“Some Freaks of Atavism”: The BBC’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (2002).

June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Part 2 of 2.
Part 1 is here.

Reversion is Doyle’s muse: telling the modern tale of an ancient curse, in which the sins of the fathers dog the sons, he flirts with positing the porosity of chronometrics.  As ever in Holmes, the supernatural mechanism is bogus; the biological mechanism, however, is real, crystallized in the great scene in which the detective recognizes the antecedent of Jack Stapleton in a portrait of Sir Hugo.

“It is an interesting instance of a throw-back,” he remarks to Watson, “which appears to be both spiritual and physical.  A study of family portraits is enough to convert a man to the doctrine of reincarnation.”  A logic of reincarnation, and a fear of it, informs the whole novel—and the BBC adaptation concentrates the theme.  The Beeb has Sir Henry distill the theme in theological terms: “Do you believe the gods visit the sins of the father upon the children?”  To which Watson, in a stern tone of liberal-ethical indignation: “No.  I do not.”  Despite the good doctor, the BBC production, like Doyle’s novel, is haunted by the specter of return. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Open Your Doors and Let Me In”: The BBC’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (2002).

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Part 1 of 2.

The BBC’s 2002 Hound of the Baskervilles, which can be viewed in fragments on YouTube and which I actually quite enjoy, accentuates the sensational in various ways, most of which are not even interesting.  The spectacle of Holmes wrapping a tourniquet around his bicep to shoot up in the middle of a case (twice! 2:05 here and 1:30 here) is of course hardly edifying; what’s more, it runs afoul of the canon in the clearest of ways.  In Chapter I of The Sign of Four, Holmes explains his cocaine addiction thusly: “My mind … rebels at stagnation.  Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere.  I can dispense then with artificial stimulants” (emphasis mine).  The Beeb has done better on this score recently: its 2010 effort, the often gimmicky update Sherlock—like the quondam Masterpiece Theatre (now answering to “Masterpiece”), this production signals its postmodernity by disdaining second names—gives Holmes a jokey nicotine-patch addiction and hints repeatedly at past flirtations with stronger stuff, but it is always quite clear that, in the words of the villainous cabby of episode 1, “This [danger and detective work] is what you’re really addicted to.”  Mark Gatiss, the series creator who also appears as Mycroft, ruminates aloud on the DVD commentary track: “When it is done [the portrayal of Holmes as an addict], generally, it’s done wrongly. … The amount of times when he’s just sticking a needle in, in the middle of the most exciting cases of his career—”  Here Gatiss’s co-producer Steven Moffat jumps in: “He just would not, he wouldn’t consider doing it.”  Quite right.  The introduction to Baskervilles of Mrs. Mortimer the medium, who conducts a séance at about the story’s midpoint, is hardly more welcome, notwithstanding the spiritualist faith of Arthur Conan Doyle, which I do not doubt the filmmakers would cite as an authorizing referent if pressed.  Ditto the two red herrings, in butler Barrymore’s pretend mistress and Dr. Mortimer’s motiveless lying about his inheritance.

Other enhancements, though, are more successful.  The decision to have Stapleton kill his sister/wife Beryl, rather than just knock her around (as in Doyle), culminates the production’s surprisingly pathetic rendering of Beryl’s character and its slyly crazy rendering of Stapleton’s.  But what particularly interests me about the BBC’s Baskervilles is its setting of the entire story during an unnaturally long cold snap, a decision that amplifies the story’s creepiness—and yet, at the same time, its coziness.  During Barrymore’s testimony in the opening sequence, Sir Charles Baskerville is shown to have died in the snow; the famous footprints (“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”) are impressions in the snow; young Sir Henry arrives at the hall of his ancestors amid a cold December rain, and the climactic encounter with the hound occurs on Christmas Day.  The desolate weather naturally intensifies the affective tenor of the topography—the famous moor described by Doyle’s Watson as “this most God-forsaken corner of the world.  The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm.”  (Stapleton acclaims it as “so vast, so barren, and so mysterious,” and Sir Henry murmurs, “My word, it isn’t a very cheerful place.”)

But this particular correlation of weather with landscape, obvious as it seems, has no antecedent in Doyle.  The original Baskervilles exhibits a practical awareness of temporal duration and proper seasonality, with Sir Charles dying in late springtime (June 4), Sir Henry arriving in October under a fall of leaves (the “sad gifts” of “the waning year”*), and Holmes and Watson retrospecting on the whole fiasco from Baker Street at the end of November.  How deliberate is the filmmakers’ commitment to the hibernal setting one may see in their alteration of some of the first lines of Beryl Stapleton: in her first appearance in the story, Beryl mistakes the strolling Watson for Sir Henry Baskerville; after hurriedly urging an obscure warning on the man she takes to be the baronet, she sees her brother/husband coming within earshot and abruptly changes the subject.

"You know the story of the Hound?"

