Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Defense of Scarlett O'Hara

A bit ago I threatened a post about Gone With the Wind. I might as well make good on it. I won't insult your intelligence by claiming this is British in any way (though, if I were to try, I might build on Vivien Leigh's heritage). . . . We both know this post is here only because I'm suffering from a serious case of "the holidays" and don't have many new insights to give on appropriate things.

But I find that I have a lot to say about Scarlett.

I watched this classic the other night because I'd had a fight with my sister. Aw, not a bad one – but a disagreement, a clash of the minds . . .  about Scarlett O’Hara. My lovely sis, who is brilliant and to whose opinion I generally defer under most circumstances, had seen GWTW on TV and it was on her mind. She wanted to vent about what a horrible bitch Scarlett was. Trouble is, I have always found Scarlett to be infinitely sympathetic and, if not always likeable, a basically appealing character.

But fresh in my sister's thoughts were scenes of Scarlett harshly working her convicts in the lumber mill, concerned about nothing but making money, scenes hammering home Scarlett's ambition and lack of caring, her ruthless cruelty.  I remembered those . . . but I remembered more that Scarlett was a woman of courage and passion, of strong driving energy, and of great charm -- the quintessential worthy survivor. But maybe I was wrong! Maybe my impressions were unduly influenced by the prejudices of my youth. I mean, I first read the book and saw the film when I was in high school, as an impressionable girl with limited experiences. So I watched again. Just to check.

And what I found was this: my old impressions are right. I still feel the same way about Scarlett. I don't hate her. I understand and appreciate her and what she's had to grow through. From a pampered, headstrong, vivacious girl – lacking in depth but having never really required depth to progress happily through her life, to someone who could survive at any cost by overcoming tragedies and horrors piled high upon each other.

Scarlett, as the show starts, is nothing if not supremely well-adapted to the life that she’s grown up in. A practical girl, she isn't looking for complexity or difficulties. She's looking to be happy. Of course we can fault her for being shallow and misguided (but these faults are present in many characters, even lovable ones. Emma, anyone?)  And we can also fault her for having blindly accepted the benefits of slavery without introspection. However, she cannot be singled out to carry this blame; other more sympathetic characters (Melanie?) are similarly flawed. And we might not prize her headstrong comfort-seeking, but we can accept that a great many 16-year-olds are like that, making her not all that different from some of us at 16 or even at 26.

Scarlett sees great value and takes pride in her ability to attract others, to persuade them and compel them. She has tremendous personal power and is just learning how to best wield it. Born in a more recent era, she might have been a politician or PR genius. But in her time, she uses her assets for the advantage of gaining a man. And it works extremely well for her. Scarlett is pursued by scores of young men. She, however, is only drawn to one: the most interesting of them all – a wealthy, sensitive, intellectual. Can we at least agree that her attraction to a man of depth and understanding shows good taste and judgment?

But Ashley is also Scarlett's downfall. We might applaud her taste in desiring such a man, but her steadfast adherence to the fantasy of Ashley is her biggest character flaw. She cannot move past that blind until very late in the story. She is convinced that they belong together despite powerful and continuing evidence to the contrary. It is a sad flaw but an understandable and common one.

In part because she sees herself as the tragic victim, and in part because she is confined by her time in history to think of her life’s work in terms of marriage, when Scarlett learns that Ashley is to wed another – a woman she can’t like or respect, a quiet, meek, gentle, introspective thing – she flings herself headlong into anything else and marries a ridiculous man. You know she's thinking: "it can’t possibly matter what I do now!"  This cutting off her nose to spite her face in a fit of headstrong stubbornness is, again, a flaw I find sad, but understandable -- seeing it often in my children's stubborn choices. Yes, Scarlett is childish, but I appreciate her pain and like her more for it.

The marriage to Charles and his quick death as the war sets in, mark a turning point. She has lost her youth. She will soon lose her home and her mother. It is the loss of these things in quick succession without understanding and without closure that results in her keeping Ashley so high in her thoughts as an ideal. She sees in him everything that is dignified and fine, everything that is safe and comfortable, and everything that reminds her of her past glory. The genteel life with Ashley on a dignified plantation that lives in her head sits in stark contrast to the one she’s somehow found herself in the middle of in Atlanta as war rages around her. She finds herself unwillingly nursing sick and mutilated men -- going entirely against her own nature to do it, staying in a place of danger in order to help Melanie with her baby’s birth, though doing so prevents her from being with her own people and her own home when that is all she wants.

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie, demonstrating how Scarlett has found and acts from a source of deep inner strength, is when she learns that the doctor is not coming and that Prissy “knows nothing about birthing babies.” Squaring her shoulders, she ascends the steps to tend to Melanie, to help this weak woman she thinks she hates, deliver the baby of the man she loves. Scarlett shows that she can and will step up and do what she has to. No matter what. From this point on, that will be her guiding principal: doing whatever has to be done in order to get through. The baby is born and by sheer force of will, she plows through the countryside with her little pack of helpless beings in tow and makes her way home.

Getting there just one day too late to see her beloved mother alive, but fully able to appreciate that her father is no longer of sound mind, the young disillusioned belle wants to throw herself on a bed and weep. But she can’t. Instead, she takes charge of everything around her. A force of nature, she propels everyone into action, cleaning up the house and farm and making it run. She has no patience for anyone or anything that gets in the way or causes more work. A second mantra, along the lines of "if you can’t help me just get the heck out of my way” develops for Scarlett. Scenes such as her interaction with the deserter show how far she's come and what she is willing to do to preserve her tumble-down plantation and rag-tag family. And we (like Melanie) are glad she shoots him. Every day she makes choices that seem perfectly reasonable in the context of what life has now become.

But she still thinks she wants to give it all up. When the taxes on Tara are raised to $300 she wants to take her cares to her father, or even to the servant, and ultimately to Ashley. She is desperate for someone, anyone, to take a share of the load. Her scene with Ashley in the paddock expresses the misery and fatigue of living the life she doesn’t want to live along with her deep desire for what she thinks she is in love with. She wants escape. But she doesn’t get it. Not only will he not run away with her, but Ashley is useless on the farm and only prolongs her unreasonable infatuation by saying he loves her and kissing her passionately.

More weight gets quickly piled on her. For just after this scene, she throws the overseer off her land and her father, inspired by her strong words, rides off on his horse, makes a foolish jump and dies. Now she has another dead parent and still no $300. She decides to parlay her very best value (her great personal charm) into an offer from someone who can pay that bill. She starts with Rhett Butler (who I'll talk about in a minute). She tries to charm him and then outright proposition him. She’s willing to humiliate herself but even he can’t help her. So when she sees Frank Kennedy and learns that he has money, she plows in headlong. Of course stealing her sister's beau is a pretty bad thing. I'll grant that. But I'll defend her motives. She is not personally interested in getting rich here (not yet); she's interested in saving her farm and her family, keeping her home together, her parents' memory intact, and to maintain what they have left.

At this crucial juncture in the story, it is interesting to note that both the man she loves and the man who loves her have utterly failed to help her and she's on her own.  And this, finally, is a theme that comes newly to me upon this recent viewing. Scarlett becomes who she is in large measure because of the way others have let her down (her mom, by dying; her dad, by losing his mind, then dying; but particularly the love interests in her life). Ashley admits as much himself after Scarlett comes home married to Frank: “its all my fault; I should have committed highway robbery rather than let you sell yourself in marriage to a man you don’t love.” Exactly! But he didn't. He talked to her about honor and love and encouraged her fantasies but made no move to put money in her hands. Rhett is worse -- when she asks for his help he toys with her and laughs at her, baits her, but won't even provide a shoulder of sympathy or a strategy to get that cash. I'll talk more about him in a minute. (I know I said that before, but I'll get to him).

