Nomadland

Nomadland

Chloe Zhao (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch:Included on Hulu

Length:1 hour 48 minutes 

Names You Might Know:Frances McDormand, David Strathairn

Language:English

He Said: This is the current movie that everyone seems to be talking about. Or at least posting about. It was released on February 19, in limited release in theaters (which I still think is a pretty bad idea) and streaming on Hulu. Director Chloe Zhao is another of the three women nominated for a director’s Golden Globe, and there’s a buzz about the Chinese-born American director possibly becoming the second woman everto win an Oscar for Best Director.

The film has a 95 percent critics’ rating on Rottentomatoes.com, though only a 79 percent viewer rating. That difference might be explained, I expect, by the fact that the film is quite unlike your typical Hollywood movie: It is not heavy on plot—there’s no compelling story arc; rather the film is a character study of a single individual, Fern (played by a glorious Frances McDormand), and an exploration of a particular lifestyle—the lifestyle of migrants who live in their vans, moving about the country and living off temporary jobs.

It’s a hard movie to categorize. It’s not completely fictional, but it’s also not really a documentary. I suppose it can be considered a “docudrama,” but the film it’s most similar to is Chao’s own previous effort, 2018’s The Rider, which featured no professional actors but starred the retired rodeo rider Brady Jandreau and his friends and family from the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota, and told a story very similar to, but not quite the same as, Jandreau’s own biography. Nomadlandis based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, for which Bruder hit the road to experience for herself what it was like for these nomads—many of them having lost their livelihoods through the Great Recession of 2008—to adapt to this new migrant lifestyle. McDormand, who optioned the book and was one of the film’s producers, plays a character who doesn’t appear in the book, but is the focus of Chao’s adapted screenplay.

This character, Fern, has lost her husband, who worked for the U.S. Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, which, the film’s opening headnote tells us, closed on January 31, 2011, after 88 years. Since the town’s existence depended on the factory, it essentially disappeared—the U.S. post office actually discontinued the town’s ZIP code. Fern, who now has no permanent means of support, takes to living in her van. When in the movie’s opening scene a former acquaintance speaks of her as homeless, she answers “I’m not homeless, I’m just … houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

McDormand’s performance is gut-wrenching from beginning to end. But just as remarkable are the performances of the non-actors—the actual “houseless” people Fern meets on her journey, including the ever-optimistic Linda (Linda May), the practical and fatalistic Swankie (Charlene Swankie), and the alternate-lifestyle mentor Bob (Bob Wells), all playing barely fictionalized versions of themselves. What do you think, Jones, of this approach to filmmaking?

She Said: I found it really effective, because as an audience, we can focus on Fern’s situation and relate to it in a way we may not be able to with a featured individual in a documentary—as fiction writers know, we don’t live our lives in ways that often translate well to discrete stories and narratives. By inserting the fictional Fern to represent such a nomad, the filmmaker can evoke the emotions of knowing her well and create a story around her that represents this lifestyle. Including real-life nomads, the film makes a stronger point about the reality of the situation in the United States and its increasing reliance on gig economy workers and the attendant betrayal of the contract with its citizens that a life of hard work will keep them safe and warm in the end. 

Chao needed an actor of McDormand’s range and ability to pull this off, however, because you could not put an actor in scenes with the individuals really living this life if that actor were too performative and lacked the ability to honestly relate to the people in each scene. And if there’s a dude McDormand, it has absolutely got to be David Strathairn (who, as you know, is VERY HIGH on my list of favorite actors). Both of them are riveting on screen, because their subtle performances have all the layers and nuance of real people… they becomeall the characters they play. 

This movie is very intense and evocative, because it’s so quiet and intimate. By the end, I could see that this would not be a life I would feel safe within. At the same time, it shows the grand vistas of the American landscape, from Nevada, to my beautiful home state of South Dakota. And we can also see this beautiful world as very indifferent to the plight of those who try to live on it with few resources. Only the caring and compassion of those who love Fern make enough safe places for her to land. What do you think, Ruud, does Nomadlandpresent this lifestyle in a way that appeals to you?

He Said: Absolutely not. The insecurity, the living hand to mouth, the lack of comfort in that cramped van, where it might be extremely hot or dangerously cold depending on where you are and what time of year it is. I admit, though, that the freedom of being outside the grind of capitalism, and the closeness with those magnificent natural vistas (we do get some great views of the Badlands) does have its appeal. But it seems most of those who chose this life are forced into it by economic calamities. It seems to be no one’s first choice.

But to some extent the character of David (David Strathairn) is introduced to suggest that there may be an element of choice here (a complication that does give the film what amounts to its plot). There is a very tentative hint at a romantic connection here when they end up working seasonal jobs in the Badlands and then she follows him into a temporary job at everybody’s favorite billboard advertisement, Wall Drug (“Free Icewater! 596 miles to Wall Drug!”). Both David and, it turns out, Fern have some family connection—a son in his case, a sister in hers—that offer them a way out of this life. Will they take it? Here is where the element of choice comes in.

