TV review

Treme

treme

We this week finished the thirty-six episodes of David Simon’s Treme on HBO. What a consistently absorbing and intelligent series, and peopled with such intriguing, unforgettable, and human-all-too-human personalities. Acres have been written about the show, and each episode has been recapped, examined, and analyzed ad infinitum. I don’t want to do much more here than compare and contrast it a bit with The Wire, from the same creative team and similarly filled with rich and compelling characters you really come to care about.

Neither is a soap opera; both are social commentary. There is a big narrative looming over both shows, one that threatens to swallow up the players that strut and fret in its shadow: or at least mightily influence — and limit — their choices and actions. The Wire is set in the context of Baltimore’s intractable war on drugs. Treme is set in a poor, arty New Orleans neighborhood in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Both stories create and present the lives of communities, and the individuals in these communities, as they face — or more accurately live against — the challenges their environments have imposed.

The Wire is Greek tragedy. The gods have preordained the outcome: the rich, the well-connected, the compromised, the venal, the pragmatic, and the bureaucratic will survive and thrive. But anyone who challenges the natural order, the Icaruses or Orpheuses who fly too high or feel too much, will be savagely rebuked. The game is the game, and most of the characters are  pawns.

Treme, in contrast, is gumbo. Not only because it’s a satisfying and spicy blend of diverse elements coming together, but also — and maybe more — because of this definition, the third in the American Heritage Dictionary: a fine clayey soil that becomes sticky and impervious when wet. The residents of Treme are not beaten down, despite living, like the Baltimoreans, in a city with appalling levels of condoned corruption, crime, and callousness. Now this could very well be because The Wire ran from 2002 to March 2008, and Treme originally aired from 2010 to 2013 — putting the former firmly in the shadow of the Bush era and the latter in the sunshine of the Obama years. Even though the Treme characters’ lives were upended by Katrina and pummeled and hampered by Bush agents, it was all in the rearview: the cavalry is coming, and the last episode basks in Hope and Change on the Mardi Gras following the inauguration.

This is not to say that the bad don’t keep doing bad; they do: there are arrests, but, as in The Wire, the system itself is unbreakable, and New Orleans corruption is far more ancient and insidious than that of Baltimore. Very few of the characters even bother to challenge it, it’s so pervasive and unassailable; and one who does, like McNulty, like Bunny, like Cedric, ultimately walks away from the fight before he is completely ground down and spit out. And the crooked real estate deals, and the graft, and the petty scams, and the crime, and the carpetbagging opportunists all survive and thrive. And we see many shocking glimpses during the seasons of Treme of how it must feel to live in a world where you cannot trust the institutions on which a functioning society is based: access to health care, to housing, to education, to security, to justice. But overall and withal, there is hope; the most obvious exemplar of which is the plethora of children and babies with committed parents and/or promising futures at series’ end. (By contrast, The Wire‘s next generation is, with very rare exceptions, alienated, disaffected, dead, behind bars or heading that way.)

The implicit optimism of Treme is not just from its time, but also from its place. This is a neighborhood of deep cultural and musical traditions. A large percentage of the episodes occur on feast days and holidays (and they have a lot of these: a very funny moment in the last episode is when a reporter from the outside world is trying to nail down some information with Times-Picayune colleagues the day before Mardi Gras to be rebuffed with the reminder that it’s now Lundi Gras and that the Wednesday won’t work either, because that’s for hangovers). There is always something to celebrate, masks and costumes to don, beads to be caught, and dancing to be done. But more significantly, there is tradition: things that the characters — and their parents and grandparents before them, and their children after them — have always done. And whether that is a meal, a masking, or a pilgrimage, it gives these characters a rootedness that their Wire counterparts lack.

The strongest root in Treme is music. All — and I really think it is all — of the characters are connected somehow ultimately to music. Most play themselves, or are married to or involved with someone who does. Even the least musical are forever turning on radios or phonographs or CDs or going to a club or a festival or a parade and grooving out. And Simon and co. do so well by the music; I have never seen any PBS special or concert documentary that made a musical performance feel so immediate, so real, so insistent, so live and so alive. Music, and the human connection to it, is grounding and affirming and wordless and emphatic. And the Treme residents get it, and the music lifts them, buoys them, steadies them, guides them, beguiles them, saves them. And keeps them safe from the tides, eddies, waves, pools, floods of corruption and greed and dysfunction.

And that, even more than Obama, is the salvation here, the source of optimism.

The central conflict for many of the characters in Treme is how much of themselves — their individuality, their style — they want to surrender, to sacrifice, in order to succeed. For Wire characters, the equivalent question entails a moral choice, and few do — or can — answer it wisely or well. There is no way out or up in Baltimore. Numerous characters stay because, they explain, they’ve never left, wouldn’t know how to leave. In Treme, with its grounding, its traditions, its music, characters can choose to stay and to grow. There are support networks, people who believe in them, people who love them (sometimes those are the same people…), the history, the traditions, the past, the future. And always the music.

(Treme soundtrack below.)

TV review

Mare of Easttown

Anxiety_-_Google_Art_Project

We just finished watching this seven-part HBO murder mystery, and I have to confess to feeling sufficiently bothered by it that I felt the need to write. Not bothered like after The Undoing, a similarly star-studded, big-budget, multiweek effort whose ending was so ludicrous and lame that it didn’t deserve, or occasion, another thought on my part. No, this series truly disturbs me because, despite all the great acting (notably by Kate Winslet and Jean Smart) and all the clever and successful misdirections by the writer (Brad Ingelsby), it has a monstrous, morally hollow center. The final twist reveal at the mystery’s conclusion, after entertaining some half dozen or more quite plausible alternate killers, was satisfying and surprising and sickening. But I guess mostly satisfying, because that, along with the acting, is what other reviewers seem to be commenting on: that the writer pulled it off.

But that’s not really good enough.

Ingelsby created the most thoroughly depressing and depraved town, peopled with the most hopeless, damaged, damned, doomed souls this side of Eugene O’Neill — or Edvard Munch. Easttown, Pennsylvania, is just awful: a blue-collar, mostly white, community of churchgoers, most of whom seem to be out of work, out of luck, out of pocket, out of patience. They drink, they cheat, they brawl, they hurt and are hurt. They are victims: presumably of a country, an economy, a world that has no place for them.

And they blame. And blame. And blame.

Mostly they blame Mare, the humorless and tireless protagonist whose almost Christlike sufferings include a passel of unforgiving kinfolk, an ungrateful and needy town, a family history of depression and suicide, and a caseload that would keep a whole season of police detectives from all the Law and Order spinoffs fully employed, not least of which is solving the murder of teen mother Erin.

As to Erin, for a seemingly clueless loser, this kid had more liaisons and complex and unexpected relationships than any TV high school girl since Laura Palmer. But her whole lost generation of Easttown peers is no better: drinking and drugging and drifting and bullying and beating and carousing till all hours while their feckless parents grouse, drink, and raise unwanted grandchildren. There are only two sensitive youths in town: by the show’s end, one has left and the other has been jailed for Erin’s murder.

