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Saturday, 23 January 2010

La Cava's Stage Door

There is hardly a better film made in Hollywood than this sharp and bitter comedy. Made by drunken genius, Gregory La Cava, its tough, cynical and the dialogue goes at a machine gun pace. It has Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden aiming bullets at each other in a script of almost unrelenting malice, with the seldom seen again Andrea Leeds tolling like a funeral bell among the less than friendly fire.

Its script is a marvel - as is its playing - all the more so when one hears from Andrea Leeds of its making:
"Gregory La Cava had all of us girls in the movie come to the studio for two weeks before the shooting started and live as though we were in the lodging house itself. He rewrote scenes from day to day to get the feeling of a bunch of girls together — as spontaneous as possible. He would talk to each of us like a lifelong friend. That gave us a feeling of intimacy." Others on the set said he had a secretary eavesdropping on the girls and writing down their comments, some of which he incorporated into the film. La Cava's careful work with Katharine Hepburn on this film rescued her from the dreaded status of "box-office poison," and Ginger Rogers, not always charitable in her comments on those she worked with, labeled him "masterful.

Video Essay on Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven

Shooting Pictures has an eclectic range of video essays, analysing key sequences in a variety for films. This is one from the under-rated Frank Borzage

Watch Shooting Down Pictures: Seventh Heaven featuring Paolo Cherchi Usai in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Paris Inonde, 1910

One hundred years agom this month, the Seine River burst its banks and the water rose up from the sewers to make the Paris a drowning city.

Paris was then almost a brand new city - (Haussmann's grand project was still underway and much of it had been completed from 1900 to 1910) .

The flood is not a freak occurence but is said to happen once every century, therefore this 100th anniversary is not a 'simple commemoration, but almost a prophecy of what will probably occur in the coming years.' In that regard, in 2008 the French tv channel France5 released a pseudo-documentary describing Paris' 2011 great flood.

Here is the link towards the four videos.

In The London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding write:

The sight of the boulevard St Germain transformed at its northern end into a wide canal from which the buildings on either side rose in silence like chiselled bluffs must have been extraordinary. So must the smaller streets in the Latin Quarter, door-deep in water. Soon enough, they could be reached by a series of wooden walkways set on tall trestles, their legs spread in the placid murk. The ‘passerelles’ were put up by soldiers, assigned to Louis Lépine, the préfet de police, a capable figure who had his own force, and the fire brigade, working day and night to keep the city from foundering. Sandbags, levees, pumps, improvised ferries, pontoons and round-the-clock rescue teams: it was a big and bureaucratic operation. The walkways, far from turning Paris into an ornamental Chinese garden, gave it the look of an agricultural fair or a series of seaside piers, magically transposed into a landscape of dressed stone and half-submerged shop fronts. Several photos in the centenary exhibition at the Galerie des Bibliothèques in Paris show people affably crammed together on the passerelles. Ruin has struck the city, but these are scarcely citizens in dark distress...For the crowds going down to the Seine, the meaning of the spectacle was still out there, in the fulminating, yellowish river. They were transfixed by its fury, imagining the first eddies at quay-top level, then the quays becoming waterfalls, and eventually the metamorphosis of the city into a steaming lake, stretching from Montmartre to Montparnasse, its surface broken by gaunt promontories rising out of the mist. Yet the flooding was by now extensive on the Left Bank and parts of the Right: uncontainable volumes of water had already found their way into a vast urban basement riddled with sewers, mains and subways, and now they were bubbling up into the streets.

Courtesy of Ekaterina Kislova

Paris Inonde, 1910

Photographer: Pierre Petit

Publisher: George et Allard. Impressions d'Arts

Pont de l’Alma (maximum de la Crue)

Rue de l’Universite

Le Pont de Solferino

Pont Alexandre III

Gare de Lyon

Avenue Ledru-Rollin

Gare de Lyon (Arrivee)

La Cite – Petit Pont (29 Janvier 1910)

Quai de la Rapee et Boulevard Diderot

Avenue Daumesnil

Le Pont Neuf (29 Janvier 1910)

Le Pont des Saints-Peres

Boulevard de Grenelle

Avenue de Versailles (28 Janvier 1910)

Quai d’Orsay

Le Pont de Solferino

La Gare des Invalides

Quai de Grenelle

Pont de la Concorde (28 Janvier 1910)

La Rue de Lille

La Rue Saint-Charles (28 Janvier 1910)

La Rue Gros

Longchamp (Champ de Courses)

Bois de Boulonge

Point du Jour

Bois de Boulogne – La Pelouse de Bagatelle

Avenue Montaigne

Place Beaugrenelle

Gare Saint-Lazare

Boulevard Haussmann

Ligne submergee de la Gare des Invalides

Pont de l’Archeveche (Notre-Dame)

Friday, 22 January 2010

from "To Chekhov's Memory" by Alexander Kuprin.

To young writers, Chekhov was always sympathetic and kind. No one left him oppressed by his enormous talent and by one's own insignificance. He never said to any one: "Do as I do; see how I behave." If in despair one complained to him: "Is it worth going on, if one will forever remain 'our young and promising author"?" he answered quietly and seriously:

—"But, my dear fellow, not every one can write like Tolstoy." His considerateness was at times pathetic. A certain young writer came to Yalta and took a little room in a big and noisy Greek family somewhere beyond Antka, on the outskirts of the city. He once complained to Chekhov that it was difficult to work in such surroundings, and Chekhov insisted that the writer should come to him in the mornings and work downstairs in the room adjoining the dining room. "You will write downstairs, and I upstairs"—he said with his charming smile—"And you will have dinner with me. When you finish something, do read it to me, or, if you go away, send me the proofs."