Before I do, first, some thoughts on Scarlett's toughness and power. At the point where she marries Frank, she turns another corner. Her motivations start to blur. She now has enough money to save Tara, but now that is no longer enough. She learns that she is shrewd at business and she wants to amass wealth -- enough so that no one can ever threaten her again. This is the point when she starts to lose her soul. She is so attached to an idea of poverty that she can’t see. She says: “I found out that money is the most important thing in the world”. I don’t like who she becomes, but I understand how she got there -- what motivates her.  She sees paths with beacon lights shining down that lead to more and better ways of making money. It is easy for her and sooooo seductive. But she doesn't have a mommy who can help her see bigger, more important values. Though shrewd and smart in business, she is thick and slow in life. She doesn’t see larger implications of her own actions. The night of the Shantytown raid is the perfect example. She is like a child seeing only the surface and misunderstanding everything. It’s a scary mix of qualities – headstrong capitalist, deeply infatuated with a man who is symbolic of everything she’s lost, in deep grief for the loss of her way of life and her parents but far too superficial to even realize she’s in grief, on top of everything insanely charming and persuasive. No one can possibly stand up to her - except for one man. But he fails her entirely.

So now we finally get to Rhett: the one person who is strong enough to balance her. The one who could have made a difference had he been really willing to take her on. But he fails her! I thought that upon a new viewing of the movie I might, as a grown-up, form new harsher impressions of Scarlett than those I'd formed as a child in love with her charm and vivacity. But something surprising happened. Instead, I found a new disappointment in Rhett.
Rhett lets her down so very many times, usually justifying it by convincing himself she can handle things herself. But how can a young woman with no resources and nothing but spunk and charm and an enormous amount of naivety possibly be able to negotiate the demands of the post Civil War south without making great errors? Rhett begins this illustrious trail of failure when he dumps her on the road to Tara, leaving her to manage three helpless beings in a wagon with absolutely no notion of what they'd find at home. This really is inexcusable. Any person with his resources and experience should have finished seeing her home before heading off to war. When she goes to him in jail and connives for money, he not only doesn't give it to her, but much worse still, makes fun of her, toys with her, doesn't take her plight seriously, and then later, ridicules her for having married Frank.

He may be in love with her, but he’s absolutely useless to her. After Frank dies and she’s pouring out her heart to him in the most honest and real display of vulnerability she has ever shown, he again, diminishes her. I never noticed this before -- being too caught up in the intense sexiness of the proposal scene. But he doesn’t even try to hear her, to understand her feelings, or engage with her in a meaningful way. He just finds her amusing. He chooses to make sport of her and keep her at arms reach. He can’t really love. But he asks her to marry him anyway.

During their marriage, things fall apart slowly. He is aware of her infatuation for Ashley and it makes him insanely jealous, but he makes very little effort to actually address it -- to think about or counter what Ashley must mean to her to inspire such feelings. He won't seek her respect or talk with her seriously. At several points in their marriage, such as when he comes back after going off on a trip with Bonnie and she greets him with a genuine smile, or when he comes into her room the morning after his passionate sweeping her up the steps and she is in a very sweet temper, he fails to pay any attention to her friendly signals. These are as big as neon signs and anyone paying a modicum of attention to his wife could read them. But he doesn't. We think of Scarlett as being cruel to Rhett -- and she is -- but he is just as cruel. And his cruelty is worse because he has so much more personal freedom and power.

The birth of Bonnie Blue is a whole other double edged sword that harms this ill-fated couple. Bonnie should be Scarlett’s savior – a chance to connect with real virtue, real meaning. But it does the opposite; it makes her thoughts turn to Ashley as she sees motherhood diminishing her value and attractiveness as a woman. In her simple, mixed-up, confounded mind she thinks of Ashley being celibate (because Melanie can’t have children) and takes up the idea to turn away from Rhett in order to live in a state of cherished ideas; if she can’t be with Ashley she can live a celibate life too thinking about him. Rhett tells her she’s “throwing away happiness with both hands” looking for something that can never make her happy. Which is exactly what she’s doing; but she is far too simple to see it. Bonnie's birth creates another great rift for this marriage. Bonnie usurps Scarlett as object of devotion and sweet love for Rhett (of the kind we saw on the cruise/honeymoon). Rhett no longer needs to make any effort to be kind and gentle to Scarlett, because Bonnie can be his object of devotion. Oddly, this child has torn apart anything that bound these two together.

And we all know the famous ending -- how Melanie finally dies and Scarlett realizes how much she loved and cared for her all along. And, more importantly, how Scarlett realizes that, even though now she might conceivably have him, Ashley is not at all what she wants. She runs to find Rhett who has suddenly and inexplicably given up all interest in her and tells her he doesn't give a damn. Cue the personal revelations of Scarlett as she mourns his loss for a moment or two before realizing she should go home to the red earth from whence she gets her strength.

Ultimately, the question of whether Scarlett does gets him back -- at some point to be determined later -- doesn't really matter. (Though I think she does. Get him back, I mean.  If Scarlett O'Hara puts her determination toward solving some problem, it is pretty likely that that problem will be solved). But there is no doubt that Scarlett will be fine. She is already fine. She will go back to Tara and, with or without Rhett, lead a happy, full and probably seriously messed up life!

One final thought: I am so thankful for the astonishing Vivien Leigh who is both so stunningly beautiful and so profoundly talented in this role that she takes over my entire brain. This performance was a gift to the world for all time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Seasonally Challenged

I've come to realize that blogs may be incompatible with Christmastime. I have not posted a thing in many many days. (Of course, my last post was long enough to count for about 4, so maybe I'm really not that far behind.)

Anyway, several problems are plaguing me - not the least of which is that nothing I'm doing has anything to do with British television. I did watch Gone with the Wind the other day and was thinking that Vivian Leigh and Leslie Howard were British. . . and not only that, but Olivia de Haviland played Maid Marian in Robin Hood and that is a British thing . . . hmm

So, I guess it comes down to this: you can either expect a post on Gone With the Wind accompanied by some lame and strained rationalizations as to why it belongs on my blog, or it may be awhile before I check in again. We'll have to see how it goes : )

In the meantime, enjoy your holiday time!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Spooks Ending: A Real. Life. Fail.

After the miserable ending to that brilliant show, I just stopped thinking about it. Yes, OK, it was a process... It took a blog post and a few days of decompressing to stop thinking about Spooks. But I did stop. I didn't reflect on it, try to put it all in context, or ruminate about the larger meaning of fiction and it's role in our lives. I just stuffed the experience in a file drawer and walked away.  I walked across the Atlantic and immersed myself in other pursuits (knitting, Star Trek Voyager, and holidays).

That worked for me.

However, over the course of the last week or two, I've had too many occasions that brought up the show and I'm realizing that I do need to do a bit of dredging up and processing before I can fairly and legitimately stuff it all back in the file again and walk away for good. If you, too, are on a Spooks' healing process, read on. Maybe I can be of assistance.

SPOILER ALERT through 10.6. There are references here to events that happened throughout the whole run of this show. Please beware.

With its ending, Spooks, as a series, failed. The "ending" I'm speaking of, is the one that began in Season 9 and continued up until the last pathetic moments -- as life leaked out of the franchise in a sad and plaintive way.

Somewhere during its run, Spooks seized hold of the mantra: "we don't do happy" and decided to run with it to an extreme degree. By adhering to a very limited world view and by intentionally killing or destroying everything that made the show special and real, Spooks ultimately killed itself.

There are two themes to its failure: (1) the first is the increasingly ruthless way that major characters were slaughtered until those losses displaced all deeper meaning, and (2) how the show lost its brilliant focus on team, continuity, cohesion and worthiness as the losses mounted without commensurate meaningful acts. One connection in particular which was the lifeblood of the show (Harry and Ruth) was thrown away cheaply.

