Monthly Archives: March 2014

Parade’s End, part two

It took me a while to finish all 4 of the Parade’s End novels by Ford Madox Ford.  I will say, though, that each one is shorter than the last.  It’s a bit like Michelangelo, who made the first frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling too big, and had to make them smaller and smaller as he went, to fit all of them on.

Parades End. Call Sheet # 39,40 and second unit on morning of th

Unfortunately, these books are not the perfect works of art that Michelangelo’s frescoes are.  The first two were complicated, often lacking in emotion, and frequently difficult to read.  Following the plot was a bit like being pulled along by the hand too fast to look around and see what’s going on.  If I hadn’t seen the miniseries before reading the book, I would have been even more confused.  Ford is not great at 2 very practical things that make reading easier–making it obvious 1-who is speaking, and 2-when events are taking place.  Two very easy things for writers to make clear, but when got wrong, the whole flow of narrative and the magical telepathy that reading is…just doesn’t work.  You are constantly jumping back wondering–did she say that aloud or just think it?  And…is this in the past? Did I miss something?

While I enjoyed the first two books, despite these little niggles, the second half of the tetralogy is more difficult to love. For one thing, they barely feature Christopher Tietjens, the crux of the four-novel plot.  He isn’t seen until the last few pages of The Last Post, action revolving instead around those closest to him–his brother, his wife, and his mistress.  And also, for some reason, his brother’s wife.

The third book, A Man Could Stand Up, starts with Valentine Wannop on Armistice Day, learning that the war is over, and learning that Christopher, her star-crossed lover, is still alive. But it shifts back in time for the second half of the book, having the reader join Christopher on the front.

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Here is where Ford puts in some of his grimmest memories from his time in the war. He led a very similar life to Tietjens. He worked for the Propaganda office, drumming up blindly-patriotic enthusiasm for the thought of killing zee Germans. Leaving that office, he enlisted at 41 years old, and was sent to France. When you read Tietjens experiences of the unbearable and uncountable deaths around him, you just know that Ford is writing from his own experience. Here’s a passage that was particularly difficult for me to stomach, and left me with mental images I never wanted to have:

‘It was different from sleep: flatter. No doubt when the applled soul left the weary body, the panting lungs…well, you can’t go on with a sentence like that…but you collapsed inwards.  Painter fellows doing battlefields never got that intimate effect. But these were not limbs, muscles, torsi. Collections of tubular shapes in field-gray or mud-colour. Chucked about by Almighty God? As if He had dropped them from on high to make them flatten into the earth.’

Time shifts again, and we’re back to Armistice Day, and Christopher and Valentine want to be together. They no longer care for the formalities of propriety and avoidance of scandal that held them back before.  Though many try to talk them out of it, Valentine finally becomes his mistress.

The fourth book, The Last Post spends most of its time in the heads of Christopher’s brother, the brother’s wife, and Christopher’s wife.  We see little of Valentine and even less of Christopher.  We learn everything through hearsay, which I find really annoying.  These two characters pine for each other for nearly a decade, live through hell and find each other again. They finally can be together and…we don’t really see much of it.

Most of the last novel focuses on the future of Groby, the Tietjens’ family estate. This does make sense, as most of this series of novels is about the future of the British ruling class, rather than just being about the Tietjens. Still, it’s easier to deal with a novel when the point of it isn’t thrust in your face at the expense of aspects you’re truly interested in.

Mark Tietjens, the eldest brother, is paralyzed (though it’s unclear how much of his immobility is psychosomatic), and has no children. Therefore Christopher is the next in line to inherit Groby.  And his child the heir after him–if the boy is his child.  That question is never adequately answered, but we’re led to believe he is definitely not. And the house, the symbol of the aristocracy will be further ruined by its passing onto the illegitimate son, brought up a Catholic (a horrible thing in British opinion of the time).

Christopher is married, but not living with his wife.  Instead, he is living with Valentine, pregnant with his illegitimate child. They barely have enough money to support themselves, after Christopher’s business dealings go wrong.  Groby and all that symbolizes the old guard of British land-owning aristocracy have been sacrificed at the altar of Sylvia, Christopher’s horrid wife.  She has rented the ancestral home out to a vulgar American, who had the gall to cut down a very large and beloved tree on the property.  In short, Sylvia continues to torture Christopher however she can, even from afar.