He read an amazing amount and always remembered everything, and never confused one writer with another. If writers asked his opinion, he always praised their work, not so as to get rid of them, but because he knew how cruelly a sharp, even if just, criticism cuts the wings of beginners, and what an encouragement and hope a little praise gives sometimes. "I have read your story. It is marvelously well done," he would say on such occasions in a hearty voice. But when a certain confidence was established and they got to know each other, especially if an author insisted, he gave his opinion more definitely, directly, and at greater length. I have two letters of his, written to one and the same novelist, concerning one and the same tale. Here is a quotation from the first:

"Dear N., I received your tale and have read it; many thanks. The tale is good, I have read it at one go, as I did the previous one, and with the same pleasure. . . ."

But as the author was not satisfied with praise alone, he soon received a second letter from Anton Pavlovitch.

"You want me to speak of defects only, and thereby you put me in an embarrassing situation. There are no defects in that story, and if one finds fault, it is only with a few of its peculiarities. For instance, your heroes, characters, you treat in the old style, as they have been treated for a hundred years by all who have written about them—nothing new. Secondly, in the first chapter you are busy describing people's faces—again that is the old way, it is a description which can be dispensed with. Five minutely described faces tire the attention, and in the end lose their value. Clean-shaved characters are like each other, like Catholic priests, and remain alike, however studiously you describe them. Thirdly, you overdo your rough manner in the description of drunken people. That is all I can say in reply to your question about the defects; I can find nothing more that is wrong."

To those writers with whom he had any common spiritual bond, he always behaved with great care and attention. He never missed an occasion to tell them any news which he knew would be pleasing or useful. "Dear N.,"—he wrote to a certain friend of mine,—"I hereby inform you that your story was read by L. N. Tolstoy and he liked it very much. Be so good as to send him your book at this address; Koreiz, Tauric Province, and on the title page underline the stories which you consider best, so that he should begin with them. Or send the book to me and I will hand it to him."

To the writer of these lines he also once showed a delightful kindness, communicating by letter that, "in the 'Dictionary of the Russian Language,' published by the Academy of Sciences, in the sixth number of the second volume, which number I received to-day, you too appeared at last."

All these of course are details, but in them is apparent much sympathy and concern, so that now, when this great artist and remarkable man is no longer among us, his letters acquire the significance of a far-away, irrevocable caress.

"Write, write as much as possible"—he would say to young novelists. "It does not matter if it does not come off. Later on it will come off. The chief thing is, do not waste your youth and elasticity. It's now the time for working. See, you write superbly, but your vocabulary is small. You must acquire words and turns of speech, and for this you must write every day."

And he himself worked untiringly on himself, enriching his charming, varied vocabulary from every source : from conversations, dictionaries, catalogues, from learned works, from sacred writings. The store of words which that silent man had was extraordinary.

—"Listen, travel third class as often as possible"—he advised—"I am sorry that illness prevents me from traveling third. There you will sometimes hear remarkably interesting things."

He also wondered at those authors who for years on end see nothing but the next door house from the windows of their Petersburg flats. And often he said with a shade of impatience:

—"I cannot understand why you—young, healthy, and free—don't go, for instance, to Australia (Australia for some reason was his favorite part of the world), or to Siberia. As soon as I am better, I shall certainly go to Siberia. I was there when I went to Saghalien. You cannot imagine, my dear fellow, what a wonderful country it is. It is quite different. You know, I am convinced Siberia will some day sever herself completely from Russia, just as America severed herself from her motherland. You must, must go there without fail. . . ."

"Why don't you write a play?" he would sometimes ask. "Do write one, really. Every writer must write at least four plays."

But he would confess now and then, that the dramatic form is losing its interest now. "The drama must either degenerate completely, or take a completely new form"—he said. "We cannot even imagine what the theatre will be like in a hundred years."

There were some little inconsistencies in Anton Pavlovitch which were particularly attractive in him and had at the same time a deep inner significance. This was once the case with regard to note-books. Chekhov had just strongly advised us not to have recourse to them for help but to rely wholly on our memory and imagination. "The big things will remain"—he argued—"and the details you can always invent or find." But then, an hour later, one of the company, who had been for a year on the stage, began to talk of his theatrical impressions and incidentally mentioned this case. A rehearsal was taking place in the theatre of a tiny provincial town. The "young lover" paced the stage in a hat and check trousers, with his hands in his pockets, showing off before a casual public which had straggled into the theatre. The "ingenue," his mistress, who was also on the stage, said to him: "Sasha, what was it you whistled yesterday from Pagliacci? Do please whistle it again." The "young lover" turned to her, and looking her up and down with a devastating expression said in a fat, actor's voice : "Wha-at! Whistle on the stage"? Would you whistle in church? Then know that the stage is the same as a church !'

At the end of that story Anton Pavlovitch threw off his pince-nez, flung himself back in his chair, and began to laugh with his clear, ringing laughter. He immediately opened the drawer of his table to get his note-book. "Wait, wait, how did you say it? The stage is a temple?". . . And he put down the whole anecdote.

There was no essential contradiction in this, and Anton Pavlovitch explained it himself. "One should not put down similes, characteristic traits, details, scenes from nature—this must come of itself when it is needed. But a bare fact, a rare name, a technical term, should be put down in the note-book—otherwise it may be forgotten and lost."

Chekhov frequently recalled the difficulties put in his way by the editors of serious magazines, until with the helping hand of "Sieverny Viestnik" he finally overcame them.