I. An increasingly deep trail of bloodshed.

The first few years of the show contained significantly less killing of major characters than later ones did. Don't believe it? Look at this chart. Through the end of the first 3 seasons, only Danny and Helen were killed off. Three seasons, two deaths. And both were treated as catastrophic events for the team. Helen's death was met with assassination and a serious sense of vengeance; and Danny's was met with a distraught Ruth grieving and the whole team's mourning at a funeral. During those same 3 years, four agents (Tessa, Tom, Zoe and Sam) were allowed to leave the show alive and intact.

Then things started to change. The deaths began to rack up. Slowly at first, then fast and furious.
Consider this:
• In Season 4 only Fiona died.
• In Season 5, Collin.
• In Season 6, just Zaf. That's it.

Then the bloodbath began in earnest -- in fast succession we lost Adam, Ben, Connie, Jo, Ros and Lucas. Three seasons, six agents. (Make that 8 agents in 4 Seasons if you add in the last). With hardly more than a "safe" episode tucked in between to grieve, the bodies fell and Spooks began to lose its soul. Somewhere along the way, it gravitated toward a basic premise of "no one here gets out alive" -- and we are all diminished by it. Though lip-service was paid to the agents' sorrow over these deaths, overall there was no time to worry about what all this killing was doing to anyone. The show just plunged in, taking no prisoners.

However, even with these mounting losses, for a long time the show still sustained its history, continuity and cohesiveness because the teams were allowed to regenerate and rebuild (if not to grieve).  Up till and including the end of Season 8, I didn't really mind losing our best and brightest. Because there were always new and bright replacements to bond with. (For instance, after Danny left, we got Zaf; when Fiona died we got Jo; when Adam went, Lucas came.) The show continually renewed itself with fresh (and sometimes even better) characters than the ones who were leaving. New relationships were forged, new teams bonded. And it all still felt meaningful and real.

As long as the show was a process, the continual regeneration and recycling wasn't the death knell. And the show was BRILLIANT about getting actors and characters that clicked. ...And also at introducing them at just the right time and under just the right circumstances to increase bonding.

All that changed by Season 9.

II. When they stopped building teams.

Put yourself back in Season 8 for a moment. Think about the mix of characters and the tremendous chemistry and potential there. We start the year with Harry, Malcolm, Ruth, Jo, Ros, Lucas and Tariq. What an incredible team. Ruth was new to this particular mix, but she shared strong history with Harry, Malcolm and Jo. By the time we lost Malcolm, Jo and Ros, we were already bonding with Tariq, and Ruth was fully phased in. It felt smooth and seamless and it worked.

Meanwhile, Ruth's interactions with Harry were powerful, sad and sexy. We were fully invested in what would happen to them and all the agents around them. It was great TV. And that greatness withstood and transcended the loss of some of the best characters the show has ever known.

But, then with Season 9 and continuing into 10, the show seemed suddenly bent on destroying itself from the inside out. The meaning seemed to take a back seat and character development and trust stopped mattering. Things that a viewer had a right to rely upon were jerked away.

Here are a few ways in which that happened:

• Slowly the character of Lucas became meaningless over the course of Season 9 with unreasonable behavior and ridiculous motivations that changed who he was as a person and what we had come to believe. All this was done toward no real end other than to woo viewers.
• Ruth and Harry's love became untenable. Despite a season of buildup and a proposal she should have respected if not craved, Ruth's character not only denied herself happiness but denied herself even the comfort of some rational motivation for staying celibate.
• The story of Harry and Ruth longing for something greater, was built up and built up but then relegated to a back burner -- artificially prolonged past the point of reasonable anticipation. And toward what end? Apparently only for the hope of stringing along viewers.
• A character like Beth was allowed to be flawed and multi-faceted and then allowed to grow, undergo change, become meaningful and trustworthy, only to be abruptly dismissed (off-camera) with no closure at the start of Season 10. What was the point of that? I suppose they couldn't do anything about Sophia Myles not wanting to stay on for another season, but they could have gotten her to do a single episode and then maybe kill her -- that would at least have preserved her memory, given the remains of the team a bonding moment, and allowed her character some enduring meaning.
• The teamwork between Lucas, Beth and Dimitri, which was one of the highlights of Season 9, was entirely squandered after Lucas died, leaving Dimitri alone and adrift in a room full of strangers at the start of Season 10.
• With a much diminished continuing cast including only Harry, Ruth, Tariq and Dimitri who had appeared before on the show, Spooks limped into Season 10. Instead of immediately drawing upon past themes and building continuity they so desperately needed, the writers went and took out Tariq! One of the few who was actually part of a continuing team.
• They should have allowed their few continuing characters to bond and close ranks, then bring on the newbies in a more subtle way. Hitting us over the head with Calum and Erin Watts was jarring and awkward.
• The flow that was stilted because of character loss could still have been compensated for with continuing plot lines. But we didn't get that either. Almost no mention was made of the massive Lucas North/Albany File build-up. And Ruth and Harry lost all the momentum they had gained by Harry's act of passion at the end of Season 9. Lost without reason. It would have healed so many flaws to have allowed a proper conversation about what Harry did and what it meant.
• Instead, a Russian past was constructed for Harry that did nothing to draw in the other characters or provide the type of background that could ultimately build sympathy and connection for our team.
• As if the bonds weren't decimated enough, Ruth was then pulled into the Home Secretary's office, taking her away from section D too.
• I remember that I was excited to hear rumors that someone, probably Tom, would come back for a cameo in Season 10. Great idea. But even this was so horribly executed it provided nothing. Was Ruth allowed to see and connect with Tom? No. He showed up in the final minutes of the final episode in order to walk alone down a hallway. Someone who could have actually provided a meaningful link to the past was wasted.

The writers couldn't have dismantled the continuity of this show any more had they tried.

III. How the show squandered its amazing Harry/Ruth story

And the main way (the saddest way) that they dismantled the great things they had was they way they messed with Harry and Ruth. Maybe you've noticed, I haven't yet even mentioned how they killed off Ruth in the last episode. And I was more than a little upset by that. But more than the death of Ruth, I am disturbed by the way the writers squandered who she was and how she had moved forward. Her character became pointless. It underscores the lack of grounding to have taken her life just to prove that they could.

I did not need Harry and Ruth to have lived happily ever after, married and settled in a nice cottage somewhere. But there was no conceivable reason to have denied them some resolution, some real love scenes. They were artifically held in limbo and then denied real consummation. Their chemistry and motivations were squandered. And this incredibly powerful story lost.

Anyone may know how much I cared about Harry and Ruth as a couple. And I was hardly alone in that regard. "Harry and Ruth" had a life of their own that was bigger than Spooks as a show.

I now realize that this amazing couple was not a product of the show and its writers. It came from Nicola Walker and Peter Firth. It is common knowledge that the writers didn't plan that romance, but I now realize that they really didn't know what to do with it once it showed up in front of them. It proceeded organically from two talented actors, thus, their very best moments came when the writers weren't trying to manage it, but when Nicola and Peter managed to infuse regular interactions with more meaning and eye contact. In Season 10, the romance felt thin and squashed by the plot lines they were required to follow.  (Now I'm just hoping that some other directors/producers are smart enough to see Peter and Nicola and their great talent and chemistry together and give them work together on some project that really can "handle" them better. Its a dream.)

I could be imagining it, but when I was watching the last episode --and it became clear they were offing Ruth -- I could almost see Peter Firth's acting breaking down. It seemed to me that he (as an actor) just couldn't hang with it anymore because it was becoming so stupid. It really seemed to me as if he was distancing himself and closing down. He seemed to be sleepwalking through those last moments unable to find a place of truth and reality to draw upon. What a shame to have done this to Harry. To make the last 10 years condense down to the plugging away at a desk, endlessly fighting lost battles.