Most of this final book is about how the world has changed, instead of how the characters have changed.  Indeed, the male characters haven’t changed that much at all.  They aren’t adapting well to this new world that has been forced upon them. Mark Tietjens has completely given up on society and refuses to speak to anyone ever again.  Christopher is trying, and largely failing, to support himself and Valentine by selling old furniture.  The women on the other hand…the women can adapt.  Valentine worries about what she’s got herself into, being a pregnant mistress to a disgraced aristocrat.  Understandable.  But she has embraced Christopher and chosen him over respectability and frigid chastity.  Sylvia proves also fairly adaptable. She feels it’s probably time to stop torturing Christopher.  To divorce him (a big change for her, as she is Catholic), and to marry the General that has always admired her and will be an easier target for her endless need to irritate.

If you’re wondering where all of this was in the miniseries–it wasn’t.  Tom Stoppard left most of it out.  The Last Post is a real controversy  among critics of Ford’s works.  Graham Greene omitted it entirely from an edition of Parade’s End that he edited.  It’s a love or hate book, the literary equivalent of cilantro.  I didn’t enjoy it.  We see Mark as a stubborn invalid, we see our bad ass suffragette, Valentine, reduced to a nervous pregnant woman, worried about money, possibly regretting her decisions.  It’s nice to know that Sylvia eventually would have given him the divorce, but nearly every other thing in the 4th novel could be left out and the character arcs would still be complete.  It’s extra stuff, it’s not needed, and it takes the place of what might be a better denouement for Christopher and Valentine.

So that left me quite disappointed.  When I watched the miniseries, I thought the ending too sharp and too quick. He comes back from war, a leader among his inferior soldiers, and shares a dance with his (implied soon-to-be) mistress.

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Now I see why it ended that way.  Everything else that Ford Madox Ford adds afterward  really isn’t about the 2 of them. It’s about England, and it loses some of its potency by focusing on the culture rather than on the people.

 

 

 

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the Muppets: Most Wanted

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What’s better than a Muppet movie? A Muppet movie I can discuss on my blog! And I finally have one!

First, I must say that I loved the Muppets movie that came out in 2011. Loved it!  Growing up, I was more of a Sesame Street girl–Oscar the Grouch, most specifically.  He was the misanthropic dumpster-dwelling inspiration for my misanthropic apartment-dwelling personality now. I didn’t see a lot of the classic Muppet movies that came out in the ’80s.  But I loved the 2011 Muppets movie.  And I was so excited about this sequel. I must have watched this trailer 20 times over the last 3 months, waiting for this movie:

So, naturally, I went to see the movie the first day it was out. I don’t think there was any chance it could have met my incredibly high expectations, but it came close!

The plot (as the trailer shows better than I can describe) revolves around mistaken identity.  Constantine, the world’s most dangerous criminal/frog, looks just like Kermit with a mole!  Obviously, as would happen in normal life, Constantine breaks out of the Siberian gulag where he was imprisoned, blows up several things, and trades places with Kermit.  Kermit is off to the gulag, under the supervision of guard Tina Fey,

muppets-wanted

Meanwhile, Constantine puts some green makeup on to cover his mole, and leads the rest of the Muppets gang on a world tour–spearheaded by tour manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais).  It’s pronounced Badgeee. It’s French.

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Shockingly, Dominic Badguy turns out to be a bad guy! He’s in cahoots with Constantine. You can tell they are in cahoots because they wear smoking jackets and look over old maps and whatnot.

Legitimately the funniest thing I’ve seen in months is Constantine trying to change his Russian bad-guy accent into the familiar, soothing Kermit voice we know and love. Also his attempts to get the names of the Muppets correct.

I think it’s pretty exceptional that with the same small puppet, the puppeteers can provide a totally different character, just based on the facial expressions he makes. Particularly when you think that the complicated facial expressions are made with someone’s hand!

The New Yorker complied the ‘Seven Fundamentals of Great Muppet Cinema’, and this movie does have all 7.