Rating:

She Said: I give it four Hitchcocks because not only is it good at what it’s good for, it accomplishes this beautifully in photography, performances and depth of character. 

He Said: I could really appreciate this movie and the things that Zhao did that were innovative and perhaps even groundbreaking. If she wins the Oscar for Best Director, I’d say it was definitely earned. And if McDormand (already a two-time Oscar honoree for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) wins her third Academy Award, it will be deserved. But I can’t say I had that much affection for the movie. I didn’t really enjoy the unplotted story or the unrelieved sadness. I feel like I was supposed to like the movie better than I did. But I’ll give it three Soderberghs and half a Hitchcock.

This week’s We Watched It So You Don’t Have To/Maybe You Want To?

She Said: The Stranger

Hot Take: I recently finished watching The Stranger on Netflix. I love Siobhan Finneran (Baxter from Downton Abbey), so I was drawn to this British suspense series. Let me tell you, friends, it is bonkers with a touch of bozo, but it’s certainly riveting and it made for excellent treadmill viewing. Your suspension-of-disbelief muscle will get a workout, but while we’re stuck home and streaming, maybe that’s okay.

NOW AVAILABLE

http://jayruud.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/image.png

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

A Promising Young Woman

A Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell (2020

Facts for You:

Where to Watch:Rentable on Amazon Prime

Length:1 hour 54 minutes 

Names You Might Know: Carey Mulligan with supporting roles played by Connie Britton, Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge and Alison Brie

Language: English

She Said: This black comedy suspense film from emerging creative powerhouse Emerald Fennell (Call the Midwife and The Crown) brought to mind the aphorism attributed to Margaret Atwood, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.” The film opens with Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra apparently drunk out of her wits, alone in a club, unable to find her phone. Three dude bros drinking at the bar notice her, and while two of them immediately start the lewd talk that includes a healthy dose of blaming her for anything they do to her while she’s drunk, the third, Jerry (Adam Brody from TV’s The O.C.), shows discomfort with the lewdness of their chatter and goes over to her to make sure she’s all right. He offers her a ride home, but in the ride share, he talks her into going to his place on the way for a drink. Plying her with a big glass of liqueur, he starts making out with her and transfers her to his bedroom. Once there, she asks him what he’s doing and expresses resistance, which he doesn’t heed. It turns out Cassie isn’t drunk at all, and when she demonstrates that the scene ends and we’re left wondering what happened to dude bro, aside from his shock and horror that his sex partner isn’t bombed out of her mind and might indeed be able to resist the sex he’s going to have with her.

I couldn’t help but think of Cassandra in Greek mythology, cursed to warn society of the bad things that would happen but not to be believed. Not only did people not listen to her, but they disliked her for sharing all the bad news. Promising’s young Cassandra is very similar, but her warnings take the shape of more or less complicated incidents in which she tries not only to avenge the rape of her best friend several years earlier, but also to make this revenge a real and meaningful learning opportunity for those who didn’t listen to the victim when the rape occurred—and who still aren’t listening now. Cassie’s got a book she records the names of those she’s tried to teach something to. The list is so long, the hashmarks go on for pages and pages. The task feels Sisyphian … never to be accomplished. 

At her coffee shop job, Cassie runs into a former med school colleague, who is a pediatric surgeon now. He brings up a lot of names we can see are hard for her to respond to with polite conversation. And they begin a romance that we think may help bump Cassie out of her revenge lane. Even her friend’s mother tells her to let it all go and move on; no one can take her single-minded obsession with this pivotal event anymore. Her parents are so wildly hopeful over her new relationship for their 30-year-old daughter because their worry for her has been profound. She had obviously walked away from a very promising future. 

But pulled back in time by her reacquaintance with her med-school alumnus boyfriend, Cassie hatches her biggest plan yet and executes it. The fulfillment of which brought confused tears of so many emotions to my eyes. It’s heartbreaking, satisfying, and most of all, validating. As a woman who knows that to navigate the world safely, I must make myself someone no man wants to attack…because that’s where the responsibility always seems to lie, on women, I felt more seen by a movie than I think I ever have in my life. 

He Said: Dark comedy is one way to describe this film, and seems a fitting description of the first two thirds of it. But things take a still darker turn when Cassandra’s new old med-school boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham from The Big Sick) lets it drop that Cassie’s friend’s rapist, Al Monroe (Christopher Lowell of TV’s Glow) is about to get married. Cassie’s revenge-o-meter kicks into high gear, and the movie, or at least Cassie’s tight control of her well-planned retribution scenarios, lists toward chaos. The denouement is devastating, but somehow satisfying at the same time.