In Conclusion
In its early years, throughout all its traumas, Spooks always carried with it a mantle of care and tightness between our team members. Some reasonable mix of happy/love/pain/death/ambiguity would have been a vision of "giving of oneself, in the public service" that I could hang with. Now it seems that the writers wanted it to end on a note of: "we don't do happy and everyone must die or toil endlessly toward the same miserable end." Hmmm. That's what I waited 10 seasons for?

Yes, its just a show. It's only TV. But, really great fiction is more than just fiction. It mirrors reality. Books, movies, music and TV, are the stuff of life. They intentionally work on us at an emotional level. They are supposed to do that. Really good fiction does owe us something. I don't watch bad fiction. I don't read bad fiction and I don't listen to bad music because I won't allow myself to be manipulated and jerked around by "powerful" media that is "weak" in quality. Powerful media that is good is one of the best things in life.

This show was rare in that it did feel important and had so much capacity to be brilliant. Fiction does have the power to move people and create a reality. Spooks as its best did that and I think that's why people feel so let down when it fails. It diminishes us as viewers and makes the whole thing feel false.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jobs, Taylor and Spooks

I had a strong desire to listen to Carolina in My Mind by James Taylor this morning. It must be the time of year. November makes me nostalgically wistful and fills me with a sense of longing. Because I don't actually own the song, I went to Youtube to have a listen and whilst there made another discovery. James Taylor reminds me of Steve Jobs.

Sure there's the superficial similarity of a glossy round head, but its more than that. I see deeper resemblance in the chin, eyebrows, nose and sharp, brilliant eyes. Both were visionaries with soft voices and deeply moving intelligence and they may share a lot more than just physical similarities . . .  if I were to stop and think about it I could let you know.  But this post wasn't really supposed to be about them.

Instead, and in addition to the Jobs/Taylor connection, I was thinking about my connections related to that song. Carolina in My Mind is meaningful--a sad and longing song with a positive message about finding what you need inside of you. Taylor said he wrote it while feeling homesick though he didn't really have a home at the time. That's an unsettling sentiment that I totally understand.

I don't know when I first became aware of this song, but sometime, while I was still very young (far too young to really know what it felt to be lonely, removed, and homesick) I first loved it. The ideas in the song touched me. And then later, as an adult, the larger force of the deep longing settled upon me while spending Christmas alone in California far from home. And still later, a few years ago, a good dear friend (who I now miss) drew the song and its message to my attention yet again.

While listening to it today, tears streamed down my cheeks thinking about that friend and I wondered: why did I feel drawn to listen to something I knew would make me sad?

And that, friends, is how I finally get around to the British tv connection and how this post has anything to do with this blog.

This week I've been getting a number of comments and e-mails from those who have felt disappointed and saddened by the Spooks ending (like so many of us were). Someone wrote to me today about being a glutton for punishment by continuing to listen to music from that series though it brought up the sad ending all over again. We all do things like this. But why?

I have to think that making ourselves sad, reveling in our grief, must somehow be a healing act. By taking the time to really feel a loss, we can start to mend at a cellular level. Dredge up the muck, before just paving over the surface. Maybe for me, the call to hear sad songs at Christmastime and have a good cry over friends and family who are gone and places we aren't able to be is a way to prepare for joy. And maybe for those who confront, head-on, their grief over how Spooks ended, will ultimately enjoy that same healing and state of calm.

Me, on the other hand. Well, I'm still not ready to do that with Spooks. I'd rather pretend that the whole last series/season didn't exist. Denial, you see ;)  Just an earlier stage of grief.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Muppets, The Movie . . . And Me

British TV may be fabulous, but it's not the only thing worth doing. Right in line with that theme, I just came from the new Muppets movie and I'll tell you this: it was great. There were as many "unaccompanied" grown ups in the audience as there were kids and most of them were laughing hard.

The movie was unusual for its continual breaking of that "4th wall" with characters referring to the earlier song numbers or making little jokes about the plot and length of the movie. The whole thing was charming, funny and self aware with lots of great cracks directed at the washed up Muppets of the olden days.

Somehow all the silliness managed to inspire real moments of wistfulness and remembrance and I was surprised to find a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes when Miss Piggy and Kermit finally reunited on stage for a rendition of The Rainbow Connection. There were lots of new songs too and many were quite excellent -- especially Man or Muppet which now plays continually in my mind (owing to the fact that we immediately bought the soundtrack) and in which Jason Segel gets to sing lines like "Am I a man or am I a Muppet?! If I'm a Muppet. .  . then I'm a very manly Muppet." He is brilliant in this role, managing to really make us believe in the strange set up.

Amy Adams too, is simply made for movies like this. She's become a Carole Burnett-like figure -- in that blatantly talented, beautiful, singing, dancing, poised and funny sort of way.

And whatever musical genius arranged Smells Like Teen Spirit for Muppet barbershop quartet needs, seriously, to win some awards. Stunningly funny.

A great many stars have cameos in the movie, including Neil Patrick Harris -- which caused me to have a major breakthrough -- I realized I get him confused with Justin Timberlake. This has happened to me before, but I never put my finger on the phenomenon until now.  I don't know if anyone else has this same Harris/Timberlake problem  -- so I am posting the following just to prove I am not crazy. (Although, maybe the following just proves that I am.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving - Possibly the Only American Cultural Holiday Tradition

Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday, for a variety of reasons I won't get into since this post is actually about why Thanksgiving is a great holiday!  This year I had a revelation that gave me a new appreciation and fondness for this day.

I realized that Thanksgiving is truly the only uniquely American cultural-event routinely celebrated by masses of Americans every year. All other major holidays in this country are religious-based (like Christmas and Easter) or political/military/social policy-based (like Veteran's Day or Washington's Birthday). The latter category is interesting and includes most of our holidays -- those designated in order to support some political or social agenda item. Not that it is always a bad idea to support social agendas with holidays, just that doing so makes them a bit different than say, a group of people choosing on its own, to be thankful.

Just to prove it, I did some research. Here is a list of all federal holidays according to
  • MLK Day - political/military/policy
  • Groundhog Day - close runner up
  • Valentine’s Day – celebrated all around the world
  • Washington’s Birthday – political/military/policy
  • Easter - Religious
  • Earth Day – political/military/policy
  • National Arbor Day – political/military/policy
  • Mother’s Day – enacted in 1914 to support a particular group : )
  • Memorial Day – political/military/policy
  • Flag Day – political/military/policy
  • Father’s Day – enacted in 1909 to support a particular group : )
  • Independence Day – political/military/policy
  • Labor Day – political/military/policy
  • Columbus Day – political/military/policy
  • Halloween – an odd duck
  • Veteran’s Day – political/military/policy
  • Thanksgiving
  • Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day – political/military/policy
  • Christmas - Religious
Most of these, even Mother’s and Father’s Days, were put into place in order to support some group or idea that the government felt needed supporting. Only a couple of other holidays are spontaneous celebrations of some cultural phenomenon. Thus, only Groundhog’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Halloween come close to what being what Thanksgiving is. But Groundhog’s is hardly a culturally iconic day. It’s cute. And it has a great movie. But no one celebrates it. And Valentine’s Day is actually celebrated all over the world, making it not-uniquely-American. Then there's Halloween . . . well, that's an odd one. There are roots to Halloween that border on religious, but the holiday in its current iteration is really a recent phenomenon, not a deeply embedded tradition. I don’t know what to do about it, so I’ll just disregard it : )

Next consider the religious holidays. It’s not that they too can’t have an overarching cultural significance that binds people and place together. But we have challenges in America with finding deeper cultural connectivity through religion due to our multi-cultural and -religious history. These holidays aren't what I'm talking about.  They do include cultural traditions, but are loaded with Christian significance and meaning that most people would say is (or at least pay lip service to the idea that it is) the more important focus.