"For one thing you all ought to be grateful to me,"—he would say to young writers.—"It was I who opened the way for writers of short stories. Formerly, when one took a manuscript to an editor, he did not even read it. He just looked scornfully at one. 'What? You call this a work? But this is shorter than a sparrow's nose. No, we do not want such trifles.' But, see, I got round them and paved the way for others. But that is nothing; they treated me much worse than that! They used my name as a synonym for a writer of short stories. They would make merry: 'O, you Chekhovs!' It seemed to them amusing."

Anton Pavlovitch had a high opinion of modern writing, i. e., properly speaking, of the technique of modern writing. "All write superbly now; there are no bad writers"—he said in a resolute tone. "And hence it is becoming more and more difficult to win fame. Do you know whom that is due to? Maupassant. He, as an artist in language, put the standard before an author so high that it is no longer possible to write as of old. You try to re-read some of our classics, say, Pissensky, Grigorovitch, or Ostrovsky; try, and you will see what obsolete, commonplace stuff it is. Take on the other hand our decadents. They are only pretending to be sick and crazy,—they all are burly peasants. But so far as writing goes,—they are masters."

At the same time he asked that writers should choose ordinary, everyday themes, simplicity of treatment, and absence of showy tricks. "Why write,"—he wondered—"about a man getting into a submarine and going to the North Pole to reconcile himself with the world, while his beloved at that moment throws herself with a hysterical shriek from the belfry? All this is untrue and does not happen in reality. One must write about simple things: how Peter Semionovitch married Marie Ivanovna. That is all. And again, why those subtitles: a psychological study, genre, nouvelle? All these are mere pretense. Put as plain a title as possible any that occurs to your mind and nothing else. Also use as few brackets, italics and hyphens as possible. They are mannerisms."

He also taught that an author should be indifferent to the joys and sorrows of his characters. "In a good story"—he said—"I have read a description of a restaurant by the sea in a large city. You saw at once that the author was all admiration for the music, the electric light, the flowers in the buttonholes; that he himself delighted in contemplating them. One has to stand outside these things, and, although knowing them in minute detail, one must look at them from top to bottom with contempt. And then it will be true."

from "To Chekhov's Memory" by Alexander Kuprin.

The BBC - Chekhov at 150

Shortly before he died in 1904 Anton Chekhov predicted he would be remembered for perhaps seven-and-a-half years. But far from being forgotten the Russian playwright, short story writer and physician is celebrated around the world and to mark the 150th anniversary of Anton Chekhov's birth, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 7 broadcast a range of documentary and drama as well as short stories and essays. An outstanding line-up of contributors to the season includes Simon Russell Beale, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Ben Whishaw and Daniela Nardini.

You can listen online to each programme for seven days after it is broadcast.


  1. Michael Pennington visits the house in which Chekhov wrote his greatest works.

  2. Twenty Minutes
    To Chekhov's Memory
    Ben Whishaw reads Alexander Kuprin's first-hand portrait of Anton Chekhov's life.

  3. How Chekhov Speaks to Us
    Penelope Wilton, Miriam Margolyes, Lynne Truss on how Chekhov's work still resonates.

    Repeated: 24 Jan 2010 at 14:50 and 25 Jan 2010 at 02:50
  4. The comic tragedy of lost hopes and stifled passion set in 1890s Russia. Christopher Hampton's adaptation stars Robert Stephens.

    Repeated: 24 Jan 2010 at 13:00 and 25 Jan 2010 at 01:00
  5. Drama on 3
    The Cherry Orchard
    Anton Chekhov's tale of a Russian family forced to sell their house and cherry orchard.
  6. Sunday Feature
    Seven and a Half Years
    Susannah Clapp explores Chekhov's obsession with memory and being forgotten.
  7. Words and Music
    Sons of Russia
    Mackenzie Crook and Jason Isaacs explore male fragility in Russian literature.
  8. Woman's Hour Drama
    About Love: The Man in a Case
    1/5. A repressed schoolmaster has marriage on his mind.
  9. A Life of Chekhov
    The Leave Taking
    1/5. Dramatisation following the playwright's tough childhood to his late marriage.

    Repeated: 25 Jan 2010 at 21:00 and 26 Jan 2010 at 02:00
  10. 1/5. Two children. Two pets. One stranger. Then a small domestic disaster.

    Repeated: 26 Jan 2010 at 04:45
  11. The Essay
    Chekhov Essays: Simon Russell Beale
    1/5. Simon Russell Beale on how performing in Chekhov's The Seagull changed his entire career.
  12. Womans Hour Drama
    About Love: The Black Monk
    2/5. A haunting story of love, obsession and the supernatural.
  13. A Life of Chekhov
    At the Tailors
    2/5. The 19-year-old studies to be a doctor and writes stories. With Andrew Scott.

    Repeated: 26 Jan 2010 at 21:00 and 27 Jan 2010 at 02:00
  14. 2/5. She insists on showing him her terrible work. He takes drastic action.

    Repeated: 27 Jan 2010 at 04:45
  15. The Essay
    Chekhov Essays: Timberlake Wertenbaker
    2/5. Timberlake Wertenbaker on what she has learned from Chekhov in terms of theatre craft.
  16. Woman's Hour Drama
    About Love: The Huntsman
    3/5. A haunting tale of unrequited love.
  17. A Life of Chekhov
    The Dead Pool
    3/5. Anton is attracted to the daughter of the family's landlord. With Andrew Scott.

