Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The uncompassionate poet and mother

Another extract from Margaret Forster's biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Wilson was her personal maid for many years, from just before she was married. She took on the arduous task of maintaining the household in Florence, but also in other places on their travels, taught herself Italian from a book, and spent a great deal of time babysitting the Brownings' only son (known as 'Pen.') In spite of this, when she finally asked for a rise in her meagre pay after many years, the Brownings (who were not badly off) rejected her request. In this extract, some years later, she had fallen in love with the household cook, whose sleeping accommodation was even smaller than Wilson's - and Wilson's private room was smaller than Robert Browning's dressing room. Forster's irritation with the selfishness of the Brownings often shows through in the book, not only in this passage.

Wilson and the cook, Ferdinando, had had intercourse sometime prior to the events described here, resulting in Wilson becoming pregnant. By this time the two servants were married (a crisis in itself for the Brownings) and all four were in London for a few months.

Wilson, unable by the end of August to hide her condition any longer, told Elizabeth she was expecting a baby in a few weeks' time. Elizabeth was appalled. She wrote to Henrietta [her married sister] on September 6th that she was not only 'shocked' but 'pained.' Clearly, the baby had been conceived in the Casa Guidi [the Brownings' longstanding rented accommodation in Florence] by the unmarried couple. She does not appear, for all her acknowledged recognition of the power of sexual attraction, to have thought back to the living accommodation in Casa Guidi, to that room of Wilson's next to the even smaller one where Ferdinando slept. The proximity for two people in love was irresistible.
As usual, it was not only the immorality which shocked Elizabeth, that admirer of George Sand [infamously known for her many lovers], but the deceit. She hated to think Wilson had not confided in her. She had never given Wilson the least cause to be sure of her sympathy and tolerance in such a situation but she was angry that she had not been naturally trusted. But at least her affection for, and gratitude to, Wilson was sufficient to make her try hard in this crisis to 'think chiefly of her many excellent qualities and of what she has done for me...' as she put it to Henrietta.
Quite what she was prepared to do for Wilson in this hour of her need was not at first clear. Obviously, Wilson would have to go somewhere to have her baby: she certainly could not give birth in her employers' lodgings. It was arranged that she would go to her sister's who lived in East retford (her mother had died two years before). Equally obviously, Elizabeth would need a new maid: managing on her own during Wilson's annual two week holiday was one thing, managing for six months another.
But these were trivial decisions compared to the underlying major one: would Wilson come back after the birth of her baby? Could she come back? Could she bring her baby with her? The Brownings' answer to that last question dictated all else: No, Wilson could not take her baby back to Casa Guidi. The apartment was too small, they could not afford another mouth to feed and Wilson would be unable to perform her duties properly. So they gave Wilson a choice: either she remained in their service, leaving her baby with her sister, or she left their service and kept her child. Where her husband Ferdinando fitted into this choice was for Wilson to work out. If she stayed in England, she lost him, unless he could miraculously find employment and support her and her child; and if she went back to Italy, she kept him but lost her child. She left for East Retford with no illusions, still undecided.
Nobody had offered her the only truly compassionate alternative: to keep both husband and baby, return with them to Italy, board the baby out nearby and continue working. Victorian employers though such magnanimity absurd. Elizabeth was a creature of her time in sharing what they saw as an entirely justifiable viewpoint: her peers would not have expected her to behave in any other way. But the author of Aurora Leigh [ie, Elizabeth], so concerned with the plight of poor working women, so close to a servant who had proved her loyalty over and over again at considerable personal risk, cannot be judged by conventional standards. Elizabeth failed Wilson as Wilson had never failed her. To take Wilson and her baby back to Italy would have been impractical, inconvenient, unreasonably charitable - but it would have not been impossible for people as resourceful and courageous as the Brownings.  [pages 302/3]

The saga continues some pages later. Another maid went back to Italy with them for an interim period, until they returned to London again. 