So, its just Thanksgiving that has the true power to bind us in a holistic way as a nation. FN

Fn. . . Lets just get some housekeeping things out of the way. . .  First, yes I know there are many other countries and cultures that also have harvest festivals. I even know that “Thanksgiving” is celebrated in Canada and in a smattering of other countries around the world. But I am talking about “our” Thanksgiving – our pilgrims and Indians meeting in friendship and brotherhood (on that one day anyway). I also don’t want to get into how horrible the colonization of this land was. The fact of being thankful for the bounty of the land is not a by-product of evil colonization. It is just lovely and good idea. I also know that the government, at some point, put its imprimatur on Thanksgiving (just as it did with all the others) but that doesn’t convert a cultural tradition into a socio-political act. Lets not get caught up in these technical details.

I have often felt that there really is no such thing as an “American” culture and that Americans are diminished by that lack. Thanksgiving comes the closest to providing a cultural moment – with a tradition that has been celebrated in this land as long as (and longer than) there has been a “United States of America”. That is a wonderful thing to have when we have so little else culturally binding us.

Anyone in this county – anyone – can celebrate Thanksgiving with everyone else. (You don't have to be Anglo, Christian, or rich to give thanks. You don't have to like football and even vegetarians can participate.) Wow.

The beauty of the thought -- the real need that Thanksgiving fills, is in taking the time to be thankful: feeling deeply and truly our good fortune. Feeling it personally and feeling it as a nation. For no matter how bad things may seem we are most certainly among the wealthiest, most comfortable set of people to ever walk the earth.  Be aware of our great good fortune. And Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dorcas Lane; Dorky Name, Great Character

Who would have named their child (or their character) "Dorcas"?

Seemed a strange thing to do to someone, so I looked it up.  Turns out Dorcas is a Biblical name, so there's your answer. And apparently "that" Dorcas is such a big religious figure (and a disciple) that she even has a feast day here in the US. (So you can see how religious I am.)  Not only that, but her name means "gazelle". Wow. I guess this is all really cool! . . . Making me not just a heathen but rather a jerk for making fun of her name. . .

In any case, Dorcas Lane (great name) is a character in Lark Rise to Candleford and is fast becoming one of my favorite female roles.

Julia Sawalha plays this post-mistress -- a single woman, a community leader, a feminist and a stylish dresser. Dorcas is a warm, kind, soft, motherly woman and is also unabashedly sexy to men and gets to have a steady stream of very attractive suitors. She's honest and forthright -- not demure or shrinking -- and she's smart and funny. On top of all this she is definitely 40-something. Damn I love British tv!

Unlike in other countries (which shall for the moment remain nameless), where only 20-something women with perfect features get to be sexy and sought-after, Dorcas is a real woman on British tv. She is not flawless, but she is beautiful. (This reminds me of a running joke on the show, of Dorcas saying: "this is my one flaw" -- which changes all the time depending on whether she's applying that label to chocolate, or champagne, or meddling.) She is just like so many other real women I know. Nuanced and alive.

Proving yet again that for people who aren't too shallow to see it, 40+ is fine.

Speaking as someone who's "one flaw" is an obsession with British tv, I truly appreciate having such an astonishingly cool female character to watch.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Best British Actors are Hogwarts Professors

ABC Family has been showing a Harry Potter marathon on tv. This brings several things to mind, the first of which is that every. single. stinkin'. commercial. on ABC Family's Harry Potter Marathon is CHRISTMAS related. So irritating. Come on people -- not only is it not December yet, it's not even Thanksgiving. Have a little respect. And, seriously, how can you not get burned out on Christmas when you celebrate it for 6 solid weeks?

Secondly, and maybe more important for the post I'm about to write, is that while watching all these movies it is washing over me that pretty much every major British actor is a Hogwarts professor. I would bet that the Hogwarts professors collectively represent the most impressive assemblage of talent ever. Add in other miscellaneous grown-ups in the Harry Potter movies, and I'm sure of it.

Now, this is not a piece of insight that has gone unnoticed by others. So what can I add to the blogosphere on this point? You guessed it. I just really can't help myself when it comes to ranking things, so here I go with The very best Hogwarts professors as portrayed by the very best British actors.

1. Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Not only is he amazingly funny and sexy and entertaining in this role, but he just really "gets" the character of Snape. Rickman has embodied the evilness and pain so thoroughly I can hardly remember the way I imagined this character in my mind before Rickman took it over. He is and will always be Snape.

2. Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn. Mesmerizing. I can't seem to tear my eyes from Slughorn anytime he is onscreen -- which is, unfortunately far too seldom. His performance is touching and funny, charming and vulnerable; its not even that he makes Slughorn likeable, but just so damned compelling. He makes me love Slughorn in a way I never thought I would.

3. Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagal. She has it all. Great accent. Distance. Harshness masking a deep level of care. Brusk and brilliant, McGonagal has to be one of the best Harry Potter characters ever. And Smith is, as always, just flawless in her acting.
4. David Thewlis as Professor Lupin. As with Rickman/Snape, Thewlis inhabits this role in a very special way. He makes Lupin extremely appealing and sympathetic with a tremendous warm charm. I long for more of him in the movies -- but the character is unfortunately underutilized.

5.  Richard Harris as Dumbledore I. By far the better of the two Dumbledores, Harris has the lightness and wisdom down in this fleeting flitting sort of role. I don't think the physical requirements of Dumbledore are really possible for a human actor -- old and frail but light and sprightly, long and skinny, quick and sharp. Harris comes as close as you can get.

6. Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney. This is one of those rare cases when an actor makes the role better on screen than it ever was in the book. Emma Thompson is perfection as a sparkly, huge-eyed, nervous mystic. She is brilliant.

7. Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. Coltrane's best contribution to Hagrid is his voice. I hear him every time I think of Hagrid or read Rowling's words. Coltrane has the innocent monster thing in droves. Hagrid is one of the best things about Harry Potter and seeing him brought to life so well is priceless.

8. Brendan Gleeson as Mad Eye Moody. Mad Eye is a very strange sort of fellow. Not exactly cool, not exactly likeable, definitely scary and hard to understand. Gleeson manages to bring all of that to the forefront and deal well with the duality of not even really being Mad Eye, but an impostor. His performance is funny and powerful. Excellent.

9. Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge. It is hard to even write the word "Umbridge" without a shudder. So much evil and cruelty packed into one tiny little sugarcoated body. Staunton is perfectly hateable.

10. Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh's take on Lockhart was not what I was expecting; I had something totally different in mind when I read the book. His idea was better. Much better. Such smarmyness. Such glibness. So smooth and ridiculous. Exceptionally well done!

11. Michael Gambon as Dumbledore II. I am a big fan of Michael Gambon. Just not a big fan of him as Dumbledore. That said, his performances in these movies are wonderful. They just don't convey "Dumbledore" to me. Still, they do convey a very impressive wizard who I have actually come to like a great deal anyway (if that makes sense).

12. Warwick Davis as Filius Flitwick. The movie-makers did a strange thing to Warwick Davis & Flitwick -- they made him old; then they made him young. They even made him a choir director. Davis is exceptional because in all of these different iterations he is good! and enjoyable to watch.

13. Gemma Jones as Madam Pomfrey. Great actress! Pretty minimal role. Poppy never really gets to shine in the movies, though Gemma is so lovely and engaging, when she is around she always sparkles.

14. Zoe Wanamaker as Madam Hooch. Even these really small parts like Hooch and Sprout get great performances in the movies. Wanamaker is exactly how I pictured Madam Hooch. She embodies butch gym teacher -- I guess that exists even in the wizarding world.