    Repeated: 27 Jan 2010 at 21:00 and 28 Jan 2010 at 02:00
  18. 3/5. The landlord shows us one of his properties. The memories are traumatic.

    Repeated: 28 Jan 2010 at 04:45
  19. The Essay
    Chekhov Essays: Andrew Hilton
    3/5. Andrew Hilton reveals the lesson he learned while directing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.
  20. Woman's Hour Drama
    About Love: The Lady With the Dog
    4/5: A beautiful tale of love and betrayal.
  21. A Life of Chekhov
    His Sister Masha
    4/5: A successful short story writer, Anton aims to fix his relationship with his dad. Biography dramatisation with Andrew Scott.

    Repeated: 28 Jan 2010 at 21:00 and 29 Jan 2010 at 02:00
  22. Stories by Anton Chekhov
    Ivan Matveyitch
    4/5: An old academic and a young boy. A topsy-turvy friendship, but it endures. Alistair McGowan reads the Russian master's tale.

    Repeated: 29 Jan 2010 at 04:45.
  23. The Essay
    Chekhov Essays: Ruth Thomas
    4/5: The short story writer Ruth Thomas confesses how her early ignorance and dislike of Chekhov turned later to love as she came to emulate his loving depictions of domestic life.
  24. Woman's Hour Drama
    About Love: Rothschild’s Violin
    5/5: A story of regret about a coffin Maker who’s wife of fifty years has been taken seriously ill.
  25. A Life of Chekhov
    The Trap Pony
    5/5: Falling for actress Olga Knipper, the writer faces conflict with his sister Masha. Biography dramatisation with Andrew Scott

    Repeated: 29 Jan 2010 at 21:00 and 30 Jan 2010 at 02:00
  26. 5/5: Or to put it another way, what has the husband been up to in Moscow? Alistair McGowan reads Constance Garnett's translation.

    Repeated: 30 Jun 04:45
  27. A live edition of Ian McMillan's cabaret of the word from the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House, featuring a Chekhov-inspired performance by improvisational group The Factory.
  28. The Essay
    Chekhov Essays: Xiaolu Guo
    5/5: Novelist, short story writer and film-maker Xiaolu Guo, reflects her personal debt to Chekhov in a Chekhovian short story of her own.
  29. Between the Ears
    The Chekhov Challenge - The Sound of a Breaking String
    The challenge: to find a solution to Chekhov's enigmatic stage direction in The Cherry Orchard - 'the sound of a breaking string'.
  30. Drama on 3
    The Seagull
    Siobhan Redmond and Paul Higgins head a cast of leading Scottish actors in this new production of Chekhov's classic drama.
  31. Wild Honey
    Written by Michael Frayn from Chekhov's comedy.

    Platonov seems content with his life as a village schoolmaster, spending the long hot summers drinking at the Voynitzevs' country house. That is until Sofya arrives and rekindles the spark of his youthful ambitions. With Ian McKellen, Elizabeth Bell, Eizabeth Garvie, Anna Calder-Marshall

    Repeated: 1 Feb 2010 at 01:00

Racially tone-deaf

Bring on the blades of glory!

Russian ice dancing champs wow with a racially tone-deaf "brown-face" routine that's truly unforgettable Video
Russia's Oksana Domnina, left, and Maxim Shabalin, right, perform their original dance at the ISU European figure skating championships in Tallinn, Estonia, Thursday.

As the Vancouver Olympics approach, it's important to remember just how baffling some sports can be. Consider figure skating and ice dancing -- with their bizarre combination of athleticism, artistry and the campy pageantry of a 1960s East German gay roller-disco.

Watch the following routine, which world champion ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, from Russia, performed at today's European figure skating championships in Estonia. It's a tribute to Australian Aboriginals, set to Aboriginal-inspired music, with the pair dressed in brown skin-colored body suits covered in tribal markings and fake leaves. Oh, and also a little something that appears to be "brown-face."

Unsurprisingly, the routine has inspired outrage in Australia (a country with its own spotty record when it comes to racially inappropriate facial makeup), whose Sydney Morning Herald called it "offensive" and claimed that "there are a number of problems ... not the least of all the fact both skaters are wearing brown body suits." Admittedly, it's unlikely that the pair meant to offend anybody with the routine, and other figure skating couples have pulled off world-themed routines to great international acclaim -- like Meryl Davis and Charlie White doing an Indian folk dance in 2009 -- but this case displays such an astonishing degree of tone-deafness that it makes me reconsider my own "Blades of Glory" viewing experience. Clearly I was mistaken: That film wasn't an over-the-top comedy -- it was a documentary.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Alice Munro - The Lives of Girls and Women