Fennell has been nominated for Golden Globes for both her screenplay and her direction of this film (one of an unprecedented three women nominated for the director award this year), and Carrie Mulligan for a Best Actress award. Mulligan is absolutely mesmerizing in this role, and coming as it does at essentially the same moment as her moving portrayal of the Sutton Hoo landowner in The Dig, it demonstrates her amazing range as an actor. It would certainly be no surprise to see her nominated for an Oscar for this role too.

Cassie’s quest for justice is in some ways heroic. At the same time, her obsession with revenge has eaten up her life—she dropped out of medical school, lives at home with her parents at the age of 30, and works in a coffee shop. She has no friends and no real relationships, and her reacquaintance with Ryan looks momentarily as if it may save her. But that breaks down. I have one question for you, Jones: We see a scene in which Albert Molina, playing the rapist Al’s defense attorney, admits that his actions were despicable, and demonstrates he lives in anguish, tormented by his sins. As a result, Cassie essentially forgives him, and calls off her revenge plot against him. If the lawyer can be forgiven, what about Ryan? Why shouldn’t it be in Cassie’s interest to forgive him as well?

She Said: The difference is in their own repentance and remorse. Molina’s character acknowledges his part in protecting the toxic masculinity that perpetrates these acts. But Ryan denies and defends himself. The refrain of “we were just kids” and “that’s what things were like,” and “what did she expect?” were used by many characters who wouldn’t face the part they played in wronging another. True to the classic comedy structure of characters who either join the new order or are defeated to create the new society, Molina’s attorney comes to Cassie’s understanding of the world.

But in terms of forgiveness, yes, they should all be forgiven. Cassie sacrifices her own potential in order to perpetrate consequences for all these characters, when wiping clean the debt they owe her would have served her much better. But women often sacrifice their own wellbeing trying to warn society of its noxious and poisonous ills.

He Said: Well actually (like that mansplaining opening?) I’m pretty sure they shouldn’t all be forgiven. Certainly not Al and his enablers. Even Albert Molina (I admit I raised the question as a kind of devil’s advocate) may not be truly forgiven, but Casandra spares him her own vengeance because he is already tormented daily. Basically he is in hell now, and nothing she can do will bring him out of it. Ryan, though, may only be guilty of having walked into the room to see what the commotion was about, and then not having had the moral courage to do anything about it in the midst of the mob psychology that was predominating. But then, a lack of moral courage is not exactly a good recommendation for a committed relationship, is it?

That “new society” reference is really interesting with this film. Is there really any new society at all in the end? Maybe there’s a distinction between those who accept their culpability (the new “chastened” society) and those who don’t. But it may be more tragic than comic in the end. Maybe that accepted culpability is the anagnorisis, the knowledge that comes through tragedy.

She Said:I said “forgiven.” I didn’t say “unconsequenced.”


Rating:

She Said:I give this four Hitchcocks. Please see it. Carrie Mulligan is once again perfection in a stunning film by Emerald Fennell.

He Said: I’ll ditto your four Hitchcocks. This is a film that deserves its “Best Picture” Golden Globe nomination. It raises all kinds of questions and makes us take a hard look at a society that gives tacit acceptance to toxic masculinity, and also consider just what kind of response might be acceptable.

This Week’s We Watched It and You Should Too:
He Said: One Night in Miami
Hot Take: Here’s another film by a woman director nominated for a Golden Globe. Regina King  directs a screenplay adapted from Kemp Powers’ stage play (the limited setting and long conversations give you the sense of a play throughout) depicting a fictional account of a meeting in a Miami hotel room between Cassius Clay (the soon-to-be Muhammed Ali), Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke, following Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. The characters discuss their views of, and their contributions to, the civil rights movement then reaching its peak. The film is fascinating and thought provoking, particularly in the conflict between Kingsley Ben-Adir (of TV’s Vera and Peaky Blinders) as Malcolm and Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton’s Aaron Burr) as Sam Cooke, who seem to represent the two extreme poles of the movement. This is definitely one you ought to see.

NOW AVAILABLE

http://jayruud.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/image.png

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.

However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Deacon King Kong

Deacon King Kong

James McBride (2020)

James McBride is the acclaimed author of the National Book Award winning novel The Good Lord Bird (2013). He also wrote the popular memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’sTribute to His White Mother (1995), which spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list; wrote the historical World War II novel Miracle of St. Anna (2002), which was made into a 2008 film of the same name by Spike Lee; has received significant recognition (including a Stephen Sondheim and a Richard Rogers award) as a composer and saxophonist; and was awarded a 2015 National Humanities Medal by President Obama for what the president called “humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America. Through writings about his own uniquely American story, and his works of fiction informed by our shared history, his moving stories of love display the character of the American family.” Yet for all of this, it’s possible that his most recent novel, Deacon King Kong, may be his highest achievement.

