Screening History: “That Hamilton Woman” (1941)

If there’s any genre I love as much as the epic, it’s the costume drama. With all of its sumptuous decor, its melodramatic excess, and its focus on women, it’s a genre tailor-made (it would seem) for the discerning homosexual.

Such, indeed, is That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 film by Alexander Korda, starring the radiant Vivien Leigh and the dashing Laurence Olivier.

Vivien Leigh plays the titular role of Emma Hamilton, a commoner who becomes, first, the wife of the British ambassador Naples and, later, the mistress of the famous admiral Horatio Nelson. Their affair is the scandal of society, and ultimately Nelson must choose between his love for Emma and his duty to his country as the admiral and she, likewise, must decide whether to continue weaving her net about him or to let him go. The two of them must repeatedly confront the essential conflict between their personal love for one another and the responsibility that Horatio has to his country, given that he is one of the few commanders who stands between Napoleon and global domination. In the end, she sends him off to his duty, even though it means the end of their love.

At the beginning of the film, Emma has fallen on hard times, her once-great beauty diminished by years of penury. Yet even the makeup and bedraggled clothing cannot entirely efface Leigh’s exquisite beauty, which radiates outward rom the screen, limned by the dim light coming from outside her prison cell. Indeed, Leigh is one of those talents of old films whose face was made for the camera. With her fine cheekbones, full lips, and slightly-wide (and incredibly expressive) eyes, Leigh’s Emma frequently gazes off into the distance, her luminous eyes seeming to gaze into a future that can never be realized. Even when she sits in a jail cell, she seems to command our gaze.

Indeed, it is precisely Leigh’s performance that endows Emma with her tremendous presence, as a woman whose desires motivate the narrative. Given that the entire film is told as a flashback, I would argue that it is Emma’s perspective that dominates the entire film. In other words, through her perspective that we understand world-historical events to have another element besides the doings of great men on the stage of history. As such, Emma also comes across as a woman determined to see her desires fulfilled, even if that means that she goes against the strictures that society has placed upon women and their sexual behavior.

Emma’s great misfortune, however, is that the world she lives in is utterly incapable of seeing her as anything other than “that Hamilton woman,” an epithet always delivered with contempt, pity, or vituperation. And while she believes that love is the only thing she needs to sustain herself, a series of events have clearly brought her to the point that she is living on the streets, subject to the uncaring justice of the state. Through it all, however, Emma radiates strength, grace, and beauty.

Olivier as Nelson is a bit more unrestrained than one usually sees, and sometimes his performance veers dangerously close to scenery-chewing. However, this seems appropriate, given that he’s playing a man noted for his relentless energy and naval brilliance (it wasn’t every commander, after all, that dared to go after Napoleon Bonaparte). He certainly bears with him that signature Olivier scowl.

The film’s visual design is truly opulent, amply conveying to a jaundiced modern eye the splendour of a bygone era, when countries and individuals bestrode the world like ancient colossi. Despite its grand themes and historical concerns, That Hamilton Woman is equally adept at conveying the deep personal and emotional currents that have an impact on the actions of the great. For the film, Emma’s love of Nelson is true, rich, and deep, which makes its demise with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar all the more wrenching, for we know that Emma will be left with nothing except his illegitimate daughter.

The film’s final tragedy is that it denies us as viewers a view of the events that led Emma from being the mistress of one of the most powerful men in England to a beggar wandering the street. We are left yearning for what it is that fills in that lacuna, even as we also know that to see it would shatter the magnificent illusion that it has already spent so much time constructing. In refusing to grant us this image of her degradation, Emma retains her control on her own story until the very last, he weary countenance gazing into a past that can never be recaptured and a future devoid of even the remotest possibility of joy or love.

Rousing and resonant, That Hamilton Woman is a visually stunning exploration about the ways in which women are forced to maneuver the halls of power. And the punishment that often greets them when they do.

Advertisements

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950)

I’ve been on a bit of a grand dames of Classic Hollywood lately (inspired in part by the book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and so, when I saw that this film starred Joan Crawford, I knew I had to check it out.

Personally, I’ve always been more of a Bette Davis acolyte, but like any self-respecting homosexual, I’ve also had a longstanding respect for Joan Crawford. All of her considerable talents–as both an actress and a star–are on dazzling display in The Damned Don’t Cry.

Crawford stars as Ethel, a woman unhappily married to a brutish laborer (Richard Egan). After the unfortunate death of their son, she finds that she yearns for something more than the life of a housewife, and so she sets out to achieve that. Beginning as a model, she gradually gets sucked into the sinister world of organized crime, falling in love with an abandoning milquetoast accountant Marty ( ) in favour of crime boss George Castleman (David Brian). When he sets her on one of his underlings who is planning to overthrow him, the stage is set for a final, heart-rending catastrophe.