There was one farewell Elizabeth was thankful not to have to make: Wilson was coming with them. She had at last made her 'choice'.  A year alone with a baby in East Retford had most effectively decided her. (In fact, she had made her decision within two months of the Brownings' departure for Paris the year before and had told them so but they had said they considered they were bound to her replacement, Harriet, until they returned to London.)
After the return from the Isle of Wight and Somerset, Wilson had her baby Oreste brought down from East Retford for a final leave-taking before committing him to her sister's care. Elizabeth described him as 'a pretty, interesting baby...with great black Italian eyes.' His parents proposed sending part of their wages back to East Retford each month to support him until they could be reunited. When that would be, or how it would come about, nobody was optimistic enough to speculate.
Nowhere in Elizabeth's correspondence at the time did she express any compassion for Wilson's agony. The mother who adored her own child and had been overwhelmed by the violence of maternal feeling, and the poet who was about to publish a poem full of the tenderness of women for children, and a defence of the exploited working-class girl [Aurora Leigh], both seemed untouched by her own maid's anguish. This was a severely practical matter. Nobody had exploited Wilson, nobody had forced her into marriage or motherhood. She was a servant, she had married, she had had a baby: the rules of the game were laid down and Elizabeth abided by them.
But it is not, strictly speaking, true that she was obliged to do so. It was not even true that no Victorian family could take in a servant's baby. Josephine Butler, soon to be famous for the campaign she led against the Contagious Diseases Acts, wife of an Oxford don, had already done so: she took in an unmarried girl who had been seduced by a Balliol man and had borne his child. There are enough isolated examples of that kind of courage, that sort of deliberate flouting of social convention, to suggest that Elizabeth could have taken Wilson's baby home with them if she had really wanted to, if her compassion had been large enough. [pages 315/6]

There is something of a 'happy ending'.  After leaving the Brownings' service, Wilson eventually set up a boarding house in Florence, where she looked after the painter, Walter Savage Landor, among others. He had stayed with the Brownings in Florence some time before, after his wife left him. Wilson's son, Oreste, joined her at the boarding house when he was seven. (He had a younger brother by then, as well.)  Later, she abruptly left Italy and returned to England, setting up another boarding house there, but this venture failed. She returned to Italy, destitute except for ten pounds a year Robert Browning had allowed her for old times' sake. When the Browning's son, 'Pen', brought the Plazzo Rezzonico, he remembered the old servant and took her in. She lived with him there, then went to Asolo with him, where she died in 1902. Her husband Ferdinando seems to have parted company with her in the late 1870s, but turned up later and was also taken in by Pen. Plainly the son had more compassion than either of his parents. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Piece de resistance

When I was acting recently in the play, Hamp, I used an old book of poems by Robert Browning as my character's 'prayer book.' (I played a military padre.) I looked at the poems in odd moments during rehearsals: they were laid out in two columns per page, dense and in smallish print, and there were pages and pages of them. Perhaps a couple of hundred pages. Some of them were Browning's long dramatic poems which I think were intended for stage performance.

I'm not sure whether it was as a result of this that I looked a bit further into the poems written by Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Like her husband's poems, these seemed to me to have a kind of dated air about them, though some of them are still highly regarded.

Recently my son alerted me to the book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, and I read it - very quickly, because it has one basic point and that's repeated in a variety of ways. But essentially it's about the need for artists to overcome the resistance to doing creative work; procrastination is a great bugbear for many artistic workers, and can excused on the grounds of 'writer's block' or other pseudonyms.

Shortly after this I began reading Margaret Forster's excellent and detailed biography of Elizabeth Barrett. It's long and there have been times I've been tempted to give up on it, but it's so well written that it's quite hard to put it down. Barrett suffered ill-health during much of her youth and early womanhood; possibly it was a major bronchial issue that was never properly dealt with. She traded on it to a degree, making herself something of a recluse in her own household, and excusing herself from going out because she was too 'frail' to exercise (the frailty was encouraged by her doctors, regrettably). It became a bit of a vicious circle, aided by her own father overdoing his concerns for her, and allowing her to keep herself from other people.