I must say, it’s not better than The Muppets. It is good in its own right, but not as good.  I mean, ’80s Robot barely gets any screen time at all–what the hell?! And Miss Piggy, who in the previous movie was a badass Editor-in-Chief at French Vogue, spends the entire money begging Kermit to marry her.  Piggy has always been an interesting figure, simultaneously very feminine, but also very tough.  She’s one of the only female characters in the Muppets, and I wish they gave her more depth in this movie.  The fact that she identifies the correct Kermit at the end, solely by watching him hem and haw over the idea of marrying her, is kind of a sad cliche. I feel like she should move on at this point, I mean it’s been decades and Kermit is still not willing to commit.  On the other hand, I don’t ever want to get married, so perhaps my advice is not particularly sound in this arena.

I did notice one very interesting and mostly pathetic thing about the marketing for the movie.  The UK trailer (above) shows Sam the Eagle (symbol of all things patriotic and ‘Merican) and Ty Burrell (playing a French Interpol agent) comparing badge size, because that is probably legitimately something American officials would do.  In the UK trailer, it looks as if Burrell’s character has the biggest badge.  But in the US trailer, not so much:

We don’t want to see a movie where it looks like a French person might have something even slightly larger and more ostentatious than an American person might have! That’s so unpatriotic! You’re only a patriot if you don’t believe that any other country can be as good or better than the US at absolutely anything.  Otherwise, you’re a pinko commie bastard.  Obviously.

Hilariously, a lot of people are trying to relate this Muppets movie to the Putin v. rest of the world saga going on in Crimea and Ukraine right now.  That’s just silly, and probably just clickbait for journalists. Mother Jones did a good article on why it’s total rubbish. Some loons actually think that Constantine = Putin and Miss Piggy = Angela Merkel.  WTF?  Go put your tin foil hats back on and stay away from beloved children’s characters.

Good ol’ Freda

good ol' fredaBy the time I was born, the Beatles had been apart for over 10 years, and John Lennon had been dead for nearly 6 months. Based on that, I may have ended up one of those tragic teens who don’t really know who the Beatles are, and only recognize their songs from commercials.  Luckily, my mother kept me from that fate. She always played the oldies station at home, and particularly loved the Beatles and the Supremes.  She had me watch the Beatles movies (A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were the ones our video store carried).  I thought they were both truly hilarious, and I would rent them again and again and again from the Mr. Movies rental place near our house.  Really would have been smarter to buy them, but whatever. If you haven’t seen A Hard Day’s Night, you should.  It’s very funny, goofy, generally adorable.

By the time I was a teenager, the Beatles were my favorite band and my biggest crushes were Paul and John, not some guy from the football team.  I played my mom’s old Beatles records in the basement of our house.  I wished I had been born in the early 50s, so that I could go see the Beatles as a teenager, instead of the shitty concert choices that came to our city (Boyz II Men was the biggest group I ever saw there, but other choices were Amy Grant or Kenny G.  *sigh*).

When you like something that much, it feels like you’re part of it, even when you’re not.  If you’re obsessed with a sports team, you begin to refer to them as ‘us’ and ‘we’, as if you were in the locker room, center to the action.  If you’re a Harry Potter maniac, for a totally random and not at all autobiographical example, you begin to imagine how amazing it would be to have gone to Hogwarts yourself, to be a part of that world and that story.  But things like sports teams and bands are unattainable, especially once they become famous.  Hogwarts is also fairly unattainable for me, an apparent muggle.

But the Beatles, the most famous band of all time, had a young teenage girl for the secretary of their official fan club. She was not part of the action, she was not a WAG, but she got to see and meet and talk to them, work with them, joke with them, know them in ways that each of their fans would have killed to do.  Freda Kelly has never sought or accepted fame or acclaim because of her connection to the Beatles.  Which is part of why this documentary about Good ol’ Freda is so remarkable.  Freda talks about first going to see the Beatles at the Cavern Club, during their absolute beginning.  Back when they used to wear leather jackets and look a lot more rockabilly.

