The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the Eleventh: The Polar Express

Murder on the Orient Express: Complete & Unabridged (Audiocd) - Agatha Christie 

– Read a book that involves train travel (such as Murder on the Orient Express).

 Well, as it happened I did pick Murder on the Orient Express for this square.  Not that I’m not intimately familiar with the story as such already — it was actually one of the first books by Agatha Christie that I ever read, not to mention watching (and owning) the screen adaptation starring Albert Finney and half of classic Hollywood’s A list.  But I’d never listened to the audio version read by David Suchet, and I am very glad to finally have remedied that now.  Not only is Suchet the obvious choice to read any of Christie’s Poirot novels because his name has practically become synonymous with that of the little Belgian himself — great character actor that he is, he was obviously also having the time of his life with all of the story’s other roles, including those of the women; and particularly so, Mrs. Hubbard, whose interpretation by Suchet also gives the listener more than a minor glance at the fun that recent London audiences must have been having watching him appear as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest (drag and all).

 A superb reading of one of Agatha Christie’s very best mysteries and one of my all-time favorite books.  Bravo, Mr. Suchet!

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1498329/the-twelve-tasks-of-the-festive-season-task-the-eleventh-the-polar-express

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GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM

Wakeup Call, Williams Style

1965 was the year when, as a result of the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, American military buildup in Vietnam began in earnest, and troop strength grew by a factor of no less than eight; from 23,000 at the beginning of the year to roughly 184,000 at the end. 1965 was also the year when a new AFN DJ arrived in Saigon, which over the course of that same year would transform itself from a sleepy French-Vietnamese colonial town into the nightmare it has since come to be in the memory of countless vets.

The new DJ in question was Adrian Cronauer; fresh from an assignment in Greece.

While the idea for a fictionalized account of his Vietnam experience was Cronauer’s own, fueled by the popularity of M*A*S*H, the script for Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam was ultimately penned by screenwriter Mitch Markowitz with only some input from Cronauer himself, who has since gone out of his way to underline the fictional nature of the account and stress that his true stance was not so much anti-military as “anti-stupidity.” Thus, the film has to be taken with a considerable grain of salt; both as far as the portrayal of 1960s’ armed forces radio and as far as the movie’s plot is concerned. But that doesn’t make it any less poignant; nor does it take away one iota of Robin Williams‘s performance as Cronauer: Indeed, the role of an irreverent, unstoppable DJ seemed tailor-made for Williams, who had burst onto the scene with his inimitable brand of lightning-quick ad-libbing ten years earlier in Mork & Mindy – and of course, all of Cronauer’s hilarious broadcasts in this movie are ad-libbed, too.

The film follows Adrian Cronauer from his arrival in Saigon in the spring of 1965 to his forced departure about a half year later (although the real Cronauer in fact stayed for a year and was not forced out but left when his regular tour of duty was over). While a comedy, and although not trying to be anywhere near the “definitive” take on Vietnam, it does take a close look at the year when the conflict escalated and, in particular, at the resulting toll on human relations. Robin Williams earned his first of to date four well-deserved Academy Award nominations for this role (the others were for Dead Poets Society [1989], The Fisher King [1991] and Good Will Hunting [1997], the movie for which he finally scored on Oscar night). And in his inimitable way he provides pointed comic relief not only over the microphone but also, and always with a unique ear for the situation’s mood, whenever the script would otherwise threaten to veer off into melodrama; such as after his discovery that his Vietnamese friend Tuan is actually a Viet Cong fighter named Phan Duc To (“It’s unbelievable. Five months in Saigon, and my best friend turns out to be a V.C. This will not look good on a resume!!”); and in scenes that would otherwise be burdened with a bit too much cliché and / or deliberately funny writing, such as the conference after Cronauer’s first broadcast, where Bruno Kirby (Lieutenant Hauk) gets to deliver such gems as “Don’t say that the weather is the same all the time here, because it’s not; in fact, it’s two degrees cooler today than yesterday” and “I hate the fact that you people never salute me – I’m a lieutenant, and I would like salutes occasionally. That’s what being a higher rank is all about.” Even if Kirby himself gets to make up for these a little later in the same scene with the comment “We are not going to escalate [Vietnam into] a whole war so we can get a big name comedian” (Bob Hope who, as the men have informed him, does not “play police actions”), it takes Williams‘s/Cronauer’s final weaving of the lieutenant’s preferred abbreviations into a single sentence to truly put the finishing touch on the scene.

Although Good Morning Vietnam is clearly first and foremost a star vehicle for Robin Williams, he is joined by an outstanding supporting cast, including inter alia, besides Bruno Kirby, Forest Whitaker as Cronauer’s good-natured sidekick PFC Montesque Garlick, the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh as his second great nemesis, Sergeant Major Dickerson (whose stock character of a straight-laced white middle class guy would probably not have come off convincingly as a villain vis-à-vis anybody but Robin Williams) and, in particular, Tung Thanh Tran as Tuan and Chintara Sukapatana as his sister Trinh: Her plea with Cronauer not (even) to seek her friendship, let alone more, because for her such an association with a man (particularly a foreigner) is culturally unacceptable, is one of the movie’s most quietly powerful scenes. Exceptional is further Peter Sova’s cinematography, which convincingly captures the daily realities of a city and a country on the brink of an all-out war, and is brilliantly complimented by the editing, which in turn also uses the soundtrack – more or less a mid-1960s “greatest hits” compilation – to maximum effect; be it in framing daily military routine, the soldiers’ enjoyment of Cronauer’s style of broadcasting or combat action: Indeed, hardly any image could make a more powerful statement on the cruel absurdity of war than seeing a village blown up to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World.

Thus, Good Morning Vietnam is in its own way as poignant a wakeup call as any other movie about Vietnam – or about World War II, or any other war for that matter. It deservedly netted the Political Film Society’s 1989 Peace Award, in addition to Robin Williams‘s Oscar nomination and his Golden Globe and American Comedy awards, as well as the movie’s ASCAP soundtrack award. And it certainly bears revisiting – for its overall quality, for Robin Williams‘s performance, and also for lessons learned and deserving never to be forgotten.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures (1987)
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Producers: Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson
  • Screenplay: Mitch Markowitz
  • Music: Alex North
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Peter Sova
Cast
  • Robin Williams: Adrian Cronauer
  • Tung Thanh Tran: Tuan
  • Chintara Sukapatana: Trinh
  • Forest Whitaker: Edward Garlick
  • Bruno Kirby: Lieutenant Steven Hauk
  • J.T. Walsh: Sergeant Major Dickerson
  • Robert Wuhl: Marty Lee Dreiwitz
  • Noble Willingham: General Taylor
  • Richard Edson: Private Abersold
  • Juney Smith: Phil McPherson
  • Richard Portnow: Dan ‘The Man’ Levitan
  • Floyd Vivino: Eddie Kirk
  • Cu Ba Nguyen: Jimmy Wah

 

Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1988)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical: Robin Williams
Political Film Society (USA) ( 1989)
  • Peace Award
  • Special Award
American Comedy Awards (1988)
  • Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role): Robin Williams
Grammy Awards (USA) (1989)
  • Best Comedy Recording: Robin Williams
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards (1989)
  • Top Box Office Films: Alex North

 

Links

 

HOWARDS END

Howards EndHomecomings

Most of us connect the notion of “home” or “childhood home” with one particular place, that innocent paradise we have since had to give up and keep searching for forever after. In Ruth Wilcox’s world, Howards End is that place; the countryside house where she was born, where her family often returns to spend their vacations, and which, everyone assumes, will pass on to her children when she is dead.