Meaning that the town, deprived of youth and promise, has been made bereft of hope for a better future: it was sacrificed at the stake and for the sake of an interesting twist ending.

We have been nourished through much of the pandemic by David Simon and his incomparable offerings — primarily The Wire and now we are watching Treme. These rich, difficult shows have something that so many lack: smarts and heart. The Wire is set in Baltimore, very much a spiritual sister of Easttown, a place of no hope where desperate people do desperate things, and limited people unquestioningly, tragically, repeat familiar cycles with no motivation, means, or method to break free. But in David Simon territory, the setting makes for the theme: it’s man against the environment, and the environment — the entrenched systems of society — will win. But that doesn’t mean the challenge can be ignored, the windmill left unaccosted, the battle deserted.

Mare of Easttown has no such big theme to offer, and maybe it doesn’t have to: it’s an acting showcase and a slick mystery. Maybe that should be enough.

But just as I know it’s unhealthy to live on junk food, I think it’s bad for the soul to consume too much overly processed junk television loaded with artificial ingredients. And shows that trade on shock for its own sake — the sleekly successful husband did it! the kid did it! the married father had sex with his underage cousin! — to engage a weary, jaded audience that’s seen it all and is eager for thrills and novelty are not healthy as a steady diet. They make us cynical: we become inured, expecting bad things from anyone and everyone on screen and off.

Movie review

2021 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

For the first year since we began to watch the Oscar shorts, we could not go to our beloved Showroom, because it sadly, irrevocably, no longer exists. Instead, we watched it on TV. And for the first time, we actually watched one of the programs after the awards were given. So a decidedly pandemic-flavored experience with an array of weirdnesses — and sadnesses — baked in. Discounting all of these factors to the extent possible, I still think this was an overall weak batch of nominees, generally lacking in scope, imagination, and/or coherence. The ones I found exceptional — Genius Loci, Opera, and Feeling Through — are the exceptions that prove the rule and lead me to wonder what riches were discarded by the nominating committees. And the fact that these did not win rather speaks to — oh yes, let’s overgeneralize — a failing of the Zeitgeist, a championing of the ham-handed, a myopic embrace of the close and obvious.

Almost all of the live action shorts thrummed with a steady drumbeat (which was literally the soundtrack for a couple of them) of authoritarianism, brutality, prejudice, fear, power imbalances, us versus them, me against the world. The Present depicts a highly sympathetic Palestinian and his young daughter subjected to every imaginable humiliation as they cross and recross Israeli border checkpoints trying to bring home a refrigerator for his wife. White Eye, an Israeli short, involves a stolen bicycle whose owner moves from indignation to retribution, in the process incriminating an Eritrean immigrant, but somehow never transcending pettiness. And the winning short, Two Distant Strangers, murkily and messily cycles through every all-too-sickeningly familiar iteration of white police persecution of unarmed and unsuspecting blacks —  ultimately giving us no hope, no surcease, no way out. The winning animation short, If Anything Happens I Love You, is similarly unrelentingly sad and, for me at least, hollow.

And maybe I am heartless or just tired, but none of these moved me. I am in a state of post-outrage. I am tired of isolation, alienation, agitation, capriciousness, and cruelty. I long for commonality, closure, catharsis.

To be fair, The Burrow tried for these, as did The Letter Room. But in the former, I could not quite grasp what the bunny’s problem was: an insufficiently ambitious blueprint? a desire to be above ground rather than below? fear of intimacy? Whatever it was, it seems to have been resolved by relying on community. Or so my daughters explained to me. As for the latter, which starred Oscar Arias and was, quite frankly, endless, its effort to bring joy to the damned and despised, as the guard charged with monitoring prisoner correspondence ended by writing a letter to a death row inmate purportedly from the prisoner’s daughter, essentially advocated for telling lies to the defeated rather than truth to power, tacitly acknowledging that the system is incapable of reform and small acts of random kindness are the best that can be hoped for.

But the three mentioned above held power and mystery and magnanimity and majesty. And Sarah’s favorite, Yes-People, and all three honorable mention animated shorts were joyous and funny and inspiring and warm. Opera is Hieronymus Bosch crossed with Rube Goldberg. It’s all of life, history, the planet, creation and destruction and everything in between simultaneously on the grand scale and in miniature, meant to be viewed as a continuous-loop installation. Here are two segments of the eight-minute film:

Genius Loci is about — I’m not sure what, I think mental illness, a fire in the brain only soothed and only temporarily by music. The narrator tells us that it is always chaos in her world, but just a question of degree. The artwork conveys this fragmentation fluidly and evocatively, making for a disturbing and disorienting descent into another person’s head: a sacred place to be allowed after all these tales of divisiveness and strife and intolerance.

Feeling Through is another ray of hope, another chance at empathy. The protagonist, a presumably temporarily homeless young black man, spends the wee hours of a night in New York with a man who is deaf and blind, helping him get back uptown after a date, and learning — no, feeling — a lot through their interaction. This film, made in partnership with the Helen Keller Services, is available to be viewed in full on YouTube.

Sarah’s favorite was the animated short Yes-People, which many have dismissed as light and frothy, the daily struggles and routines of a set of Icelandic apartment dwellers; they only speak one word with differing intonations, but use it to cover all their attitudes and observations of their day. She felt it profound; I think she has something there.

The honorable mentions were lovely. To: Gerard was perhaps my favorite, combining magic, mentorship, and the passing of the years most beautifully. The Snail and the Whale should be required viewing to encourage a new generation of environmentalists.

There was no real whimsy or humor this year among the nominees, so for that I end on this also-ran; it was in the larger selection of animated shorts before the cut to five. It is quite delightful and a nice place to stop.

Movie review

Roughly Speaking

1944 Press Photo Mrs Louise Randall Pierson, author with daughter
Lobby card

What an unexpectedly fresh and modern and breezy film this 1945 biopic is! The story of an unquenchable American woman, born in 1890 and living through a series of hard times historically (think World I, the Depression, World War II) and hard knocks personally (early loss of father and family fortune, infantile paralysis of four children, divorce, numerous catastrophic business losses) and emerging unbowed, uncowed, and unrelentingly cheerful, has nice messages for our own troubled times.

And it’s not just the satisfying, feel-good triumph of the little guy (gal) over adversity that resonates. Even on second viewing, I was struck by the surprisingly frank and gutsy quality here — largely due to the inimitable Rosalind Russell, of course, but also to her inspired pairing with Jack Carson. Their quick, affectionate repartee, their shared quirky take on the world, and their mutually held fierce, if naive, ambition to take on the world come what may make them endearing partners and heroes. Through their eyes, and in their voices, the Michael Curtiz (Casablanca)–directed Roughly Speaking steps out of its time, shakes off sentimentality (except at the end, when everybody’s going off to war), and unabashedly celebrates independent thinkers, iconoclasts, goofs, dreamers, and what Oscar Hammerstein extols as cockeyed optimists — and lets a woman lead the pack.