1961_cavernThis was before Ringo joined the group, even before Brian Epstein became involved.  Freda started to go see them every time they played, taking a long lunch from her job in a secretarial pool.  She would always sit/stand in the same area (2nd arch on the left), and she would stay to chat with the band afterward.

In the documentary, Freda mentions that someone else started the Beatles fan club, and she agreed to help out. But she doesn’t see why they really needed a fan club, because they weren’t very famous at the time.  The other girl got a boyfriend and wasn’t interested anymore. Freda took over, and when Brian Epstein signed the boys, he picked her to be their official secretary (in charge of the fan club, but also an assistant to Brian), and she quit her other job.  Freda talks about how her father was very angry at this decision, but she did it anyway.

I think this is very important to note–Freda admired the Beatles as people and as musicians, but she didn’t idolize them. She treated them like every other person, even once they became famous.  Anyone reading this who is famous, or might become famous, this is how you stay sane. Surround yourself with people who don’t give a shit if you’re famous.  Who will call you out on it when you’re being an asshole. Who won’t always give you what you want, just because you’re ‘important’.

The majority of Freda’s job seemed to revolve around answering fan mail.  When she first started out, she put her home address as the place to send mail.  Freda says she didn’t really think about it at the time, but suddenly there were hundreds and hundreds of fan letters arriving in bundles at her house. She and her father had to look through every single one to find their own mail, such as utilities bills that needed to be paid.  People would ask for crazy things.  Locks of hair, bits of clothing. One person sent a pillowcase, asked Ringo to sleep on it and then mail it back. And Freda made him do it!  I don’t think people were used to these kind of crazy demands, and how creepy some of them are.  I doubt anyone would send out Harry Styles’ hair nowadays, no matter how many times you wrote to ask.  But Freda had to answer every letter, and she did what she could to give each fan what they wanted.

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In the documentary, Freda talks about how naive she was at that time. Only 17 or just 18 when the Beatles started to take over the UK and gain real fame.  John apparently had to explain to her that Brian was gay.  Or as he apparently phrased it, ‘if you were on a deserted island with him, you’d be safe’.

If you’re wondering whether Freda dated any of the Beatles, she doesn’t answer that question.  She admits she had crushes on them all at one point or another.  Paul would give her a ride home and she’d quite fancy him, until John was in a good mood and made her laugh.  She declines to elaborate on whether she dated them, but her smile indicates that something went on with at least one of them.  But she also talked about how innocent she was at the time, so if you’re imagining a sweaty orgy or something, I don’t think that went wrong.  If she didn’t at least kiss Paul, though, she wasted her youth (in my opinion).

Freda makes it plain that Ringo was sweet, Paul was kind, and George was pensive and had the most depth.  Her discussion of John is, I think, the most interesting. She says nothing really against him, but there is a hesitation in her voice that shows that she didn’t entirely trust him.  He could ‘be quite grumpy’ as she says, but could also be funny and sweet.  Brian Epstein apparently had a very bad temper, and John once saved Freda from being yelled at by him.  On the other hand, she talks about having to watch John date women, friends of hers, while he was married to Cynthia.

I’ve loved the Beatles since I was quite young.  But as I have grown up and I stop to think about them in a more thoughtful way, I have slowly realized that John Lennon was a real asshole.  He has admitted that he used to be abusive, dealing with pain of his own by starting fights with men and by hitting women. He obviously cheated on his first wife, and more or less ignored his son Julian.  When you consider the fact that Paul wrote Hey Jude for Julian, you start to wonder why it wasn’t John writing songs for his son.  John once almost beat a man to death for joking about a gay affair between John and Brian Epstein.

Of course, later, he seemed to show some regret. He certainly treated Yoko and Sean better than he treated Cynthia or Julian.  He even wrote a great song about Sean’s birth–which was probably pretty shitty for Julian to hear. Given more time, maybe he could have made amends.

I suspect he was one of those magnetic personalities that make you feel caught up in something wonderful, only to crush your soul the next time you see them.  In my experience (taken entirely from TV/movies), relationships with those sorts of people should be avoided if possible.

When Freda talks about him, she never says anything bad, but you can sense a hesitation in her voice, in her words, that lets you know that she can’t talk freely and positively about him as she can about Paul or George or ‘Richie’, as she calls Ringo.