And it is through Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave)’s eyes that we first see Howards End; approaching the house after an evening walk through her beloved meadow, her long dress trailing in the grass, as she goes nearer, we see the open windows letting out warm light from inside, and hear the voices and laughter from the family’s dinner table. And while Mrs. Wilcox returns to join her family’s company, two others are leaving the house and its serene world: Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) and Paul Wilcox, embarking on a passionate romance which is not even to survive the next morning – not before, however, Helen has informed her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) that she and Paul are “in love,” and thus set in motion the first of a series of confusing and controversial meetings between their families.

While both families belong to the middle class, they are nevertheless separated by several layers of society and politics – the Wilcox, led by pater familias / businessman Henry (Anthony Hopkins), rich, conservative and without any sympathy whatsoever for those less fortunate than themselves (“It’s all part of the battle of life … The poor are poor; one is sorry for them, but there it is,” Henry Wilcox once comments); the Schlegels, on the other hand, with just enough income to lead a comfortable life, brought up by their Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales), supporting suffrage (women’s right to vote) and surrounding themselves with actors, “blue-stockings” (feminists), intellectuals and other members of the avantgarde. Further complexity is added when Helen brings to the Schlegel home Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a poor but idealistic young clerk who loves music, literature and astronomy – and with him, his working class wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett), the embarrassment of having to interact with her, and the even more embarrassing revelation she has in store for Henry Wilcox; eventually leaving her disillusioned husband to comment that “books aren’t real,” and that in fact they and music “are for the rich so they don’t feel bad after dinner.”

E.M. Forster‘s novel on which this movie is based is a masterpiece of social study and character study alike; with empathy and a fine eye for detail, Forster brings his protagonists and their environment to life, and James Ivory matches his accomplishment in this screen realization, finding the perfect cast and production design (Luciana Arrighi) to reproduce the novel’s Edwardian society; although he superstitiously declined the offer to film at Forster‘s boyhood home Rooks Nest, the model for the fictional Howards End. The movie brings together many of Britain’s best-known actors, all trained in the English school which, as Anthony Hopkins once explained, unlike Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting, is primarily based on restraint: there are no outbursts of emotion, self-control reigns supreme, and even a simple word like “yes” is reduced even further to “hmm,” leaving it to the actor’s intonation alone to convey the word’s (or sound’s) deeper meaning in a given context. And yet, vocal intonation, looks and little gestures often speak louder than dramatic actions ever could, and they are as essential to the movie’s sense of authenticity as are production design, cinematography (Tony Pierce-Roberts), soundtrack (Richard Robbins) and the selection of the movie’s non-scored music: excerpts from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a favorite with the “educated” Edwardian middle class, and pieces by period composers Andre Derain and Percy Grainger.

The story centers around Margaret (Meg) Schlegel, who is “filled with … a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encounter[s] in her path through life,” as Forster described her, and portrayed to perfection by Emma Thompson. Meg’s friendship with Ruth Wilcox brings the families back together after Helen’s near-scandalous episode with Paul; and the two women become so close that Ruth eventually decides to give Meg “something worth [her] friendship” – none other than Howards End, a wish that has her panicking family scramble ungentlemanly for every reason in the book to invalidate the codicil setting forth that bestowal, from its lacking date and signature to the testatrix’s state of mind, the ambiguity of the writing’s content, the question why Meg should want the house in the first place since she already has one, and the fact that the writing is only in pencil, which “never counts,” as Dolly, wife of the Wilcox’ elder son Charles is quick to point out; only to be reprimanded by her father in law “from out of his fortress” (Forster) not to “interfere with what you do not understand.” And so it is that Meg will only see the house (and be instantly mistaken for Ruth because she has “her way of walking around the house,” as the housekeeper explains) when she and her siblings have to look for a new home and Henry Wilcox, who has started to court her after Ruth’s death, suggests that the Schlegel’s furniture be temporarily stored there – a fateful decision. And while Meg and Henry slowly and painfully learn to adjust to each other, the complexity of their families’ relations, and their interactions with the Basts, finally come crashing down on them in a dramatic conclusion.

Howards End deservedly won 1992’s Academy Awards for Best Actress (Thompson), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction; and it was also nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design categories. Unfortunately, its subtle tones have recently been muted somewhat by the louder sounds now filling movie theaters. I for one, however, will take this sublime movie over any summer action flick anytime.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Merchant-Ivory (1992)
  • Director: James Ivory
  • Executive Producer: Paul Bradley
  • Producer: Ismail Merchant
  • Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Based on a novel by: E.M. Forster
  • Music: Richard Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
  • Art Direction: John Ralph
  • Costume Design: Jenny Beavan & John Bright
  • Production Design: Luciana Arrighi
  • Set Decoration: Ian Whittaker
Cast
  • Emma Thompson: Margaret Schlegel
  • Helena Bonham Carter: Helen Schlegel
  • Anthony Hopkins: Henry J. Wilcox
  • Vanessa Redgrave: Ruth Wilcox
  • Prunella Scales: Aunt Juley
  • Samuel West: Leonard Bast
  • Nicola Duffett: Jacky Bast
  • Adrian Ross Magenty: Tibby Schlegel
  • Joseph Bennett: Paul Wilcox
  • James Wilby: Charles Wilcox
  • Jemma Redgrave: Evie Wilcox
  • Susie Lindeman: Dolly Wilcox

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Thompson
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium:
    Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker
Golden Globes (1992)
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama: Emma Thompson
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
  • Best Picture – English Language: Ismail Merchant
  • Best Director: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
BAFTA Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
    – Also for Peter’s Friends (1992).
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1992) (USA)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Boston Society of Film Critics AwardS (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Cannes Film Festival (1992)
  • 45th Anniversary Prize: James Ivory

 

Links

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SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

“Is Love a Fancy or a Feeling?”

When Emma Thompson was approached with the suggestion to write a screenplay based on Jane Austen‘s first novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), she was somewhat doubtful because, as she explains on the DVD’s commentary track, she felt that other Austen works, like the more expressive Emma and Persuasion or the sardonic Pride and Prejudice (already the subject of several adaptations) would have been more suitable. Four years and 14 screenplay drafts later (the first, a 300-page handwritten dramatization of the novel’s every scene), Sense and Sensibility made its grand entrance into theaters worldwide and mesmerized audiences and critics alike, resulting in an Oscar for Thompson‘s screenplay and six further nominations (Best Picture, Leading Actress – Thompson –, Supporting Actress – Kate Winslet –, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score – for all of 20 minutes’ worth of composition – and Costume Design); and double honors as Best Picture and for Thompson‘s screenplay at the Golden Globes.

More than simple romances, Jane Austen‘s novels are delicately constructed pieces of social commentary, written from her rural Hampshire’s perspective. Mostly confined to life in her father’s parish, she was nevertheless well aware of early 19th century England’s society at large, and fiercely critical of the loss of morals and decorum she saw in its pre-industrial emergent city life. Moreover, experience and observation had made her acutely aware of the corsets forced onto women in fashion terms as much as by social norms, confining them to inactivity and complete dependency on their families’ and their (future) husbands’ money. And among this movie’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it maintains that underlying theme of Austen‘s writing and brings it to a contemporary audience’s attention. “You talk about feeling idle and useless: imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever,” Elinor Dashwood (Thompson) tells her almost-suitor Edward Ferrars, and when he replies that “our circumstances are therefore precisely the same,” she corrects him: “Except that you will inherit your fortune – we cannot even earn ours.” Jane Austen may not ever have phrased things in exactly the same way, but the screenplay’s lines here perfectly encapsulate one of the great underlying themes of virtually all of her books.