You might feel a trifle overwhelmed in the first chapter as you are introduced to some twenty characters living in the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, characters with names like “Bum-Bum,” “Hot Sausage,” Dominic Lefleur the “Haitian Sensation,” “The Elephant,” Sister Gee, and “The Cousins” (Nanette and Sweet Corny). But the crowd makes you feel at home in the projects, kind of like a big block party. That is, until our title character pulls out a .45-caliber Luger pistol in front of sixteen witnesses and shoots into the face of a 19-year-old local drug dealer named Deems Clemens. Deems turns at the last moment and the bullet grazes the side of his head, taking off most of his ear. The shooter is “Deacon” Cuffy Lambkin (known to most of the folks in the Causeway as “Sportcoat,” but sometimes called “Deacon King Kong” after the best home-made liquor in the neighborhood cooked up by the janitor Rufus on the next block). The 71-year-old Sportcoat used to coach the Causeway Houses boys’ baseball team and Deems had been the team’s star pitcher, who seemed destined to a career of college ball that might lead to a major league contract, until he’d been sidetracked into making fast money working for a drug kingpin. Sportcoat had also been Deems’ Sunday School teacher at the local Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportcoat is now a deacon (though one of the novel’s running jokes is that nobody seems to know exactly what a deacon does). None of this explains why Sportcoat shot Deems, and Sportcoat doesn’t seem to remember himself, once the alcoholic deacon comes around after his drunken spree.

And this is just the first chapter. But it isn’t only the roistering, turbulent action that gets your blood stirred up while reading this book. It’s also the author’s style. We are often treated to long sentences that go off like a string of firecrackers, their sense turning again and again in a flamboyant surge of multilayered perspective. In one curious chapter called “The March of the Ants,” McBride describes the annual visit of a colony of Colombian ants to the projects, who make their pilgrimage specifically to eat a load of cheese that is mysteriously delivered to the neighborhood every month—sent by Jesus according to some members of Five Ends Church. About the ants arriving from Colombia, McBride writes,

And there they stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the life of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich—West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious—and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”

The author who comes closest to matching this kind of writing, to my mind, is that other chronicler of race in America, William Faulkner, whose wandering, colloquial sentences require similar mental gymnastics on the part of the reader. That comparison with Faulkner is not just out of the blue. Like Faulkner, McBride is not shy in demonstrating the hardships with which white Americans have, even unconsciously, burdened black Americans, but is also more than happy to explore areas of common humanity and the opportunities for true love and partnership across racial and ethnic lines. And so it is in this novel.

In this regard, of course, it is the individual characters who play the greatest part. There are plenty of characters in Deacon King Kong, some quirkier than others, but for the most part presented sympathetically, as from a perspective of someone who actually likes people in all their various shapes and forms. The main characters here all tend to be looking for something: Sportcoat is looking for the church’s Christmas Fund, which may have had anything from three to five thousand dollars in it, and which his late wife Hettie hid away and never told anybody where before she died. Hettie, by the way, still argues with him on a regular basis. Or at least, he is constantly arguing with her. As for Deems, like everybody else, he’d like to know why Sportcoat shot him. He’d also like to break away from his supplier and switch to another, which means that the out-of-town assassin sent to punish Sportcoat is likely to be after him as well. The Elephant, an Italian gangster involved in smuggling and transporting stolen property but who refuses to have anything to do with drugs, is approached by an old Irish friend of his father’s (who happens to own a bagel shop—go figure) who is looking for a valuable object he gave to Elephant Senior for safekeeping, something the size of “a bar of soap,” but the Elephant has no clue where it’s hidden. And then there’s the Irish cop Dobbs, who wants to protect Deems and/or Sportcoat, but is also only a few months from retirement, whom nobody in the church really trusts except perhaps Sister Gee, the pastor’s wife. And besides all of that, where in heaven’s name is that cheese coming from every month?

These questions are ultimately all intertwined, as are the characters’ lives, and some answers may surprise you and others you’ll see coming a mile away. I won’t give any spoilers here, but the final impression you get of the Causeway Projects is that this is a neighborhood held together “in the palm of God’s hand,” as the motto of Five Ends Baptist Church puts it. McBride himself grew up in a South Brooklyn housing project, and his parents founded the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. So it’s no surprise that both the church and the neighborhood of this novel seem so vividly real. The fact that McBride’s father was black and his mother a Jew who converted to Christianity may be one reason that he refuses to demonize any group of characters in the book. It’s probably also significant that the action of the novel takes place in 1969—the summer of the moon landing, Woodstock, and, most importantly, the triumph of the Miracle Mets who pulled off their incredible and inexplicable World Series run that year. It takes an apparent miracle for things to work out in this novel, and McBride frames the book with a beginning dedication “For God’s people—all of ’em,” and ends it with an acknowledgement that reads “Thanks to the humble Redeemer who gives us the rain, the snow, and all the things in between.” For that time in between, it seems we are in the palm of God’s hand, so it should be no surprise that things work out for the people in the novel. All of ’em.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