Je suis Cocteau

3D Guernica

Erich Rohmer

Eric Rohmer: philosopher, rhetorician, and an ally of the young

Peter Bradshaw

Eric Rohmer's death at the age of 89 is a reminder of the incredible energy, tenacity and longevity of France's great nouvelle vague generation. Rohmer had released his last film only last year, the sublimely unworldly pastoral fantasy Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon): a gentle, reflective movie, of course, but by no means lacking in energy or wit. And, meanwhile, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol – at the respective ages of 79, 81, 81 and 79 – are all still with us, all nursing projects.
Rohmer came from the New Wave tradition of critic-turned-director; he was a former editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, and became the distinctively romantic philosopher of the New Wave and the great master of what was sometimes called "intimist" cinema: delicate, un-showy movie-making about not especially startling people, people often in their 20s, whose lives are dramatised at a kind of walking, talking pace. He avoided dramatic close-up, and tended to avoid music, except that that is supposed to be heard by the characters in the action from radios, for example – Lars von Trier's minimalist Dogme movement was in the spirit of Rohmer's modus operandi.
What was utterly characteristic was Rohmer's feel for what the real life of a young person – albeit a certain type of middle-class, educated, young person – was like: that is, not shiny and sexy or grungy or funny in the Hollywood manner, but uncertain, tentative, vulnerable and more often than not dominated by a quotidian type of travel: bus travel, subway travel, train travel; travel to get somewhere for the summer, or to see a girlfriend or boyfriend.
The first Rohmer film I saw was Le rayon vert (The Green Ray), with my girlfriend, when we were both students, at the old Cambridge Arts Cinema in the 80s. I thought then and think now that Rohmer's films are quintessentially studenty – in the best possible sense. Young, callow-ish people do a lot of talking, in the way we all did, about what was wrong (or right) with their lives and relationships, and about the perfect place to go for the summer. In this film, a young woman is unable to think what to do for the summer. She tries various places with various people, but always finds herself heading back to Paris, drawn perhaps to a place in which possibilities have not been thinned and options narrowed. Eventually, she finds herself at the beach, about to experience the legendary "rayon vert", or flash of green light you can see at the moment the sun sets.
Perhaps other twentysomethings, from a later era, would be more excited about finding the perfect beach in Thailand or Vietnam, but to us impecunious 1980s students, the idea of witnessing the "rayon vert" in Biarritz was a fascinating, exotic notion, and eminently plausible. It was as fascinating as absinthe. Yet everything was filmed in such a straightforward, realist way, and for someone in his mid-60s, Rohmer himself had a remarkable sympathy and un-patronising interest in young people.
Later, in 1992, Rohmer would make Conte d'hiver (A Winter's Tale), as part of his "tales of four seasons" series, about a young man and woman who have a passionate holiday romance but somehow manage to mislay each other's details and lose touch. It seems almost inconceivable in our world of social networking sites and mobile phones, but at the time it was entirely plausible, and another demonstration of Rohmer's sure touch for sensing the anxieties and dreams of un-moneyed young people, looking for love and adventure – and, as ever, having to travel banally to get it. I think Richard Linklater, in his movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, about a missed love-connection, was trying to channel some of the spirit of Eric Rohmer.
Rohmer's "talkiest" film is probably the one that made his name: Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night With Maud) from 1969, a black-and-white film that looks a little rickety now. A man is forced through snow to stay the night with an attractive stranger, and finds his resolve to marry someone else severely tested by having to sleep over in her bed. But this is not just about sex, and the lack of it, or the promise of it, but about talk, about the adventure of intimacy and all the subtle, almost infinitesimal things we reveal about ourselves in talking.
In his later years – though perhaps Rohmer's entire mature career is one long, richly distinctive, "late phase" – the director turned to period drama, and this is the point at which pub-quizzers may raise the question of what unites Rohmer with Christopher Nolan. The answer is that both have cast the tremendous but underused and still underappreciated British actor Lucy Russell. Rohmer made her the French-speaking lead in his French revolutionary drama L'anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke) from 2001.
And finally, there is Rohmer's remarkable last film, Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, a Shakespearean fantasia, a midsummer noon's reverie, conceived along uncompromisingly classical lines, and a thing of quiet joy. Along with his green ray – that flash of mystical revelation available to idealistic young people unencumbered by middle-aged banality – it is my favourite Eric Rohmer. The cinema has lost a philosopher, a quiet rhetorician and a gentle ally of the young.

Eric Rohmer: a career in clips

Le Signe du Lion (1959)

Rohmer's first feature was a pure-blood product of the burgeoning French New Wave; a loose-limbed, low-budget tale of poverty-row Paris, evocatively played out in the Latin Quarter as its hero rattles between the houses in search of loot. The film was destined to be eclipsed by the likes of Breathless and The 400 Blows – but Rohmer had yet to find his perfect rhythm.

La Collectionneuse (1968)

The fourth of Rohmer's six "moral tales" offers a wry and playful battle of the sexes, as the nymphet of the title makes a point of bedding a different man each night – and dances constantly away from the two male friends who try to tame her. Its St Tropez setting showed how Rohmer was as comfortable in France's wide open spaces as in the bustling metropolis.

My Night With Maud (1970)

Jean-Louis Trintignant gives a superb performance as the Catholic engineer who finds himself mentally and emotionally (if not quite physically) undone by the smart, cerebral Maud (Francoise Fabian) in what is arguably the most iconic of all Rohmer's dramas. My Night With Maud is a film that shows how simple conversation can be as purely sensual – and as erotically charged – as actual sex. Here, perhaps, is the movie that taught Richard Linklater all he knows.

Claire's Knee (1972)

Rohmer cemented his credentials as the great poet of bourgeois repression with Claire's Knee, in which a buttoned-up businessman finds himself smitten by the sight of a bare limb while on vacation. As the hero's world collapses around him, Rohmer shows his trademark light touch to keep all the pieces revolving in the air – turning each periodically to the sunlight so we can view them better.

The Green Ray (1986)

The Green Ray marries social realism with the fantasy stylings of the fairy tale, concocting a haunting essay on female loneliness around a Parisian secretary who finds herself abandoned for the summer. Nobody was as good at Rohmer at conjuring epiphanies out of the everyday. None of his films ends on quite so magical a note as this sun-dappled little treasure.