The Damned Don’t Cry sits at the confluence of two important postwar phenomena: the growth of film noir as a body of films and the height of Crawford’s talent in Hollywood. One sees the influence of the former in the film’s interest in Ethel’s plunge into the world of crime, wealth, and sin, and the latter in the shadows of Mildred Pierce that hover in the background of the film. Like Mildred, Ethel cares deeply about her son (for the brief time that he’s in the film), but also like Mildred she yearns to better herself. We cheer for her, even as we know that she’s heading for a fall.

In no small part our affinity for Ethel stems from Crawford’s performance and her presence as a star. There’s just…something…about Joan’s eyes that seem to capture the camera. They just seem to dominate her face, conveying the anguish and conflict that Joan’s heroines seem to so insistently suffer. The Damned Don’t Cry is no exception, as Ethel attempts to carve out a destiny for herself, even in the face of the many men who attempt to put her in the box they think she belongs in.

If Davis managed to own the latter half of the 1930s and early 1940s and all the female empowerment that came with that era, Joan could be said to embody the contradictions of postwar femininity. On the one hand, she is a woman of extraordinary strength, able to manipulate and command the men around her. On the other, she is extraordinarily vulnerable, yearning to do almost anything to out of the prison of domesticity. As a result, she stands as the exemplar of what happens to a woman who dares to desire a life outside the home, even as she also represents and makes visible the very allure of that escape.

Of course, Crawford’s star shines all the brighter because she’s surrounded by men who are either cold and unfeeling (her husband and her father) or rather hapless and ineffectual (Marty, the CPA who falls under the sway of her feminine charms). She’s the type of woman who can convincingly stare down and emasculate even the most sinister of crime bosses, holding them in that stony gaze while she rains down insults and cuts through the bullshit with which they surround themselves. As a result, she becomes something of a composite of both the femme fatale (that reliable staple of the noir world) and also the hard-boiled noir hero, full of steel and smart remarks but with a good heart that allows her to be led, almost despite her will, into the darkness.

The Damned Don’t Cry is a very strong noir. It manages to do some new-ish things with the noir formula, while also making the most out of its star. True, the male members of the cast are mostly window-dressing, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially when you have someone like Crawford. The dialogue is also quite snappy, though it lacks the electric charge of other noir films.

So check out The Damned Don’t Cry. You’ll be glad you did.

Book Review: “The Fall of Shannara: The Skaar Invasion” (Terry Brooks)

The release of a new book by Terry Brooks is always a cause for celebration in my house even if, as is the case here, it’s the second volume of what is intended to be the concluding tetralogy of the Shannara saga. I have yet to be disappointed by an entry in this series.

As The Skaar Invasion begins, the Four Lands are reeling from an assault by an advance force of a mysterious people known as the Skaar, adventurers from across the ocean who have come bent on conquest. The Druids–except for Drisker Arc and his nemesis Clizia Porse–have been eradicated. Dar Leah sets out to do what he can to save Drisker and find Tarsha Kaynin, who remains tortured because of the madness of her brother Tavo. And Ajin d’Amphere, the captain of the Skaar, struggles to prove her mettle to her father across the ocean. Meanwhile, the street urchin Shea Ohmsford finds himself drawn into the orbit of a stranger who reveals to him the existence of a machine that could change the very world they live in, a machine that can control and change the weather.

Brooks, perhaps more than any of the other premier fantasy writers out there, knows how to keep things moving along a brisk clip. There is never a moment when the action lets up in this book, never an instant when the action lags long enough for us to feel bored. We move from set-piece to set-piece in this lean, tautly woven yarn, as the Four Lands move toward the cataclysm that will utterly reshape the destiny of all of the Races. The reader, like the characters, finds herself caught up in the course of events that are impossible to slow down, and there is something more than a little terrifying about that.

If anything, sometimes I feel a bit breathless when I finish one of his books, as if I’ve just sprinted through some terrifying yet exhilarating adventure. If I have one complaint, it’s that we don’t always get as much development–either in terms of character or plot–as I might like to see in an epic fantasy of this scope. The political machinations, particularly of the Federation, feel a little rushed in comparison to the adventure components, almost as if Brooks gets a little bored when bogged down in the minutiae of politics. Still, these sequences are effective in demonstrating how sundered the peoples of the Four Lands remain, despite their many years of shared struggle. Indeed, it might be their inability (or unwillingness) to join together as a united front that could spell their doom. The Federation and the Elves continue to squabble, and even the Druids, who should be the one entity that can bind the peoples together, remain as splintered and fractious as always.

Indeed, what I particularly enjoyed about this novel was the ways in which the centuries-long history of the Four Lands has begun to bear down on those living in the present. The Ohmsford legacy hangs on by a bare thread, embodied in the tortured siblings Tarsha and Tavo and in the street urchin Shea, who struggles to make a life for himself in a world that cares little for the small and the insignificant. Just as importantly, it’s something that they find it almost impossible to live up to, so diluted has it become in these waning days.

