22-24 June 2012
Kathleen flew out to Chicago yesterday, for a firm outing, so I decided to have a spa day. The spa was in the bedroom and the rejuvenating device was the DVD player. I watched the last episode of Lewis, Season Six, and then The International, Tom Tykwer’s action thriller about banking. The spa treatment didn’t begin, though, until I went down to collect the mail, and picked up a box from Amazuke: videos featuring British comedienne Miranda Hart.
I hadn’t heard of Miranda until last week, when the head nurse at the Infusion Therapy Unit told me about her. Back at home, checking things out online, I discovered that Patricia Hodge is in the Miranda show, and that clinched it. I’ve adored Patricia Hodge ever since I saw Betrayal, with Jeremy Irons, even though the movie is now much too sad for me to bear watching. I ordered a couple of things, and some of them arrived yesterday. I had not planned to waste the entire day on videos, but mining a new vein of British humour could hardly be dismissed as “waste.” I ended up laughing my head off.
Miranda is an extremely traditional sitcom; I want to call it venerable. It’s got all the staples — irritating mother, pathetic dreams of glory, even more pathetic humiliations, drag (improbably but quite amusingly), and breathtaking rudeness. I’m probably leaving a few things out; my point is that Miranda is funny not because it’s completely new and different but because, like a great performance of a Haydn string quartet, it makes everything new. It is, above all, physical comedy, to a degree rarely seen in connection with a comedy character’s boarding-school background and decayed RP. Miranda Hart is a big girl, I suppose you’d say; not that tall really, but in no way petite, and biggest in the shoulders and bust. Being “feminine” does not come naturally to her onscreen avatar. Although she would never run for fun, she rather likes the idea of galloping. If she brings Jennifer Saunders and AbFab to mind, that’s because she is every bit as bold; but it would have to be pointed out that she is an Eddie Monsoon on the receiving end of life, not the dishing.
Imagine a woman built like Julia Child (and with Child’s verve for sharing secrets in front of the camera — “You’re alone in the kitchen! No one will ever know!”) inspirited by Carol Burnett. Like Carol Burnett, Miranda Hart establishes a warm and vital connection with her audience, whom she frankly addresses throughout the show. (In one episode, she tells a silly joke to her friends, and gets no response; then she tells is to someone else, ditto; and finally she turns to the camera and gives it a third try. “Nothing here, either! Most rude,” she huffs, turning back to the action.) Never has “complicity” been so deliciously exploited: watching the show, you become part of it, all the more when Miranda gets cosy with you and then says, “The pleasure’s all yours, ha ha.”
The basic setup is that Miranda is a young woman of county — well, Surrey — background whose mother (Patricia Hodge) is desperate to make something admirable out of her. Failing matrimony, Mummy would at least like her daughter to have an enviable job; instead of which, Miranda has invested an inheritance in a novelty shop, where you can buy chocolate willies and so forth. Miranda is too much a Hooray Henry herself to run a business; for that she has the blonde and very small Steve (Sarah Hadland). What Miranda wants to do with her time is scheme to attract her friend Gary (Tom Ellis), an unbelievably single piece of masculine attractiveness who runs the café next door. Mr Ellis is almost as pretty as Adrian Grenier, but he is so convincing as a decent bloke that you know that his looks mean nothing to him. After a couple of episodes, actually, I began to worry that the actor resents being exploited, in rather the same way that Marilyn Monroe did. The edge of discomfort in Miranda is not wide, but it scimitar-lengthy.
I wanted to make a spa day of it and get to bed really early, but the cliffhanger at the end of Miranda Season One made that impossible: I had to know if Gary would stay in Hong Kong (and leave the show). As I watched the first two episodes of Season Two, my impression that the show gets funnier as it goes along was confirmed. “Such fun!” alone… I was in bed, lights out, at 10:30.
In the course of preparing this month’s Beachcombing entry — yes, there will be one; it will turn up at the end of the month; I’m experimenting with planning the page as a whole — I struggled to digest a very long entry at Jim Emerson’s Scanners. I put it that way because the entry consists of snips from a discussion, at the Times site, between A O Scott, who reviews film for the newspaper, and David Carr, a media guru, together with Emerson’s commentary, which is rabidly anti-Carr. I’m completely sympathetic (with Emerson), but it’s tricky to negotiate the squabble, especially as Emerson seems determined to fault Carr for faults in rhetorical logic. The cannon is a little to big for the target, but, as I say, I understand Emerson’s frustration. When are people going to understand the point of criticism?