But Barrett also used this time to establish herself as a poet, and to learn, and to communicate (mostly by letter) with other writers. She published some poetry and made a small name for herself. This style of life continued well into her thirties and then her life changed substantially. By this time her mother had died suddenly and at least two of her brothers had also died, and her father's personality had become increasingly possessive of his remaining children. He refused to allow any of them to marry - though in due course some managed to.

Elizabeth began a correspondence with Robert Browning, and began to meet him secretly at her home when her father was out. (Browning never met his father-in-law man face-to-face, amazingly.) In due course they made plans to be married, secretly, and after the marriage fled the country, going to Italy, where the climate was much more congenial to Elizabeth's health.

At this point, things on the poetry front became most odd. Here were two major poets living together with plenty of time on their hands in a country where they knew very few people, and where they had little in the way of domestic duties to contend with, yet they spent the first decade or more of their marriage barely writing a word of poetry! It seems extraordinary; they made excuses about one thing or another putting them off from working, and at times did make efforts to work, but very little was produced.

Browning had never had a real job in his life - his parents had subsidised him at home in London; Barrett, of course, being a woman in a well-to-do family, had never been required to work either. She had almost no domestic skills (Browning wasn't much better) and relied almost entirely on a long-suffering personal maid (who eventually also became the nanny to the Brownings' one and only child) to look after their every need. Their life-style was funded by some ongoing payments Elizabeth received in relation to a ship an uncle owned, and small amounts from their books, and an annual sum paid to them by a friend.

There was every opportunity to produce great poetry during this time, and yet both of them fell into the trap that Pressfield talks about. They put off the work continually, in spite of having no excuses for not working. Even when their one and only child came along, they were still molly-coddled in terms of actually looking after the child's physical needs: first a wet-nurse suckled the boy until he was well into his second year, and the maid, Wilson, basically cared for him in the day-to-day. Worse, Elizabeth was excessively indulgent of the boy, and even Robert regarded her mothering of him as most peculiar.

The moral of the story? If you have talent, don't waste it by procrastinating. You only have so long on this planet. Make the most of what you've given and use it.



Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ditch the bookmarks!

Dorothy L Sayers, from a short essay entitled A Note on Creative Reading (from the back of a book called Begin Here, which was published during the Second World War and deals with economics and Germany and politics and a good deal more). 

Which reminds me: please burn all your book-markers - even the pretty one Aunt Mabel sent you last Christmas (or at least put that one away and only bring it out when she comes to call.) You cannot possibly be so bird-witted as to be unable to discover which page you got to by looking at it.
If the author mentions some other book in terms which make it seem important, whether he approves or refutes it, don't take his word for it: get the other book and read it, and judge for yourself. If he refers to something, or uses a word, which you don't understand, get a dictionary or work of reference and look it up. (Don't write and ask the author to explain; he is not required to be an Encyclopaedia, and you will only give him a poor idea of your industry and intelligence.) Especially, examine the sources of what he writes; to read Mr Somebody's critical valuation of Milton's prose or his examination of the economic effects of the Peace-Treaty is quite valueless if you have never read any Milton and do not know what the Peace-Treaty actually said.

How times have changed, you might say. I don't at all agree with her view of bookmarks because I'm plainly bird-witted enough to need them to find my place. It must speak volumes about my lack of attention to what I'm reading (!)
As for asking the author to explain: these days authors are all too ready to explain, and enjoy discussions with their readers. Or so we're led to believe. It's one of the joys and perils of the Internet. You can drop an author an email or even a tweet without blinking. And mostly they will reply...quickly. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sometimes the post just decides - for better or worse - to go its own sweet way

'Bye now,' says a friend, and I'm reminded that this expression sounds exactly the same as buy now, something that stores and online sites encourage you to do all the time. As if this might be your last opportunity ever to grab the bargain (which is often something you don't want or need).