A Summer's Tale (1996)

A Summer's Tale, fittingly enough, was to prove the warmest and most seductive of Rohmer's Tales of the Four Seasons. It's the story of a young student (Melvil Poupaud) who finds himself torn between a trio of girls as he bounces around the coastline of Brittany. Now nudging into his dotage, the director belied his age with a supple, langorous and oddly poignant tale of youthful follies.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2008)

Towards the end of his life, Rohmer risked alienating his fan base by
breaking away from fine-tuned, contemporary dramas and turning his
gaze to the films of the past. He made his film swansong with
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon: an adaptation of Honoré d'Urfé's 17th-century pastoral novel of fifth-century Gaul, complete with shepherds, nymphs and druids chatting on courtly love. It was a curious venture, but an oddly intoxicating one. This was a romance that crept up on you, full-hearted evidence that even at the age of 87, here was a director still making unique films. It was a worthy last work of a one-off talent.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Charles Dickens' Prompt Copies

Session 6

Dickens Onstage: Up Into the Clouds Together
From The New York Public Library

On December 3, 1844, Dickens gave a private reading of The Chimes (the second of the Christmas Books) before a select circle of friends that included Thomas Carlyle, Daniel Maclise and John Forster. It was, by all accounts, a stunning performance. The night before, he read the same work to William Macready, the famous actor-manager. "If you had seen Macready," he wrote exultantly to his wife, "undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa, as I read--you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have Power."

These early performances, which gave Dickens the first intimations of his overmastering power as a performer, were, as Forster would write in his Life of Charles Dickens, "the germ of those readings to large audiences by which, as much as his books, the world knew him in his later life." It has been said that the most interesting relationship of Dickens's life was his lifelong affair with the public. It was certainly the most intense.

The prompt-copies

The prompt-copies
The prompt copies NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge Explore selected pages from two of the special editions, or prompt-copies, used by Dickens in his public performances, including that of A Christmas Carol (shown here) and Sikes and Nancy.
Dickens left traces of his art as a riveting storyteller in the texts he prepared for the stage. These volumes, known as prompt-copies, were special versions of his stories that he personally prepared for his public readings, the largest surviving number of which are now held by The New York Public Library's Berg Collection. When on stage, Dickens placed the prompt-copies before him on his reading desk; if he forgot a line or lost his place during a performance (a rare occurrence), he could then glance down for his prompt.

Most were small editions that Dickens had privately printed specifically for use in his stage performances, each then handsomely bound up in his library binding. The only known prompt-copy of A Christmas Carol, however, was assembled by inlaying the pages of a regular edition (in this case, the 12th, published in 1849) into larger sheets, and again the whole was then bound up nicely for Dickens, and bears his bookplate.

Each prompt-copy--more working manuscript than crib--served as a canvas for Dickens's brilliance as both editor and performer, the pages heavily marked up with carefully worked-out cues and stage directions, which he would eventually have memorized to perfection, as indeed he would individual readings in their entirety. There are as well numerous cuts, revisions, comments, editorial symbols, and transitional or "bridge" passages inserted in manuscript, reflecting the continuous "sculpting" of the readings as Dickens polished and tightened them so that each would achieve its maximum effect in performance.

In the Carol prompt-copy, for example, one can trace the evolution of the reading, which formed a popular part of the bill from the beginning of Dickens's career on the stage in 1853, to the very last of his "Farewell Readings," in London, on March 15, 1870. An intricate network of revisions, deletions and pointers to the performer ("Weird"--"run on"--"clean over") documents Dickens's constant reworking of the text, which gradually reduced the length of the reading from three hours to a more dramatically effective hour-and-a-half.

NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge Broadside announcing an appearance by Dickens on December 29, 1858, in the Lecture Hall at Chatham in Kent (not far from Gad's Hill), closing with the audience favorite, and the most frequently performed of his readings, The Trial from Pickwick.
NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge "A foul deed," the murder of Nancy by Sikes in Oliver Twist, an original pencil and watercolor drawing by F.W. Pailthorpe. Dickens's reenactment of Nancy's horrible murder and Sikes's gruesome death as he flees his pursuers left audiences gasping.
NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge "The Last Chance," an original pencil, pen and watercolor sketch by George Cruikshank, showing Bill Sikes in his flight from the angry mob, just moments before he plunges to his death.

The prompt-copy of Sikes and Nancy, the harrowing reading from Oliver Twist, is of particular interest not only because of the extensive alterations made to the printed text, but because it was the last reading prepared by Dickens before he retired from the stage.

NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge The printed itinerary of Dickens's reading tour for the autumn of 1858; Georgina Hogarth's copy, with her annotations. On July 22 Dickens read in London for the last time that summer; after a mere 10 days rest, he began this ambitious tour, which would take him throughout the English provinces, Scotland and Ireland.
Throughout, the text and margins hold his profuse manuscript changes, deletions, additions and markings for emphasis, showing him working towards the most telling platform effects. On many pages Dickens wrote out dramatic memoranda ("Terror To The End") to help guide his interpretation during the reading, thus preserving fascinating clues to his manner of presentation on stage as well as traces of the atmosphere he strove to evoke in specific scenes.

The original conclusion of Sikes and Nancy, in which Sikes slipped quietly out of the room after the murder of Nancy, seems to have given Dickens some trouble. Several friends at the trial performance, including Wilkie Collins, insisted that the reading ended too suddenly and without the poetic justice of Sikes's death provided in Oliver Twist. At first, Dickens demurred, but within weeks he was at work, newly fashioning a "fierce and passionate rush for the end," drawing primarily on material from chapter 48 of the novel.