The real star of the novel, though is the Druid Drisker Arc. Though he may not attain the levels of depth and greatness attained by such High Druids as Walker Boh and Grianne Ohmsford, Drisker is still a fascinating character. He, like so many others, feels a tremendous sense of responsibility and even guilt, his time trapped in limbo giving him the opportunity to look at his choices and finally agree to shoulder his responsibility to both the Druid Order and the Four Lands. He eventually recognizes that he cannot run away from the burdens of history; he must shoulder the burden of being the High Druid and do whatever it takes to preserve all of the people from the conquest that is about to fall upon them.

Speaking of those conquerors, I also enjoyed the ways in which Brooks shows the Skaar as not merely a faceless, abstract force but a people desperate to save themselves from what is clearly described as climate change. Ajin takes her place among the many compelling female hero/villains that Brooks has created over the years, women such as Grianne Ohmsford, Brin Ohmsford, and so forth. She is driven by a desire to prove herself to her father and, just as importantly, to save her people from the destruction that is clearly bearing down upon them. The sequence where Drisker has to confront the reality of his duty is one of best in the entire novel, elevating it to the heights of earlier entries in the series.

Lastly, can we talk about the appearance of the renegade Druid Cogline, one of the best characters Brooks has ever created? While many of the other Druids have completely disappeared, it would seem that part of that crusty old rascal remains a part of Paranor, not content to go quietly into that good night. As he always does, Cogline is a bit of a conscience to a reluctant Druid, telling Drisker just enough to keep him moving on his journey of self-discovery.

All in all, I think that this quartet is shaping up to a great finale of a series that has been going now for over 40 years. The final confrontation between magic and science that has been brewing for the past several installments of the series is getting ready to explode, and one gets the sense that the development of a machine that can control the weather will be the thing that sets it all off. One can only hope that, regardless of which side comes out as the ultimate victor, that the Four Lands might at last know a measure of peace.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Star” (1952)

This film follows in the tradition of such films as Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, movies that expose the terrible toll that Hollywood stardom takes on those enmeshed within the system, particularly female stars. This film sits at the confluence of several important influences: Davis’s star text, competing and sometimes overlapping genres (the “star” film, the maternal melodrama), and the impending decline of the old studio system.

The film follows Margaret Elliot (Davis), as she struggles with the reality that her once-bright star has quite thoroughly faded. After a drunken night on the town, she is saved from her downward spiral by an old co-star, Jim (Sterling Hayden), and she sets out to reclaim her stardom. Upon realizing that Hollywood has no place for her other than as an object of pity and scorn, she ultimately goes back to Jim and the happy domestic partnership he represents.

Davis is the sort of star who evince hardbitten strength and heart-wrenching sadness in quick succession, and for that reason, I think, dwell deserves her reputation as one of the finest actresses to have ever graced the silver screen. Margaret Elliot seems a bit of Margot from All Above Eve (the names are eerily similar), Charlotte from Now, Voyager, and even a bit of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Like Norma, she loses sight of what is by focusing on what was (as Jim bluntly tells her). Beset with her failures as a star, she lashes out at everyone around her, her view of the world coloured not just by her previous persona, but also by the films in which she starred.

Margaret’s fundamental crisis is, of course, that Hollywood has no place for her, now that her youthful innocence has been worn away by the years and a film industry that is always in search of the next new thing, the next youthful visage to display on the big screen. The only parts available to a woman of her age are either spinsters or harridans, both of which will subject her to the scorn and pity that she loathes (rightfully) with a vengeance.

There’s a certain sparseness to the film’s design that renders Davis’s performance so heightened as to verge on the histrionic. She knows the part she is to play, and she does it TO THE HILT. This isn’t a bad thing, actually, since this film lacks the baroque opulence of a Sunset Boulevard or the corrupt decadence of All About Eve. Instead, we are treated to the cold, rather sterile and stifling spaces of the prison and the department store, spaces in which Margaret is well and truly lost. Ultimately, she finds that she cannot endure the sort of abuse and folly that she encounters from two surly customers at the department store. Confronted with this brutal world, it’s small wonder that Margaret periodically bursts out in fits of rage and frustration.

The Star reveals the extent to which Hollywood as an industry remains dominated by the men–studio heads, agents, directors–even as it is the female stars who continue to draw in the audiences but have no real power or longevity. Like so many films of this type, The Star ultimately comes across as a conservative text, one which reminds women of the domestic imperative, of the inevitable price that women must pay as they age if they choose the world of a professional rather than as a domestic goddess.