And lets a woman write it: the screenplay is by Louise Randall Pierson (pictured above), based on her own memoir. I suspect that memoir was quite the deal in its day. Published in 1943, by July it was already bought by Warner Brothers as a vehicle for Bette Davis — who, being Bette Davis, as well as a shrewd judge of her own material, promptly turned it down. Contemporary reviews of the book are hard to find, but there is this delicious tidbit from July 24, 1943:

On the way home I finished Louise Randall Pierson’s “Roughly Speaking.” There were moments when I felt weary, so much abounding energy went into her life that when her first husband moved to the Yale Club, I almost echoed his sigh of relief. I am sure that a month later, however, he missed his stimulating wife and the undisciplined children whom life will discipline, whether their parents did it or not. They probably will turn out well and do a good job in the world just because of the qualities which must have made them trying to their neighbors. 

One ends the book with a warm feeling for the courage of the author. Her vitality must be extraordinary, but so is her appreciation of the America we love.

The author of this rather bemused and mildly disapproving account was none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in her “My Day” column.

What a woman Pierson must have been! As portrayed by Russell, she is fiercely independent, utterly self-reliant, flexible, competent, adaptable, and smart. And the New York Times review of her book concurrent with the 1945 movie release portrays a woman buffeted by Fate and bouncing back resiliently, repeatedly, and cheerily. In life, she went on to write the screenplay for Mildred Pierce, dying in 1969. Her youngest son, Frank, who died in 2012, went on to become both a director and writer himself, winning the Academy Award for his screenplay of Dog Day Afternoon, penning the immortal “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” from Cool Hand Luke, taking on Streisand and Peters at their arrogant peak in directing A Star Is Born, and serving as president of both the WGA and the Academy (see here for more from the AFI Magazine).

The Internet sadly yields more about Frank than Louise. But the search turns my mind to the cozy autobiographies of yesteryear that I read as a kid: Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough’s Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Ruth McKenney’s My Sister Eileen, Kathryn Forbes’s Mama’s Bank Account (also published in 1943 and more familiar as the movie and play I Remember Mama), and the granddaddy outlier in terms of dates and gender Clarence Day’s Life With Father. It is perhaps not fair of me to categorize Pierson’s work with these, as I have not read it, but at this remove, it seems to share with these contemporaries a vibrant and humorous woman at (or with Day, near) its center, a plucky and singularly American can-do tone, and — with the exception of Day — an experienced female author (Kimbrough, McKenney, and Pierson were all reporters or journalists, and Forbes wrote radio scripts).

I tried to do a search for humorous contemporary memoirs, to see if the genre is still with us, but that tone of making light and lemonade seems to be gone. (This is not based on exhaustive research or study, just a casual, and maybe forced, observation.) And distressingly, except for autobiographical works by successful comedians like Tina Fey, Mindy Kahling, Amy Poehler, and Issa Rae, the ground seems to have been ceded to men. Searching for “authors like david sedaris” (the only contemporary autobiographical humorist I could think of offhand) brought up references to other men and dead women. Maybe it was because the menfolk were off to war, and the writing space opened up — even as the acting space did — for vital, hardy, talented women.

But Pierson’s story, and the others I’ve cited above, highlights more than a woeful feminist backsliding. It also underscores our abandonment of the all-American little guy — epitomized, to me at least, by midcentury Gene Kelly on his lamppost, defying nature, gravity, and the world. 

It’s that quintessential American optimism, innocence, ingenuousness, happiness, security, and self-confidence that I’m talking about. The 1945 New York Times article quotes Harold Pierson, Louise’s husband, saying this about the call to arms of World War II, to which he and Louise sent three sons: “Believe me, any country where we’ve been free to fail in all the different ways we’ve failed deserves to be saved.” An attitude now almost quaint. As Amanda Wingfield mourns in The Glass Menagerie, “All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me.”

 

Book review

Think of England: Short Stories (Frederic Raphael)

still life with skull
Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628.

I very much like Frederic Raphael’s work, based, as I’ve noted in other posts (here and here and here), on first encountering him through my much-beloved The Glittering Prizes. Now eighty-nine, and with his most recent publications in 2015 and his most recent screenplay  in 2003 (his films are probably more familiar to most than his books, and include Eyes Wide Shut, Two for the Road, Far from the Madding Crowd, Darling, and, I just discovered, the Bogdanovich-directed Daisy Miller, which I have accordingly moved to the top of my Netflix queue), he is at the end of his career and maybe a bit forgotten — though, frankly, I have never very much paid attention to or cared about the au courant nature of any author I enjoy. (Another discovery in researching this post; there appear to be over a hundred short YouTube videos with Frederic Raphael uploaded in 2017 in the Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People series; playlist is here; this seems very intriguing indeed!)

And I do enjoy Raphael’s work, though I am hard pressed to explain precisely why. Mostly, there is an aloof elegance and discipline to his writing and an unemotional, cerebral quality that I find very appealing. And oddly escapist. Because unlike, say Paul Auster, beneath the detachment, there is no angst or despair. There are no big issues roiling under the surface, or at least none that I’ve detected. There are instead axes to grind and pettinesses, prejudices, and pretensions to expose — all of which bring to mind Sayre’s Law about the intensity of feeling being inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. Even when I don’t know the targets Raphael is skewering, I do relish the language and gusto.

There are seventeen stories in Think of England, which has an original copyright date of 1964 and an original American publication of 1988. The book jacket describes the collection as “stylish,” which I guess will do. These are not substantive stories; they are reminiscences, mostly character sketches or wry, ironic, sleek observations. Some are more successful, to my mind, than others, and many of them rather run together with common themes, settings, and characters.

The absolute best is the last, “The People in Euclid,” which is chilling and smart and heartless and heartwrenching; perhaps not coincidentally, it features people whose stories I knew already from The Glittering Prizes. But more than that, it features a terrific fluid narrative method, which has the disjointed sleepwalker quality of a nightmare.

Several — “A Kiss on the Cheek,” “A Long Story Short,” “Seniority,” “To Be a Pilgrim,” “Union Jack Development,” and “Bad Books” — end with an ironic, often cruel punchline reminiscent of de Maupassant or a chillier O. Henry. And a couple seem to be more or less straightforward, and almost affectionate, memories; I would put “The Old Pro” in that category, which is the closest to what could be called a nice story, one where you go “awww.” Raphael rarely goes for “awww.”

Finally, there is “The Day Franco Came,” which is the longest in the collection and stands out like a sore thumb to me. It is the only one set in a different mind, time, and place — although its location, Torreroja, Spain, is the setting for several subsequent stories populated by Raphael and his friends and colleagues. I found the story decidedly weird, and I could not really parse it. I think Raphael was trying quite consciously to write outside his comfort zone, but I did not find the effort successful.