Rescuing much from the first draft dramatization of Austen‘s novel and amplifying where necessary, Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee (“who most unexplainably seems to understand me better than I understand myself,” Thompson said in her mock-Austen Golden Globe speech) produced a movie scrupulously faithful to what is known about Austen‘s world and at the same time incredibly modern, thus emphasizing the novel’s timeless quality. Paintings were consulted for the movie’s production design, and indeed, almost every camera frame – both landscapes and interiors – has the feeling of a picture by a period painter. Thompson cleverly uses poetry where the novel does not contain dialogue; and again, she does so in a manner entirely faithful to Austen‘s subtleties – most prominently in the joint recital of Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 116 by Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) and John Willoughby (Greg Wise), where an ever so slight inaccuracy in his rendition of a sonnet that he claims to love foreshadows his lacking sincerity.

Sense and Sensibility revolves around Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, their quest for a suitable husband, and the sisters’ relationship with each other. Emma Thompson maintains that she did not write the screenplay with herself as Elinor in mind and would not have been accepted for that role but for the success of her previous films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day); yet, it is hard to imagine who could have better played sensible Elinor: “effectual, … [possessing] a coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen [and thus considerably younger than Thompson], to be the counselor of her mother.” (Austen.) And real-life 19-year-old Kate Winslet embodies sensitive, artistic Marianne: “eager in everything; [without] moderation … generous, amiable, interesting: … everything but prudent.” (As an older actress was sought for that part, her agent presented her as 25.) An early scene in which Marianne recites Hartley Coleridge’s Sonnet VII (“Is love a fancy or a feeling? No. It is immortal as immaculate truth”) succinctly symbolizes the sisters’ relationship and their personalities, as Marianne mocks Elinor’s seemingly cool response to Edward’s budding affection: “Is love a fancy or a feeling … or a Ferrars?” (Mostly taken from the novel, the scene is embellished by the screenplay’s sole inexactitude, as Coleridge’s sonnets were only published 22 years later). Yet, when all her hope seems shattered, Elinor, in a rare outburst of emotion, rebukes her sister: “What do you know of my heart?” – only to instantly comfort her again when she sees that Marianne is equally distraught.

Indeed, the two sisters’ relationship is so crucial to the novel that in his 2012 deconstruction of Austen‘s writings, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi argues that the real love story with which the book is concerned is not at all that involving the sisters and their respective suitors but, rather, that arising from the growing mutual appreciation of Elinor and Marianne. And as Emma Thompson‘s screenplay shows – in and of itself, but even more so, when amplified by the diary she kept while the movie was produced – there is yet another love story going on here; that involving the novel’s screen adaptation: Not in the sense of a self-involved project existing primarily for its own sake, but in Emma Thompson‘s appreciation of Austen‘s novel and her dedication to its screen adaptation; a dedication shared by everybody else involved with the project.

Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman portray the sisters’ suitors Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon in a manner as seamlessly matching the novel’s characters as the two ladies’ portrayal, both leading men embodying to perfection the qualities Austen considered essential: simplicity, sincerity, and a firm sense of morality. Willoughby, on the other hand, while entering the story like the proverbial knight on a white horse who rescues the injured Marianne, does not live up to the high expectations he evokes; he causes Marianne to unacceptably abandon decorum and, just as he misspoke in that line from Shakespeare‘s sonnet, his love eventually “bends with the remover to remove.” Similarly, Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), the near-stumbling block to Elinor’s happiness, ultimately proves driven by nothing but an “unceasing attention to self-interest … with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience” (Austen) and is, despite a fortuitous marriage, as marginalized as the Dashwoods’ greedy sister-in-law Fanny (Harriet Walter). Conversely, the boisterous Sir John Middleton and his garrulous mother-in-law, while annoying in their insensitivity, are essentially goodnatured; and marvelously portrayed in their flawed but warmhearted ways by Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs.

Sense and Sensibility was released at the height of the mid-1990s’ Jane Austen revival. Of all the movies of that era, and alongside 1996’s Emma (which has “Hollywood” written all over it) and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (which finally established Colin Firth as the leading man in the U.S. that he had long been in Britain), Emma Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility is one of those adaptations that future generations of moviegoers will likely turn to in years to come. And it is truly an experience not to be missed.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1995)
  • Director: Ang Lee
  • Executive Producer: Sydney Pollack
  • Screenplay: Emma Thompson
  • Based on a novel by: Jane Austen
  • Music: Patrick Doyle
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Coulter
Cast
  • Emma Thompson: Elinor Dashwood
  • Kate Winslet: Marianne Dashwood
  • Hugh Grant: Edward Ferrars
  • Alan Rickman: Colonel Brandon
  • Greg Wise:John Willoughby
  • Gemma Jones: Mrs. Dashwood
  • Emilie François: Margaret Dashwood
  • Elizabeth Spriggs: Mrs. Jennings
  • Robert Hardy: Sir John Middleton
  • Harriet Walter: Fanny Dashwood
  • James Fleet: John Dashwood
  • Tom Wilkinson: Mr. Dashwood
  • Imelda Staunton: Charlotte Palmer
  • Imogen Stubbs: Lucy Steele
  • Hugh Laurie: Mr. Palmer
  • Richard Lumsden: Robert Ferrars
  • Oliver Ford Davies: Doctor Harris

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Emma Thompson
Golden Globes (1996)
  • Best Motion Picture – Drama
  • Best Screenplay – Motion Picture: Emma Thompson
National Board of Review Awards (1995)
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director: Ang Lee
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
    – also for “Carrington”
Writers Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Emma Thompson
Screen Actors Guild Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Kate Winslet
BAFTA Awards (1996)
  • Best Film: Lindsay Doran and Ang Lee
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Thompson
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Kate Winslet
Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards (1996)
  • Film – Screenplay: Emma Thompson
London Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1996)
  • British Screenwriter of the Year: “Sense and Sensibility”
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1997)
  • Best Actress: Kate Winslet
    – Also for “Jude” (1996).
  • Best Screenplay: Emma Thompson
    – Tied with John Hodge (“Trainspotting,” 1996).
German Film Awards (1997)
  • Best Foreign Film: Ang Lee, USA
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Golden Berlin Bear: Ang Lee
  • 2nd place – Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Ang Lee
Critics’ Choice Awards (1995)
  • Best Screenplay: – “Sense and Sensibility”
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1995)
  • Best Screenplay – “Sense and Sensibility”
New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Screenplay – “Sense and Sensibility”
Boston Society of Film Critics AwardS (1995)
  • Best Screenplay – “Sense and Sensibility”

 

Links

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CASABLANCA

You must remember this …

Aaaahhh … Bogey. AFI’s No. 1 film star of the 20th century. Hollywood’s original noir anti-hero, epitome of the handsome, cynical and oh-so lonesome wolf (with “Casablanca”‘s Rick Blaine alone, one of the Top 5 guys on the AFI’s list of greatest 20th century film heroes); looking unbeatably cool in white dinner jacket or trenchcoat and fedora alike, a glass of whiskey in his hand and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Endowed with a legendary aura several times larger than his real life stature, and still admired by scores of women wishing they had been born 50+ years earlier, preferably somewhere in California and to parents connected with the movie business, so as to have at least a marginal chance of meeting him.