Initially Dickens had been concerned that Sikes and Nancy might strike audiences as "so horrible" that they would be frightened away from future readings altogether; but in the end, the gripping drama he crafted from Oliver Twist proved to be one of his most acclaimed performances. Dickens threw himself into the awful story with such ferocity that audiences gaped at him with fixed expressions of horror, as if he himself "had been going to be hanged."

Golden fetters
Dickens gave his first public readings in December 1853, in Birmingham. A series of three for charity, they were rapturously received. "They lost nothing," he reported after a performance of the Carol, "misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried ... and animated me to the extent that I felt as if we were all bodily going up into the clouds together."

The prime of his powers
The prompt copies NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge An original pen-and-ink drawing by F.A. Fraser of the final scene of Great Expectations, in which Pip and Estella, after a separation of many years, meet again on the desolate property where Miss Havisham's house once stood.
Dickens's warmth, histrionic flair and expressiveness evoked tears, applause, shrieks, laughter, hisses, and shouts of "Hear, hear!" from his audiences, who responded to the most memorable troopers of his great repertory company as if they were old acquaintances. It must have been quite a night at the theater. After attending the final evening in Boston during Dickens's second American tour, poet John Greenleaf Whittier marveled, "Another such star-shower is not to be expected in one's life-time."

Dickens toured incessantly, some said compulsively, on both sides of the Atlantic for the last fifteen years of his life. In late 1857, as the tense situation of his private life was working toward the separation from Catherine that would take place the next spring, he told Forster, who always opposed the readings as beneath a great writer's dignity: "I can see no better thing to do that is half so hopeful in itself, or half so suited to my restless state." The next year he turned professional, and he drove himself relentlessly, refusing to cancel performances no matter the state of his health. (In April 1869, "half dead" with overwork and the pressures of touring, Dickens cancelled a "farewell reading" at Preston along with subsequent engagements only when his physician unequivocally ordered "instant rest.")

Once on stage, "a lithe, energetic man, of medium stature," invariably with a red carnation in his button-hole, Dickens rarely glanced at the text before him, for through rigorous preparation and rehearsal he made himself, as he said, "master of the situation." He played variations on the readings, continually adding new material and even "slashing" whole sections (as one reviewer noted) on the wing; inspired both by the moment and by his profound rapport with the audience, and avoiding the mechanical repetition of effects and gestures that had scored the night before, Dickens kept each performance a miracle of freshness and invention. He did nothing by rote, he took everything on himself, and the house responded, as one American admirer said, not with applause, but with "a passionate outburst of love for the man."

Our Mutual Friend
NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge The wrapper of Our Mutual Friend No. 7, published in November 1864.
During the late 1850s and 1860s Dickens published his final three novels: A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a historical novel set during the French Revolution; Great Expectations (1860-61; 1861), a mysterious and deeply affecting tale following a young man making his way in the world; and Our Mutual Friend (1864-65; 1865), a very dark exploration of the materialistic forces shaping society and the corrupting power of wealth, which has aptly been called Dickens's Waste Land. All three novels show him working with undiminished imaginative force and, if anything, even greater subtlety and artistry.

Throughout the 1860s, Dickens suffered increasingly from exhaustion and poor health, and yet his drive remained remarkable, his restlessness often nearly manic. Those close to him fretted that as he amassed thousands of pounds through his lucrative public readings, he was surely shortening his life by pushing himself so recklessly. ("While engaged in these readings," G.A. Sala mused sadly after his death, "his life must have been that of a convict in golden fetters.")

Yet he continued to tour tirelessly, and in the summer of 1867, America--and the riches to be made there--began to beckon. And as it had twenty-five years earlier, America again welcomed Dickens like a conquering hero when he returned to the States for a tour that stretched for more than four months, with readings continuing from December 2, 1867 to April 20, 1868. Performances averaged four evenings a week. "Well, the work is hard, the climate is hard, the life is hard," Dickens would write to Forster, "but ... the gain is enormous."

A return to America

The 1867 pocket diary
The 1867 pocket diary NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge Explore two openings from Dickens's little pocket diary for 1867, which miraculously escaped the fate of the bulk of his private papers (the fire).
Dickens's pocket diary for 1867, in which he recorded in a miniscule but generally legible hand his engagements, readings and travels for the year, gives a sense of the pace of his daily life in the months leading up to the American trip. There are as well some fascinating glimpses into the heart of the man: Ellen Ternan, Dickens's "beloved Nelly," is a constant, if cryptic presence in the diary (as "N.") until he sailed for America on November 9.

Much is packed between the tattered covers of the tiny (measuring only 2.5 x 4.5 inches) diary. The readings in England and Ireland. Dinners and evenings at the theater. The many trips from Gad's Hill to London and back, and from London to Slough (the village where Ellen Ternan lived in a small cottage at which one "Charles Tringham" called frequently). Notes on the day's weather. A footnote to the month of April reading, "N. ill latter part of this month." And then an entry on September 29, "at 12 o'k Forster and Dolby. Decide to go." The last words are heavily underscored (back from a scouting trip to the States, Dickens's manager George Dolby had pronounced the prospects very bright).

Dickens had hoped that Nelly would be able to join him in America during the tour, although how he thought he could keep her hidden from the prying eyes of the American press, or even how he was going to introduce her to his many terribly distinguished American friends, is a mystery. Nevertheless, Dickens worked out a plan to bring her over with his trusted confidante H.W. Wills (and no doubt with the assistance of Forster and his sister-in-law Georgina, as well). Everything was arranged methodically and with the strictest secrecy. In his pocket diary, Dickens wrote out the coded texts of two telegrams:

Tel: all well means
You come
Tel: safe and well means
You don't come.

