Making Friends with EMMA.

EMMA. Dot. Yes, that’s what the director intended. The work is a “period” drama. Get it? We can let Autumn de Wilde have this in her directorial debut. That and all caps will set it apart from the six other movies with the same title; the delightful Clueless (1995 and 1996, film and TV) has no need, and the Indian Aisha in Hindi is Bollywood, on Amazon Prime, so I will watch it soon, choreography and all.

Emma. would have been my last movie in a theater, when we did such things, but one friend despised it and would have walked out if such a thing had been polite. So I was prepared not to like it. Reviews were mixed; Peter Travers in Rolling Stone likens the version to our times, but he errs in calling Emma manipulative, which requires intent and meanness, in my mind. Shelia O’Connor at loves it, but her statement, “Ambivalence, thy name is Austen” mystifies because it pertains to marriage. She’s just too young at the beginning to have much sense. Although the New York Times is behind a paywall, the title “Back on the Manor, but Still Clueless” probably says enough. The Guardian, a British publication, calls the production “colourful,” which is accurate for both the interpretation and the clothes.

Ah, the clothes. What colors! The designer, Alexandra Byrne, remains true to the Regency style (or so I’m told). Emma wears things the name of which we are unfamiliar: pelisses, muslins, and spencers, for example. The linked article reveals much more than you want to know, but its depth adds support to the idea that this production succeeds on several levels.

What about the novel’s presence? Austen can be hard to read. This English prof finds her “unreadable” and “insufferable,” clever but “Oscar Wilde’s inane older sister.” Ouch. Consider this lead-up to dialogue: “Mrs. Weston was looking so ill, and had an air of so much perturbation that Emma’s uneasiness increased…” And she can be a bit clunky. As she realizes Harriet is in love with Mr. Knightly, Emma comes to a realization: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Also, there are long pages with internal thoughts conversation, and the odd style of a discussion that is conversation but doesn’t look like it: “She asked after their mutual friends; they were all well..—When had he left them?—Only that morning. He must have had a wet ride.—Yes.—He meant to walk with her, she found. ‘He had just looked into the dining-room and as he was not wanted there, preferred being out of door.’” The screenwriter, Eleanor Catton, artfully blends the best of Austen, using her words, but also improves on her occasionally. Two examples are the snowfall scene at the Weston home and the Box Hill insult to Miss Bates. When snow is announced, the party immediately breaks up, and the flurry (excuse the pun) of activity transcends the long, slow discussion in the novel. Emma makes her rudeness much clearer in the movie.

It would be heresy to suggest that this movie is better than the book, and I’ll not do that. Some things happen in movies that cannot in books, however, as the music in Emma. Rather than simply background, we have new compositions by Isobell Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, some Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and hymns performed by Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band. The score is usually texture.  One scene does add commentary and is laugh-out-loud funny. Emma has played a lovely little ditty, singing along well enough. Jane Fairfax, her rival of sorts, plays next. It’s too bad she doesn’t have her music with her, sympathizes Emma, but Jane responds that she hopes she can recall the notes. She then sits down and whips out Mozart’s Sonata in F, III. Molto assai, heard here at 13:11. Yes, from memory, passionately and perfectly.

Good criticism should start with the negative and end with the positive. Laying that aside, a few quibbles. Although it’s historically accurate, the boarding school girls parade in red cloaks, looking for all the world like the women in The Handmaid’s Tale. We also have the surprise of Emma lifting her (many-layered) skirt to catch the fireplace heat on her bare bottom. I can’t feature it; layers would have kept said tush warm enough. We’ve seen a naked Mr. Knightley from the back as well, but he’d come in from riding and had sweaty clothes, with plenty of silent servants as required to help. The servants are worthy of an entire scholarly essay somewhere.