All the stories are gilded with Raphael’s mordant observational style. And his delicious parallel construction. Some examples:

[He] was cleverer than I knew, but not cleverer than Barbara knew, which was cleverer of her than of me.

He liked working with, and quarelling with, people he had worked with, and quarelled with, before.

He was a wine-drinker who quaffed ale to put others at their ease. In short, he lived at the busy intersection of his contradictions.

It made him wonder for whom she was taking him, and whether that could possibly be who he was.

And then there are just very funny lines, worthy of Patrick Dennis:

…no limpet ever had more independence than Annie.

The festive impact was muted by the impression that all these decorations had been inherited from Miss Havisham.

The pudding was pieces of tinned pineapple in what appeared to be diluted toothpaste.

‘What more can we be to each other than we are now?’

‘Unfaithful?’ he said.

But the best observations are those about the craft of writing, notably this extract from “Looking Back,” where Raphael describes his early exposure as a young adolescent to the plays of Noel Coward:

Novels, I noticed, contained many more pages than plays and their authors were, on the whole, required to fill the space from margin to margin. A dramatist could have someone say ‘Open this door’ or ‘Ecstatic’ and move immediately to the next double-spaced line. I had a long way to go before I could hope to appear between hard covers, but I could already recognise a short cut when I saw one.

Most telling of all, though, is the following line, which sums up so much of Raphael’s oeuvre.

The writer is a kind of spiritual burglar who leaves with swag that cannot be marked on any routine inventory.

That’s any author, but particularly this author, to a T. Raphael writes what he takes from the homes, guestrooms, villas, and offices he frequents. It is a circumscribed world of literati and enfants terribles and selfish, self-centered charmers of varying degrees. But interesting and entertaining to visit now and again.

Art review, Book review, Movie review, Theatre review, TV review

2020 Round-up

Books (me)

  • The Man Who Wasn’t There, Anil Ananthaswamy
  • The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, Agatha Christie
  • An American Story, Christopher Priest
  • Disease & History, Frederick F. Cartwright and Michael Biddis
  • The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
  • Curious Behavior, Robert R. Provine
  • Those Were the Days: Why All in the Family Still Matters, Jim Cullen
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
  • Wilson, A. Scott Berg
  • The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Merve Emre
  • Babylon Berlin, Volker Kutscher
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich

A lot of my book choices this year were made because or in spite of the pandemic: some, like Disease & History and Wilson, were conscious efforts to try to understand and place it and our times in a context. A few were easy escapism; one was a deliciously long read. A couple of the nonfiction were quite disappointing: Curious Behavior is a specialist’s end-of-life wrap-up of pet research topics rather than an engaging narrative. The Personality Brokers is, to my mind, rather mean-spirited and formless, ultimately neither fish nor fowl nor good brown bread and making me wonder why it was written or published. Those Were the Days, in contrast, is a very nice piece of pop culture scholarship: clean and clear and cogent and engaging; my brother, for whom I bought this book, has blogged about it. My favorite book all year, hands down, was Before the Deluge. I also greatly admired, but did not love, Berg’s Wilson. Berg is a painstaking researcher, but the book exposes the huge problem in crafting a responsible biography, particularly of someone long dead: some stuff — important or trivial — simply can’t be explained or contextualized; no records or witnesses remain. Berg steadfastly refuses to speculate. Which means there are odd anecdotes, people, incidents that sort of mysteriously trail off. Berg also refuses to draw conclusions about his subject. While I appreciate his leaving it to me to make judgments about Wilson, I would have liked some help from Berg in understanding how, for instance, such a devoted husband could so quickly court and marry a second wife.

Books (Steve)

  • Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
  • All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
  • Sentinels, Bill Pronzini
  • Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
  • The Last Outlaw, Thom Hatch
  • Miracle at St. Anna, James McBride
  • Invisible, Paul Auster
  • The White Album, Joan Didion
  • Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, Oscar Hijuelos
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
  • The Great American Novel, Philip Roth
  • Babylon Berlin, Volker Kutscher
  • Rum Punch, Elmore Leonard
  • Lives of the Poets, E.L. Doctorow
  • The Girl with the Silver Eyes, Dashiell Hammett

Steve’s top picks were Motherless Brooklyn, The Last Outlaw, Miracle at St. Anna, and All the Pretty Horses. The McBride must have made a particular impression, as he has collected a couple others to read this year. He was impressed by Hijuelos’s creative nonfiction, an imagining of the real-life friendship between Mark Twain and explorer/journalist Henry Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame). His favorite book of the year was The Great American Novel.

Dance, Theater, Performance, Lectures, and Readings

  • Coal Country (Public)
  • Che Malambo (Joyce)
  • What Do We Need to Talk About? (Public)
  • Fab 4 Master Class, “The Road to Love Me Do”
  • Puppet Slam (La Mama)
  • Various online readings of Sarah’s short plays
  • The Princess Bride (Wisconsin Democrats)
  • A Christmas Carol (No.11)

The first two were in theaters; the rest were virtual; all were savored. Steve particularly enjoyed Coal Country, noting that that was maybe because it was the last theater we saw live. However, he really did enjoy the music and the story and Steve Earle, so I don’t think it was its finality, so much as its actuality, that appealed. I also liked it; it was extremely moving and a plea for seeing commonality and humanity. The dance performance at the Joyce was slight, but having attempted to watch dance on line since, even slight live is so much more alive than via Zoom. This year’s Puppet Slam was an abbreviated shadow of previous years’ efforts, but it had heart and soul and good intent. Similarly, daughter Julie’s No.11’s traditional holiday outing, always a heartfelt delight, was this year split into a patchwork of homemade contributions, brimming over with sincerity and cheer. As live performance migrated to projections beamed from living rooms to living rooms around the world, coziness and ingenuousness have replaced grandeur and immediacy. The tradeoff is not completely commensurate, but it has had a refreshingly equalizing effect, making theater accessible to everyone, if not remunerative for practitioners. Further, our family has gathered on Skype from three households to act out plays written by “the littlest Congress,” resident playwright and pandemic housemate Sarah. Maybe not the same thrill as house seats to Company, but satisfying in a wholly different way.

Movies  (in theaters* and first-run on TV)

  • Pain and Glory*
  • 1917*
  • 2020 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts*
  • 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation*
  • Little Women*
  • Horse Girl
  • Motherless Brooklyn
  • Blow the Man Down
  • Photograph
  • The Kitchen
  • In the Tall Grass
  • Lost Girls
  • Shirley
  • Us
  • Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn
  • The Lovebirds
  • Invisible Life
  • Bad Education
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  • Strange But True
  • The Wolf House
  • The Good Liar
  • Wasp Network
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Sometimes Always Never
  • The Kindness of Strangers
  • An Affair to Die For
  • Let Them All Talk
  • Dick Johnson Is Dead

I so miss going to the movies, sitting in the dark with invisible strangers and smelling (presumably) fresh popcorn. It seems churlish to say this given the plethora of movies we have access to via streaming and subscription, and even though I can’t keep all our access options straight, I do spend more time than I should on Letterboxd, Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, TCM, Showtime, and Decider queuing up possibilities for movies new and old.