In the discussion, at least as I breezed through it (multiple times, if that’s not a contradiction), Carr sees Scott as a godlike figure who is equipped with “a big box of lightning bolts,” meaning that Scott can shoot down and destroy any movie that he doesn’t like. This is a ridiculous position, as Scott is first to point out, but I am not going to get into the merits of the argument on either side. I encourage you to read the entry at some quiet time when you’re sure that you can let everything else drop for fifteen or twenty minutes. (Three-cornered arguments, no matter how lucid, are hard to follow.) As a regular follower of Scanners, I expect to come across most of Emerson’s points in future entries, and I shall try to feature them more coherently here. For the moment (it’s the weekend!), I want only to make a point that Emerson never gets quite round to clarifying, although I’d love to hear his argument with it: the authority of the film critic rests not in his or her superior understanding of “cinema” or of anything else, but only in the ability to convey a personal impression with clarity and interest.
In this the film critic is just another kind of good writer, not a specialist in movies. There is no such thing as an “objective” evaluation of a movie, even if there are some common mistakes that good films consistently avoid and that “bad” films don’t. (Emerson is fairly clear about this.) What makes Jim Emerson a great film critic right now is his urgency about the personality of movie reviews. The critic ought above all to make his or her personality known to the reader, because it’s from that that the reader will learn whether to expect satisfaction from the movie under review. As an example, it suffices for me to thank Manohla Dargis for her eloquent dislike of movies that I’ve enjoyed very much; when I make a beeline to see a film for which she has declared her contempt in the Times, I don’t feel that I’m right and that she’s wrong; her feeling differently about the picture does not enhance my pleasure. But it may confirm my sense, in advance, that this is a movie that I’m going to like, precisely because she doesn’t like it in the way that she doesn’t like it. Sometimes — I ought to specify (but it’s the weekend) — Dargis dislikes a picture in a way that I’m pretty sure that I’ll share, and I don’t go. That’s the easy part. It’s when she likes a movie that I’ve expected to like: then I’m flummoxed. But that’s my problem, and not the fault of Manohla Dargis!
I’ve been thinking about criticism a lot, in the wake of Nicola Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor, because negative reviews really got to Taylor, to a degree for which good ones couldn’t compensate, and in the end I’m not sure what purpose they served beyond the reviewer’s very momentary thrill at playing with the thunderbolts (literary critics, unlike their brethren in the dark, really do shoot them). Taylor’s bad reviews, at least as summarized by Beauman, are an anthology of stupidity. Now that Taylor and her critics have been dead for well over a quarter century, the fact that some of them couldn’t think of anything nice to say about her work leads to precisely nothing more than that: it is just so much stairway leading to blind walls. Much to be preferred is the red carpet that the critic cordons off with complete (and as-ostentatious-as-you-like) silence. The only thing to say about junk, if that’s what you think a novel or a movie is no better than, is nothing. Explicit criticism ought to be positive and constructive, except in those rare cases (Manohla Daris and Anthony Lane) where the writing not only bears down on the work but bears out the writer’s character. Which is Jim Emerson’s point: the best critics are great because they write so ably about themselves.
Miranda note: I’ve now watched all of both seasons. Let’s not forget Michel Serrault among the influences! There’s an awful lot of Cage aux folles in the psychiatrist episode! In which the best thing, though, is the audience reaction to Miranda’s little fantasy of Gary’s popping in and proposing. Not since the Beatles have I heard such screaming!
In her biography of the writer, Nicola Beauman opines, as I think I’ve mentioned, that Elizabeth Taylor was better at short stories than at novels. She strikes a note of impatience with The Sleeping Beauty, for example, feeling that it would have made five or six really great stories instead of just one novel. I don’t intend to agree with this judgment unless the stories, which I’ve just begun reading, really make the novels look bad as they are. Not inferior to the stories — stories and novels are not comparable — but bad as novels, something I don’t expect to conclude.