It may be the last chance you'll have, of course...you might be dead of a heart attack before you get out of the store, or before you've finished closing off the tab on the browser. But that aside, there usually isn't the great imperative to get on and buy the thing now that the store would like you to think.

It's like those ads you see on TV which tell you that there's only ten minutes in which you can purchase a particular item. If you actually do ring up, you find there's a queue, and you hold on for fifteen minutes and find that the supposed ten minutes in which you were to buy the thing have gone, and yet, amazingly, the item is still well and truly available.

None of this has anything to do with percussion instruments. You're going to ask how I made that leap. Well, this is a postmodern blog, after all, and leaps which lack connection are commonplace here, as they should be. I've just been reading Terry Eagleton's How to Read Literature, and he informs us in there that postmodern writing is full of sudden shifts and disconnections. So accept that fact that I've made a sudden shift and disconnected, and you'll be all right again. You might have to go and get yourself a small sedative, but don't worry about that. You'll have noticed that now I've shifted from postmodernism to stream of consciousness anyway, and perhaps it's well and truly time to bring this post to a close.

If such a thing is possible in postmodern writing. Closure isn't what it's all about there. And how can there be an end to a stream of consciousness?

All too much for this time of the day, especially when you've been up since 5.30 am and busy ever since.

Still remembering after all these years

Courtesy DoctorsHangout.com
I've been talking a bit about memorising again in this blog, and have started to work my way back through the pieces - Scripture extracts and poems - that I've learnt over the years. After working over the last year on the huge Psalm 119 with its 176 verses (around about 360 lines; some verses have three lines as opposed to two) and its repetitions that vary marginally but can be confusing to keep in the right place, everything else seems a piece of cake.

It's been intriguing to come back to the pieces I'd memorised in the past - which I've revised more than a couple of times over the years - and find that they're mostly intact. I've now caught up with nine of them, and only one has proved hard to get back into. The others have mostly picked themselves up again during a half an hour's walk with the dog. Which has surprised me. I thought I might be starting almost from scratch, but in fact, the memory has kept hold of these lines over the years, parked them somewhere in the archives, went off and found them now that I need them again, and after a bit of dusting off and polishing, has brought them back into the main store.

As I say, only one has proved hard to get to grips with. Some of the lines were intact, but others took some real relearning. This was another Psalm, as it happens. Number 37, which, like Psalm 119, has quite a bit of repetition built into it. Furthermore, it doesn't flow logically from one thing to another. It's as if the writer decided he has a theme and he has to hammer it home, revolving around and around it until he's satisfied that he's covered all his bases. The fact that to the reader it seems like he's gone into a bit of overkill is another matter.

Another Psalm (139) came back much more easily, and there was a reason for this. Like 37, it has a focus and comes at it from all sorts of angles. But I'd first learned this psalm by adding a tune (of sorts) to it, and between the remembering of the tune and the revising of the words, it came back to me within the proverbial half-hour dog-walk.

All this is encouraging because I'm due to hit the big 70 next year (all things being equal, and God willing) and I'm heading into that time of life when things can go wrong with the body and the mind - if they haven't already. I could still get dementia/Alzheimer's (two blood relations, an aunt and an uncle, have had it) so I'm not assuming that doing all this memory work will necessarily stave off trouble with the brain. No one really knows, although we keep on saying that keeping the brain active and creative is supposed to help.

But apart from whatever might happen in the future, what this ability to remember stuff is saying is that the brain never stops enjoying working. The idea that our brains kind of go into old age mode after a while is a nonsense; it seems that they're much more likely to keep functioning even when the body is having problems if we encourage them. (By the way, I note that a recent movie is using the other piece of nonsense about us only ever using ten percent of our brains as its tagline. That bit of twaddle was discredited decades ago.)


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Do it properly!