But this year was…strange.

We watched lots and lots and lots of movies and TV shows of all shapes and descriptions, with a little bit more discipline since Sarah has been in residence; because she keeps regular hours, long movies are for weekends and hour-long shows are on weekdays. Nonetheless, very little of it has had lasting impact or made much of an impression. It is possible that this is because it has been on the TV screen rather than experienced with movie theater sound and projection qualities. More likely, though, it’s because of the pandemic and the politics of 2020: a part of our brain was not really present, not really fully engaged, not capable of wrapping around the intricacies of unfamiliar points of view. So a lot of the new stuff — Trial of the Chicago 7, Dick Johnson Is Dead, The Wolf House, Let Them All Talk — however ballyhooed, didn’t quite grab us, although we could appreciate it; a lot of it we didn’t even bother to engage with, or haven’t yet.

Instead, our movie pleasure derived from revisiting the familiar: the outright nostalgic and nonthreatening, some of which we got to introduce to Sarah for the first time — Hitchcock, Hepburn, Hopscotch, Harvey, Hannah and Her Sisters, Moonstruck, Dummy, Peter’s Friends, Pieces of April, The Fisher King, Logan Lucky, Galaxy Quest, Lost in Paris, Angel Heart, Sweet Smell of Success, Arthur. Documentaries on Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Tom Waits, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Hunter S. Thompson, The Who, and many others. Some horror movies, most of which were quite silly and forgettable, but the best of which was the aforementioned almost lyrical The Wolf House.

We watched old or older movies we’d somehow missed, some challenging, some sentimental, some potboilers; a lot of noirs and thrillers: Zorba the Greek, Topkapi, Mr. Love, Meek’s Cutoff, RififiElevator to the Gallows, Stranger on the Third Floor, The V.I.P.s, A Single Man, Inception, Moonlight. We indulged in quick infatuations with Roman Polanski (The Tenant, Cul-de-Sac, Knife in the Water), Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles (The Great Buster: A Celebration, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, The Tell-Tale Heart) — spurred in very large part by the wonderful podcast series, The Plot Thickens — Powell and Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 49th Parallel), and Taika Waititi (Boy, Jojo Rabbit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople).

The standouts of all these movies new and old tend more toward the sentimental than the cerebral. Steve’s favorites among the new were 1917, Motherless Brooklyn, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things; he (and I) also really enjoyed revisiting Jojo Rabbit and stumbling on the rest of Waititi’s quirky, offbeat, but so sweet, work. For me, there were a few disappointments: notably Shirley (the pairing of the equally off-kilter and brilliant Elisabeth Moss and Shirley Jackson thwarted by a script trading in fantasy and misplaced feminism), The Story of Roy Cohn (a half-hearted effort), and The Good Liar (simply ridiculous). But there were also a few unexpected gems: Sometimes Always Never and I Capture the Castle, both eccentric and compassionate family tales featuring the always eccentric Bill Nighy; The Lovebirds, a charming screwball comedy; Transit, a deeply unsettling and fascinating German thriller; 78/52, a comprehensive look at Psycho’s shower scene. The new movie highlight was Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which I intend to rewatch. It is very much, in its solipsistic stuck circles, a movie for our time. The rewatch highlight is The Fisher King; I can never tire of that Grand Central waltz.

We deeply mourn the passing of our local arthouse, the much-loved Showroom, a victim of the Covid economy.

TV

As with movies, we turned to a lot of old familiar faces on TV to escape 2020: Sgt. Bilko, Car 54, Laugh-In, Larry Sanders. We introduced Sarah to three series, each fabulous in its own way: Upstairs, Downstairs, Russian Doll, and Babylon Berlin. Steve and Sarah tore through Schitt’s Creek, which they found to be sheer delight and I will have to follow them there this year. We all watched The Good Place, which turned out to have its heart in the right place and was quite satisfying and sweet.

We didn’t go in for a lot of the pandemic fare we kept hearing about (Tiger King, The Crown), but we did watch and greatly enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit. In its latter episodes, we watched The Undoing primarily for Nicole Kidman’s coats, and deplored the too-easy ending. We watched Watchmen, The Plot Against America, and My Brilliant Friend religiously and devotedly, although the latter two were not quite as satisfying as I would have liked, and the first trades in wildly crazy sci fi tropes. Nonetheless, they are expensively and beautifully realized, well acted, and largely deliciously escapist — just what was needed.

Museums and Field Trips

We made a fleeting trip to the Mütter Museum in October to see its “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Philadelphia” special exhibit which Sarah and I had very much wanted to see all year and which we all agreed would be safe to attend, since, well, the likelihood of catching an infectious disease there would be too ironic to be possible. I grant you, not a scientific calculation, but the exhibit and the Mütter were smart and salient and safe.

Food and Restaurants

This was the year of no new restaurants and very few meals out, except for maybe a half dozen very cautious outdoor dining experiences. It was, though, as Julie pointed out, very much the year of the picnic. We had many picnics well into November and they were all greatly savored: here at Sunset Lake in Asbury, watching the heron and the turtles; at Spring Lake, walking on all the bridges, crossing and recrossing the lake; in Red Bank overlooking the Navesink; and at Sandy Hook, sitting on the rocks and watching the bay. We learned early on that carryout — particularly of Italian food — is rarely as good as in-restaurant meals.

A further limitation was my April gallbladder attack, which after a half day in the hospital, convinced me of the need to make changes in order to leave this world with the same complement of internal organs with which I entered it. After implementing a very low-fat diet, I was symptom free for eight months. Another flareup after a highly stressful deadline made for a further realization: my gallbladder literally feels my pain. So perhaps it is not so much fats as stress; who knows? In any case, Steve turned deprivation into a virtue, and our meals have been sumptuous and delicious and fresh and mindful. No ersatz ingredients or substitutions, no pretending no-fat yogurt is heavy cream. Instead, we made full use of our easy access to fresh produce and fish; measured and weighed; cut back or out. Highlights of Steve’s culinary achievements this year were tomato soup, a wonderful restaurant-quality roasted potatoes recipe, perfecting his buttermilk shrimp and corn chowder, and innovating with an herb-coated pork tenderloin. He also came up with a highly satisfying cornmeal-coated baked “fried” shrimp and scallop recipe. I made a lot of roasted peppers this year, which Sarah in particular loves, and which take me an inordinately long time to prepare. The upside to that has been having the leisure to listen to long, smart podcasts.