Triple-Oscar-winning “Casablanca,” directed by Michael Curtiz, was and still is without question Bogart’s greatest career-defining moment, the movie on which his legendary status is grounded more than on any other of his multiple successes. The film’s story is based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” renamed by Warner Brothers in order to tag onto the success of the studio’s 1938 hit “Algiers” (starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr). Building on the success of 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and further expanding Bogart’s increasingly complex on-screen personality, it added a romantic quality which had heretofore been missing; eventually making this the AFI’s Top 20th century love story (even before the No. 2 “Gone With the Wind”), while second only to “Citizen Kane” on the AFI’s overall list of Top 100 20th century movies; with a unique, inimitable blend of drama, passion, humor, exotic North African atmosphere, patriotism, unforgettable score (courtesy of Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By,” Max Steiner, and Louis Kaufman’s violin) and an all-star cast, consisting besides Bogart of Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Renault), Dooley Wilson (who, a drummer by trade, had to fake his piano playing as Rick’s friend Sam), Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Ferrari) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte). And the movie’s countless famous one-liners have long attained legendary status in their own right …

Looking at this movie’s and its stars’ almost mythical fame, it is difficult to imagine that, produced at the height of the studio system era, it was originally just one of the roughly 50 movies released over the course of one year. But mass production didn’t equal low quality; on the contrary, the great care given to all production values, from script-writing to camera work, editing, score and the stars’ presentation in the movies themselves and in their trailers, was at least partly responsible for its lasting success. In fact, the screenplay for “Casablanca” was constantly rewritten even throughout the filming process, to the point that particularly Ingrid Bergman was extremely worried because she was unsure whether at the end she (Ilsa) would leave Casablanca with Henreid’s Victor Laszlo or stay there with Humphrey Bogart (Rick).

Little needs to be said about the movie’s story. After the onset of WWII, Casablanca has become a point of refuge for Jews and other desperate souls from all corners of Europe, fleeing the old world with the hope of building a new life in America. Unofficial center of Casablanca’s society is Rick’s “Café Americain,” where gamblers, refugees, French police, Nazi troops, thieves, swindlers and soldiers of fortune come together on a nightly basis, to make connections, conduct their shady business, or simply forget the uncertainty of their fate for a few precious hours. And presiding over this mixed and colorful society is Rick Blaine, expatriate American without any hope of returning to the United States himself (for reasons never fully explained), officially not interested in politics but only the flourishing of his business, but soft-hearted underneath the hard shell of his cynicism. From Rick’s perspective, everything is going just swell and the way it is meant to be: he is reasonably well-respected, has a good working relationship with Captain Renault, the local representative of the Vichy government (based on mutual respect as much as on the fact that Renault is a guaranteed winner at Rick’s gambling tables and, by way of reciprocation, turns a blind eye to whatever less-than-squeaky-clean transactions Rick may be tolerating in his café, always ready to have his police round up “the usual suspects” instead of the truly guilty party of a crime if that person’s continued freedom promises to be more profitable); and although aware of Rick’s not quite so apolitical past, the Germans are leaving him alone as well, as long as he stays out of politics now. Until … well, until famous underground resistance leader and recent concentration camp-escapee Victor Laszlo and his wife Ilsa walk into Rick’s café, into his place “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world” – and with one blow, administered to the melancholy tunes of “As Time Goes By,” the carefully maintained equilibrium of his little world comes crashing down around him.

Not only to Bogart and Bergman fans all over the world, “Casablanca” is film history’s all-time crowning achievement, a “must” in every movie lover’s collection, and one of the few films that truly deserve the title “classic.” If it is not yet included in your home collection, that is an omission that ought to be remedied sooner rather than later.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1942)
  • Director: Michael Curtiz
  • Executive Producer: Jack L. Warner
  • Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein / Philip G. Epstein / Howard Koch / Casey Robinson (uncredited)
  • Based on a play by: Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
  • Music: Max Steiner
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Arthur Edeson
Cast
  • Humphrey Bogart: Rick Blaine
  • Ingrid Bergman: Ilsa Lund
  • Paul Henreid: Victor Laszlo
  • Claude Rains: Captain Louis Renault
  • Conrad Veidt: Major Heinrich Strasser
  • Sydney Greenstreet: Signor Ferrari
  • Peter Lorre: Ugarte
  • S.Z. Sakall: Carl (as S.K. Sakall)
  • Madeleine Lebeau: Yvonne (as Madeleine LeBeau)
  • Dooley Wilson: Sam

 

Major Awards

Academy Awards (1944)
  • Best Picture: Hal B. Wallis
  • Best Director: Michael Curtiz
  • Best Writing, Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 25 Stars (male) – No. 1 (Humphrey Bogart)
  • Top 100 Love Stories – No. 1
  • Top 100 American Films – No. 2
  • Top 100 Movie Songs – No. 2 (“As Time Goes By”)
  • Top 25 Stars (female) – No. 4 (Ingrid Bergman)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 4 (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Thrillers – No. 37
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 5th: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”  (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 20th: “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes –28th: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'” (Ilsa Lund)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 32nd: “Round up the usual suspects.” (Captain Louis Renault)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 43rd: “We’ll always have Paris.” (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 67th: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” (Rick Blaine)

 

Links

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William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Folger Library Edition)

Hamlet - William ShakespeareTo thine own self be true …

William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet is arguably the most famous play ever written in the English language; it presents the world with questions and characters that have been the subject of thespian and scholarly debate ever since the Prince of Denmark’s first appearance on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre. Probably written and first performed in 1601 (estimates vary between 1600 and 1602), the play draws on Saxo Grammaticus’s late 12th/early 13th century chronicle Gesta Danorum, which includes a popular legend with a similar plot centering around a prince named Amleth; as well as several more contemporaneous sources, primarily Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1559-1580), which expands on the story told in the Gesta Danorum, and a lost play known as the Ur-Hamlet (i.e., original Hamlet), sometimes also attributed to Shakespeare, but equally likely written by a different author a few decades earlier. Another work frequently cited in this context is 16th century playwright Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedie.

Pursuant to Shakespeare‘s wishes and like all of his works, Hamlet was not immediately published, and the original manuscript did not survive. However, in the absence of copyright laws or other forms of protection of what today would be called the playwright’s intellectual property rights, first bootleg copies (so-called quartos) based on transcripts made during or after performances began to appear in 1603. Yet, it would not be until 1623 – seven years after Shakespeare‘s 1616 death – that his former fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell published 36 of his plays (including this one) in a collection known as the First Folio.

As no print version of any of Shakespeare‘s plays has a bona fide claim to its author’s first-hand blessings, ever since the Bard‘s death the world is left with numerous questions about his characters’ motivations and psychological makeup; first and foremost, in this particular case: who is this Prince of Denmark anyway, and what’s driving him – is he a reluctant suicide or reluctant avenger? A Renaissance man? Wrecked by Freudian guilt? Genuinely mad, or merely putting on a clever act of deception? Or is he someone else entirely? – Indeed, we’re even left in doubt as to what exactly it was that Shakespeare meant his characters to say, with all attendant interpretative consequences: Does the Prince wish for his “too too sullied” or his “too too solid” flesh to “melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” in his first major soliloquy (Act I, Scene 2)? Does he really contemplate “the stamp of [that] one defect” which may fatally taint the perception of a man’s other virtues, “be they as pure as grace,” before meeting his father’s ghost (I, 4)? Does Polonius, when sending Reynaldo on a spying mission after Laertes, refer to his scheme as “a fetch of wit” or “a fetch of warrant” (II, 1)? Do Hamlet’s musings in “To be, or not to be” (III, 1) concern “enterprises of great pith and moment” or “of great pitch and moment,” whose “currents turn awry and lose the name of action” by his doubts? Does or doesn’t the sight of the Norwegian army while Hamlet is on his way to England (IV, 4) prompt him, who has so far failed to carry out his purpose, to reflect “How all occasions do inform against me,” and conclude his soliloquy with the vow “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”?

