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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Film Review: “The Dark Tower” (2017)

I went into The Dark Tower feeling a great deal of trepidation. The reviews, as everyone knows, had been truly abominable, and its box office performance has been similarly lackluster. All told, I was afraid that the film adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series was going to be an epic disappointment.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. As both a fan of the series on which it is based and on the genre as a whole, I found the film uniquely satisfying. While it may be counterintuitive to say that an hour-and-forty-five-minute-long film can be epic, this more than fits the bill.

In brief, the film is about three central characters, all of whom bear a relationship with the Dark Tower, a structure that sits at the center of the universe and keeps the chaotic darkness, and the monsters that inhabit it, at bay. Roland (Idris Elba) is the last of a mystical race known as the gunslingers, and he is in relentless pursuit of Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic figure dressed in black who yearns to bring the Dark Tower crashing into ruin and to rule among the ruins. Lastly, Jake (Tom Taylor) is a boy in our world who finds himself a pawn in Walter’s efforts to bring down the Tower.

The plot is streamlined and tight, fitting into a typical feature film length of around 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is something of a reprieve from the narrative bloat that seems to have become de rigeur for Hollywood these days. I suspect that a great deal of the critical opprobrium has to do with this pared-down narrative, which I think actually works quite well for this iteration of King’s sprawling story. As anyone who has followed the books knows, things go sort of off the rails starting in the fifth book (Wolves of the Calla), and hit their nadir in Song of Sussanah. 

What’s more, the primary trio of the film–Roland (Idris Elba), Walter/The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Jake–really work well together. A lot of people have noted that McConaughey seems to chew the scenery with a sort of manic delight, but if they had read the books they would know that Walter is just that sort of character, one who delights in tearing things apart just to see how they work and who would just as soon see the world collapse into ruin than see it built up. Rather than seeing this as hammy, I see it as part of the manic energy that motivates Walter in some of his manifestations (he adopts different identities depending on which worlds he inhabits).

But the real core of the film is the relationship between Roland and Jake. Lots of shit hit the fan when it was revealed that the black Idris Elba would be playing the white Roland, but I find that the gruff, hulking figure of Elba fits quite well with the way that I have always imagined Roland to be. He evinces a world-weary strength that has always been a key part of the characterization of this seminal figure in the King legendarium, and Elba clearly has a great deal of screen chemistry with his young costar.

Is the film as rich and complex as the novels on which it is based? I would have to say: definitely not. But then, it doesn’t really have to be. What it is, and what it succeeds as, is an introduction to a wider universe that is one of the great works of modern fantasy. If you go into the film with that sort of realistic expectation, then it is quite enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; there is still much about the narrative and the spectacle that fit nicely into the conventions of the epic fantasy lexicon.

Furthermore, it’s also a telling that this film, with all of its attempts to keep at bay the darkness and chaos, ends up showing us precisely what the costs of that chaos might be. I don’t want to go so far as to say that the film is an allegory for our troubled times, but there can be no doubt that its narrative of a world that has declined (Roland’s world) and one that might (ours) that really speaks to how much some of us yearn for someone to rescue us from the chaos that seems ready to engulf everything we hold dear.

All in all, I think that The Dark Tower deserves more credit than the critics have been willing to extend it. It’s unfortunate that it was plagued with such a tortuous production history, and that it had the misfortune to debut during one of the worst box office summers in recent history. Let us hope that there is at least some possibility that the projected TV series will come to fruition and that at least a few glimmers of King’s magnum opus may yet see the screen, whether big or small.

Dissertation Days (47): Back to Work I Go

Well, we returned back to work today. The Dissertation is coming along quite nicely, and I am actually confident that I can produce a workable, submittable draft by the middle of September. Not, mind you, that that will be the final version, but I want the Adviser to have seen all of the chapters in some form before I start sending out applications.

And, what’s more, I finally found that missing piece that’s been eluding me for so long. When I wrote this sentence, I knew that, at last, the pieces were sliding into place: “I then turn to each of the films, beginning with Cleopatra, moving to Fall, and ending with The Bible, showing how each can be understood as a form of melancholy utopia, mourning a world that might have been but can never be.”

It’s that last bit that I find to be the most useful, as it helps me to make clear that what I am working toward is an understanding of these films and their affective charge. I have to say, this is the clearest expression yet of the central claim that I’m setting out in this chapter, and that is an amazing feeling.

Tomorrow, I am going to work on setting out some of the important contextual material, particularly the (failed) promise of the United Nations and the increasing disintegration of the old imperial powers and the United States ascendancy. With a 1,000 word goal per day, I think I should be able to knock this section out of the park within the week. What’s more, I might even be able to move into the theory section. We’re picking up steam, folks!