The Dig

The Dig

Simon Stone (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Netflix

Length: 1 hour 52 minutes

Names You Might Know: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James

He Said:If you’re a big fan of Beowulf (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) then you’re well aware of the dark, elegiac tone that hangs over that poem, and the pervasive theme of ubi sent (“Where are they?”) bleeding through every alliterative half-line: “These were great men, and did great deeds—where are they now?” Where they are is dead and gone, their ashes buried under mounds of earth. Their deeds, the wars they fought which seemed so vitally important at the time, are buried with them. Their only survival lies here, in the poem, for it is art, the work of the human mind, and not the business of the transient world, that survives.

That same theme lies at the heart of the new film from Simon Stone, The Dig, which takes as its subject the greatest archeological find in British history, the discovery of the 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Sussex. Since its unearthing in 1939, that discovery has been ineluctably linked with Beowulf, because the elaborate gold ornaments of the ship’s burial chamber are solid evidence that the rich material world evoked by the Beowulfpoet was real and not poetic fancy. Though never referenced in the film, the magnificently wrought iron and bronze helmet from the Sutton Hoo hoard (now on display at the British Museum), with its eyebrows terminating in boar’s heads standing over the cheek bones, was a physical example of the boar’s head helmets readers of the poem had been trying to envisage for generations. In the film, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott from The Hobbit films), the head archeologist assigned to the dig by the British Museum, waxes poetic himself, declaring that these precious artifacts demonstrate that these people, dead for 1,400 years, were not simply warring barbarians but a civilization of culture and beauty. Like the Beowulf poet, the artifacts speak profoundly of those no longer here.

Mortality whispers “ubi sunt” from every frame of this film. Set more than eighty years ago on the eve of World War II, it presents characters who very conspicuously are no longer with us, on the eve of another war which, in time, will be as forgotten as that between Beowulf’s Geats and Frisians. In this story, the wealthy English widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires experienced working-class excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig into some old mounds on her property at Sutton Hoo, thinking there may be some interesting artifacts buried there. Brown forms a Platonic bond with Edith and becomes a father figure to her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), whose interests are more in the future and space travel than in the East Anglian past. Soon Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn from last year’s Emma.)—biding his time before being called up to duty with the RAF—arrives to help with the dig.

When Brown uncovers the impression of the ship, there is suddenly a great deal of interest from the local Ipswich museum and from the British Museum itself in the remarkable discovery, and Phillips comes blundering in, bringing with him the young archeologist John Brailsford (Eamon Farren from TV’s The Watcher) and the ill-matched husband-wife team of Stuart and Peggy Piggot (Ben Chaplin from Snowdenand Lily James from last year’s bloody awful Rebeccaremake). Before long two things become clear: that beneath the very restrained British veneer protecting this collection of diggers strong passions are going to be unearthed, as is, inevitably, an awareness of their own mortality, the transience of this mortal life.

She Said: Not being a fan of Beowulf (my English-major course-taking decisions were often contingent on Beowulf not being on the syllabus), I missed much of what He Said references above, and yet I still found the film enthralling. You don’t have to be able to recite Beowulf in West Saxon Old English to understand the fleeting feeling of life on earth as a member of a violent and vulnerable species. The ship Mr. Brown finds isn’t really even a ship, but the memory of one preserved in the earth by the sand that filled in where the ship materials decomposed. Mrs. Pretty, performed pitch perfectly with the sad beauty Carrie Mulligan is so expert at bringing to a role, is ill and facing her own mortality from the ravages of a childhood illness. The war is about to explode on the Continent and men are being called up across England as London prepares for air raids. Mrs. Pretty’s own husband has died, leaving his young son without a father. This film is lousy with memento mori themes. And then Mr. Brown finds a big one at the direction of Mrs. Pretty. So, it’s not a sunny film.

And yet the emotional experience of the film is very satisfying, perhaps cathartic, especially during our own period of civilizational upheaval, physical danger and, most of all, loss. This is one of those films that loves its characters, feels “hand-made” and intimate and comes into the psyche of the willing viewer with a meaningful and tender experience rather than a didactic tone. It helps that the scenery is charming and gentle, that Mrs. Pretty’s clothes are to-die-for feminine ’30s-era beauties, muted, not twee, which she wears comfortably as a rich woman would. In fact, during the film, I posted on Facebook that I wished God would grant me the confident assertiveness of the rich British woman—one of her most appealing traits was that she knew who she was, she knew she held control of her land and resources and that she could clap back at the mansplainers in her presence in favor of what she knew to be right and loyal. I found her to be very inspirational beyond the drum-beat of a reminder that our lives are fleeting.

