Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

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Dissertation Days (44): Glimmers of Daylight

Today was one of those truly great days, when the writing and the ideas began to really come together in a productive way. I think the section on Cleopatra is going to need a little bit of tidying up. I know there’s a bit of repetition there, as well as some areas that need some development and elaboration. Still, I like the way that it’s coming together, and the next step will be folding in some of the secondary criticism that already exists on the film. That will probably take a little time, but that’s okay. I’ve got the whole month of August.

Today I started shifting into a discussion of The Fall of the Roman Empire. As I’ve noted before, I have to start finessing this part of the discussion so that I can show how my own reading of this film contributes something new to the overall discussion of this film. I actually had a glimmer of what I could do in that regard as I was writing today, riding high on a caffeine buzz (amazing what that coffee can do for you). What’s more, I think I found a way to ensure that this section of the chapter does something new and doesn’t merely repeat the arguments made about Cleopatra.

Since tomorrow is the dawning of August, I think I’m going to have to start moving into the revision of Chapters 1 and 2 that I’ve been putting off for quite a while. As I’ve written before, it’s always revision that is the hardest part of the process, but if I go ahead and do it now, it will make things that much easier when I start amping up for the defense. Besides, if I want to stay on my my schedule to defend this spring, I really have to make sure that I stay on track with both Chapter 4 and the general process of revision (to say nothing of Chapter 3, which is still under review).

Tomorrow, alas, I won’t be able to do any work as most of the day I’ll be on my way back to West Virginia. However, I might be able to do a bit of reading of Brooks’s Reading for the Plot. Hopefully on Thursday I’ll be able to get back to work on the chapter, though I know my pacing will be a little more subdued while I’m back home.

Onward and upward.

Dissertation Days (40): This is Progress, Right?

Despite the title, today was actually a good day, in terms of progress. As I said I would do yesterday, I switched to a bit of the close readings, focusing today on Cleopatra. I think the bare bones of how that section is going to look are almost there, but it will take another few days of composing to make sure that my close reading is both internally consistent and flows naturally from the contexts.

Speaking of which. I actually wrote at least half of today’s word count (a bit over 1,000, thank you very much), specifically in the theoretical context. To be quite honest, I don’t think this section is as theoretically rich as the earlier ones, but I do think that the sources I’m drawing on–particularly David Quint and his theory of epic narrative and Tom Brown and his theory of the “historical gaze”–are useful for thinking through the tension between spectacle and narrative that exists at the heart of the genre of the historico-biblical epic. Well, perhaps tension isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should say that it helps us to think of the relationship between those two seemingly opposing cinematic principles.

Overall, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on this chapter. I also can’t believe that I’ve already written 40 of these entries! However, I do believe that they have really made this whole progress infinitely less lonely. Just knowing  that there are others out there reading these (or even just skimming them), makes me feel that there just may be an audience for the type of work that we do in academia. As a writer, it’s easy to lose track of that, particularly with everything else going on in the world.

I will, as always, be taking a bit of a break this weekend. I want to focus a bit on the novel, and on cleaning my house. Both of those things take a bit of a backseat when you’re really buried under the chapter that seems to press in on your every waking thoughts. I’ve also got a conference paper set to be delivered in a little under two weeks, so I have to make sure that that is in presentable condition.

Rest assured, though. On Monday I’ll be right back at it, and this time I fully plan on getting back into Chapters 1 and 2.

Don’t quote me on that, though. 😉

Dissertation Days (37): Back to Work

After a very rough weekend, I got back into the swing of things today with some decent work on Chapter 4. I only wrote 500 words, but I do see the entire chapter starting to cohere in a way that it didn’t before. I’m still not entirely certain that the pieces are all knitted together as tightly yet as I would like, but that should arrive soon.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure that the version I’ve been writing will be the absolute final version. I think it may take one more to make sure that everything appears as I want it to, and a great deal of how I proceed will stem from how much my adviser likes (or does not like) Chapter 3. Still, I am confident that I can have a draft of this chapter fairly ready for submission by the end of August, though I can also push it off to the end of September if need be.

Overall, the chapter is standing at about 9,500 words, so I would say that it’s about 3/5 done (I’m aiming for a 15,000 word limit). This will be one of my shorter chapters, but I’m happy with that. Sometimes, it really is better to focus on writing concisely rather than expansively.

In terms of what I produced today…well, I sketched in a few blank spaces in the historical context section. It wasn’t anything terribly complicated, to be perfectly honest, but hopefully those sentences will be the seeds for future development. More promising was the material I produced about Cleopatra. The more I reflect on this film–its industrial context, the plot, the formal elements that it mobilizes–the more fascinating it becomes. As I’ve said many times before, it seems to me that this film is critically undervalued, and I hope that my analysis of it helps others to see that, despite its weaknesses, it really tries to engage with the historical questions and pressures of the time.