Book review

Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s (Otto Friedrich)

Metropolis Triptych, 1927, by Otto Dix

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

I have been rather immersed in Weimar Germany for much of the pandemic and fascinated by it most of my life: enjoying and exploring Expressionist art and film, The Threepenny Opera and Kurt Weill, Christopher Isherwood and I Am a Camera and its multiple descendants, and — most recently — the fabulous Babylon Berlin series on Netflix, which seems to capture and distill all the decadence, intrigue, frenzy, creativity, desperation, and open-mindedness that characterize the era.

And I have read a variety of cultural, sociological, and historical books and memoirs about the period over the years by Peter Gay, Christopher Isherwood, and Fritz Stern, among others. (I confess to having been daunted by Jean-Michel Palmier’s Weimar in Exile, hailed by Le Monde as “a monumental work,” abandoning ship at page 31.) I have also read biographies of people who lived through or influenced the period, most recently A. Scott Berg’s Wilson: it can be argued — and has — that Woodrow Wilson’s ultimate failure at Versailles to secure more lenient reparation terms for Germany is a primary cause of World War II. (As an illustration of the simultaneous attraction to and futility of finger pointing, I am drawn to this observation recorded in the present book. Discussing Heinrich Brüning, one of the last Weimar chancellors, in exile in the 1970s in New Hampshire working on his memoirs, a colleague noted: “He has an absolutely passionate desire to convince people that he wasn’t responsible for the the coming of Hitler… Which is a little absurd, because partly, of course, the coming of Hitler was a kind of tidal wave that nobody could have stopped. But partly, he was responsible.”)

But none of the books I’ve mentioned regarding Weimar — and none that I can recall on other historical periods — comes close to the dazzling encapsulation and evocation of this complex era Otto Friedrich achieves in Before the Deluge. Published originally in 1972 and revised in 1995 just before his too-early death, this elegant exploration combines scholarship (he consulted over three hundred books) and interviews — and in the early seventies, a lot of eyewitnesses were still around, and the trenchant observations and rueful critiques they provide here are a testament to the long-time journalist’s manner and skill. Some samples:

The really important thing during any crisis is whether the streetcars are running. If the streetcars keep running, then life is bearable. —A Berliner on the 1918 revolution

I loved Berlin… the clash of values, between the old and the new. Everything became possible. Everything became Experience, with a capital E—and a capital X. —Yehudi Menuhin

Jazz blared. I remember two popular songs: “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “Tomorrow’s the End of the World.” However, the end of the world was postponed from one day to the next. —Ilya Ehrenburg

One of the most striking things about the whole Weimar period…is the gulf between the small minority of intellectuals and the general mood of the country. —Professor Richard Lowenthal

The book’s seventeen chapters, aside from its first scene-setting prologue chapter, each depict a year in Berlin under the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933. Throughout, Friedrich presents clean, concise summations of big events and big ideas, never losing sight of how they affected real people:

By the middle of 1923, the whole of Germany had become delirious. Whoever had a job got paid every day, usually at noon, and then ran to the nearest store, with a sack full of banknotes, to buy anything he could get, at any price…

The fundamental quality of the disaster was a complete loss of faith in the functioning of society… If all money becomes worthless, then so does all government, and all society, and all standards.

He backs up that conclusion with an observation from a German journalist:

Even the maids—they never spent a penny of their wages. They saved and saved so that they could get married. When the money became worthless, it destroyed the whole system for getting married, and so it destroyed the whole idea of remaining chaste until marriage.

A few of the chapters relate straight chronology: the actions, reactions, intrigues, and personalities that moved Berlin and the republic in that year. The remaining majority of the chapters have a particular focal point — Berlin’s Russian colony, the concert musicians, the scientists, the theater, movies, cabarets, crime. From these various vantage points, Friedrich introduces us to a sprawling and remarkable cast of characters: the politicians, military leaders, and bureaucrats of the time to be sure; but so many more in featured roles and walk-ons — and presented with the fluidity and control of E.L. Doctorow in Ragtime —  the rather magnificent Count Harry Kessler (see here for more about the man The Irish Times called “the original hipster”), Rosa Luxemburg, John Maynard Keynes, Kathe Kollwitz, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Einstein, Christopher Isherwood, Walter Slezak, the profiteer industrialist Hugo Stinnes, Josephine Baker, Walter Gropius, the concert pianist Rudolf Serkin (whose serendipitous career twists began with a job not taken in a city never visited in order to pursue training never granted by a master who instead advised the teen to just go to lots of concerts, and whose subsequent portfolio included accompanying Einstein, who played violin “without any vibrato, so it always went skreek-skreek-skreek”), Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, Zeppelin manufacturer Hugo Eckener (of whose creation Friedrich notes “there was something symptomatic about the heedless optimism with which the Germans of 1929 set off around the world in a giant gas bag filled with highly inflammable hydrogen”).

And of course there is Hitler himself, who, as described by Friedrich, sounds eerily similar to a present-day potentate:

Above all, he was essentially boring, not only in that he had no ideas worth hearing but in that his whole concept of the good life consisted of sitting around the lunch table, eating sweet pastries and conducting monologues on his war experiences or the loyalty of dogs. As a political leader, he was not only ignorant and lazy but strangely indecisive… Perhaps there was something in the eyes that we cannot see in photographs, something in the voice that we do not hear in the old recordings, something that persuaded people to regard him as a hero.

The author’s approach to the subject matter allows him to clearly illustrate how the interactions among the characters influenced outcomes: for instance, the doctrinal antisemitism imported with the Russian emigre Fyodor Vinberg, who “brought to Germany the first copies of a peculiar Russian work called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” mixed with and built on a German preexisting “conventional hostility” toward the Jews. He also tracks the missed opportunities that likewise influenced outcomes. A former official with the Economics Ministry explains the disastrous policies underlying the currency inflation of the early twenties:

You must understand that the German universities had cut themselves off from classical economic thinking fifty years earlier… I tell you, in all of Germany, there were only three teachers who really understood economics, and two of them were not even full members of their faculties.

Through the shifts in focus, Friedrich smartly and concisely demonstrates his central theme: that even though the Weimar Republic was doomed from the start, the grand experiment and concomitant societal upheaval powered immense creativity as people and ideas came together:

The story of Berlin in the 1920s is not a prophecy…it is simply a great drama and a great tragedy. As in most tragedies, the forces of evil triumph… and yet even after all the violence and destruction, it is the forces of good that live on. Who was really more important, and who will be longer remembered, Einstein or Goebbels?