Finally, a mention of the title. Recently, someone talked of “making friends with May” following a series of events that rendered the month sad for her. The same is true for Emma in my mind. Austen purposefully wrote a heroine that no one else would like, she said. I just finished it again, after a long hiatus. The truth is that Austen’s are about the only novels I read. Last year, I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. I also read all the Jack Reacher novels, though that doesn’t count, they being more of an aberration. I recently learned about a style of therapy called Internal Family Systems developed by Richard Schwartz, speaking here at length and here very briefly. Simply put, we have our younger selves within us and must deal with their hurts and burdens even as we grow older. Like Emma, I was once a foolish 20-something. Not that I tried matchmaking, but I did feel full of myself. I wonder if I haven’t wanted to read Emma because it was too difficult to look back. I don’t know, still just a theory. It’s not that our dear Emma heals—that’s for the olders—but she does come to self-awareness. We would all benefit from that, and this delightful movie can only help.


Plainville, Conn.

World building and hobbies would seem to have little in common except that, these days, world building games like Minecraft (favored among my grandsons) and Fortnite (despised by same) take time, go nowhere, and build worlds. They carefully rejected my assessment of Terraria as world building explaining in simple words that survival was its object. I don’t even know how to turn the consoles on, or anything else.

Are hobbies not worthwhile? The definition, sadly, leads to that. Think of the word “hobby horse.” As such, I don’t have what I’d call hobbies. Instead, I have things that I do for various reasons: gardening, for example. Again sadly, no fruit or vegetables result from it, just flowers. One thing I do is hard to describe. It’s called indexing, and the result builds access to historical records that need to be digitized. I once worked on a 19th century British census, recording names and relationships for thousands of entries. The final result, after my results and those of others were completed and verified, made those handwritten documents searchable, i.e., indexed.

Yesterday’s project was much more simple. In 1917, men in Connecticut were asked to fill out questionnaires regarding their backgrounds, height and weight, marital status (married soon, one wrote), and so on, for the war effort. Pretty standard stuff. But the more interesting section, all heaped on at the end, included questions remote to us 100+ years later. Could he ride a horse? (Most could.) Manage a team? (Many could. And, hurray for YouTube, you can learn how here. It’s a horse or mule team, by the way, not soccer.) Drive a car? (Few, actually. Remember the year.) Understand telegraphy, have experience with steam engines, swim? It was quite the list. My job, however, was simply to input location, name, and age. A batch of 3 takes about a minute. And it’s a bit addictive. All the rest of the information will be available at some point, and gladly received, when someone searches out her great-grandfather, finds his name, and accesses the record. So, not a hobby, not world building, but something I do.

That’s where I came across the place named Plainville, Conn. (We don’t expand abbreviations.) We have a Plainview, Texas, and there are apparently several other places in the country with this name, but it struck me as a bit uncreative. The men’s names, however, were not plain at all: Nicolo Zoccos, Giovanni Cioto, Stazi Angelo. They were all short men, 5 feet tall or 5’3”. Italians, they reported. One man had the last name Przvizamavski. He was Polish. Others were from French Canada, Finland, Scotland, Russia, Austria. It was fascinating, even in as plain a place as Plainville.

So I decided to look into the current city view. It’s small, under 20,000 people. But the diversity is still there: Weinhofer and Alosso run departments. There are 30 justices of the peace (a different system than my little town, apparently), and their names reflect the area’s heritage too: Blanchette, Drezek, Romonow, Harper, Sawczuk, Winkoop, Zakrzewski.

My own great-great-grandparents were nearby, in fact. New Haven seems to be where they settled upon arriving from Scotland. My great-grandmother, born in 1865, lived there until her father died in 1879. She was then sent to Onion Creek, a little place near Austin, to live with her aunts because her mother had died in 1865. I remember they had a little hat shop. People wore hats then. That’s about all I know, but, if you think about it, that’s quite a lot, removed by time and space. Her name was Margaret Zuleika Tait, before she married. I do know that. Perhaps there is a picture somewhere. And, of course, because of her, I am here.