How you answer any of these questions, and how you consequently view the play’s characters, depends in no small part on the text you read. Like all Folger Shakespeare editions, this one is based on what the editors have deemed the “best early printed version,” while allowing the reader a unique direct comparison of the principal reliable versions by including a text essentially combining these versions, with unobtrusive markers characterizing those passages appearing only in one particular version. For Hamlet, the editors eschewed the play’s very first (1603) quarto, which was possibly compiled by a journeyman actor and whose inconsistencies with all subsequent versions (textually as well as plot-wise and even regarding character names) have caused it to be generally considered a “bad” quarto, in favor of the 1604 Second Quarto, which some even believe to be based on Shakespeare‘s own first draft of the play and which, in any event, while more extensive than the 1623 First Folio (in turn, thought to be closest to the version(s) actually produced on the Globe Theatre stage), boasts about as secure a claim of authenticity as the latter. In some instances, the text follows the Second Quarto (Q2) without visually alerting the reader to the differences vis-a-vis the First Folio (F1), thus compelling those more used to the latter version to seek out the extensive end notes to reassure themselves that (in the examples given above) it might indeed be “solid flesh,” “warrant,” and “pith and moment” (F1) instead of “sullied flesh,” “wit,” and “pitch and moment” (Q2). In other instances, however, the First Folio’s language (clearly marked as such) is given preference over that of the Second Quarto; while crucially, the text also includes all those passages *only* contained in the latter, including the “stamp of one defect” and “bloody thoughts” monologues, whose interpretation has such a direct bearing on many a reader’s understanding of Hamlet’s character.

The text is amplified by illustrations and annotations for those unfamiliar with 16th century English, scene-by-scene plot summaries, a short biography of Shakespeare, and introductory and concluding essays on this and the Bard‘s other plays and on Shakespearean theatre, as well as extensive suggestions for further reading, and a key to the play’s most famous lines. While it is unlikely that after 400 years of debate any one version, be it in print, on stage or on screen, will be able to generate unanimous acceptance as the “definitive” rendition of this complex play, this is an excellent starting point for an in-depth excursion into the Prince of Denmark’s world.

Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery - Delacroix EugeneEugène Delacroix: Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery
(1839, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France)

 

Favorite Quotes:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

“What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused.”

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.”

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

“Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”

 

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One-page edition of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (photo mine)

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Emma Thompson: The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries – Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film

“Is Love a Fancy or a Feeling?”

When Emma Thompson was approached with the suggestion to write a screenplay based on Jane Austen‘s first novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), she was somewhat doubtful because, as she explains on the DVD’s commentary track, she felt that other Austen works, like the more expressive Emma and Persuasion or the sardonic Pride and Prejudice (already the subject of several adaptations) would have been more suitable. Four years and 14 screenplay drafts later (the first, a 300-page handwritten dramatization of the novel’s every scene), Sense and Sensibility made its grand entrance into movie theaters worldwide and mesmerized audiences and critics alike, resulting in an Oscar for Thompson‘s screenplay and six further nominations (Best Picture, Leading Actress – Thompson –, Supporting Actress – Kate Winslet –, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score – for all of 20 minutes’ worth of composition – and Costume Design); and double honors as Best Picture and for Thompson‘s screenplay at the Golden Globes.

More than simple romances, Jane Austen‘s novels are delicately constructed pieces of social commentary, written from her rural Hampshire perspective. Substantially confined to life in her father’s parish, she was nevertheless well aware of early 19th century England’s society at large, and fiercely critical of the loss of morals and decorum she saw in its pre-industrial emergent city life. Moreover, experience and observation had made her acutely aware of the corsets forced onto women in fashion terms as much as by social norms, confining them to inactivity and complete dependency on their families’ and their (future) husbands’ money. And among this screenplay’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it maintains that underlying theme of Austen‘s writing and brings it to a contemporary audience’s attention. “You talk about feeling idle and useless: imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever,” Elinor Dashwood tells her almost-suitor Edward Ferrars in Emma Thompson‘s screenplay, and when he replies that “our circumstances are therefore precisely the same,” she corrects him: “Except that you will inherit your fortune – we cannot even earn ours.” Jane Austen may not ever have phrased things in exactly the same way, but the screenplay’s lines here perfectly encapsulate one of the great underlying themes of virtually all of her books.

Rescuing much from the first draft dramatization of Austen‘s novel and amplifying where necessary, Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee (“who most unexplainably seems to understand me better than I understand myself,” Thompson said in her mock-Austen Golden Globe speech) produced a movie scrupulously faithful to what is known about Austen‘s world and at the same time incredibly modern, thus emphasizing the novel’s timeless quality. Paintings were consulted for the movie’s production design, and indeed, almost every camera frame – both landscapes and interiors – has the feeling of a picture by a period painter. Thompson cleverly uses poetry where the novel does not contain dialogue; and again, she does so in a manner entirely faithful to Austen‘s subtleties – most prominently in the joint recital of Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 116 by Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, where an ever so slight inaccuracy in his rendition of a sonnet that he claims to love foreshadows his lacking sincerity.

Sense and Sensibility revolves around Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, their quest for suitable husbands, and the sisters’ relationship with each other. Emma Thompson maintains that she did not write the screenplay with herself as Elinor in mind and would not have been accepted for that role but for the success of her previous films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day); yet, it is hard to imagine who could have better played sensible Elinor: “effectual, … [possessing] a coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen [and thus considerably younger than Thompson], to be the counselor of her mother.” (Austen.) And real-life 19-year-old Kate Winslet embodies sensitive, artistic Marianne: “eager in everything; [without] moderation … generous, amiable, interesting: … everything but prudent.”  An early scene in which Marianne recites Hartley Coleridge’s Sonnet VII (“Is love a fancy or a feeling? No. It is immortal as immaculate truth”) succinctly symbolizes the sisters’ relationship and their personalities, as Marianne mocks Elinor’s seemingly cool response to Edward’s budding affection: “Is love a fancy or a feeling … or a Ferrars?” (Mostly taken from the novel, the scene is embellished by the screenplay’s sole inexactitude, as Coleridge’s sonnets were only published 22 years after Austen‘s book). Yet, when all her hope seems shattered, Elinor, in a rare outburst of emotion, rebukes her sister: “What do you know of my heart?” – only to instantly comfort her again when she sees that Marianne is equally distraught.

Indeed, the two sisters’ relationship is so crucial to the novel that in his 2012 deconstruction of Austen‘s writings, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi argues that the real love story with which the book is concerned is not at all that involving the sisters and their respective suitors but, rather, that arising from the growing mutual appreciation of Elinor and Marianne. And as Emma Thompson‘s screenplay shows – in and of itself, but even more so, when amplified by the diary she kept while the movie was produced – there is yet another love story going on here; that involving the novel’s screen adaptation: Not in the sense of a self-involved project existing primarily for its own sake, but in Emma Thompson‘s appreciation of Austen‘s novel and her dedication to its screen adaptation; a dedication shared by everybody else involved with the project.

Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility was released at the height of the mid-1990s’ Jane Austen revival. Of all the movies of that era, and alongside 1996’s Emma (which has “Hollywood” written all over it) and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (which, to more than just one generation of fans, established Colin Firth as the embodiment of Mr. Darcy once and for all), Emma Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility has long become one of the keystone Austen adaptations and will continue to be one of those that moviegoers will likely turn to in years to come. And it is truly an experience not to be missed.