You'll have all heard the acronym, LED, because it's everywhere these days, on TVs, tablets, you name it. But the acronym HID was unfamiliar to me, because I don't have much to do with cars in terms of doing anything more than driving them. I've never been someone who's accessorized his vehicle, so the car we have is the car we got. No frills have been attached. 

Anyway, HID stands for 'high-intensity discharge' in relation to lamps and headlights, and no doubt various other things that lighten up your particular world. Wikipedia tells me that these lights function by means of an electric arc between tungsten electrodes housed inside a translucent or transparent fused quartz or fused alumina arc tube. There you go. You're much wiser now. (I'm still having to check out what the various words mean that go to make up the explanation.)

The place many people will come across these lights are on cars - I suspect they're those ones that dazzle you as meet them face-to-face, or headlight-to-headlight, on the road. They're no doubt useful, but not when they're blinding the drivers of oncoming traffic. 

And it's wise, I understand, to use proper HID headlight instructions when you're installing them - if you're the sort of person who does this kind of at-home installation. (I've already told you I'm not.) The manufacturers are not liable for you putting them in backwards, sideways or any other way that isn't appropriate, or wiring up the wrongs bits of wire and setting your car on fire. So you've been warned. Do it properly, or else get a professional.

Today's bit of useful advice from me.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

She [Elizabeth Barrett Browning] had decide that poetry, whatever language it was written in, was most certainly work. To write poetry was the most worthwhile work in the world because poetry was truth and there could be nothing more noble than trying to express universal truths. She did not feel shy about calling herself a poet - even when she recognised that she had only managed to produce 'sickly poetry,' She had absolute confidence that with time she would do better and that the struggle to do so was worthy in itself. A good poet was always 'one of God's singers.' Trying to become one of this select band was an ambition she was proud of and did not conceal. It had nothing to do with what she called 'versifying,' that scribbling in commonplace books so beloved of young ladies at this time. This she found contemptible and not to be confused with real poetry which was dignified, serious, sacred and pure. Her family accepted her interpretation of her vocation reverentially. Only her father was tempted to make the occasional facetious comment and he quickly came to appreciate that his daughter's poetry was no laughing matter.

Nobody at Hope End [the family home] sneered at or ridiculed the role of poet itself - in the first quarter of the nineteenth century poets were the most admired of all creative writers. The end of the eighteenth century had seen the beginnings of the Romantic Revival, marked by the publication, in 1798, of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. In the decade of Elizabeth's birth Byron published his first collection of poems (Hours of Idleness,1807) and when as a nine-year-old she was starting to write poetry herself, Queen Mab. Playwrights no longer dominated the literary scene though Drury Lane and Covent Garden were still enormously popular theatres, and novelists, in spite of Jane Austen, Richardson and Fielding, had not yet begun to do so. To be a 'real' poet was judged a most suitable occupation by Elizabeth's parents who had no objections just so long as this did not tax Elizabeth's health.
Shelley had just finished

...public acknowledgement was important: she was honest enough to admit that it was not sufficient to write poetry but that having it read was part of the process. It was more than that. Seeing her work in print excited her and she did not underestimate the significance.  Her excitement had nothing to do with feeling she was successful - she rated popular success as shallow - but was more a feeling of intense joy here was tangible proof that she was communicating through her poetry.

Pages 34/5 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Margaret Foster. 




Friday, September 12, 2014

Resistance is within

Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. "Peripheral opponents," as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.

Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art (p. 8)

'Resistance,' in Pressfield's terms, is that thing that holds us back from getting on and working at creative work. Procrastination is one of its most successful manifestations.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Savages

We caught up with the movie, The Savages, last night. It stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Savage siblings, Wendy and Jon, whose father Len (Philip Bosco) is heading into dementia. Initially each of the three lives in a separate part of the USA, she in New York, where she's working as a temp while trying to get her plays funded for production; he in Buffalo, and the father in Sun City, Arizona. So there's a great deal of contrast in terms of locale from the dourness of New York, to the winter snow of Buffalo, to the blazing sun of Arizona - even in the winter.