15. Miriam Margolyes as Professor Sprout. And finally Professor Sprout. Not a whole lot for Margolyes to do; but glad she is here to round out the team.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thoughts for the Day on 11/11/11

Every time I see you, you seem to go out of your way to make me feel like a complete idiot. And you really needn't bother. I already feel like an idiot most of the time anyway.
-Bridget Jones
I love the internet. It takes people like me, sitting at home quietly wasting my time and allows me to step out of my quietude, face the world, interact with literally dozens of other people and make a fool of myself in front of them instead.

In fact, I really have nothing much to say today other than that I am inordinately excited about the fact that it is 11/11/11 and knew I needed to make a post to commemorate it.

This is that post : )

Sorry to have wasted your time.
Have a great 11/11/11

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Voyager -- Nothing Whatsoever to Do With British Television

No. I've not gone ga-ga in the head. At least no more so than in general. I am aware that Voyager is not British television. Its not even headed by a British actor, nor do I mean to compare it to any British program (as I did recently with Star Trek the Next Generation). There is really no reason for it to be here at all except that someone brought it up on the blog the other day.

And I'm glad they did, because I had entirely forgotten about this show. (I think that lapse must be attributable to the fact that it was on when I was in law school.  Anything from popular culture that entered my brain during that time, seems to have seeped out the back just as swiftly. . . . Only so much room in there, you know.) But I have a few spare brain cells this week, and luckily enough Voyager is on Netflix, so I took another look. And now I remember!

Voyager was better in many ways than the Next Generation. Whereas TNG had a bit more of the big plots and it had the "flagship of the galaxy"-thing going for it, not to mention Patrick Stewart as the powerhouse leader, Voyager has a much deeper cast, more emotional charge and a sweeter, more appealing purpose -- getting home. Sure, exploring the galaxy on the way, but striving toward a specific end goal. These factors give the series a completeness and a structure that other Star Treks lack.

So, in brief, if you need a refresher and don't mind me not being a trekkie and probably screwing up the details, here is the basic plot: Janeway is tasked with finding this rogue band of rebels (led by Chakotay) that has disappeared along with an undercover starfleet officer. She is going to track them down and bring them in and retrieve her officer, but first, to help with the mission, she springs an ex-starfleet pilot (Tom), who had been incarcerated for his foibles, out of the big house. They are hot on the trail when both the rebel ship and the Voyager are attacked and flung so far across the universe that they are well beyond any ability to communicate with the known world or to get back to it. Lots of people die and the rogue ship is destroyed, and they are stuck with just a holographic doctor. They combine their forces to work together with the basic goal of getting back to earth -- which should take about 75 years.

Its really a pretty nice little set up. All alone stranded on the other side of the galaxy with nothing but time and adventure on their hands. Add a pretty good supporting cast and some interesting interpersonal dynamics and this is great stuff.

For this mission and the tv show, Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) makes a great captain. She balances her power with an emotional awareness suited to the mission they're on. Because they truly are all going to spend the rest of their lives together (they think), the crew needs someone who can be more of a guidance counselor, parent, and captain rolled into one. Janeway is definitely decisive and tough, as befits a starship captain, but she is also approachable and warm and has a fairly well-developed sense of fun. She also has a great husky voice, a lovely smile, some pretty cool retro updos, and a seriously hot first officer.

Chakotay (Robert Beltram). Now I do like to keep my blog gender-friendly and avoid gushing about cute guys, but my goodness, Chakotay is crush-worthy. He is new-age, tatooed, tough and rebellous, but willing to completely bend to the captian and the federation and serve them -- though he was thrown into a situation where he needed to do that against his will. He keeps his own needs under control and and emotions in check, but he is full character with deep thoughts, intellectual curiosity and spiritual grounding. A real man. He is also extremely handsome. He and Janeway share an excellent friendship with great chemistry. They make an interesting "couple" (though never really a couple of course because that would be far too gratifying and tv producers just can't give us that. Oh. Am I ranting? Sorry).

Because Chakotay is a very strong and manly man, but is also a subordinate to the really quite feminine captain, they have an unusual power balance in their friendship that is interesting and very appealing. On the surface Janeway is totally in control. But she looks at him often with big eyes that suggest that she is just a hair's breadth from giving herself to him totally. He ends up being quite the heart of the crew - a calm and centered presence -- who is in love with the captain but willing to ignore it and live a full life anyway.

One of my other favorite characters from this show is Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill). Tom is a "Guy" with a capital G -- youthful, libidinous, cool and and friendly, with a past and a chip on his shoulder, a dad who is high up in the federation and misdeeds that cost him his career, until a field commission from Janeway restores them. He isn't trusted fully by others, but is proud and trusts himself. He wants to serve his captain, but, with his juvenile charm, is not your typical starfleet officer.

Better still is Robert Picardo as the Doctor, he's a very strong actor who makes this part feel central and important - even though he is playing an emergency medical hologram -- basically a computer program. He's dignified, flustered, proper and very appealing. If I recall correctly, he gets more and more interesting as the series grinds on and even gets quite friendly with Seven of Nine. Not bad for a EMH.

And having brought her up,  I have to discuss Seven of Nine, a cultural icon who has to be one of the hottest women ever to grace the small screen. Though she clearly joined the cast of this show several seasons in for the sole purpose of her sex appeal, and I should be disapproving for that reason (on principal), I can't. I am totally won over by the ex-Borg Seven. I find Jeri Ryan's performance absolutely endearing -- funny and wooden, cute as hell and of course gorgeous to look at, she adds a touch of humor and manages to be childlike and warlike at the same time. She makes getting assimilated seem like a really good idea. . .

If you haven't seen it lately or haven't seen it at all, it would totally be worth your time to check out Voyager. (And yes I'm aware that this could just be the Spooks withdrawal talking).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Downton Abbey Finale: "If you're turning American on me, I'll go downstairs."

Exceeding all my wildest hopes and expectations, the final episode of Downton Abbey came ripping across my television screen.  With a powerful finish to the season that was sexy, dramatic, touching, and surprising, and which cast class gulfs into very sharp relief, it was as if the producers of this series set out to make my Downton dreams come true. (Not surprisingly, we also learn this week in the news that there will be a third series, so I am revving up for more Downton dreams already).
SPOILERS WARNING -- for Series (Season) 2 of Downton Abbey, Final Episode. Please beware and stop reading now if you don't want to know how things end.
Of the myriad aspects of the world of Granthams, perhaps the best and most continually interesting is the interplay of class on class. In this last episode, several story lines dealt head on with the shattering of social barriers after WWI.

And none did it better than the storyline of maid Ethel's "bastard" baby. Would she give her fatherless baby to the dead man's parents to raise in the upper reaches of society? This could be a hard story to sell to a modern audience which would understandably be thinking: "of course that baby should stay with its mother." But Downton Abbey does a great job of making this seem like the dilemma it would most certainly have been. The benefits to that child of being raised with money, position and name -- versus living in poverty with an unwed mother in 1919 or 1920 are substantial beyond our ability to really imagine. It appears by the end of this episode that Ethel will keep her child, citing the shocking idea that a child is best off with its mother.

Also dancing around class divisions, Sybil's continuing attachment to the chauffeur and desire to marry him is a show stopper early on.  The scene where Sybil declares to her family that she will marry Branson was extraordinarily done, full of wonderful acting. Even though by modern standards, this may not be earth-shattering stuff, Lord and Lady Grantham sell it as such. You can really feel the level of abomination that is felt by both the Granthams and by the people below stairs by this attachment. Mr. Carson's vehement: "have you no shame?" to Branson is tremendous. Neither side of the divide feels it easy or desirable to jump across that gulf.

I also really appreciate that here, Lord Grantham finally draws a line to his liberality. He is a character that continually surprises with his ability to be big and forgiving, respectful of subordinates, and open in his views, almost to the point that he doesn't feel real. He needed to take strong exception to Sybil's plans in order to be believable as an aristocrat. I'm glad he did. And when, for once, it is his American-born wife, Lady Grantham, who expresses a softer, more understanding sentiment toward her daughter, he has the great line: "If you're turning American on me, I'll go downstairs."