 

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood
(Jane Austen Centre, Bath; photo mine)

 

Favorite Quotes From the Diaries:

[Golden Globe acceptance speech in the style of Jane Austen‘s letters:]
“Four A.M. Having just returned from an evening at the Golden Spheres, which despite the inconveniences of heat, noise and overcrowding, was not without its pleasures. Thankfully, there were no dogs and no children. The gowns were middling. There was a good deal of shouting and behavior verging on the profligate, however, people were very free with their compliments and I made several new acquaintances. Miss Lindsay Doran, of Mirage, wherever that might be, who is largely responsible for my presence here, an enchanting companion about whom too much good cannot be said. Mr. Ang Lee, of foreign extraction, who most unexpectedly apppeared to understand me better than I undersand myself. Mr. James Schamus, a copiously erudite gentleman, and Miss Kate Winslet, beautiful in both countenance and spirit. Mr. Pat Doyle, a composer and a Scot, who displayed the kind of wild behavior one has lernt to expect from that race. Mr. Mark Canton, an energetic person with a ready smile who, as I understand it, owes me a vast deal of money. Miss Lisa Henson – a lovely girl, and Mr. Gareth Wigan – a lovely boy. I attempted to converse with Mr. Sydney Pollack, but his charms and wisdom are so generally pleasing that it proved impossible to get within ten feet of him. The room was full of interesting activitiy until eleven P.M. when it emptied rather suddenly. The lateness of the hour is due therefore not to the dance, but to the waiting, in a long line for horseless vehicles of unconscionable size. The modern world has clearly done nothing for transport.
P.S. Managed to avoid the hoyden Emily Tomkins who has purloined my creation and added things of her own. Nefarious creature.”
“With gratitude and apologies to Miss Austen, thank you.”

“Very nice lady served us drinks in hotel and was followed in by a cat. We all crooned at it. Alan [Rickman] to cat (very low and meaning it): ‘Fuck off.’ The nice lady didn’t turn a hair. The cat looked slightly embarrassed but stayed.”

“Got up this morning and could not find my glasses. Finally had to seek assistance. Kate [Winslet] found them inside a flower arrangement.”

“Paparazzi arrived for Hugh [Grant]. We had to stand under a tree and smile for them.
Photographer: ‘Hugh, could you look less — um –‘
Hugh: ‘Pained?”

“I ask Laurie if it’s possible to get trained fish. Lindsay says this is how we know I’ve never produced a movie.”

“Up 5.15 a.m. thinking, packpackpack. I appear to have accumulated more things. How did this happen? I haven’t shopped. Think my bath oils have bred.”

“Jane reminds us that God is in his heaven, the monarch on his throne and the pelvis firmly beneath the ribcage. Apparently rock and roll liberated the pelvis and it hasn’t been the same since.”

“I seem finally to have stopped worrying about Elinor, and age. She seems now to be perfectly normal — about twenty-five, a witty control freak. I like her but I can see how she would drive you mad. She’s just the sort of person you’d want to get drunk, just to make her giggling and silly.”

“We’ve hired the calmest babies in the world to play the hysterical Thomas. One did finally start to cry but stopped every time Chris [Newman (assistant director)] yelled ‘Action’. … Babies smiled all afternoon. Buddhist babies. They didn’t cry once. We, however, were all in tears by 5 p.m.”

[On period costume posture coaching:]
“We all stand about like parboiled spaghetti being straightened out.”

“Quick dinner with … Ang [Lee] and his wife Jane who’s visiting with the children for a while. We talked about her work as a microbiologist and the behaviour of the epithingalingie under the influence of cholesterol. She’s fascinated by cholesterol. Says it’s very beautiful: bright yellow. She says Ang is wholly uninterested. He has no idea what she does.
I check this out for myself. ‘What does Jane do?’ I ask.
‘Science,’ he says vaguely.”

“[Over breakfast] We discussed the ‘novelisation’ question. This is where the studio pay someone to novelise my script and sell it as Sense and Sensibility. I’ve said if this happens I will hang myself. Revolting notion. Beyond revolting.
Lindsay [Doran] said that the executive she had discussed it with had said ‘as a human being I agree with you — but …’ I laughed until my porridge was cool enough to swallow.”

“Hugh Laurie (playing Mr. Palmer) felt the line ‘Don’t palm all your abuses [of language upon me]’ was possibly too rude. ‘It’s in the book,’ I said. He didn’t hit me.”

“Our first point of discussion is the hunt. (…) My idea is to start the film with an image of the vixen locked out of her lair which has been plugged up. Her terror as she’s pursued across the country. This is a big deal. It means training a fox from birth or dressing up a dog to look like a fox. Or hiring David Attenbrorough, who probably knows a few foxes well enough to ask a favour.”

Sense and Sensibility signs litter Devon — arrows with S & S on. Whenever Ang [Lee] sees a B & B sign he thinks it’s for another movie.”

“Edward finds Elinor crying for her dead father, offers her his handkerchief and their love story commences. Ang [Lee] very anxious that we think about what we want to do. I’m very anxious not to do anything and certainly not to think about it.”

“Lindsay [Doran] goes round the table and introduces everyone — making it clear that I am present in the capacity of writer rather than actress, therefore no one has to be too nice to me.”

“Difficult for actors to extemporise in nineteenth-century English. Except for Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs, who speak that way anyway.”

“The fire alarm went off. Fire engines came racing; we all rushed out on the gravel drive, everyone thinking it was us. In fact, one of the elderly residents of Saltram had left a pan on the oven in her flat. Apparently this happens all the time. The tenant in question is appearing as an extra — playing one of the cooks.”

“Press conference [on the movie Carrington] yielded the usual crop of daftness. I’ve been asked if I related personally to Carrington’s tortured relationship with sex and replied that no, not really, I’d had a very pleasant time since I was fifteen. This elicited very disapproving copy from the Brits … No wonder people think we don’t have sex in England.”

“Shooting Willoughby carrying Marianne up the path. They did it four times. ‘Faster,’ said Ang [Lee]. They do it twice more. ‘Don’t pant so much,’ said Ang. Greg [Wise (playing Willoughby)], to his great credit, didn’t scream.”

“Shooting Willoughby carrying Marianne up the path. … Male strength — the desire to be cradled again? … I’d love someone to pick me up and carry me off. Frightening. Lindsay assures me I’d start to fidget after a while. She’s such a comfort.”

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John Steinbeck: Novels 1942 – 1952 (Library of America)

Novels 1942-52: The Moon is Down/Cannery Row/The Pearl/East of Eden (Library of America #132) - John Steinbeck, Robert DeMottA Nobel Laureate’s Eden and Our Many Faults and Failures.

Whenever “the great American novel” comes up in conversation, the names most frequently bandied about are Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby”), Faulkner (“The Sound and the Fury”), Hemingway (“The Old Man and the Sea”) – and John Steinbeck, chronicler of rural California and the ordinary man’s plight, like Faulkner and Hemingway winner of both the Literature Nobel Prize (1962) and the Pulitzer (1940, for “The Grapes of Wrath”), in addition to multiple other distinctions.