He Said: Shout-out to costume designer Alice Babidge, who put Mrs. Pretty in those clothes as well as dressing her son Robbie in that awesome rocket-ship sweater from the Buck Rogers thirties. And I agree with you about Mulligan’s spot-on performance. Interestingly, she was apparently a last-minute replacement for Nicole Kidman in the role. The real Mrs. Pretty was more Kidman’s age—Mulligan is about twenty years too young for the historical Mrs. Pretty, but she has the gravitas to carry it off. As for Fiennes, his performance is a thespian tour de force from one of our premier actors—if all you can remember of Fiennes is his turn as “he who must not be named” in the Harry Potter movies, let me remind you of a few little things called Schindler’s ListQuiz Show, and The English Patient, in which Fiennes first showed his dazzling talent. Here, as the quiet, understated Brown, he makes you forget that he’s actually acting.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Moira Buffini’s screenplay is based on a historically based novel of the same name by John Preston, who, incidentally, is in fact the nephew of Peggy Piggot, the character played by Lily James in the film. We can imagine, but never know, what personal insights Preston may have gotten from his aunt that he incorporated into his story. But let me ask you this, Jones: Did you expect Fiennes and Mulligan to develop more of a romantic connection? Was that something that would have made the movie more appealing to a Hollywood-fed audience?

She Said: I don’t think I’m the one to ask what would make Hollywoodies love a movie, but I found their growing friendship and mutual respect to be more rewarding than a pretend romance, partly because I enjoyed the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Brown (she begins as a kind of two-dimensional “problematic wife” character, but this relationship is also allowed to flower and flourish naturally in the film). 

He Said: Yes, Mrs. Brown (played convincingly by Monica Dolan of A Very English Scandal and Wolf Hall) steps in just when you think there might be something cooking between Brown and Mrs. Pretty. Overall, this is an impressive British historical costume drama in the Merchant Ivory tradition. I’m going to give it three Soderberghs and half a Hitchcock.

She Said:I’ll go full Hitchcock on this one with four Hitches for this lovely film, so very good at what it’s good for…and more!

We’re Watching It and You Should Too: 

She Said: Unforgotten

This is available on Amazon Prime (though you may need a BritBox or Acorn add-on) is a devastatingly sad, expertly acted three-season British series starring Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart and Sanjeev Bhaskar as DI Sunny Khan trying to solve cold cases after bodies are found decades later. Each season focuses on one victim, the lives of those somehow involved in the original crime and the resolution of the long-cold case. It can be confusing at first as you don’t know how the stories intertwine, and it passes through unbearable sadness. But the denouement each season relieves some of that pain with a grief that can now be at peace. I’m rewatching it with He Said after having binged all three seasons on my own.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.

However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Hamnet

Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

There is at the center of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel about the death of William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son Hamnet a chapter that backs away from the story we are in the midst of and examines it from a transcendent perspective. It is unlikely that O’Farrell could have conceived at the time of its composition how terribly relevant and contemporary that chapter would prove to be by the end of the year in which her novel was published. In O’Farrell’s fiction, Hamnet dies of bubonic plague—a plausible fiction in an age when the theaters of London were periodically closed for months due to outbreaks of the plague in the city. O’Farrell begins this remarkable chapter by explaining

“For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.

“The first is a glassmaker on the island of Murano in the principality of Venice; the second is a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Alexandria on an unseasonably warm morning with an easterly wind.”

As O’Farrell goes on to intricately explain how the cabin boy, playing with a monkey in Egypt, becomes a carrier for a flea, who spreads the deadly virus through its progeny to shipboard cats and rats, to members of the ship’s crew, to the glassmaker in Venice, into a box of glass beads that is ultimately shipped to England and brought to Stratford and delivered to a seamstress for use on a gown—and which Hamnet’s twin sister Judith unpacks. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the description has a chilling immediacy, and is likely to be the most memorable part of the novel for current readers. 

This seems inevitable but does the novel a disservice. What O’Farrell has really given us is an extremely well-researched historical novel concerning the death of Shakespeare’s son that stands as a timeless exploration of parental grief at the unthinkable loss of a child. 

We really don’t know a great deal about Shakespeare’s life. There are far fewer surviving records of his life than there are, for example, of Chaucer’s, who lived 200 years earlier. Of Shakespeare’s private life, his family life in Stratford, we know few facts. We do not know what his relationship was like with his parents. We don’t know exactly why he left Stratford to make his way in London, or how often he returned home. We don’t know exactly how Hamnet died, or how the boy’s death affected his father—only that Shakespeare wrote some of his most lighthearted comedies in the immediate wake of that. We do not know anything about his relationship with his wife, other than that she was eight years his senior and he married her when she got pregnant. All we know is that, in his will, he left his wife his “second best bed.” This latter detail has raised a number of conjectures as to what it meant about their relationship. O’Farrell actually deals with this briefly in her book: When he purchases a new bed, she simply declares she likes the old bed better, and wants to sleep in it. And that’s all there was to that.