The father has been living with an old woman who dies suddenly early in the movie. His actual wife is still alive, somewhere, but it's never said where - she's a bit of a mystery to all the family it seems, and wasn't able to do the 'mother' thing. Apparently the father had been quite brutal with his son, in the past, though this is never explored in much detail, even though it forms an important aspect of the play Linney has written.

It all sounds like a grim story, but in fact it's done with a curiously light touch, so that we can empathise with the characters in spite of their self-focuses. Linney in particular makes a wonderful job of alternatively making us very annoyed or sympathising with her inability to see herself as she really is. Hoffman plays in that wonderfully understated way he was so good at; little on the surface but much beneath. He's a warmer character, inclined to burst into tears at a number of things, but particularly in relation to his current girlfriend who's leaving to go back to Poland because her visa has run out. He has a wonderful scene in which he's strung up in the doorway trying to get his back (shoulder/neck?) back into place. The material looped under his chin means he can just speak and no more, and then Linney gives him a piece of toast which he can only just nibble at. It sounds like nothing, but Hoffman makes it a delight.

The movie, scripted and directed by Tamara Jenkins, doesn't explain itself too much. It lets us work things out for ourselves, because much of what we discover isn't actually spoken aloud. And there's a wonderfully ambiguous line just before the last couple of scenes when Linney finally dumps her adulterous older boyfriend (he can't even talk about the possible death of his beloved dog without immediately switching to talking about having sex). She calls down the stairs to him: It's not about us. It's in answer to a question he's asked and we think at first she's referring to their relationship. In fact, this proves not to be the case, and we realise a little later that she's finally matured in some areas of her life.

The film manages to walk the tightrope between comedy and tragedy by including a number of bit players in roles that verge on the absurd, and the opening scenes themselves, set in Arizona where elderly people fight the fight against ageing in all sorts of ways, are shot as visual jokes. The film was highly praised at the time of its release but seems to have been mostly forgotten since. However there's an article on Hoffman in Salon.com which mentions his part in it; the writer plainly thought the movie deserved better than to be forgotten.



Promoting the ebooks

While working on the sequel to Grimhilda! I haven't had much time to give to promoting that good lady herself, nor my non-fiction book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Both were published as ebooks earlier this year, one in January, the other in April, and while they had some interest from customers at the beginning, before I began writing the sequel (currently going under the name of The Mumbersons), they've languished over the last three months for want of sufficient attention. It's difficult to write and promote at the same time. The energy required for one tends to consume the energy required for the other.

Now that The Mumbersons is well on its way, and is awaiting a reading by a friend, I'm doing some work on getting the other two books back on their feet. I'd kept copies of a number of articles (on Evernote, of course) about promoting the books, and yesterday, while trolling through these looking for promotional ideas, came across a note about a site called Good Kindles, which, for a one-off (and reasonable fee) will promote your ebooks. I've listed Grimhilda! with them for starters, and we'll see how she goes. 

On top of that it was nice to find an unsolicited review of Grimhilda! had turned up on Amazon. Short and sweet, but nicely to the point: I was intrigued and delighted by this story. Great fun to read. It was contributed by a person who does a fair number of short reviews: Ruby,owl.  Thanks, Ruby!

Grimhilda! - a fantasy for children and their parents is available on Smashwords and a variety of other ebook sites, including Apple and Kobo.
The same applies to Diary of a Prostate Wimp.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Jonathan Lemalu masterclass

Last night Jonathan Lemalu gave a Masterclass at Marama Hall in Dunedin. Three young men - two baritones, Sam Madden and Tyler (whose surname I missed), and a bass singer whose name I missed completely - were given individual coaching on songs they presented to the audience (a much smaller audience than you would have expected, unfortunately). 