At the beginning of the Virago collection of the stories — prefaced by Joanna Kingham, Taylor’s daughter, but invisibly edited (there is no sourcing: we’re not told which collections the stories come from, nor the dates of publication in The New Yorker or elsewhere); quite shocking! — stands “Hester Lilly,” Taylor’s novella-length story. To my mind, it is definitely and easily a very long short story, and not a novella. (We’ll see why I think that.) “Hester Lilly” is about marriage. The title character is the orphaned poor relation of a headmaster whose wife is what we would call a narcissist. Robert, the headmaster, invites Hester to take a post as his secretary, over the covert (but transparent) objections of his jealous wife, Muriel.
Until now she had contested his decision to bring Hester into their home, incredulous that she could not have her own way. She had laid about his with every weapon she could find — cool scorn, sweet reasonableness, little girl tears.
Hester is indeed in love with Robert, but it is an affection based on their correspondence prior to her arrival, and it dissipates fairly rapidly in the strain of everyday life. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is transformed into a sense of security; initially afraid of the wildnerness surrounding the school (Hester has not spent time in the country before), she is encouraged to venture into the night, thus beginning a string of adventures that culminates in her marriage to a shy biology teacher who is drawn to her not only by her youth but by a sort of fraternal pity. Along the way, she will encounter a witch-like virago (!) who tempts her to return to the unthreatening but pointless existence from which Robert has rescued her. As to Hester herself, “Hester Lilly” is something of a fairy tale, complete with happy ending.
What gives “Hester Lilly” its thoroughly grown-up strength is the other marriage, the one that Hester seems intended, at first, to destroy. This is shown to be a marriage that has already died, and the showing is what interests Taylor most. Fearing Hester’s threat, Muriel misbehaves in ways that make her husband’s disgust and detachment obvious to her. If we were to look for a fairy-tale angle here, we might say that Hester is a mirror in which Muriel finally sees her own ugliness.
“I cannot make him come to me,” she thought in a panic. “I cannot get my own way.” She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate hiim; but at last wished only to conend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.
Such insight was unavailable to Muriel before Hester came to stay.
I want to call attention to the feature that immediately distinguishes “Hester Lilly” from Taylor’s novels. It begins with a situation and not with a scene. In her novels, Taylor introduces herself as a metteur en scène, and takes her time about providing the backgrounds of her characters. In “Hester Lilly,” Taylor takes her time about setting the story at a boys’ preparatory school. There is really no scene at all, just the three characters, Muriel, Hester, and Robert. Hester’s letters are the only prop. The first strong description is of Hester’s outfit.
Hester, in clothes which astonished by their improvisation — the wedding of out-grown school uniform with the adult, gloomy wardrobe of her dead mother — looke jaunty, defiant and absurd. Every garment was grown out of or not grown into.
(“Wedding” is especially artful, as we’ll see when the story ends in preparations for Hester’s wedding.) At no point does Taylor describe the house, formerly the seat of an ancient family (tagged, appropiately, as “Despenser”); the architectural aspect of the atmosphere — so prominent, even to the point of literal deadliness, in Palladian — doesn’t interest her here, despite the length of the story. I’m going to bear that contrast in mind as I make my way through this great delicious book.
Mikael Håfström’s Shanghai arrived the other day, and I watched it at the first opportunity. What had kept a 2010 Weinstein Company production starring John Cusack, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, and Chow Yun-Fat, set in Shanghai (unlike the more recent movie of the same name) in 1941, out of American theatres? Why wasn’t the video for sale, even? The movie itself offered no clues. It may not be the best movie ever, but it’s very competent when it isn’t actually exciting (which is often), and if the noir element feels a bit shopworn, the actors’ verve is ample compensation. The supporting cast is strong, too: Franka Potente, David Morse, Hugh Bonneville, Nicholas Rowe and Wolf Kahler all stand out, as do a number of Asian actors whom I might have recognized if I followed Mr Chow’s films as religiously as one might.
The mystery at the heart of the story is a McGuffin of which Hitchcock would have been proud: it’s nothing less than the massing of the Japanese fleet from which the attack on Pearl Harbor will be launched. The Americans in the story are of course unaware of this, and it turns out that the hero’s friend who is killed at the beginning of the story wasn’t murdered for that reason, even though he may have been on to the secret. Between the action on the screen and the catastrophe that everyone in the audience sees looming ahead lies a thicket of romance, betrayal, and political resistance that has nothing to do with American inter