In Doyle’s original she remarks at this juncture, “We are very rich in orchids on the moor, though, of course, you are rather late to see the beauties of the place”; then, to Stapleton, “I was telling Sir Henry that it was rather late for him to see the true beauties of the moor.”  Spurning this invocation of the peak season for orchids (July through September), the Beeb has Beryl recur to a far chillier natural phenonemon (skip to 8:55 and following, if you have the patience, here): “I was telling Sir Henry how beautiful the moor can be in winter.  Sometimes, if it’s been snowing heavily and there is a light rain with the temperature below freezing, every bush, tree, reed is sheathed in ice as though in a glass case.”  To this rapture Jack Stapleton (icily) adds, “Every living creature perishes.”  The whole BBC production is “sheathed in ice” in a different sense, enthralled by the “grim charm” of winter, the pairing of death with winter in its charming or æsthetic qualities. « Read the rest of this entry »

“An unnerving dark cosiness of memory.”

April 19, 2011 Comments Off

Barbara Everett meditates on the nostalgias of Hamlet and Great Expectations in a manner which pleases me.

We ought perhaps to explain the unusual formality and æsthetic coherence of GREAT EXPECTATIONS … in terms of the book’s being a kind of reverie on the work which actually appears in its thirty-first chapter as Mr. Wopsle’s HAMLET: a reverie which brought into the novel the Christmas graveyard, the dead children, the ritualistic games of “Beggar-my-Neighbour” in the “Court” of Satis House, the cruel Petrarchan heroine, the lawyers of Little England, and above all the terrible returner from the dead who is “your second father. You’re my son”:—everything in the book, in fact, which seems to say to the reader, with an unnerving dark cosiness of memory, what the last chapters say to Pip: “Do not thou go home, let him not go home, let us not go home … ”

(Everett, Young Hamlet [O.U.P., 1990].)

WHERE’S WILDE? (“They are cruel and evil, and so like dear Aubrey…”)

April 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

The art historian Robbie Ross, who in 1886 had initiated Oscar Wilde into the practice and milieu of Victorian homoeroticism, had a further proposition for his Irish friend in 1893: for the English translation of his French play Salome, Wilde might call upon the talents of the infant phenomenon Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, a then-unacclaimed illustrator whom one critic has limned (excellently) as “brilliant, malicious, salacious, and sickly.”  Beardsley was to do much for Japanese woodcuts and Art Nouveau before his death of consumption, the poet’s disease, at age twenty-five; he would clutch a crucifix to his ailing chest as he expired, having undergone the classic Decadent conversion scarcely a moment too soon.  Moralized agitation greeted the Beardsley-Wilde Salome upon its publication in 1894: “unintelligible,” “repulsive,” “audacious,” “extravagant.”  This notoriety declined after the turn of the century, and Beardsley remained out of sight for some decades until 1967, when Dover published an edition that would recover his peculiar dark eroticism for posterity.  (Though it is not clear that Beardsley would have welcomed this development: as a Catholic in 1897 he had requested, to no avail, that his publisher destroy all the “bad drawings” of his “obscene” period.)

Wilde himself did not enthuse over Beardsley’s decorations for Salome, criticizing them in terms that are superficially proleptic of Beardsley’s later recantation: “They are like the naughty scribbles a precocious schoolboy makes on the margins of his copybooks.”  Again, “They are cruel and evil, and so like dear Aubrey, who has a face like a silver hatchet, with green-grass hair.”

I rather think, however, that the true grounds of Wilde’s disenchantment were neither pseudo-moralistic, as above, nor even æsthetic (Wilde claimed that Beardsley’s Japonisme was a mismatch for the Byzantinism of the text).  To begin with, the adjectives “audacious” and “extravagant,” directed to the illustrator, were laurels Wilde would doubtless have preferred to hoard for himself.  As for “repulsive,” the closeted Wilde may have been chagrined that Beardsley’s images threatened to blow his cover; as Elaine Showalter has observed, they “bring out all too powerfully the secret or unspeakable subtext of the play, especially its homoerotic and blasphemous elements.”

Trenchant as Beardsley may have been in this respect, however, there is a sense in which his illustrations really do not properly illustrate; rather, they are improvisations on moods aroused in Beardsley by his reading of the play.  One of Beardsley’s enduring moods was acrimony, and the attentive reader will find that his illustrations for Salome caricature Wilde four times.  This of course is the third reason for Wilde’s disaffection.

Below the fold, Wilde’s involuntary Salome cameos and what they mean. « Read the rest of this entry »

Wales, Summer 1925: Evelyn Waugh Tangles with Providence.

March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

My favorite suicide attempt ever.  Courtesy Waugh’s autobiography, Volume I: A Little Learning.

Having gone down from Oxford in 1924, having thereafter failed on a small scale at the Heatherley School of Fine Art, and confronting debts in the new year, Waugh faced up to his options: “There was only one profession open to a man of my qualifications.  However incomplete one’s education, however dissolute one’s habits, however few the respectable guarantors whom one could quote, the private schools lay open to anyone who spoke without an accent and had been through the conventional routine of public school and university.”  He became a schoolmaster at an anarchic boys’ school in Wales, later the model for Llanabba Castle in his first published novel, Decline and Fall.