Indexing is a thing I do. You could, too, if you’re a bit bored and have a minute or two to spare. Someone looking for a great-grand might thank you, silently, someday. A hobby that helps someone else build a world. Even better than a hobby…

“…the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

Watching the US Navy team called The Blue Angels fly over Dallas on a perfect spring day, I could think of only one word: stately. It wasn’t what I expected. Rather than booming, speeding, thundering, the jets came quietly, their sound trailing behind them. Many years ago, jets flying over my home town regularly broke the sound barrier, a phenomenon you can see (not hear) here or see (and hear) here. The Blue Angels’ flight path began in McKinney, came south 30 miles, made a loop, headed south again, turned north, then west, another loop and a flourish, and landed south of Fort Worth. It took 35 minutes. Again, stately, because they seemed so slow. Their lowest speed is 120 mph, which I find as hard to imagine as their fastest—700 mph during shows, faster when not around people because they’re not allowed to break the sound barrier (761 mph) for shows. Here is a video from a friend, used with permission. The perfect formation, the power of the machines, the occasion—something brought tears to my eyes. Considering their goal of honoring the first responders and health professionals, the beautiful and stately was appropriate.

Consider another stately performance: Peter Serkin strides onto a stage, slowly, in a church performance hall. It’s 2017, and he’s 70 years old. He will play J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Flawlessly. From memory. For 49 minutes and 47 seconds. With a delicate grace, without an embellishment of personality. Style is one thing, of course. Restraint is best, in my opinion. (Although I admire Glen Gould, and he plays distinctively, the self is keenly present.) The rest, however, reflects the best in art. The sheer magnificence of having that much music stored in one’s mind so far exceeds anything I can do that—like the Blue Angels—the perfection and power amaze. (You can get the gist with only the opening piece, as committing to the entire 49+ is a lot to ask. Serkin died last February. He came from a traditional musical family, famous father and grandfather, but he was also a champion of modern music, Olivier Messiaen in particular. Perhaps you will listen here to the Vocalise movement of the French composer’s Quartet for the End of Time. It has a simple ABA form for the Angel who announces the End; the musicians, all quite young, seem to understand their goal: harrowing us with the A sections, calm but clear for the lengthy B. A copy of the program from the prison of war camp where it was first performed combines the chilling and the orderly. No, I don’t think we’re at the End, but the quartet is arguably Messiaen’s most famous work, hence its inclusion.)

It’s not that I can’t do some things well, or that I don’t sometimes feel satisfied with an effort. In this performance of “The Imperial March” from Star Wars, John Williams conducts it with an appealing self-satisfaction. Once again, we could say the tempo is stately. The entire program was all Williams, of course, which you can see here. He noted that the brass players asked to play the march even though they’d had many demands for the rest of the evening. Of course, it was the perfect ending, and a crowd pleaser. It’s just that I am in awe of these things currently. I believe this achievement level influences our respect for the arts.

Today’s title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “The Windhover.” The yellow-highlighted words link to definitions. He’s writing about a bird, more familiarly known as a kestrel or falcon. More accurately, he provides the reader with the experience of being one with the falcon in flight. Using words to do so takes my breath away. You can hear Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton read it here in his soft Virginia mountain accent, as a gift to his mother on her birthday; this teacher in India gives a lecture on Hopkins and the poem to an amazingly attentive class; here Jakia Shanel Probst participates in Poetry Out Loud, the National Endowment for the Arts initiative; new to me is this Irish form called sean-nós, produced here by Lorcán Mac Mathúna, stunningly and with art to accompany. But read it aloud to yourself. Fly.

Let me insert a shout out to actors: I who can barely recite the alphabet admire the ability not only to assume a character but also to memorize hundreds of lines of a play. Here Richard Burton recites another Hopkins poem, “The Leaden Echo & The Golden Echo.” The first time I heard it, I was soon so lost I couldn’t even tell he was speaking English. Having the words helps, even though some aren’t familiar and need a dictionary dart. But it’s melodic magic, and all things considered, perhaps his most accessible poem: You won’t lose your beauty if you give it to God. Here you can watch a very fresh A Midsummer Night’s Dream by The Backroom Theater Project. Everyone is remotely connected, and the effects quite cleverly catch the theme “Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?” Plus, Snug the Joiner/Lion is our own dear Katherine Bourne Taylor.

(Not to discount dancers and gymnasts and athletes and artists or any others whose minds command their bodies. That’s a rich area which, now that I think of it, needs its own column and possibly its own columnist.)

