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February 28, 2005

Mr & Mrs Bridge

Mr & Mrs Bridge is perhaps the most intensely successful transfer of a book onto film that I have ever seen, and when I get around to it, I will run through the country club/tornado scene to prove the point. Right now, I can't remember which of Evan Connell's novels the scene comes from, Mr Bridge or Mrs Bridge. But I'm learning - slowly, to be sure - that I don't need to begin with "final" copy. The fact is that watching the movie takes up a lot less time than reading the book(s). Is it a substitute? Of course not. But while I've read Howard's End twice, I've seen the movie at least thirty times - and I'm not exaggerating.

So I will speak of Mr & Mrs, even though "the original" consists of two books. To start with - and this is a starter post, one that may, like Versailles, lose all but a few of its salient features as reconstructions occur - I'm unhappy with the ending. The originals make it clear that, when Mrs Bridge gets stuck in her garage - her car backs up a foot or so but then stalls by the accordion doors, so that she can't get out - Mr Bridge isn't around to save her, because he has already died of a heart attack. I'm almost certain that the film was shot to be faithful, and that producers intervened, demanding a "happy" ending, or at least one not so grim. Evan Connell leaves us suspecting that, in the very very end, Mrs Bridge freezes to death in her own garage. It is a sign of her immense helplessness. Aside from this, however, the adaptation doesn't fudge.

What it's good for you to know is that an immensely glamorous actress can turn herself into Mrs Bridge. Shortly before or after the film was made, I saw Joanne Woodward at the Metropolitan Opera with my own eyes, and the image of her on the stairs to the Dress Circle - blonde, pant-suited, svelte, a complete New Yorker - is still so totally odds with the dowdy India Bridge that I wonder if, really, there wasn't a stunt double in every scene of Mr & Mrs Bridge. In that case, however, it would have been the double who got the Best Actress Nomination. I have never seen such a transformation. How did she do it?    

How did she turn into someone who could have been one of my mother's older friends, or perhaps one of my grandmothers' younger bridge partners? How did she become the fool who, when her best friend, descending into madness, says that she's lost her mind, puts on a kiddie-bright face and ostentatiously looks under her chair for the misplaced article? It's quite true that Paul Newman (Mr Woodward) plays a condescending husband of extremely limited imagination, but he's still Paul Newman. Ms Woodward simply disappears in her impersonation of Mrs Bridge.

Mr & Mrs Bridge opens a window on the lives of the parents and grandparents of this country's grande bourgeoisie; in case you needed proof, it was "Senator Bob Dole", after all, who got credited with teaching Paul Newman how to rehearse Romeo, Kansas Style, with Kyra Sedgwick. I remember seeing the film for the first time at a theatre in Danbury, Connecticut, and overhearing a parting viewer asking, in dullard tones, what that was all about. I sympathized. There have been few-to-none such existentialist films about comfortable Americans living at a safe distance from standard dramatic problems. That's why this film is so very good at delineating the the not! extraordinary dysfunctions of a nice WASP family on the eve of Word War II.

For the moment, I'm going to content myself with two moments, both starring Robert Sean Leonard (at the beginning of his careeer). The runner up is the attic scene, where father and son ought to share a hug after their pregnant conversation - but, being men, they can be pregnant indefinitely. The other is the Eagle Scout induction, where Douglas can't - can't - kiss his own mother, even though all the other boys can. It is one of the most heartbreaking moments in film.

When Grace Barron (Blythe Danner) goes off the deep end, Mr Bridge says, "She was critical of everything, even herself." To him, it's an explanation of madness. How we will rescue this country from people who don't understand that it's the definition of sanity, I'm only beginning to have an idea. 

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February 20, 2005

The Ambassadors II:1

'Ah, they couldn't have come - either of them. They're very busy people, and Mrs Newsome in particular has a large full life. She's moreover highly nervous - and not at all strong.'

'You mean she's an American invalid?'

He carefully distinguished. 'There's nothing she likes less than to be called one, but she would consent to be one of those things, I think', he laughed, 'if it were the only way to be the other.'

'Consent to be an American in order to be an invalid?'

'No,' said Strether, 'the other way round.'

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February 11, 2005

The Ambassadors I:3

She explained moreover that wherever she happened to be she found a dropped thread to pick up, a ragged edge to repair, some familiar appetite in ambush, jumping out as she approached, yet appeasable with a temporary biscuit.

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February 10, 2005

The Ambassadors I:2

"I was dog-tired," his companion returned, "when I arrived, and it's this wild hunt for rest that takes all the life out of me. The fact is, Strether - and it's a comfort to have you here at last to say it to; though I don't know, after all, that I've really waited; I've told it to people I've met in the cars - the fact is, such a country as this ain't my kind of country anyway. There ain't a country I've seen over here that does seem my kind. Oh, I don't say but what there are plenty of pretty places and remarkable old things; but the trouble is that I don't seem to feel anywhere in tune. That's one of the reasons why I suppose I've gained so little. I haven't had the first sign of that lift I was led to expect." With this he broke out more earnestly, "Look here - I want to go back."

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February 09, 2005

Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte means, roughly, "That's what women do." But we should not let period sexism get in our way. The opera attached to this title demonstrates how men and women alike behave when their romantic lives begin, as often happens, in a love affair with love itself. Legions of spectators have denounced the fickleness of the two sisters, Fiordiligi ("Fleur-de-lys") and Dorabella, who, in the space of an afternoon, shift their affections from departing soldiers to visiting Albanians. But the girls are faithful almost to the end to their true love, which is romantic passion. The opera is an exposition, veritable catalogue, of romantic passion's many faces, from suicidal despair to tender embrace. And each face (with one exception) is presented in a witty orchestral setting, as if decked out in one of a series of funny hats.