It’s the playwright’s shadowy wife, in fact, who emerges as the novel’s protagonist, not Shakespeare himself or his eponymous son. But it is Hamnet whom we meet first, as the book opens with the lad frantically searching for his mother, his grandmother, his older sister, anyone that might be able to help him, as his twin sister Judith has suddenly and alarmingly taken ill with what turns out to be the bubonic plague.

At this particular moment, the mother is away from her own home, on her brother’s farm, where she is tending to some bees she keeps there. She is unaware of the fate that is about to come down on her, and the narrator says “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s.” Indeed, it will seem as if everything in her past life has brought her and her family to this moment, and everything will be quite different from this moment on.

The woman we know as Ann Hathaway is here named Agnes, which is how her father named her in his will. Agnes’s story is told in two timelines: It begins here at this moment of crisis, and alternates between this narrative “present” and a past beginning 15 years earlier with her first meeting with the Latin tutor whom she will eventually marry. Variously referred to as “the tutor,” “her husband,” “the boy’s father,” the novel’s most famous character is never named. And since next to nothing is known about the tutor’s wife, O’Farrell takes this as a license to create the character of Agnes from the ground up, weaving a woman far more sympathetic than the often negative portrayals of Shakespeare’s wife have been hitherto.

In O’Farrell’s reimagining, Agnes is a free-spirited, wild creature, more at home in the woods than indoors. She is a healer to whom the folk of Stratford come to for healing potions when they are sick, but are a bit in awe of. 

“She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad…collecting plants to make dubious potions. It is wise not to cross her for people say she learnt her crafts from an old crone…She is said to be too wild for any man. Her mother, God rest her soul, had been a gypsy or a sorceress or a forest sprite.”

When Shakespeare, employed as a Latin tutor for her half-brothers, first sees Agnes out of a schoolroom window, she is emerging form the forest with a hawk on her wrist, and he thinks she is a boy. But before long, the 18-year-old tutor is enamored of the 26-year-old wood nymph, and gushes to his sister that she is “like no one you have ever met…She can look at a person and see right into their very soul.” The young Shakespeare, something of a misfit in his own home with a domineering father in whose glove-making business the boy has no talent or interest, is eager for something finer. And for her part, Agnes, stuck in a Cinderella situation, fatherless with an obnoxious stepmother, is eager to consummate her love for this fellow pariah.

Three children later, Agnes, recognizing her husband’s restlessness and dissatisfaction with life in Stratford, sends him off to London, where he unexpectedly becomes a success in the theater. Young Judith’s frail health makes it untenable for the family to follow him, so that he is only able to visit occasionally. So the father is in London when the family crisis of Judith’s illness strikes. Summoned from London, he rushes back to Stratford thinking to see his daughter dead—and instead finds his son, who has employed a favorite twins’ trick—“to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other”—to trick Death into taking him instead of his sister. It’s a trick worthy of one of Shakespeare’s own dramatic twins, but a tragic one.

The real tragedy is Agnes’s. The emotions of the healer, devastated by her son’s loss, which came as an unlooked for shock while she tried to save her daughter, are presented in as raw and unflinching a depiction of grief as you will ever read. O’Farrell, who in her 2018 memoir I Am, I Am, I Amdescribes her own child’s near death, channels her private emotions in writing Agnes, and makes us feel in fiction what no parent should feel in reality. The scene in which Agnes lays out her son’s body for burial is one of the most exquisitely painful you will ever read.

As so often in real life, the loss of the child creates a great strain on the marriage. Harvard scholar Steven Greenblatt has asserted that “Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records” (hence the italicized nin the book’s title), and has proposed the possibilitythat Shakespeare’s grief at his son’s death was the motivation in his creation of Hamlet. It’snot a suggestion that other Shakespearean scholars have generally accepted, but it makes for an excellent fictional development, and Agnes’s bitter reaction to this step beings the denouement of the novel. 

This is a brilliant historical novel, both because of O’Farrell’s detailed recreation of 16th century domestic life, and her depiction of the universality of grief. You ought to read this book.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

News of the World

News of the World

Paul Greengrass (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime

Length: 1 hour 58 minutes

Names You Might Know: Tom Hanks

She Said: Well, it’s happened: We’ve been home for the Pandemic long enough to get TWO Tom Hanks movies on streaming; the first was Greyhound, last year when streaming major studio releases felt very novel, and now we’ve got News of the World, when it feels more normal to fire up the Amazon movie machine and rent a movie at home for $20. 