At some point in the near future, possibly as later this week, I am going to go back and start revisiting my earlier chapters. I honestly haven’t looked at them that much since they were approved, and I want to start the revision process on them before it gets too late.

Given that tomorrow is a holiday, I might take a little time off to clean and work on the Novel. Then on Wednesday it’s back to work.

Dissertation Days (36): DONE

Well, the biggest news of the day is that Chapter 3 is, at last, finished and submitted. I think that it is a much stronger version of the chapter than earlier, so there is that to be proud of. It might be a while before I hear back about it, but I’m okay with that.

Now, on to Chapter 4. Today was one of those great days where the juices just seemed to be flowing in the right amount. I managed to bang out 1,000 words of the chapter (and most of them good ones!) before the rest of my life interrupted me. I’ve gotten into a bit of a flow with this chapter, and that is definitely a blessing. I’d really rather avoid the rut that kept me bogged down in Chapter 3 far longer than I would have liked.

I’m really hoping to rewatch Cleopatra this weekend, as I need the details that such a re-watch will provide me. But, for those of you who have seen it know all too well, it’s an obscenely long movie, and thus quite an investment in a weekend that’s already quite packed. However, even if I just manage to watch a part of it, that will still provide me enough material to work with for next week’s composition.

I also have a pretty extensive research program lined up for the next week. The broad strokes of the historical context is there, but I need to start filling in the details. The hard part will be making sure that it’s clear how this context fits in with the close readings, but I wrote a couple paragraphs devoted to that today. I’m not sure they’ll survive into the final draft in their present form (they’re a bit ham-handed, tbh), but for the moment they are serving their purpose.

Ugh. It’s getting to that point where I can’ just throw words on the page anymore. Now that I’ve reached the 8,000 word mark (a little over half), I’ve got to really start drilling down into precision. That’s always the hardest part for me, because it means that shit is really getting real. At the same time, it’s also the point at which, if you really squint, you can see the finish line of the chapter (and of the project) in the distance.

That’s a good feeling, but also a terrifying one.

But, I march onward.

Good times ahead.

Dissertation Days (25): A New Day, A New Chapter 4

In between the chaos of moving and travel (I’m about ready to set off for another round tomorrow), I managed to squeeze in a little work time today. Since I’d rather hit a wall with Chapter 4 as it was, I started a new version, one which really, consciously sets out to be the version I want to submit at the end of July.

To that end, I only managed to write 500 words today, but I’m pretty happy with them. I managed to bring together everything I wanted to argue in this chapter, in a way that’s more coherent than I’ve managed to attain so far. As I’ve said before, I want to focus on what I’m calling “imperial melancholia,” a yearning for a form of political stability that seems to always exist frustratingly out of reach, perpetually tantalizing with the possibility that it might be brought into fruition.

A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped by recent reading I’ve been doing on the role of spectacle in the way that film works, as well as my most recent reading research, a history of the Cleopatra icon by the British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Spectacle, to me, has always been frustratingly vaguely defined, and one of the things I hope to do in this chapter is to tease out the sort of meanings inherent in this oft-used cinematic expression. It is all part of my redemptive critique of the epic, my attempt to take it seriously as a means of engaging with the larger questions posed by modern (and ancient) history.

Once I return to my normal work schedule, I’m really hoping to get back into my old habit of writing 1,000 words a day, especially since I want to have a really strong draft of this ready for submission to the adviser by the end of July. If I can do that, and if I can get Chapter 3 and 4 approved by the very early Fall by pretty much everyone, I’ll feel like a great deal of pressure has been lifted off me. It’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.

I’ll be hitting the road for yet more traveling tomorrow and throughout the weekend into the early part of next week, so don’t expect any updates from me until then. After that, though, I should be able to get back into the swing of things.

Onward.

Dissertation Days (23): Is this the End?

At the end of Quo Vadis, the delightfully queer Nero (played by Peter Ustinov) declaims: “Is this the end of Nero?”

I’ve now been led to ask: “Is this the end of Chapter 3?” Fortunately, I think that it just might be, or at the very least that I’m closer than I have been for a long time. I’ve pretty much finished with the third section (the one that discusses Quo Vadis), and now that leaves only the conclusion to really flesh out. Fortunately, I wrote the majority of that some time ago, so that shouldn’t take too long to finish.

Needless to say, I feel really good.

