t have a TV, so I was limited to whatever the BBC iplayer was willing to show me.  QI and University Challenge are about the only British TV I managed to see while I lived there.  Ironic.  But I digress…

If you don’t know University Challenge, it’s exactly what you would expect. Teams from a specific college go and compete in a sort of academic decathlon. Apparently it used to be hosted by someone named Bamber Gascoigne.  If that’s not a name from Middle Earth, I don’t know what is. Anyway, this movie takes place in the ’80s, when Bamber was the host. Mark Gatiss, almost unrecognizable, plays Bamber.

Brian immediately wants to audition for the team. He used to watch the show with his (now deceased) dad, who always encouraged his thirst for knowledge.

But Brian wanders off his course really quickly.  As soon as he sees Alice (played by Alice Eve) at the audition, he is smitten to the point of being pathetic.  He helps her cheat, and then she ends up on the team instead of him, because of the 2 answers he gives her.  Why are men so dumb? Luckily, the Pete Best of the team ends up injured or sick or something, and is never seen again. Brian, as first reserve, is now on the team:

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The leader of the team is Patrick Watts (Cumberbatch) and oh my god he is annoying and so unattractive. It doesn’t help that it’s the ’80s and all the men have hideous outfits (except Dominic Cooper, because he looks like he’s in the ’50s).  No one looks good in high-waisted acid wash jordache jeans, okay? It was just a terrible time to be a human being. He wears awful sweaters and awful pants, and slicks his hair off to the side and it’s just all bad.  Worse, he’s got a really intolerable personality!

Brian falls for Alice pretty quickly, but he also meets Rebecca, played by Rebecca Hall–why do all the women in this movie have characters with the same first name? Anyway, Rebecca Hall is clearly doing her best Molly Ringwald impression.

imagesAnd she does look and act a lot like Molly Ringwald…or maybe I am just associating the two because it takes place in the ’80s, but I think if Andie Walsh had gone off to university, she probably would have been protesting nuclear power or nuclear weapons or sexual harassment, etc., etc.  That’s what Rebecca Hall’s character does.  Brian makes a joke that ‘the lady doth protest too much’.  It’s funny if you’re very familiar with Hamlet…

The movie is a bit predictable, and I did find myself relating all of it to a John Hughes movie.  By the way, if anyone reading this is not familiar with the John Hughes oeuvre, go, now.  Watch at least The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Uncle Buck, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You’re an incomplete human person if you don’t know these movies.  Go on, get out.

Starter for 10 falls into that predictable trope of someone falls in love with the wrong person, and finally realizes at the very end that they really belong with the person that was next to them the whole time.  A bit tired, and, quite frankly, not done quite as well as John Hughes could do it.

But it was still an interesting movie, and an excellent place to spot people who are much more famous now than when they made this movie.  So I enjoyed watching it, even if it was a bit overly-simplified. If you’re not sold, you should look at this picture:

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So many questions must be occurring to you…  Is that really Mark Gatiss???  Why has Benedict Cumberbatch been punched in the face? Did James McAvoy have a nosebleed? No, but seriously, what is up with Mark Gatiss and that wig? For all these answers, and more, just watch the movie.

Still not sold?? The movie features an amazing selection of ’80s music, including Kate Bush, the Cure, the Psychedelic Furs, Buzzcocks, Motörhead, The Smiths, Tears for Fears…come on.  What more do you need than early Morrissey?!

Philomena

philomena filmWalking into this movie, I knew nothing about it. I knew it starred Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, and that Judi Dench was nominated for her 7th Oscar for this role. Not much else you need to know, really.

I’m glad I didn’t know the plot of the movie beforehand (it’s based on a true story, but not one I was familiar with).  It had some unexpected twists, even though it’s not the type of movie that relies upon plot twists to keep you entertained and interested.

Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, an ex-journalist who recently lost his job in the Blair administration–the movie takes place in the early 2000s. He’s a smart, cynical, atheist…a bit of a misanthrope.  Steve Coogan co-wrote the movie.  It seems he really enjoys playing these disaffected, cynical intellectuals who quote Coleridge or T.S. Eliot, and are always accompanied by a cheerier, more functional person.  I found a lot of similarities between this movie and The Trip, partially because of that odd couple camaraderie.  Instead of Rob Brydon, Coogan’s co-star is Judi Dench, playing the real life Philomena Lee.

Philomena, an Irish girl, fell pregnant when she was still a teenager. Relegated to a nearby abbey, she was at the mercy of the nuns there.  They helped her survive childbirth, they took care of the child, and they took care of her.  But she had to work 4 years at the abbey without pay, in exchange for that. There were many young girls there, unmarried ‘sinners’, and their children.  The children were put up for adoption.  Much to Philomena’s horror, they take away her son Anthony without giving her any chance to say goodbye, without even telling her he is leaving.

She keeps her secret for nearly her entire life, only revealing it to her daughter 50 years later.  Her daughter happens upon Martin Sixsmith, who thinks he might use the story to get back into journalism. The unlikely duo begin an investigation to find Anthony, to meet him if possible.

I won’t give anything else away. Here’s the trailer:

Steve Coogan does a great job being simultaneously an understandable, if grumpy figure, and also being somewhat rude, selfish, and lacking in compassion.  As a bit of a misanthrope atheist myself, I can be pretty empathetic about that.

Judi Dench, though!  Amazing.  Look, Judi Dench is a dame, an incredibly accomplished actress, and a very imposing figure. I saw video of her as Lady Macbeth (Ian McKellen was Macbeth), and she was terrifying. Daunting, physically.  And we’ve seen her play Queen Elizabeth I, and be just as empowered, just as daunting.  And M in the Bond movies is not exactly Blanche Dubois.  They’re all very powerful, independent, strong women.

Philomena Lee is a very strong woman, a very brave woman.  But she’s not intimidating.  Not the way Judi Dench plays her.  She’s strong, but she’s soft and simple.  Not simple meaning stupid, simple meaning…uncomplicated by all the bullshit most of us spend our time on.  Able to enjoy simple pleasures, able to be pleasantly surprised by the endings of thoroughly repetitive romance novels. Someone who takes pleasure in conversation, in new experiences.  She’s compassionate, open-minded, and has a lot more wisdom than Steve Coogan’s character. And Judi Dench plays on that perfectly.  When Philomena Lee works up her strength to make something happen, she does it.  You can see frailty and age in her movements and her face, but you also see a complete resolution and an obstinate nature.  She, an elderly Irish woman, holds her own against Sixsmith, a published journalist, ex-civil servant, a loud, opinionated man.  She is, actually, a really great character.  Perfectly played by Judi Dench.

I said I wouldn’t give any more away, but I will just say this.  I always knew there was a reason I didn’t trust nuns. They’re terrifying.

And since I’ve mentioned The Trip, I’ll also mention that they’re making a sequel. It’s called The Trip to Italy, features more Michael Caine impressions, and comes out in May.