Speaking of great one-liners, the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) can't be outdone and has a very nice one to Lady Edith who is moping about her sister's good luck in love and her own forlorn state. Says Violet: "Don't be defeatist dear; its very middle class."

Meanwhile, two of the most popular couples on the show: Mary & Matthew and Anna & Bates both have excitingly sexy moments.

Mary and Matthew share a dance, a declaration of feelings and even a kiss in a very romantic moment in a darkened downstairs hall. I'd forgotten how much I like the two of them together. It is all wonderful until Matthew's lovely fiance Lavinia spoils it by showing up and then later being noble about it all, and then later still, dying. (I knew someone would have to die of the Spanish flu and I am glad it wasn't Cora). It was right and proper for Lavinia to remove herself in this way, though this will not appear to make things any better for Matthew at present as he is now torn up by grief and guilt. We'll have to wait till next season to see if he can overcome those feelings before Mary marries the icky Richard.

Even better than Mary and Matthew kissing, has to be Bates and Anna getting married! This is almost too much; I couldn't have hoped for seeing that -- let alone seeing them together in a bed. Oh yeah. What? Bates being hauled away on a murder charge related to his ex-wife's suicide at the end. I'm OK with that. We certainly saw it coming and at least he got to have one night with Anna first....

This is the episode that just kept on giving. As if Mary & Matthew and Anna & Bates weren't enough, we get Lord Grantham and new maid Jane in some serious embraces -- are you kidding me! Can't believe they almost got down and dirty. They somehow make this cliche idea unbelievably touching. It doesn't feel like a cliche when it comes to Lord Grantham because he is so "not like that". Their scenes are hot and also very sad. Especially later as she tells him goodbye:
"Will you be happy?"
"I have no right to be unhappy. Which is almost the same."

So glad she left and they didn't get caught together. It can just be a slightly evil, but meaningful and tender relationship -- a moment of romantic excitement but not more. And am even more glad that all seems to be well again between he and Cora because they really are a great pair. LG deserves a bit of excitement; he's been such a great character this season, almost unseating Bates for the title of the unexpectedly appealing and surprisingly sexy heartthrob.

And to just bring everything round we have Thomas being helpful and obliging, and O'Brien being penitent -- though neither without ulterior motives I expect.

And by the end, Lord Grantham gives his blessing to Sybil and Branson, while Violet's words still ring in my ears:
"The aristocracy has not survived by its intransigence."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Stables of Talented Actors: Truly the Best Thing About British Television

I've been taken to task for claiming that British television is better than American (I'm not complaining; it was fun). Rather than press the point, I'll exercise a woman's prerogative to modify the subject and say that, whether or not on the whole, British tv is of better quality than ours, what is actually the very best thing about British productions -- is British actors.

Nobody gets to quarrel with me on this. There can simply be no question that British actors are better than American ones. And by "actors" of course I mean actors and actresses. And by "better" I don't just mean better at their craft, (I'm willing to concede that there are some very talented American actors too) but on the whole, all things considered, British actors are just . . . better.  They're more interesting, more pleasant. More worthy of admiration and respect as individuals and humans. I can watch them and not feel shallow and dirty.

I understand that there are plenty of British actors who become famous and enter the stratosphere of celebrity -- the machine that sullies us all with uber-celebrities bumbling around trying to sell us their politics, their beauty products, or their lifestyles, writing their autobiographies when they are in their 30s and talking self importantly while concurrently doing everything they can to mess up their personal lives.

But I'm not talking about them.

I'm thinking of the scores of working actors who turn in excellent performance upon excellent performance, who put in a starring turn and then willingly follow it with supporting roles. Who can be found in many projects over the years producing great trails of great viewing. For instance, by watching North and South, I tapped into Brendan Coyle who I then followed to Lark Rise and Downton Abbey. While there in North and South, I also recognized Anna Maxwell Martin whom I'd enjoyed in Bleak House and who I later followed to South Riding, where she shared space with Peter Firth of Spooks -- in which he appeared with Richard Armitage who starred in North and South with Coyle. And back at Lark Rise, I met Julia Sawalha from Pride and Prejudice and Claudie Blakely from, well, a different adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The possibilities are endless. It sort of makes me want to do a chart. . . uh oh, better watch out for that :)
. . . also reminds me of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which you can link any two Hollywood actors in six steps or less through the tool of Kevin Bacon. You could probably link most of these actors working in British dramas in about 1 step. My mental chart is getting very cluttered. . .
British television drama provides so many opportunities to enjoy performances by people who I can watch in countless different combinations of great dramas and in interviews speaking with humor, class and fun and making me proud rather than ashamed that I enjoyed them; people for whom I can truly wish success, though not too much success (lest they join the machine).

Monday, October 31, 2011

South Riding - Riding Backwards in Time

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

For me, time travel would be up there, high on the list. It might not unseat the ability to fly, turn invisible or read people's minds, but, yeah, I think its a solid 4th.

The other night, by tapping into the powers of a mini-series called South Riding, I traveled to the 1930s so completely and effectively that I can still smell the dusty shelves and moldy sofas.

In a fabulous stroke of luck, I both learned of this production and discovered that my public library had a copy. Starring Anna Maxwell Martin who I loved so much in Bleak House and in North and South, set in the sadly overlooked 1930s, and dealing with the well-worn but always dramatically interesting topic of inspired teacher introducing a new vision of education to a languishing student body, this sounded perfect! As if this all weren't enough, and truly it was, the production also starred Peter Firth and Penelope Wilton, both of whom I have tremendous respect for.

If you have a predilection for period drama, you, like I, can easily appreciate the value of immersing yourself in a different time period. But if you don't -- well, I'm not really sure how to explain the attraction. I think it lies with that feeling of time travel. When every piece of furniture and clothing, the props, caricatures, music, and cars, the look of the street, and the glimpses into whatever tools and technology were available to people in the period du jour are "correct," there is a sense of transportation that is just heady. I can picture my grandparents and their struggles and style of living so well (though I accept that rural Ohio and Yorkshire are a long way apart).

South Riding simply excels at the art of time travel. It is gorgeous and evocative. And because the 1930s is such an interesting time that is not often done (I'm thinking I Capture the Castle and Cold Comfort Farm), I was fascinated. Such an odd time stuffed in between two world wars with a strangely modern feel, as cars and telephones pepper the background, but still so poor and rural and lacking in most of the social innovations that are more important to our modern life than iPods, the 30s are an era that should be remembered. Doing so is like bringing old photos back to life.

Here, our themes of love, loss, politics with a very small "p", clashing world views, changing times and small time money grubbing were skillfully handled by the astonishingly solid, deep cast.

I hadn't noticed this before, but in this production Maxwell Martin, as Sarah Burton, reminded me greatly of Nicola Walker as Ruth in Spooks. (I know it would be easiest to chalk this one up to my MI-5-obsession rather than anything real, so I almost didn't include that observation in the post, but I really, really think its true.) They have similar hooded eyes and their voices and manner of expression are alike as well. In any case, Sarah, whether Ruth-like or not, is an extremely appealing main character - sharp, confident, driven, hard-drinking, fun and kind, she carries the production well. Her main love interest, Robert Carne (played with great sex appeal by David Morrissey) -- a man she dislikes and disagrees with, but is very attracted to -- is also wonderfully done. He's a passionate, interesting person who is also a loving devoted father.