So, the Blue Angels brought tears and awe, and Peter Serkin cum Bach did the same, with a challenging poet following suit. Where does it leave me? With a deeper, fuller appreciation of “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” I understand more about the nature and purpose of Art with a capital A, regardless of its kind. If you can sew a beautiful straight line that ends in a quilt (or, these days, a mask), it should swell your heart with pride. I can’t do that either. I stand in awe of so many of you.

Interpretation and Godzilla: Notes and Asides

Last weekend, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) aired while the grandsons were here. We’d seen it at the theater together when people did such things, so we had a déjà vu plus nostalgia. In the movie just previous, Godzilla (2014), we learned much about this cultural phenom. Most importantly, I came to understand that he (or she, there’s that possibility) is actually a hero, a protector, a restorer. The younger two of the group were so impressed they committed to watching all the earlier movies available on YouTube. The number remains a mystery, though since 1954 there will have been 36 when Godzilla vs. King Kong opens (?) this year. This trailer is vague enough and includes the opening of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”  The reader has what may be a British accent but mispronounces “gyre” as “guyre” a point which I find upsetting, of course, since the UK and US pronunciations are the same. Hence, “gyrate.”

Back to the grandsons. The oldest was asked by the youngest something about Godzilla and responded with the spot on official version of the symbolism: After the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan, Godzilla became the face of nuclear war and its potential to destroy. When I looked at him, puzzled, he continued: Or he can just be a really big lizard who eats cities. Both are correct, and enjoyment can result with either. We’re probably doomed anyway, so we might as well watch. (Side note: Apparently there is a sequel to Avatar, cleverly titled Avatar 2 so far, featuring a baby since apparently that was a good look for a baby Yoda in The Mandalorian. Trailer here, more flames and such.)

That response reminded me of a car trip during which we were listening to a horror novel on tape (mid-90s) and my oldest, on hearing that a passage in which some caged rabbits were brutally slaughtered, offered this analysis: “Oh—the slaughter of innocence.” I sighed. Maybe, but it could have just been a mean thing to do in order to show-don’t-tell how bad the bad guy was. Source forgotten. Stephen King maybe?

In another example of literature ruined, a student of mine once commented that she understood all the symbols in The Wizard of Oz because her teacher had taught the class about them. Her second insight was that this “information” had ruined what had been her favorite movie. It was sad. My analogy is that too much of that kind of thing can kill a work if done poorly. Mark Twain (may have) said, “Dissecting humor is a lot like dissecting a frog. You learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” I’ll allow that sometimes a deeper meaning can enhance enjoyment, but tread carefully lest you get carried away.

I don’t have a great transition for my next bit. For years, I’ve puzzled over this passage from Ecclesiastes 9: 14 “There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: 15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.” Its inclusion seems random, on some level. Again, it’s vague and remote. We know nothing, no location, no names of kings or wise men, no time. As often happens in Ecclesiastes, more is said, but the relevance is not clearly stated:  “16 Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard. 17 The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.”

So it could be read as a simple tale and an admonition to be wise even with the knowledge that you are likely to be forgotten. This series of explanations goes all out in helping us see something that may or may not be there. I don’t think it will ruin anything, however, since the story itself is so simple. A companion story—not connected in any way except for plot—involves a woman, also unnamed, who saves a similar little city. The details, however, would make a good action movie: The bad guy’s head gets thrown over the wall as the sign all has been accomplished. The wise woman is anonymous, but everyone else and their scribe gets named. 2 Samuel 20, in case you’re interested. Sheba is the bad-then-headless guy.

And without a good transition, a conclusion becomes difficult. I’m really not in any way shape or form an Old Testament scholar, but one of the clearest favorites is this from Jeremiah 12:5 “If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? and if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” Clear enough, even with the metaphors. It could be worse, and if it is, you should be prepared because you know it could be worse. Right now, I’m watching here and there and muted Star Wars: A New Hope. It’s the first, but they’ve changed it. Oh well. The entire series is open to interpretation, for better or worse. For now, I’m going to come out opposed to that impulse. If it doesn’t speak to you as it is, why would you care about it on a “deeper” level?