As I’ve said before, I think I’m going to aim for 15K words on this chapter, possibly a bit more. I think that will be enough to do justice to the complexity of the argument. And besides, I really just want to get this thing out of the door as soon as possible.

The Adviser has suggested that I might do a Chapter 5, and…yeah. That’s not happening. Gotta get this shit done!

Also, I’ve been working on job materials, and they are coming along quite well. I am surprisingly excited about being on the job market. It’s a good feeling.

So, tomorrow is definitely going to be a tremendously productive day. I can feel it.

And I can do it.

Dissertation Days (43): Scattershot

Well, today was a mostly good day of composition. I wrote the 1,000 words that were my day’s goal, but things were a bit more scattershot and unfocused than I would have liked. Indeed, it wasn’t until I got to the very end that I finally hit something that I think was truly good. Which means, of course, that I’m going to have to go back and do a great deal of deep revision in order to get the rest of the chapter into submittable shape.

I’ve noted a few spots of repetition on the close reading section of Cleopatra, so I need to iron those out. I also have to begin weaving in some of the existing scholarship on the film–and on the Cleopatra myth in general–since I’ve been putting that off for far too long.

I also made some progress reading Brooks’s Reading for the Plot. I was hoping that I would be able to make extensive use of it with the work that I was doing today, but it’s being a bit stubborn. Hopefully, as I finish up the book, I’ll be able to see more clearly how it fits into the theoretical paradigm that I’m attempting to use.

I have to resist the urge to start over with this chapter. I know that if I do that it’s just going to be a delaying tactic, but at least I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to recognize those urges in myself. I don’t want to fall into a circular trap.

Since I feel like I’m spinning my wheels a bit on the Cleopatra section, tomorrow I think I am going to focus on my close reading of Fall of the Roman Empire. As I’ve said before, that’s going to be the most challenging section, but I am hoping to be able to weave some of the existing scholarship

Saturday and Sunday, though, I’m going to have to make sure that I get at least the majority of the Cleopatra section absolutely done, finished, and polished. That’s probably a bit ambitious, but I am sure that I can do it. All it takes is the sort of determination that I am able (when the need is on me) to summon up, and I am sure that I can do it.

From there on, there’s no way to go but forward and upward.

Let’s do this.

Dissertation Days (42): Back at It

At long last, I have returned to the Dissertation. The poor thing was languishing, but now that my traveling has abated for a bit, I can now return in full force.

Today was quite a productive day indeed. I even managed to write 1,000 words of the chapter, mostly concerning the general introductory and theoretical sections.  I also wrote a bit in the section about Cleopatra, which is actually coming together quite nicely. Ideally, if I keep on at this pace with that section, it should be fairly ready and polished by the end of next week.

I’ve really determined that this will be the version of the chapter that I submit. I’ve reached the point where I have to make a concerted effort to bring my arguments together and tidy them up. Otherwise, I’m going to run the risk of spinning my wheels and not making any productive headway, and that is not the space that I want to be in again. So, it’s full steam ahead.

As far as research goes, I have begun reading Peter Brooks’ magisterial Reading for the Plot, which is a really interesting piece of literary criticism and theory. I’m hoping to use bits of it to add some layers to my theorization of the tension between spectacle and narrative that I see as a core part of how the epic film negotiates and engages with the terrifying nature of history. I’m not very far into it as of yet, but I’m hoping to finish it up by next week.

Tomorrow, it’s onward into the weeds of Chapter 4. I am hoping to work mostly on the historical context, which is coming together in its broad outlines but needs some more flesh in order to make complete sense. As I continue my work on this chapter, I’m really working on making sure that the various pieces all move together, and that each piece leads to and intertwines with the others. It’s easier said than done.

Starting in August, I am also going to start revising Chapters 1 and 2 in earnest. They are badly needing some tender loving care from me, and the revisions should be fairly minimal, so I’m ready to get started. At long last, I’m beginning to see the finish line. And let me tell you something, dear readers, that is one hell of a good feeling.

So, it’s onward and upward tomorrow.

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 (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 (35): Out, Out, Damn Chapter!

I know I keep saying this, but I think I mean it this time. It looks like Chapter 3 will be sent off tomorrow. I’m finishing a few last-minute things–mostly footnotes and bibliographic entries that eluded me–but I’m so damn close! If I can just push myself over the finish line, and if I can just get this sent in tomorrow, I will feel soooo much better. Then I can take a day to catch my breath and then dive full-on into Chapter 4.