American Fares
NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge Check for £100 drawn for "American Fares" by Dickens, dated October 9, 1867, presumably to cover the costs of passage to the States for him and his entourage.
The plan was simple; the "you" was Ellen. Depending on what he had decided, Dickens would send one or the other message to Wills in London the day after his arrival in the States. Then, Wills would forward Dickens's "exact words" via the next day's post to Ellen, who was in Florence. It is the latter telegram that was sent, for although Dickens missed his "Princess" intensely, Ternan remained in Europe.

Landing at Boston on November 19, Dickens devoted the remainder of the month to a round of dinners there with such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Longfellow and his American publisher James T. Fields and his vivacious wife, Annie, who were his dearest friends in America. Thanksgiving dinner was spent at Longfellow's. In early December, the readings began. Dickens spent the month shuttling between Boston and New York (he found the railways appalling). Although he began to suffer from what he called the "true American catarrh," he kept to a schedule that would have challenged a much younger man, even managing, as the pocket diary for December shows, to squeeze in some sleighing in Central Park.

Dickens opened in Boston, on the evening of December 2, 1867, with two sure-fire audience favorites, A Christmas Carol and The Trial from Pickwick. The next morning, a Boston paper reported:

Mr. Charles Dickens opened his peculiar entertainment in Tremont Temple ... before as large an audience as could be comfortably crowded into that hall, in which all the poets, philosophers, sages and historians of this city and vicinity were mingled like plums in a Christmas pudding ... The entertainment is unlike anything we have ever seen in this country. It is rather a dramatic recitation than a reading, references to the book being very infrequent, and all the parts being recited with appropriate voice and action ... The audience last evening were in the best of spirits from the start ... and the first mention of well-known characters--especially Pickwick, Sergeant Buzfuz, and inimitable Sam Weller--was received with tempests of applause ...

Boston had been "perfectly mad" for him, but, at least according to Harper's Weekly, New York greeted Dickens with an even greater frenzy of excitement, and scalpers did in fact have a field day. And as for Dickens, the metropolis astonished. "Everything in it," he said, "looks as if the order of nature were reversed, and everything grew newer every day, instead of older."

NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge Explore a gallery of portraits of Dickens taken at the studio of Jeremiah Gurney in New York City during the novelist's second triumphant tour of America.
The overwhelming demand for tickets in New York even inspired one speculator to get his hands on a proof of the tickets; he then arranged to have some thousands of them printed up, "with the intention of imposing on the public." Fortunately, George Dolby found out about the scheme when he arrived in New York to make arrangements for the tour. Indignant, he visited the printer, who, it turned out, had been duped, and who happily "broke up" his type. The forger was turned over to the police, and the fraudulent tickets destroyed. Dolby then devised his "own private stamp" with which he marked the back of each New York ticket to discourage further forgery.

So successful were the first New York readings that it was announced that a second course of tickets would go on sale at Steinway Hall at 9 a.m., on December 11. However, as Harper's reported, "the throng of purchasers began to assemble at ten o'clock on the night before, and at least 150 persons waited in the line or queue all night. When the sale began not less than five hundred persons, including two women, were in the line."

Although in poor health and often literally prostrate from exhaustion during the tour, Dickens, ever the trooper, refused to cancel any performances, even under doctor's orders. "No man had a right," he maintained, "to break an engagement with the public, if he were able to get out of bed."

On February 23, 1912, nearly half a century after those memorable performances in Steinway Hall, the New York Sun published a touching letter from one Chauncey K. Buchanan, of Tarrytown, New York, who had been there:

I heard Charles Dickens read in Steinway Hall in 1868. I accompanied my teacher ... and two or three of my schoolmates about my age, 17. Possibly the impression Dickens made on me is of interest, though I cannot recall definitely the two selections given, because since then I seem to hear his voice in every dramatic passage of his I read.

His personal appearance was somewhat repugnant to me. I disliked his "vest" of velvet and the heavy gold chains across it from pocket to pocket. I compared his attire to that of my father, so unobtrusive, not considering that the latter was a mere mercantile man ... In fact, I was at first much disappointed, for I expected to see and hear what was more than a mere man. When the reading, however, was well under way, I found myself laughing and sobbing. The latter surprised and irritated me much. It was the first time I had cried in public and I tried to quell my tears, but in vain. So Dickens sustained the jet of tears grudgingly evoked from his hearer ...

So I am sure he was a great reader, actor and preacher, deftly blended in all he rendered. The output of the man was a largess of the gods to us poor mortals.

Letter to Fields
NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge A letter from Dickens to James T. Fields, dated Boston, February 27, 1868, in which he tells his friend (and American publisher) that it would be "madness" for him to go out after that night's reading (he has been suffering from a terrible cold).
The American trip was a colossal and very gratifying success, netting Dickens, it is estimated, a truly staggering £20,000; but he was ill much of the time and he was very homesick, far from all he loved. On Christmas Eve, Dickens wrote to Wills, enclosing a letter to his beloved Nelly, which Wills was to forward to her in Italy. "I would give £3,000 down (and think it cheap)," he told Wills, "if you could forward me, for four and twenty hours only, instead of the letter." Of the correspondence of Dickens and Ternan, not a shred has survived.

Dickens returned to England in May 1868 with plans already in the works for a new series of readings. It was now that Sikes and Nancy began to take shape, the coup de théâtre that would shock audiences and send Dickens's pulse skyrocketing.