Panorama (Down with Liebknecht), 1919, by George Grosz

 

 

 

 

To this end, he details the cultural and scientific innovations and innovators of the period, never failing to weigh in with smart insights, such as his observation that the brilliant architects emerging from the Bauhaus movement “shared one of the peculiar problems of architecture—the fact that architects need a wasteland to work in” in order to leave their mark on a city. And Friedrich succinctly delineates the roiling conflict in modern physics between Einstein and his search for the overarching “laws of God’s creation” and the “young physicists,” led by Heisenberg, who maintain that “all facts are purely momentary perceptions of possibilities.” His descriptions of the mutual bafflement of the two camps make the science approachable and the characters tragically endearing. He also reminds us in this chapter that the war on science is not new, as he recounts the efforts of a right-wing group against the “Einstein hoax.”

There is a moment in the musical Cabaret when the extent to which Nazism has permeated the daily life of Berlin becomes chillingly apparent. This is during a musical interlude, a kickline at the cabaret; it happens at around 2:30 in this video.

I bring this up because this is precisely the effect Friedrich achieves in Before the Deluge. We all know where this is going to end up, yet we linger idyllically at summer picnics, we watch the glamorous Dietrich coming into her own, we watch the machinations of the military and the president and the Communists and the Social Democrats. And we slowly, ever so slowly, out of the corner of our eye, become aware of the actions of Hitler and his ragtag Nazis. They are a blip in the narrative in the early chapters, a merest mention — just as they must have seemed at the time. Until by the last chapters, the Nazi party is front and center in the narrative, overwhelming the last bastions of rationality. After Hitler is installed as chancellor, Friedrich quickly empties his stage, noting: “And so the exodus began.” 

You can draw parallels between any two periods of history and find commonalities. Of course: the common denominator is us, people, flawed humans flawless in our blind obtuseness. And you can detect the seeds of destruction — or more optimistically — the progenitors of progress in any past event. We tell stories, we look for explanations, we see what we want to see, we cherry pick, we bend truth to our own ends.

Nonetheless and notwithstanding, the analogies between Weimar Germany and the present day are legion and profound. (Only today, as I post this, the New York Times has run a truly ominous story of a thirty-one-year-old German officer with far-right leanings who posed for sixteen months as a Syrian refugee with the apparent ultimate aim of bringing down  contemporary German democracy, perceiving immigration as a threat to German nationalism.) Such analogies are, in light of the maxims beginning this post, to be noted, dissected, and taken to heart.

 

TV review

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–75)

The Edwardian era Bellamy household.

A most pleasant preoccupation during these decidedly unpleasant times has been revisiting the classic British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. Steve and I, latecomers to the show, first watched the sixty-eight episodes about five or more years ago, and rewatched them over the past several months to introduce them to our pandemic housemate Sarah. She was as captivated by the Bellamy household as we continued to be.

The attraction lies first and largely in the rich, multifaceted characters who comprise the two domains of 165 Eaton Place: the masters and the servants. But the fascination comes from watching their reactions and responses as the world — slowly at first, then at steadily increasing speed — roils and shifts around them, tumbling them headlong into a future none of them could foresee, anymore than can any of us now, I suppose. But watching them, we know what they do not: that it’s all going to end, sometimes quite badly. On reflection, this is the same appeal as with Mad Men: clearly delineated characters moving with or against the currents of their time. But where Don, Peggy, Joan, and the rest dealt with the upheavals of a single, albeit tumultuous, decade, the 1960s, the Bellamys move through almost thirty years from the Edwardian period to the beginning of the Great Slump.

The pre–World War I household configuration.

The social and technological changes realized during the 1903–30 time frame are immense, and the discrete historical events that punctuate the period are huge. The sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, the stock market crash, and more, visit the inhabitants of Eaton Place — and hit hard. To say nothing of the human-scale milestones that test and mark the characters: like any good soap opera, and some well-lived lives, Upstairs, Downstairs is replete with weddings, deaths, divorces, extramarital affairs, unrequited love, suicides, kidnappings, drunkenness, disability, madness, extortion, and scandal. Tellingly, there are relatively few births on the show: only two, by my count, and only one of those children survives. I think this is because the story of the Bellamys is one of gradual extinction. Like E.M. Forster’s Howards End and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Upstairs, Downstairs tells of a time and a class on its way out, as the assumptions and circumstances that underlie the British empire rot away.

Class is an obvious and uppermost theme throughout the series. There are the nobility and the gentry who live upstairs — prominently Lady Marjorie, born to a title, and Lord Richard Bellamy, later bestowed his title, their children James and Elizabeth, and a set of spouses and extended family — and there are the below-stairs servants. These, as James’s wife Hazel — who, like Richard, comes from the middle class, and thus strictly speaking belongs neither upstairs nor downstairs — observes, make up a second family living in the Bellamy home, with “father” Hudson, the butler; “mother” Mrs. Bridges, the cook; and an assortment of “children” consisting of the flower-named maids (Rose, Daisy, Violet, Lily), the chauffeurs, footmen, and scullery girls. But interestingly and perhaps unusually, they don’t really live downstairs, only work there. Their rooms, like the Bellamys’, are mostly on upper floors, meaning that the entire household uses a single common staircase. And a good many significant scenes of transition are played out on those stairs, peering over banisters, hunched up in tears, or seated expectantly or unexpectedly.

The Bellamy household of the early 1920s.

A thought about the housing arrangements. It occurred to me that James, particularly when back home after his time at the front during the war, and both Elizabeth and Bellamy ward Georgina, in between impetuous and sometimes scandalous sallies into the broader world, spend almost entire episodes in their own rooms or in the morning room — smoking, sulking, and periodically summoning or dismissing the staff. But below stairs, except for their rarely seen bedrooms, most of which are shared, and Hudson’s pantry, a private and sacrosanct retreat, all is communal space. The staff cozily eat, confer, connect, clash, and recreate together, all while drinking endless cups of cocoa and tea: in stark contrast to the lonely, solitary lives led above stairs. I wonder what were the impacts of the myriad opportunities available to the lower classes to thus exchange thoughts — and all-too-frequent misinterpretations — versus the long stretches available to the upper classes for introspection and solipsism.

Upstairs, Downstairs differs from its predecessor prestige period piece The Forsyte Saga of 1967 in that the latter is based on a book by John Galsworthy and its characters stay, well, more or less in character. In contrast, over a dozen credited writers created Upstairs, Downstairs. I do not know to what extent character and season arcs were deliberately developed, and to what extent the writers had free rein to go where and how they wanted. But it is apparent that writer conceptions of the various characters differed widely and wildly. So, Mr. Hudson may be petty and peevish in one episode, and wise and preternaturally cool and collected in another. Rose too rockets from wide-eyed innocence to tart bitterness. Richard is an almost insufferable and clueless stuffed shirt in some episodes and a sly, subtle rake in others. The actors did their best to elide these contradictions. And in some episodes, this sense of character as filtered through an individual writer’s perspective, yields real riches. Noted novelist Fay Weldon’s “Your Obedient Servant” episode sets up a wonderful parallel between Richard and Hudson as they confront their respective brothers — and each other, in unfamiliar surroundings — resulting in a keen appreciation of character and a warm shared humanity; such insights might not have been possible with a single guiding narrative voice.