Little in Steinbeck’s upbringing hinted at his future rise to fame. Born 1902, a modest Salinas, California, flour-mill-manager-turned-county-treasurer’s son, he worked as a farm-hand during high school and studied English and biology at Stanford, but left 1925 without graduating to pursue journalism and writing in New York; only to have to return home a year later. Surviving on a number of odd jobs, he continued to write. His first novel, 1929’s “A Cup of Gold,” however, failed to return his publisher’s $250 advance, and his subsequent collection of interrelated stories (“The Pastures of Heaven,” 1932) and novel (“To a God Unknown,” 1933) likewise remained largely unknown. Steinbeck’s fate changed with 1935’s humorous “Tortilla Flat,” chronicling life in a Chicano community (and an allegory on Steinbeck’s own first literary influence, the Arthurian legend, to which he returned much later in an unfinished attempt to modernize Mallory’s “Morte D’Arthur”). Both “Tortilla Flat” and the subsequent “In Dubious Battle” (1936) – Steinbeck’s first exploration of the California’s migratory workers’ fate – won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal; and the sale of “Tortilla Flat”‘s movie rights earned him his first truly big check. Steinbeck’s reputation grew further with the interrelated coming-of-age stories of “The Red Pony” (1937), and his next two novels, 1937’s poignant “Of Mice and Men” and, particularly, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939), the story of angry “harvest gypsy” Tom Joad and his family. Both works are still among America’s 35 books most frequently banned from school curricula: keen testimony to the nerves they continue to touch.

Steinbeck’s major works are collected in four volumes of the Library of America series, the first covering his 1932 – 1937 writings, the second “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck’s extensive background research (“Harvest Gypsies,” 1936), the short story collection “The Long Valley” (1938) and his contribution to “The Sea of Cortez,” a 1941 publication about his 1940 marine exploration with close friend Ed Ricketts; and the final volume his last novels, written between 1947 and 1961, as well as the 1950 play-novelette “Burning Bright” and the travel narrative “Travels with Charley in Search of America” (1962). The present – third – volume contains his three major works from the 1940s, in addition to the awe-inspiring “East of Eden” (1952).

“The Moon Is Down” (1942) reflects Steinbeck’s impressions upon hearing the testimony of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Originally conceived as a play set in the U.S. but revised as a novel set in an unnamed Scandinavian country, it describes the struggle of a group of underground fighters in an occupied society. Widely read in occupied Europe, in 1946 it won Norway’s King Haakon Liberty Cross.

“Cannery Row” (written 1944, published a year later) was a response to a group of soldiers’ request to Steinbeck to write “something funny that isn’t about war.” It is set in Monterey, California and revolves around Doc Burton, a literary incarnation of the author’s friend Ed Ricketts, first introduced as a supporting character in “In Dubious Battle” and now taking center stage as a man whose mind has “no horizon,” and his sympathy “no warp” and thus, becoming the center of a community of truly memorable, endearing characters. (The novel’s dedication reads: “For Ed Ricketts who knows why or should.”) – Steinbeck returned to Doc and his Monterey community in 1954’s “Sweet Thursday.”

“The Pearl,” the folklore-based story of a boy whose life is altered (not for the better) by the discovery of a precious pearl, began as a screenplay for a film directed by Mexican Emilio Fernandez. The novel’s publication was postponed to coincide with the movie’s early 1948 release; by this time the story had, however, already appeared in a magazine.

“East of Eden,” by far the longest work contained herein, was, according to Steinbeck himself, the major novel of his life: “I think there is only one book to a man,” he noted in a letter to his publisher. Of epic scope and breathtaking craftsmanship and complex characters, it is part chronicle of California’s early settlement history, part family saga and part tale of two unequal brothers’ rivalry, modeled on the bible’s Cain and Abel. Intending the book primarily for his sons, Steinbeck commented that it was like a box containing “[n]early everything I have … [p]ain and excitement … evil thoughts and good thoughts – the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.” The writing process was accompanied by a series of letters to Steinbeck’s publisher, published 1969 as “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.”

In his remaining 16 years, Steinbeck published only three more works of fiction – besides “Sweet Thursday,” the satirical “Short Reign of Pippin IV” (1957) and 1961’s swan-song on materialism, “The Winter of Our Discontent.” (The uncompleted “Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights” was published posthumously.) His most popular later work is the journal of his trans-American road trip with his poodle Charley (“Travels With Charley,” 1962). But he remained a critical voice, released several collections of journalism and when he died, left a legacy also including a treasury of letters and two highly-acclaimed screenplays, for an adaptation of his own “Red Pony” and for 1952’s “Viva Zapata!” (starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn), in addition to screen versions of his novels involving Hollywood luminaries from John Ford and Elia Kazan to Henry Fonda, James Dean, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum and, more recently, Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.

 

Favorite Quotes:
East of Eden

“After a while you’ll think no thought the others do not think. You’ll know no word the others can’t say. And you’ll do things because the others do them. You’ll feel the danger in any difference whatever – a danger to the crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men … Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you. And if you can’t finally give in, they’ll vomit you up and leave you stinking outside – neither part of themselves, nor yet free …They only do it to protect themselves. A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can’t allow a question to weaken it.”

Cannery Row

“It has always seemed strange to me …The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (1962)

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

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George Orwell: Burmese Days

Pukka Sahibs:  Pukkah Sahibs:  British colonial officers:
Pukkah sahibs

Burmese Days: George OrwellAn Assembly Such as This …

Though uttered in much more genteel circumstances than the setting of this book, Mr. Darcy’s timeless put-down of Meryton society in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice can’t fail to come to mind when referring to the characters populating George Orwell’s first novel. Burmese Days is, down to the last man and woman, inhabited by a group of thoroughly disgusting characters: people who are, in the words of Darcy’s famous epithet, indeed so “insupportable” that the reader can’t help but conclude that they, each and everyone, richly deserve one another and everything that they are doing to one another. Reading Burmese Days feels much like watching a train wreck in the making and actually looking forward to the moment of the train wreck, without being able to muster the slightest bit of guilt about such a display of readerly Schadenfreude.

There is a truism to the effect that an author’s first book often serves the purpose of getting their personal feelings and experience out of the way: a personal involvement so strong that it cannot but be overcome by publication – that authors, in other words, first need to get over themselves before they can move on to bigger and better things. This of course doesn’t mean that a first novel can’t be a masterpiece regardless (indeed, these days in particular it often feels like anything short of a monumental masterpiece will fail to make an author even register in the collective conscience of the literary community), but there are plenty of examples, too, of first novels that primarily serve this personal purpose of clearing the way for the author’s true gift to emerge, and for that gift to be rid of any and all overriding encumbrances. Burmese Days clearly falls into the latter category: Stationed in Burma for five years as a British colonial officer himself, Orwell came to loathe the Raj, everything of which it consisted and everything that it stood for – and judging by the evil, almost cardboard caricatures that he created in lieu of well-rounded, three-dimensional characters (not least this novel’s bumbling, weak main character, Flory, who is not exactly hard to unravel as an exercise in ruthless authorial self-flagellation), he obviously also carried a boatload of guilt about having himself been part of the very system that upheld the Raj. Orwell, thus, had a lot to get over before he could move on to bigger and better things.

And yet … and yet. Even in this first novel, Orwell’s enormous talent as a writer already registers clearly and distinctly. What in upwards of 90% or even 98% of all other writers would have resulted in an unpublishable diatribe (or in the age of e-publishing, a self-published diatribe previously rejected by all respectable and established publishers), in the hands of then-barely-31-years-old Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell) became both a scathing criticism of the Raj and a mesmerizing portrait of Burma in the 1920s and 1930s. Burma clearly got under Orwell’s skin in more ways than one, and it will get under his readers’ skin precisely because this is George Orwell writing: The same powerful immediacy of language that makes readers of 1984 experience a sense of chill even at the mere thought of Big Brother also makes readers of this first novel suffer the sweltering, stifling heat, the lush, encroaching rainforest and the terminal boredom of colonial life in a remote outpost of the Raj as if we, the readers, were actually experiencing these same things alongside the characters. Indeed, this book’s masterful use of language and skillful construction alone probably make thousands of other first-time authors go green with envy – at the same time as they are going green with nausea at the novel’s characters.