At the same time, however, it also threatens its own ideological coherence. It is Bette Davis, after all, who dominates the screen, pushing her co-stars (especially Sterling Hayden and Natalie Davis, who plays her daughter) into near-irrelevance. This might not be the best movie Davis ever starred in, but she plays the part so fully and completely that she more than deserved her Oscar nomination. Unlike her character, she wasn’t afraid to play an aging woman who was the victim of scorn and pity, but her genius is that she imbues that role with pathos and a human dignity that a lesser actress would never have been able to attain. In doing so, she helps to lay bare the hypocrisy and fickleness of Hollywood and proves, once again, that she was a star indeed.

Mourn on the Fourth of July: The End of America and A Frail Hope for the Future

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was going to publish a blog post entitled, self-indulgently, “Confessions of a Reluctant Patriot.” It was during the last summer Olympics, and I felt so positive and full of hope, buoyed by the possibility that we might, at last, be on the right track as a country. Sure, there were still some things that needed to be done, but it seemed as if there was still a lot of hope, that we could make a better world if we just tried had enough.

Whatever remained of that feeling has been well and truly obliterated.

It’s been buried beneath the screams of children forcibly separated by their borders, by the tectonic shifts in global policy that have left America alienated from traditional democracies and allied with dangerous autocrats, by the systematic unraveling of pretty much every progressive policy gain gained in the last 20 or 30 years, from labor rights to civil rights for people of color to abortion rights to LGBT+ rights. The announcement last week that Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court–which will almost certainly usher in a terrible new era of judicial reversals–just put the final nail in the coffin of my optimism.

And the worst part? WE’RE NOT EVEN HALFWAY THROUGH THIS ADMINISTRATION.

I’m afraid, folks.

I’m afraid that the backlash we’ve all been feeling these past two years is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. But honestly? The thing I feel even more than fear is despair, and to me that’s even more unsettling. It suggests that there is no real hope for a brighter future, that human history writ large is not one march toward a  progressively better state of being, that instead a relentless cycle of ever-greater defeat.

And it’s not just that the Republicans have proven themselves completely unwilling and incapable of anything remotely resembling human compassion or empathy, it’s that the Left continues to devour itself. Sure, there is a lot of blame to be handed out to party leadership, but it’s important to remember that they have the thankless (and possibly impossible) task of trying to corral a very unruly party. And it seems that nothing they do is able to please everyone, a symptom, I suppose, of a democratic society riven by such insurmountable differences that it’s hard to imagine a way forward. And for those on the Left, who have grown tired of waiting for the revolution, it does seem at times as if the leadership is ineffective at best and obstructionist at worst.

Obviously, as someone who is radical in philosophy, I sympathize with the frustrations. But we have also reached such a crisis point in our country that we have two choices: we can either contribute to the implosion of the Democratic Party and hand the keys to the kingdom to the GOP, or we can find common ground with those of more moderate persuasion, seize back control of local government, and hopefully begin to claw our way back from the edge of absolute annihilation.

Because make no mistake. The GOP has made it abundantly clear that they are willing and able to capitulate to all of the darker strains of the American psyche that we have struggled for so long to banish. The retirement of Kennedy means that Trump, and his lackeys in the Senate, will be able to nominate a justice who would continue the assault on the most vulnerable members of our society. And let me tell you, their voters will LOVE them for it. The remaking of SCOTUS has been one of the Republicans’ most reliable means of getting out the vote, and when they can show that they’ve actually managed to make good on at least this one campaign promise, they’ll be able to turn their voters out in even greater numbers.

This is going to require A LOT of work, however. It’s going to require getting off our asses and going to vote in every election (which, of course, is going to be easier for some than for others). It’s going to require radicals being willing to accept that not everyone is as radical as they are, just as it’s going to require moderates to recognize when radicals sometimes have their finger on the pulse of the electorate and actually have ideas that are good for everyone.

In other words, it’s time to rediscover the essence of what it means to be a Democrat. Don’t try to burn it all down and start from some third party. Bruised and battered as it may be, the Democratic Party still has the infrastructure we need, and the established politicians know how to write policy. We need to accept that maybe, just maybe, a total burn-it-all-down mentality is more destructive than it is helpful, and that the cost for such a mentality is often disproportionately born by those who are already disenfranchised.

This is going to take a little something from everyone, and we have to recognize that those of us who are radical/progressive/liberal share more in common with one another than with those on the far right. We have to learn how to make the most out of those alliances, to build a future that’s brighter for everyone rather than just the privileged few. We have to learn to build coalitions, to craft policy, to combine the best of the idealist and realist branches of the progressive movement. Only then will we be able to move forward into a better world.

So, while I mourn for an America that seems to have passed forever into the history books, I stubbornly hold on to the possibility for what the future holds. It’s not too late for all of us, if we’re willing to put in the work to make it so. The arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice, but only when we do everything in our power to help it. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Happy Birthday, America.