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.


Dissertation Days (48): I’m Tired of Thinking About Cute Titles

Today was an extraordinarily productive day. I was able to churn out 1,500 words of Chapter 4 (most of which was quite good, I think). I focused mainly on the historical context, though I wrote some introductory material for what will eventually be the theoretical section.

Overall, I think that the historical context is a strong section, perhaps the strongest and most cohesive that I’ve written since Chapter 2. I’m looking at the ways in which the postwar political order that was so desperate to attain a measure of stability was always thwarted by the tensions of the postwar period, whether it was the escalating conflict between the US and the Soviet Union or the growing independence movements with all of the violence that entailed.

As I move forward, I just have to make sure that I continue drawing explicit connections between the context I’m laying out and the readings of the films. This has been my Achilles’ Heel since I began this dissertation, but I would like to think that I have avoided it (or at least addressed it) with this chapter. That, however, very much remains to be seen.

I also continued my effort to make some commentary on Chapter 1. I’d prefer not to wait until the last minute to do that, even though I have to admit that it is my least favourite part of the whole dissertation-writing process. It’s quite remarkable, though, to see how very different this chapter is from the ones that followed it. I do think that I am onto something, but the writing is a bit clunky at spots, and I can see there are points where what I really mean isn’t expressed as clearly as it should be. Of course, I just have to remind myself that that is what revision is for, to gradually distill one’s ideas down until they emerge in their clearest and most coherent form.

Tomorrow, I’m going to continue making progress on Chapter 4, and I hope to make my way through 10 pages of Chapter 1 (and make the appropriate commentary). At the pace I’m currently keeping, I should have a draft of Chapter 4 ready by the middle of September (which is my very ambitious goal). I just have to stay focused.

I can feel the finish line growing closer and closer. I just have to remember that I can do this.

I got this.

Let’s go.

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 (45): Insert Clever Title Here

Today, I worked mostly on context, with a little bit of composition in the discussion of Fall of the Roman Empire. I also wove in some criticism of Cleopatra into that section. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the material that I produced today, though I also know that there will need to be some finessing and trimming done (those goddamn couplets are still proving to be something of a thorn in my side).

All in all, this was quite a good day, especially since my productivity tends to slow down when I’m visiting West Virginia. I noticed some repetition in the historical section, so I’ll have to take care of that, but it does seem as if the broad contours of that are pretty much in place. One of these days soon, I’m going to have to take another look at the theoretical section. There are a number of coordinates in that section that I think work well separately, but I need to make sure that they all fit together in a coherent whole and, just as importantly, that they also lead directly into the discussion of the films.

I also like the material I produced about The Fall of the Roman Empire. I’ll need to do some re-reading of secondary material once I return to Syracuse, so I can begin layering that it more consistently. As we know, that will also help me to nuance my arguments and explain how my own contribution elaborates on the existing scholarly conversation about this particular film.

Though this draft still has a number of weaknesses, I am determined to make this the draft that I end up submitting. It’s hard not to get frustrated, and I have to keep reminding myself that sometimes, it’s okay to spend a day revising rather than just producing more words. Old habits die hard, though. Still, I am also a determined person, and so I shall continue endeavouring to revise this chapter as the days go by. Someday soon, I know, this chapter will be done.

Tomorrow, I may not get anything done. Lots of obligations, but I’ll surely write another 1,500 words or so in the following week. Plus, I hope to be able to start the revision of Chapter 1 soon, and if I keep up the pace I should have both Chapters 1 and 2 in pretty much finished shape by the end of August.


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 (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 (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 (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.


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.