Penelope Wilton was outstanding as the supportive council member, playing a key role in both Sarah and Robert's lives with subtlety. And Peter Firth was hilariously slimy with a serious birth-control haircut.  Not a role for the Firthies to relish as he is small time slick and priggish. Revel in his acting but not in his attractiveness here! And his scenes with his cat were purrfect. Actually, the cat was a great actor as well : )

The whole thing is cloaked in a thick, sluggish, dreamlike mood. And all is not happy and wrapped up cleanly. But the sad plot points seem to match the time frame well and suit the story.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A King is a Queen is a Princess is a Prince

One of the problems (if you can call it that) with being American is that we really just don't "get" Royalty. Oh, I'm not denying that we enjoy what royalty (see, look at that, I don't even properly know whether to give it a capital "R") provides in the way of interesting drama and great castle-touring. Top notch stuff.

But it isn't deeply entrenched in our understanding of politics.

I read today that the succession rules for British monarchs have been modernized to a nice, egalitarian, "girls can play too" approach. That sounds awesome to me. The article I read on NPR online had a nice little piece about this, but once the piece launched into the "what if" section, playfully speculating on how this new rule would have affected world events, I glossed over.

I just can't keep this stuff straight. And I have a fairly decent working knowledge of British royalty and the chains of succession. That is, I brush up on it anyway prior to watching The Madness of King George, Young Victoria or The Tudors. But when I turn off the TV it evaporates, so when people talk about Queen Victoria's daughter and Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, I find that I can't keep it all straight.

Who did she marry again? And why were they German?

Its not that my American private school education was really that bad. I think chances are pretty good I was exposed to all of this both at high school and later at college, its just that these royal change events don't catch fire in my imagination. I don't have an intuitive grasp for when "we" switched from Tudors to Stuarts (or was it the other way 'round) or why.

Royalty to Americans is like the periodic table to non-Chemists. I am absolutely sure that it all makes sense and I'm even sure that it is potentially comprehensible and possibly useful. I'm just not sure it will ever come freely and naturally to me.

But good luck to all those future princesses. I know this will all be second nature to you.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ending the Relationshp (Mine with Spooks) on a Disappointing Note

So, let's say you're in a relationship and, for whatever reason, you also know that it's maybe not the best thing for you. (Maybe its stealing too much of your free time, or you know it is going nowhere, or maybe you're worried that your husband will find out so you know it has to end... haha -- just kidding about that last one) In any event, its a comfortable relationship and you get a lot out of it, so it's far easier to keep going than to wrench yourself away.

In such cases as these, it is a stroke of luck when your partner goes and does something really bad -- something really stupid. Maybe he sleeps with your best friend. Its a blessing in disguise because now the dumping is easy! Its all been done for you. Like pulling off the band-aid fast.

So in the fast-band-aid-sense-of-thank-you, "thank you Spooks" for making this break up so easy.
OBLIGATORY ALL-CAPS SPOILERS WARNING! -- that messes up my flow of words but nevertheless must be placed prominently and without further ado -- BIG SPOILERS for the last ever episode of MI-5/Spooks (Episode 6, Series 10). Please don't read if you aren't up to date on your MI-5/Spooks' watching.
Open letter to Spooks:

Yes, we're through and I see now that it's for the best. I'm just sorry it had to end in such a way and you left me with this bad taste in my mouth. It's clear I gave too much of myself to this relationship that was always destined to be one-sided. We had a pretty good run -- I've been with you since February and we've crammed a lot of good living into those 9 months (about 10 years' worth). I loved you and I think you cared for me too, but our time together is over. After all we've been through I would have hoped for a more elegant finish to our time, but at least the waiting is over.

You made a lot of mistakes along the way. Some of them (read, "Lucas North"), were very, very hard to take, but I gave you a second chance because I loved you that much. But we've reached a point we can't recover from. Really, I understand about you and killing. It's what you do and I try to be indulgent and just look the other way. I understand you have "needs". But not this one; not this time. When your deaths are gratifying or shocking or move the plot forward or serve any other sort of purpose, I can abide with them. But Ruth? Well, you've crossed a line, because this time you did it just to prove that you could. It was contrived. It made me feel dirty.

Did you really think I wouldn't see what was going on? Was I really supposed to believe that together Harry and Ruth couldn't have overpowered the guy with a piece of glass? That Dimitri and Erin wouldn't have stopped him sooner? That a single stab with a bit of glass would kill a very healthy woman in a couple of minutes? Or that a medivac helicopter would take longer to get to the scene than it took Ilia to drive there? No, this is too much. This was gratuitous and, yes, I'll say it again, contrived. I expected so much more from you. You used to be such a class act and Ruth was worth more than that. If she and Harry were really so pathetic that they couldn't have dealt with this situation, she deserves to die (so does he). But why did you have to soil our memories in this way?

No, our love can't survive this. But I will try not to let it steal all our memories. We had such good ones.  I will treasure them. ...Though I don't know why you felt the need to throw "Tom" in my face the way you did last night. That wasn't like you. What was that all about? Do you even know? Yes, he represents a lovely time from our past and maybe you were feeling desperate. . . . I'm just sorry it got to that point.  I do appreciate your bringing up "Jo" for the sake of old times, even if it was just her eyes and voice. You can't hide that from me, and, really, I don't think you wanted to.

But no matter what you may have said or done last night, I won't live with your version of things. I can't. I know you are just too beaten down to be responsible for what you were saying. Your version is false but mine will comfort me....

...the version where Erin saw Sasha approaching Harry and Ruth, and took him out just in time. How Sasha slashed Ruth on the way down, and the adrenaline and shock caused Harry and Ruth to fall madly together on the ground kissing while he pressed her wounds. (Honestly, we can even leave it ambiguous and end without knowing whether her wounds are fatal or not. I've told you this a thousand times: I'm OK with ambiguity). Then of course, how Dimitri stumbled out and some clever acerbic exchange loaded with eye-contact, broke the mood and pulled focus away from Harry & Ruth. I'm even prepared to remember how Calum came up and made some cruel or smart-ass comment. I laughed at it...
Photo credit image galleries
Yes, you must see that this is the way it has to be.

With much feeling and regard, but mostly deep disappointment,

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Thank Heavens for Downton Abbey, My Second Love

It is important to have two loves. That way, when one disappoints you, you can turn to the other. A girl can only take so much and tonight I am very thankful for Downton Abbey. Great show.

So on that note . . . SPOILERS for Episode 6, Season 2 of Downton Abbey : )
And if you want to see how it all ends, here's my post on the final episode

I don't like or trust this "Patrick" guy. First of all, Canadian? Far too convenient for any opportunist to come up with this one. " I really didn't die on the Titanic ... I really have just lost my memory. Oh, yeah, and burned beyond recognition. Oh, and of course, having lived awhile in Canada, means I don't sound familiar. ... but trust me, I really am heir to Downton Abbey and I can't believe you don't remember me." No way. I'm glad that Lord Grantham is at least properly skeptical.

And, come on, Anna and Bates, enough barriers for them; this is getting rediculous. It's time to be together. Just run away and live together. She's already offered herself to you as a mistress, Bates. Get out there and enjoy life.

Seriously, time for some middle-aged fun for Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson. They have such a sweet chemistry.

And any time Maggie Smith is speaking is a moment I am in heaven. Especially loved this short exchange with her and Isobel Crawley:

"Cousin Violet is in part to blame. . . "
"-yes, I usually am."

Can't help but notice more and more of the upstairs/downstairs barriers breaking away. And along those lines, the previews look suspiciously suggestive that Lord Grantham is more interested than propriety would strictly allow in the new maid who looks like a younger version of Sandra Bullock. I say, go for it. I need something passionate to cheer for.

. . . by the way, believe it or not, I think I've found the down side to British television. Not enough passion. So if anyone wants to rescue me and suggest some British programs that are typically wonderful in all the ways British programs are . . . but also allows our main characters to consummate their relationships with a bit of passion, let me know. That would be nice for a change.