Regardless of these episode-to-episode character inconsistencies, what offered me the most food for thought was seeing how stuck so many of the characters were. Stuck in preconceptions, societal expectations, notions of fitness and rightness. How curtailed their freedom was by their times and class, regardless of whether they lived upstairs or down. James, whose tragic life is the central arc of the series, is irrevocably hemmed in: by his class, by his connections, by available opportunities, by what he’s seen and done in the war, by what he wants and needs — which he really doesn’t know and couldn’t express even if he did, because of yet another limitation in his character: James is ultimately not very perceptive. He is a clumsy, and spoiled, creature of impulse, of a genetic piece with his sister Elizabeth. He is not a bad man, not at all; just one who has no “driving wheel,” as Steve and David Bromberg would put it. To some extent, his inability to find meaning, his frustrated, restive nature, is a product of the Great War. But really, the seeds were sown years before by an indulgent set of parents and a class system that encouraged idleness and precluded so many avenues to relevancy.

At the other end of the spectrum of societal expectation is Mrs. Bridges. Where James floats purposelessly, not knowing where or how to land, Mrs. Bridges knows exactly who and what she is, was, and always will be.  She never changes her hairstyle or her hemline, but stays firmly rooted in Edwardian era domestic service attitudes and fashion (see black and white photo of a 1907 Mrs. Bridges doppelganger). Even more than Mr. Hudson, who senses and fights against evolving attitudes toward domestic service, she seems impervious to changing times and mores. But Kate Bridges has an advantage even over Hudson, which I found quite revelatory and intriguing, and which perhaps could explain her confident certitude. As the cook, provider of food and sustenance, Mrs. Bridges has certain powers and privileges unavailable to the others below stairs. When sufficiently vexed with uncertainty or capriciousness emanating from the master, mistress, or other family members, she can go upstairs and press her case. And she does — not often, but only when pushed — and she is generally pacified or at least mollified. Mrs. Bridges is, after all, not just a cook, but a very good fancy cook. She also has a special relationship with the children of the household. I was struck when Victoria, Richard’s second wife, brings her children downstairs after their first visit to Eaton Place, so they can thank Cook personally for their tea. Certainly, no one ever thanks Rose or Daisy or Edward the footman for their ceaseless, invisible labor.

Most of the staff, like Mrs. Bridges, like Hudson, know their place. But as the years go by, the newer and younger staff evince a bit of the same rebelliousness as Sarah (pictured at left), who enters service in the very first episode and leaves no member of the Bellamy household unscathed in her relentless quest for a better, freer, less constrained life. After the war, this spirit is much more pronounced among the junior staff, several of whom leave service altogether — much to Hudson’s dismay and disappointment. But these servants, beginning with Sarah, are actually able to do what James cannot: break free of societally imposed constraints. They can pursue what earlier generations of domestic servants could not: upward mobility.

Beyond the social issues, the key to the show’s enduring interest and appeal is the decency, the humanity, of its main characters. We come to care deeply for Hudson and Hazel, for Rose and Richard, for Marjorie and James, for Edward and Daisy, for Mrs. Bridges and Ruby — particularly in season 4, when they are buffeted, bewildered, and beat down by the war. Almost every character gets a chance, sometimes several, to reveal their grace and grit, their compassion, their honor. It was a joy being in their presence for all these months; I shall miss them.

It appears that all the episodes can be streamed on YouTube; I am not sure of the copyright considerations entailed. They are also available on Britbox. And a lovely resource for all things Upstairs, Downstairs is maintained online by Steve Phillips: click here.

Book review

An American Story (Christopher Priest)

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Pakistan International Airline print ad 1979

When late-night Internet surfing led me to the fact that Christopher Priest, author of the absolutely-can’t-put-this-down The Prestige, had published a book in 2019 about 9/11, I promptly bought and then promptly read it. In the intervening decades, I had tried to get through other Priest efforts, but maybe only one, perhaps two, had spurred me to completion.

This one is different, this one is truly compelling, with a fascinating story and an equally interesting narrative method. But — and please forgive me, Professor Grumbach, with your exhortation to leave the author his donné — I had wanted the book to be about something other than it was. I saw it as a window on today, but Priest firmly roots it in and maintains its focus on 9/11.

Even so:

I assumed that in an enlightened civilized society…there was no danger from the people we elect into positions of power… We assume that a government is essentially on our side, even if we did not vote for the party who takes power or the president who wins the election.

The story is simple: Benjamin Matson, a scientist by training and a journalist by profession, met, loved, and planned a life with a captivating and complex woman who is then presumably killed in the plane crash at the Pentagon on 9/11 — a scenario he becomes increasingly suspicious of as the years pass and contradictory information comes to light.

This is essentially a record of Ben’s research effort, and it relies more on conversations and interviews than on actions and deeds. Told in the first person by this highly reliable narrator, the story spirals and loops through time, describing incidents from “then” — 2000, 1996, 2005, 2006–2011 — interspersed, seemingly randomly, with incidents from “now.” There is a certain amount of repetition. We are told about the same interaction multiple times as new information and perspectives are added. Thus, the storytelling method is the same as the story: the format perfectly matches the content as a gradual, iterative, accretion of impressions.

While the narrator may be reliable, narrative is not — a point Priest immediately makes with his opening epigraph from Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission:

In the rare cases when a historical event, especially a traumatic event, stirs emotions on a massive scale…it enters popular culture. Great numbers of people soon form beliefs about what happened and why — creating a historical narrative… People will try to make sense of the events that fit their prior understanding of how the world works.

Having thus primed us, Priest then very cleverly heightens our suspicions, putting us on uneasy alert to disinformation, dissonance, and distortion. His rejection of linear narrative in favor of repetitive iteration shows us time and time again that we — through our proxy Ben — often miss key information the first time around.

Further, Priest gives us three main characters Ben returns to at various intervals throughout the book; these function rather like a set of oracles with their respective totems: his current partner’s mother, Lucinda, and her unreliable memories (“I’m full of memories I’ve made up”); his dead lover Lil and her contradictions; the famed mathematician Tatarov and his proofs.  These three dispel, for both Ben and the reader, any remaining faith in knowable, objective reality.

The perspective is oddly bracing. We come to recognize with Ben that accepted wisdom is never the latter and so should never be the former. As he probes the circumstances of Lil’s death, he comes to find that

The story was shaped to fit into what few facts were known…

and that much of what we are left with is

…the vernacular history of 9/11… Based purely on hearsay — this loosely described event, unsupported by any evidence…

We must be on our guard and question everything, accept nothing.

For the price of complacency is high, and the possibility for manipulation via the democratized platform of free speech that is the Internet is very, very strong:

When the motive is malign, facts and known events are no longer empirical. They can be downgraded into theories, suspicions, lies, alleged conspiracies. They can be redacted. History itself falls into doubt.

Not to mention the future.