Ultimately, however, Orwell’s overriding hatred of the system that he himself had helped to uphold in Burma is also precisely the thing that prevents this novel from reaching its full potential. As a piece of criticism of the Raj it certainly stands out; indeed, alongside E.M. Forster‘s Passage to India it is one of the few pre-WWII books written by an Englishman this harshly critical of the very concepts underlying the maxim of “Rule Britannia.” Small wonder, then, that Orwell’s British publisher feared a lawsuit for libel and insisted on numerous changes in order to soften the message (which in turn lead to a rather “ckeckered” publication history; it took decades for the text to be restored and republished as originally written). And of course, part of the roots of 1984 are to be found here as well: The oppressive society that Orwell experienced in Burma was quite obviously, in his view at least, not so very different from the totalitarian system that he later saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union – take class arrogance, the racist oppression that is at the very heart of colonialism, as well as totalitarian dictatorship, a boundlessly powerful and inventive secret police, and the self-enforcing mind control exercised by a society (and a government) operating on strict notions of what is “right” and what is “wrong” thought, blend and shake liberally, and you’ll have come up with the cocktail now known as the dystopian society controlled by Big Brother and Newspeak in Orwell’s final masterpiece. However, the analytical transition (“this sort of thing can happen anytime, anywhere”) only occurs in the later book. Burmese Days itself is too closely and precisely tied to Orwell’s personal experience and to Burma and the Raj to invite, in and of itself, the comparison with other forms of oppressive societies in general. (Indeed, even to the extent that other régimes are mentioned at all, they’re the same type of late 19th century / early 20th century colonial societies as that prevalent in the Raj, such as the German colonies in Africa.) Orwell’s first novel still has a place in literary history, of course, but these days, that place chiefly rests on the light which this book sheds on Orwell’s genesis as a writer and an intellectual, and on its nature as a (fictionalized) documentation of a blessedly now-defunct historical society and way of life.

Katha(r), Myanmar. The British Club Katha(r), Mynmar: Irrawaddy River Katha(r), Myanmar: Street near the river
Katha(r) (the novel’s actual location, though to avoid a lawsuit for libel, Orwell had to come up with a fictional place name – the town is called Kyauktada in the book): the British Club, Irrawaddy River, and a street near the river.

Map of Myanmar

Guy de Maupassant: Une Vie – A Woman’s Life

A portrait of meekness, brilliantly drawn.

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born at Château de Miromesnil near Dieppe, Normandy, and educated in Rouen and Yvetot, likewise in that Northern French region bordering on the Channel and the North Sea. Introduced to Gustave Flaubert by his mother, an old friend of Flaubert’s, the creator of “Madame Bovary” soon became Maupassant’s mentor and in turn, introduced him to Émile Zola, Tourgeniev and other proponents of literary realism. And encouraged by Flaubert, the erstwhile volunteer of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 eventually turned to journalism and published his first book, a collection of poetry, in 1880. He soon became known as a masterful short story writer, owing the clarity and concise nature of his prose in no small part to the lessons learned from his fatherly friend. Normandy, the beloved land of his childhood and adolescence, plays a dominant role in much of Maupassant’s writing; both as a backdrop and as a means of highlighting emotions and plot developments.

In six novels, Maupassant condensed the motifs explored in his numerous short stories, which would ultimately count over 300. “Une Vie” (“A Life”) is the first of these novels, published in 1883. It traces the life of Jeanne de Lamare, née Jeanne des Vauds, only daughter and heiress to the fortune of a Norman aristocrat family, from the moment she leaves her convent school at the age of seventeen, to advanced age and grandmotherhood. Naive by nature and sheltered from the harsh realities of life behind the walls of the convent, young Jeanne’s outlook on life upon returning to her parents’ chateau on the Norman coast, les Peuples, which she shall eventually inhabit with her husband, is innocently optimistic. Only a few months after her arrival, she falls in love with the viscount de Lamare whom she marries in very short order. But from here on out her life changes rapidly, because once married, her husband drops any pretence at the charm he has displayed while wooing her. Jeanne, wholly unprepared by nature and education to adequately respond to her husband’s miserly attitude and multiple forms of abuse, nor finding forceful support in her parents, sees no other way than to passively tolerate his behavior; even when she stumbles into proof after proof of the extent of his transgressions against common decency and against his marital vows. And her son, in his childhood her one remaining pride and joy (and therefore, hopelessly spoiled), once grown to manhood turns out another major disappointment. Jeanne grows disillusioned and bitter, frequently complaining that life has treated her excessively unfairly.

“Une Vie” draws, inter alia, on themes developed in seven short stories published in the years 1881 – 1883. The critically acclaimed novel sold 25,000 copies within the first few months after its publication. It has all the features of the writing style for which Maupassant, by then, had already become known: a crisp prose very much to the point being expressed; a sharp eye for the heroine’s social context and the daily life of the Norman aristocracy; a vibrant tableau of Normandy’s sea, fields, woods, seasons and weather; wit, irony, and great insight into human nature. From the torrential rain storm which accompanies Jeanne’s transition from the convent to her familial château at the beginning of the story to a tranquil sunset several decades later when Jeanne finally makes her peace with life, nature is brilliantly used to highlight the heroine’s feelings, trials and tribulations.

In her passivity and weakness, Jeanne is not an easy heroine to like or at least, to emphasize with; nor does Maupassant make the point that she had no alternative to her inert tolerance of her husband’s and her son’s wrongdoings: the image of her bonne Rosalie, pragmatic and down to earth and ultimately much better equipped than Jeanne to deal with life’s uncertainties and deceptions, and the example of several other local noblewomen makes it clear that it is Jeanne’s character more than anything else that renders her unable to adequately respond to her situation in life and to the abuse she suffers. Yet, Maupassant was not interested in those other women – so little, in fact, that their characterization barely exceeds the level of a superficial sketch; including and in particular the portrayal of the one woman with whom Jeanne’s husband is involved in a lasting and profound affair and who claims, nevertheless, to be Jeanne’s friend. Similarly, Jeanne’s husband is almost two-dimensional in his boorishness. Nevertheless, from the first page on there is no denying that this novel was written by one of the master storytellers of his time.

Guy de Maupassant died at the age of only 43 years, of an illness which drove him to madness and alcohol abuse and rendered him unable to write during the last three years of his life, thus forcing him to leave only fragments of his last two novels, L’Âme Étrangère and L’Angélus. Émile Zola said at his funeral that future generations who, unlik––e Maupassant’s numerous friends, would only know him through his literary work, would come to love him for the eternal love song to life which he sang in his writings. Although given the pessimistic outlook to life taken by its heroine, “Une Vie” is an unlikely candidate to put these words to proof, and although it does not quite reach the brilliance of Maupassant’s short stories and later novels, particularly the piercingly accurate and sardonic “Bel Ami,” the writer’s first novel is the manifestation of a unique talent and, yes, a declaration of love to a life which is after all, as Jeanne’s bonne Rosalie muses, “never as good nor as bad as one believes.”

 

Favorite Quotes:

“One sometimes weeps over one’s illusions with as much bitterness as over a death.”

“She realized for the first time that two people can never reach each others deepest feelings and instincts, that they spend their lives side by side, linked it may be, but not mingled, and that each one’s inmost being must go through life eternally alone.”