“I was from the first an obvious dud”: for “two dismal terms” he lectured on such topics as “the financial embarrassments of Charles I,” striving in his spare time to complete a novel titled The Temple at Thatch, and pining after the indifferent Londoner Olivia Plunket-Greene.  June came, and Waugh found himself once again accumulating debt.  He was exiled from his Oxford friends, who went on carousing in his absence; counseled by Harold Acton that The Temple was dreck, he wrote in his diary, “It is the end of the tether.”

Crisis and soundtrack below the fold. « Read the rest of this entry »

ON MANNERS AND THE MIDDLE CLASSES: Ford, Reynolds, Stillman, Himmelfarb.

March 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

When did good manners become bohemian?  Ahead of the publication of an “intimate” interview, Tom Ford teases us with five rules of gentlemanly behavior.  They turn out to be entirely banal.  Granted, I am grateful to find a person of influence instructing men that “Flip-flops and shorts in the city are never appropriate.  Shorts should only be worn on the tennis court or on the beach.”  Rule 3 (“Manners are very important and actually knowing when things are appropriate.  I always open doors for women, I carry their coat,” etc.) unwittingly suggests that while manners are very important, grammar and syntax are not.  The most suggestive dissonance, however, is that between the bourgeois content of Ford’s maxims and the anti-bourgeois import of his subscription to them.  So, the article I have linked includes a photo of him lounging invitingly in dishabille and an anecdote regarding his attempted seduction of an interviewer from GQ.  This forging of a personal style out of the anxious pairing of nostalgic manners with moral decadence explains a lot about Ford’s film debut, A Single Man.

Further, it is an enactment on the æsthetic level of what seems to me a very strange phenomenon, the new embrace and advocacy by liberals of middle-classness.  In this respect, Ford’s Rule 2 (“A gentleman today has to work”) sticks out: this is a classic principle of Victorianism, the work ethic of the paterfamilias.  But what may be pleasingly ironic on the level of style may end up sadly incoherent on the level of government policy.  Glenn Reynolds observed not long ago:

The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people.  But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits—self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc.—that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class.  Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.

The propounding of a positive system of middle-class values is an interestingly conservative move by the libertarian Instapundit; it recalls some remarks by the amateur anthropologist Charlie Black in Metropolitan.  Charlie takes middle-class identity to be the fruit of the persistence of the middle classes in certain moral, civic, and familial virtues:

Saying that the titled aristocracy are the scum of the earth is obviously an exaggeration.  But it’s true that the forces that oblige members of the U.H.B. to at least appear to act productively and responsibly carry little weight, or none at all, with members of society whose social positions are secure no matter what they do.

If the middle class constitutes and perpetuates itself through the exercise of virtue (here, productivity and responsibility), then the simple persistence of this class, the hate-object of ideologues and bohemians, is the best argument in favor of its existence in sæcula sæculorum.

This is solid conservatism, and so what particularly interests me is the notion that the expansion of the middle class, indeed the borderline colonization of the poor by the middle class, should be conceived by liberals to be a liberal project.  I do wonder how the liberals of the future will view the attempts by liberals of the present generation to evangelize for middle-class values and attainments; today, at any rate, liberal commentators tend to look quite askance at the Victorians, insofar as the Victorians are understood to have undertaken a similar project for the sinister purposes of social control. « Read the rest of this entry »

Waiting For My City To Be Selected: JANE EYRE.

March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Brontës are not at all my speed, but I have real hopes for this.  Slushy filmic renderings have done so much to make Victorianists look ridiculous, that I am prepared to embrace any project of this sort that appears to work as a film.

I will be interested to see Jamie Bell, who has third billing, as St. John Rivers.  Last year I scandalized my dear students by confessing that St. John is by far my favorite character in the novel, an astonishing specimen of a peculiar spiritual type.  Most Jane Eyre films, quite excusably, get through the Rivers interlude as expeditiously as possible; there is a slow-down in Brontë’s plot at this point, the same dispersal of narrative focus that afflicts nearly all Victorian triple-deckers.  (Think for five seconds about Great Expectations.  Now whatever images just popped into your head—Pip in the graveyard, Magwitch in chains, Joe in his forge, the child Estella, Miss Havisham crying “Play, play!”—originate, I guarantee, in the first volume.)

"How fierce I am."

Less excusable is the common failure to cast a very striking blond actor in the role of St. John.  In over-popularized adaptations, Rochester is conventionalized as Jane’s totally adequate soulmate and the screenplay cannot afford to interest itself in the subtle and dangerous appeal exerted on her by St. John; so the latter degenerates into the eternal stuffy clergyman, forgettable as a screen presence and forgettable to Jane, his proposal scarcely less ridiculous to her than was that of another cousin-clergyman, Mr. Collins, to Elizabeth Bennet.  In Brontë’s rendering, by contrast, St. John’s frigid beauty emblematizes his spiritual magnetism and Jane very nearly goes off with him on his self-abnegating mission to India.  St. John is, religiously speaking, a snow-covered volcano, and the effort to cast him should be as fiercely selective as was Hitchcock’s search for the successor to Grace Kelly.

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