I am very happy to report that that Chapter is really coming along. I’m coming to that part in the process where I’m starting to get into the weeds, drilling down into the details that I really need to make it click. Today, I worked mainly on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible. For some reason, I really find myself drawn to this film.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily, depending on how you look at it), there is really only one chapter of a book that I’ve been able to find that discusses it at length. This has caused me to lean rather heavily on that one chapter, which is something of a handicap. On the other hand, it allows me to really negotiate and engage with another scholar’s ideas in great detail, something I haven’t really been able to do.

I also started a new book for research, this one devoted to the icon of Mark Antony. While this particular character is only tangential to my argument, I hope to find a few nuggets in the volume that will help me talk about the politics of the 1963 Cleopatra, particularly the way that it deals with politics, imperial stability, and imperial fall and decline. I hope to have that one finished in the next week or so, and then it’s on to another book that provides some context on the politics of containment.

I’m really hoping that Chapter 4 starts to come along a bit faster. I’ve been making steady progress, but I really want to pick up the pace. I tend to get mired down in chapters if I don’t get them done quickly, so I’m hoping to avoid that. Of course, a lot of that hinges on Chapter 3 and its reception, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Tomorrow may not see a Dissertation Days update, but Friday will be back at it.

Forward, friends. Forward.

Dissertation Days (34): A Glimmer of Light

Well, Chapter 3 is set to be delivered to the adviser on Thursday. I will breathe an enormous sigh of relief once that is finally done. It will feel good just to have it out of my hands. I’m much more confident in this version of the chapter than its previous iterations, so at least there’s that. Now whether it gets approved is another question entirely…

Chapter 4 was in a surprisingly cooperative mood today. I actually spent the entire day working on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible: In the Beginning. The film has, unfortunately, been largely ignored by both scholars of Huston and biblical film scholars, in large part, I think, because it’s sort of the bastard child for both fields. So, hopefully part of my goal in this chapter is doing justice to a film that has largely been ignored.

I actually managed to produce several paragraphs that I am rather happy with, as they really helped to clarify not only what I think about this film but also how this close reading fits in with both the other readings that I’ve done and with the argument of the chapter as a whole. Still, I’m hopeful.

To that end, I managed to finish 1,000 words in that chapter. At this point, I think I am almost halfway done with this. And, having finished yet another book on research, I do think that the pieces are at last starting to come together. For anyone who has been following this blog, that’s quite the accomplishment. Given these recent breakthroughs, I’m pretty sure that I can get a version of this chapter to the adviser’s desk by the end of August. That might be a bit ambitious, but I do think it’s doable. After all, I do have to keep in mind that this is the year I’m going to finish the diss. Even if it isn’t perfect, there’s no reason that I can’ still defend in the spring.

Tomorrow may not be the most productive day, as I have to get some work done on my car, but I hope to put the final polish on Chapter 3 and maybe even write a bit in Chapter 4. I’ve also begun reading a new volume for research that I hope will add some new layers to the discussion of Cleopatra. We’ll see if I can get that finished by next week.

Onward!

Dissertation Days (31): Work, Work, Work

Overall, I think this was a better work day than yesterday. I actually managed to go beyond my 1,000 word goal for Chapter 4, and my re-reading of Chapter 3 made me feel like it’s not total dreck after all. Of course, that could be the caffeine talking, but I do like to think that this draft shows significant improvement from its predecessor.

If I have one complaint about Chapter 3, it’s that I think it’s still a bit bloated. If my adviser suggests it, I think that I will take out about 10 pages of excess, both in the context and close readings sections. It’ll work for right now, but there’s no question that the project as a whole can be a bit leaner. There is, though, a certain appropriateness to having a chapter about epics be too long. However, I’m not sure that my adviser, or my committee as a whole, will view it in the same light. There is something to be said, after all, for concision.

Chapter 4 is still coming apace. I felt better about the material I produced today than I did yesterday, both in the section about Cleopatra and about Fall of the Roman Empire. I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this will be the least dynamic and original of my chapters, but I suppose that’s an acceptable thing.

I am also not entirely sure how I’m going to fit my discussion of John Huston’s The Bible in there, though there are moments when I see how it fits. If I have to, I may eventually end up moving it to some sort of conclusion, but for the moment I’m going to keep it where it is and continue to hope that its connection to the other parts of the chapter becomes clearer as I go along.

Tomorrow, I am going to start my final read-through of Chapter 3, focusing on smoothing out any remaining rough edges, as well as making sure that the bibliography I have is the updated one (especially since I deleted some entries for this revision). I’ll also have to make sure that I fill out some of the footnotes that are still missing information.

Furthermore, I think I will only write 500 words of Chapter 4 tomorrow. I really want to get Chapter 3 knocked out ASAP, so I’m afraid that has to be my priority.

Onward and upward, as I always say. Onward and upward.