The first thing to be said about Così fan tutte is that its two pairs of lovers are very young. They may even be teenagers. Their unmarried status fairly proclaims this fact, but so does their silliness - each man's conviction that his girlfriend is utterly unlike other women, the sisters' credulous palm-reading. There is a phase of adolescence that few young people get through without making fools of themselves: the age of beginning to take things seriously. The first thing that gets taken seriously, of course, is oneself. With breathtaking agility, Mozart presents the lovers at their own estimation, but sends them up with nonstop mockery from the pit.

The second thing to be said is that nobody gets married in this opera. At any time. How the lovers distribute themselves is not difficult to imagine: with adieux all round. (Mozart had already composed such an ending, for Don Giovanni.) I for one don't see the sisters keeping house together much longer; whatever lessons either has learned about love, each has discovered that the other is not altogether simpatico. The plot that has entertained us has humiliated them, and like most human beings they will prefer to distance themselves from reminders. The opera ends with brave faces, but I should think that Don Alfonso has lost four friends. Then, too, he may have taken on the probably-unemployed Despina.

Don Alfonso and Despina belong together in more ways than one. They represent, with a comprehensiveness not seen in Le Nozze di Figaro, the range of forces that was bringing down the ancien régime as the opera was being written. Don Alfonso is a rationalist, impatient with pretensions, while Despina is too clever and versatile to be cleaning up after spoiled brats. That the lovers represent the aristocratic world couldn't be clearer: the men are military officers and the ladies are rich enough to have acquired titles (and one of them is named after the symbol of Royal France). The lovers are idle, and have nothing to do but conduct their amours; Despina and Don Alfonso are busy bees.

The third thing to be said about Così fan tutte is that it will repay all the attention that you can give it. First you must get yourself a recording; if you can read music, you will derive great pleasure from the score, which is (as of this writing) widely available. I won't recommend recordings, because availability is more unreliable than anybody in this opera. But I will say that I'm not, at the moment, as crazy about the Schwarzkopf-Böhm recording as I used to be. Although I'm not a fan of the late Sir Georg Solti, the recording of a 1994 concert performance under his baton captures the excitement of singing before a large audience, and its cast is at least as good as any other's.

Resist the oft-made observation that Così fan tutte is an "artificial" opera. The plot is beautifully symmetrical, all manner of outrageously unrealistic commedia dell'arte conventions are on offer, and the lovers can be seen as shallow. But they're not shallow characters. They're kids.

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February 07, 2005

The Ambassadors I:1

He was burdened, poor Strether - it had better be confessed at the outset - with the oddity of a double consciousness. There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference.

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February 06, 2005

Late James Reading

This is to propose that interested visitors join me in reading Henry James's trio of late, great novels: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. Please post a comment to indicate your interest and your ideas about when we ought to begin, and sign your comment with the name that you intend to use throughout the reading, and feel free to circulate the permalink to this invitation.

It is my hope that we can develop a way of reading these novels together without being on the same schedule. Although that might sound paradoxical, I think that it may work, and I hope that you'll join me in trying.

Further Thinking: I think that I've hit on a way to structure the bloguification, so to speak, of a group read while freeing it from schedules. Instead of posting my own thoughts and waiting to hear from other people, I'm going to set up a series of posts pegged to the divisions of The Ambassadors. Thus: "The Ambassadors I:1," for Book First, Chapter 1. The post will contain nothing but pungent quotations from the text. In other words, I will turn over the posts to Henry James, and comment on the novels just like everybody else.

This ought to work out so that any reader can join the discussion at any time. Simply scroll to the "chapter" that  you're reading and say what you have to say. I'll send notifications of new comments to subscribers. If you'd like to receive notifications, simply enter your e-mail address in the "Subscribe" box on the sidebar, below right.

Extra Further Thinking: Although I am, after all, me (to tweak slightly my favorite line from Working Girl - and who could have said it but Sigourney Weaver?), I shall not be the first to comment on a chapter. In other words, After you, Alphonse. As soon as a comment appears in a "chapter" post here, I shall upload a post for the following chapter. Und so weiter.

Amy asks if we can't read something else, namely, The Princess Casamassima. That's a good idea for another Henry James Read, the Christina Light novels, of which the earlier is Roderick Hudson. We shall eventually read all of Henry James.

Meanwhile, this site isn't just about reading Henry James, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. There will be postings about other things scattered among the James Readings. To see the Ambassadors postings by themselves, click on the Ambassadors link under categories. To tell a friend about the reading, however, I suggest that you send this post's permalink. This is where I'll do the housekeeping and secretarial. 

There is no schedule. Nor is there a standard. This is a reading, not a critical analysis - although critical analysis will never be unwelcome. Start small; if you've read the novel before, venture a comment on the extract at the top of the post, about Strether's "double consciousness." My only advice is a bit of wisdom that I learned on the listservs: remember that other's can't see your face or hear your voice. You words are carrying the whole show. Try to make sure that jokes and jests don't need identifying emoticons. Henry James would have hated emoticons. (Although the argument could be made that his novels would be much easier to read with their support.)

You may begin now.

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