Tyler was up first with The Roadside Fire from Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel. Like all the singers he was asked what the song was telling us, the audience. What story was he communicating when he sang? How did the accompaniment add to what was being said in the words of the song? How could he portray more by his stance, his intensity, by thinking himself into a kind of dramatic view of the song? And much more. He also sang Bright is the Ring of Words from the same song cycle a little later. 

Lemalu gently worked with each of the young singers, not concerning himself too much with their technique or musicality, but with their storytelling. Sam Madden sang Comfort ye, my people from the Messiah. Even this was seen as a 'character' (in this case, God, or his prophet) telling the audience something specific. 

The bass sang a solo by Dr Malatesta, from Don Pasquale. In his initial rendition of it he gave a 'performance', in Italian, but the message wasn't too clear. It helped to have Lemalu tease out what he was meaning, why Malatesta spoke/sung as he did, how this could be better conveyed through a more dramatised version of the song rather than treating it as an aria. It helped also when Lemalu became a 'character' onstage, helping the focus. 

It was interesting to see how the performers' interpretations changed substantially once they thought about what they were saying and how to put that across. Lemalu gave them all sorts of ideas, and let them hold onto particular ones at different times. It changed the substance of what was being sung considerably. He also played with them including while they were singing, which helped ease tensions but also made them focus differently. 

Lemalu is full of ideas, modest, still learning (he said this), changing approaches that seemed set in stone, being more relaxed while maintaining a very high standard of preparation. He's also a great entertainer. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

About Elly

Last night we watched Asghar Farhadi's 2009 movie, About Elly. Two or three months ago we saw a later film by Farhadi, A Separation. The latter film was something of a revelation. It changed my view of what modern Iran is like completely. (I wrote about it here.)  About Elly does the same: apart from the fact that the women wear headscarves all the time, there's little to show that we're in a Muslim country. All the trappings of modern life are visible, and there's (mostly) an easy enough relationship between the sexes. 

Both films are about lies and lying. Or alternatively, you might say, about truth, except that truth is very difficult to deal with, and for the characters in these two movies, lies are readily available, and, in the end stand in the way of the characters being able to move forward. 

About Elly starts off in a much warmer tone than A Separation.Three couples (and three small children), a recently divorced friend, and a young schoolteacher come together for a weekend of relaxation at a beach house. Irritating things happen, but not enough to stop the friends enjoying themselves. 

In the first forty minutes or so, the film seems to be little more than an ensemble piece with a wonderful cast almost improvising the script as they go along. So it appears. Characters come and go across the screen randomly while we try and sort out who belongs to whom (and it took us quite some time; we mismatched two of the couples). It seems that the young wife of the oldest man in the group has invited the schoolteacher along in order to match her up with the divorced man, and things are going fairly well. 

Except that underneath all the bonhomie are disturbing currents, none of which we can quite put our finger on. Disaster strikes - but it's not the disaster we think has struck, and Farhadi leaves us hanging for a great deal of the movie as we see the characters deal with what is ultimately a tragedy, by constantly changing their stories, accusing each other, blaming, finding excuses, finally getting to grips with the need to tell the truth, and then not being able to.

Farhadi has an enormous cinematic ease: the camera quietly appears to be just catching things out of the corner of its eye on many occasions, but in other scenes he uses the more disturbing process for the audience of a camera that jerks and shudders in moments of great tension. The actors appear to move as randomly as in real life, yet time after time we see movements in the background that add another dimension to what's being played out closer to us. His control of his cast is exceptional, including the three small children, who play vital parts in the story.

The young wife is played by Golshifteh Farahani, an actress who turned up in another movie we watched recently, The Patience Stone. This was a highly disturbing film set in Afghanistan about a young wife who's husband has been injured in the ongoing fighting, and has gone into a kind of coma. For much of the movie she sits and talks to him, telling him things she could never say when he was alert. It's a considerable indictment on relationships between men and women in that society, and I find it hard to imagine that it would ever be screened in the country it's set in.