But she won’t say anything bad about him, or about any of them.  Her loyalty, even decades later, is really impressive.  Again, to future or current celebrities, you need people like this in your life.  People who don’t treat you like you’re special, but also don’t talk about you to the ‘media’.  Freda could have had a book deal and made a ton of money, especially if she chose (as some authors have) to focus on the outlandish stories and drug-induced craziness that the Beatles engaged in.  But I would rather watch this documentary than read a tell-all book any day, because she did know them as human beings, and she is telling her story, not their story.  She is telling us all what it is like to be adjacent to something incredibly important, and how it shaped and changed her.  I really recommend this documentary (streaming on Netflix) to anyone who likes the Beatles even a little, or anyone who has ever dreamed of being involved in something unattainable, because you do get a bit of vicarious excitement from hearing her talk about her ordinary life with the Beatles.

Burke and Hare

Burke and HareThis movie is based on a true story. Let me say that now. In 1828, two Irish men, living in Edinburgh, began to kill people so that they could sell the bodies to the medical schools that were flourishing in Scotland at the time. Autopsies were spectator events, and the medical men needed bodies to carry on with their work.

That being said, this is not an action movie, or a scary movie. It’s a comedy.  With Simon Pegg (who I love), and Andy Serkis as Burke and Hare. And there are other actors that I love, including Bill Bailey as the hangman, Jessica Hynes (Daisy!) as Hare’s lady, Michael Smiley (Tyres!), and Tim Curry, looking gleeful after sawing off a man’s leg:

burke_and_hare_movie_image_tim_curry_joblo_branded_01The doctors doing anatomy lectures were willing to pay 5 pounds for each body, because it was difficult to find people who would willingly give over their relatives.  Burke and Hare have a tenant who dies, and they stumble upon the truth that they can get paid for his body.  After that, they slide pretty easily into the act of murder in order to sell the bodies.  At first, it is only old people, friendless and without family, but they venture beyond that group when they need to.  Hare uses his share of the money to dress himself and his lady in the finest frocks.  Burke falls in love with an ex-prostitute, played by Isla Fisher, and uses his share to fund her all-female production of Macbeth.

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Boys can be very dumb sometimes.

Most of the movie is taken up with the boys luring their victims into darkened corners, or physically struggling to transport them up and down the Edinburgh hills.

Edinburgh is, probably, my 3rd favorite city in the world, and I find it especially delightful that very little had to be altered to make this movie (set in the 1830s) possible. The old town area looks mostly the same now as it did in the 1830s. The ‘new town’ area is from the 18th century.  The ‘new town’ part of Edinburgh is older than my entire country, just for some perspective. 

Everyone in this movie has great comedy chops.  I think someone other than me might find this movie hilarious.  But I couldn’t get past the fact that this was a true story about serial murder. 

I had a similar reaction to Dr. Strangelove when I saw it.  When these black comedies are about something so foul and catastrophic, I just can’t find them funny. I take life too seriously.

The movie mentions that Burke and Hare murdered an old woman, a fat man, a freed slave…a total of at least 16 murders. For pretty clothes and the affection of an ex-prostitute? A freed slave, who must have thought he’d lived through enough hell for several lifetimes, is killed in Edinburgh for 10 pounds, and then dissected in front of an upper-class audience.  I just can’t find it funny. Especially since it is a true story. Although, in reading about the true story, I see that Sir Walter Scott thought they were an alright duo: they “have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missd because nobody wishd to see them again”.  Oh Sir Walter Scott…why is there a landmark devoted to you? You seem awful. And I couldn’t even make it through the first 100 pages of Ivanhoe, so you’re really not that great. In other news that I never wanted to know, I’ve just seen that Burke, after he was hanged, was dissected in a sold-out autopsy ‘performance’. They used his blood to fill a fountain pen and write out some lines. They made a ‘leather’ calling card case from his skin.  Ew.  Also, if you’re a macabre sort of person, they have masks made from Burke and Hare’s heads in the Anatomy Museum at the U of Edinburgh. Maybe I’ll stop by next time…but I won’t be watching this movie again.