While there is some material that I want to reflect on more–there’s still a little bit of something that continues to elude my attempts to capture and put it on paper–I have come to accept that this isn’t the last version of this chapter that I will ever write. Indeed, it will probably go through several further iterations before that wonderful day when it finally sees the light of day as part of a book.

In Chapter 4 news, I think I have finally found the missing theoretical piece that has so far been eluding me. I’ve been reading an excellent book about spectacle in classic Hollywood (by Tom Brown), and his articulation of the vertical axis of spectacle vs. the horizontal one of narrative that I find really helpful.

It is in his essay on Gone with the Wind for the British film journal Screen, though, that I find to be especially useful, as he shows how the “historical gaze” mobilized by Scarlett enables her command a measure of agency denied many of the other characters.

As I work through Chapter 4, I think I am going to make the argument that the later epics of the midcentury cycle allow some characters a measure of Brown’s historical gaze, even as it denies it to others. It is the power of the spectacle that allows these characters to forge their own political destinies, to allow the film to remain suspended in a moment of profound, utopian potential, even as the inexorability of narrative ultimately brings ruin to these grandiose ambitions.

That’s what I’m thinking for the chapter now, though I hope to continue nuancing it based on historical context.

Time is ticking, and I have to tick with it.

(I don’t know what that means).

Dissertation Days (21): Roadblocks

I’ve reached that stage in Chapter 3 where I know that the end is in sight, but it’s precisely the nearness of accomplishment that proves more than a little debilitating. Still, it is precisely in those moments that one has to continue onward, pushing past the mental barricades to get to the rich intellectual material beneath.

I did manage to eke out some new material in Chapter 3, both by writing some new stuff and also by importing a paragraph from an earlier draft. The third section still needs a little development to fully cohere, and it’s going to take some doing to make sure that it fits together both internally and with the rest of the chapter, but I think that’s doable, so long as I don’t let myself get bogged down too much.

That being said, I do feel like I made some genuine progress today, and I’m setting Wednesday as the day that I would like to be done with the heavy lifting on this draft. That puts me at just about two months revision which, considering all that’s been going on–pet loss and illness, travel, family obligations–isn’t bad at all. I really do have to keep my momentum going if I want to defend by this coming spring (which I basically have to do regardless). So, any positive thoughts and encouragement y’all could send my way would be much appreciated.

In terms of Chapter 4, I wrote 500 words, mostly in two of my sections that deal with the films. Today, I focused mostly on Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. At the moment, I’m trying to think through the utopian sensibility that these films express, even as they also acknowledge the rather dystopian realities of history.

Once I settle down again, I am going to need to rewatch both Fall and The Bible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, and I need to make sure that I have the type of detail that enables a textured film analysis. Given how much of a stickler I am for sound film criticism, I have to be extra careful to practice what I preach.

On tomorrow’s agenda: keep plodding away at Chapter 3 (as usual). Then it’s on to Chapter 4, and I think I have a rich vein of inquiry ready to be tapped.

Tomorrow is going to be great.

Dissertation Days (19): Weasel Words

Today, I worked a lot in Chapter 3, making sure that I cut out some of those pesky weasel words upon which I rely far too often. Words like “indeed,” “furthermore,” “as a result” are my bane, and I’ve been on the lookout for them as I work through these sections of the chapter. Removing them has really streamlined my prose.

I also deleted numerous other things that were basically written clutter. I do have a tendency to clog up the flow of my prose with extraneous bits and pieces that really don’t do much to advance the argument, and I am making a concerted effort to trim more of those out with each reading I do of this chapter. I’ve now reached the point where I’m taking stuff out, and this brings with it its own form of writing pleasure (particularly since there is a large part of the queer section that needs writing).

I also managed to get rid of more couplets (seriously, you would not believe how many of them appear throughout my writing). I have largely either cut out one of the pair or, alternatively, I have changed to a different grammatical construction (typically deleting one term and transforming it into a modifier for the other). I know that it’s another crutch, but it’s at least a bit of stylistic variety in my writing. I will say, though, that I have always tended to rely too much on adjectives, so I’m trying to focus more on using more verbs and nouns. As my adviser astutely pointed out some time ago, relying on those forms gives one’s writing a stronger, more active energy.

I also managed to get some of Chapter 4 done today, and I’m pretty happy with what I was able to produce. I not only worked on some of the theoretical section–admittedly not very much–but also on my close reading of Cleopatra. I think that will be my favourite part of the chapter, though I also want to make sure to give some love and attention to Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The real struggle there will be finding something to say that is a genuine contribution.

I’m afraid another hiatus is in the offing. I’m traveling again tomorrow and Friday, but I hope to return to the schedule on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully next week will be even more productive.

Good times.

Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.