This film comes right out of the gate as a quest, a journey with risk and rewards in the service of a goal or value. Our hero, a former Confederate officer, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, makes his living traveling from town to town in Texas in 1870 reading newspapers to the townsfolk. The evening is a kind of Chautauqua of the news, a performance of the headlines and human-interest stories that will engage and appeal to the audiences as well as edify. Kidd chooses topics beyond the main headlines to make the dime entry fee worth it for those who may not have much more than that to spare.

After the movie shows us what Kidd does, we find him traveling to his next “performance,” coming upon a lynched Black man, a crashed wagon and a lone little girl, unhurt but utterly alone. We quickly learn the little girl is Johanna Leonberger (German actress Helena Zengel), a child who was stolen from her German-immigrant family years before and raised by a Kiowa tribe in the area. With the settlers’ growing incursions of native lands, tensions are mounting and this little girl is being returned to her remaining family members (everyone else was brutally killed in the raid). The small blonde girl is dressed in Kiowa-style animal skins and speaks no English and very little German, as she has almost no memory of her birth family. She is hard to handle, resists the dress she’s put in as soon as Kidd gets her to a town, and insists on eating with her fingers, but she’s smart enough to know who she’s safe with and who she isn’t, and like the rest of America during a pandemic, she knows she’s safe with Tom Hanks. We know his near-term, quick solution isn’t going to work out, as we have a two-hour movie to go, and our quest takes shape in this particular time and place.

And so, we have our reluctant hero Captain Kidd, setting off to take the girl somewhere safe, while also healing his own wounds. Whilst predictable in the ways this storyline may be for those who’ve encountered this plot in literature and movies many times before, this movie is anything but cookie-cutter, insincere or heavy handed. For starters, Johanna’s plight given her trauma of the slaughter of her family, and then her removal from the people she considers her beloved family, the Kiowa, is profoundly pitiable, and Zengel plays it strong and straight, so that our emotions are our own, not demanded by the film. Hanks plays a role we know and love him for, the ethical, but flawed, man, doing his best to do his best. And while the structure and scenario are straightforward, my emotions ran a sizeable gamut because of the understated, honest portrayal of these characters. The movie loved them, and so did I. The white people are good and bad; the Kiowa are good and bad; the world is a dangerous place, making kindness matter all the more.

I’m not a big lover of westerns; there’s often a machismo and an ethic of violence I don’t relate to, but westerns are almost always good for one thing: beautiful scenery, and Greengrass makes the most of these opportunities. Texas looks real pretty, y’all, as well as austere and indifferent to the plight of a little Kiowa-raised German girl with nowhere to go.

My only quibble is the title. The movie is based on the novel of the same name, which I haven’t read, but I kept forgetting what this was called because the phrase doesn’t really attach itself to the meaning of the film as I experienced it. Yes, Kidd’s job is reading that news to people as his job, but it doesn’t connect as cleanly on screen to the central relationship of the film, the Captain and Johanna. What say you, Ruud?

He Said: Well, as a title, “The Captain and Johanna” sounds more like a ’90s pop duo than a movie, though you might say that love does keep them together in the end. Is that a spoiler? But I think “News of the World” is not a bad title, since it works on two levels—the literal level of Brother Kidd’s Traveling Show and the more suggestive level of how the news he brings from the outside world to some of these small towns (especially one town whose despotic leader forbids any news other than his own propaganda) enlightens people’s minds and changes their lives, as he changes Johanna’s. 

But going back to your point about not liking westerns, it’s interesting that this is Hanks’ first ever western, which at this stage of his long and varied career is hard to believe. Maybe he felt the same about them as you, but was talked into this by directorPaul Greengrass, who directed him in the intense Captain Phillips. But as a connoisseur of westerns myself, I couldn’t help seeing echoes of previous classic westerns in scene after scene of this film. There’s a True Grit vibe in Hanks’ road trip with the young girl. There’s a whiff of Red River as they make their way into a Texas town where the streets are crowded by a huge cattle herd. There’s a hint of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a gunfight in the mountains. And most of all there is the shadow of the John Ford classic The Searchers looming over the film, as Hanks searches for the girl’s lost family and tries to return her from her Kiowa captivity—the reverse of John Wayne’s search for his niece who has been taken captive by Indians. A camera shot from inside a deserted cabin looking through the front door out at Kidd and Johanna seems a deliberate echo of the final shot of The Searchers, that framed Wayne in the doorway, standing isolated outside the girl’s home. The film is a kind of taking back of The Searchers and of the conventional western’s glorification of violence, particularly violence against Indians.

But let me ask you this, Jones: Greengrass is best known for frenetic action movies, like the Bourne trilogy. In News of the World, we have a very episodic, fairly slow-moving story—intense at times, yes, but generally unhurried. Is it too ponderous?

She Said: One viewer’s ponderous might be another’s careful and intentional consideration of the ways in which we are invisibly scarred by the traumas the world and its politics can inflict upon adult and child alike. This movie thoughtfully and lovingly earns four Hitchcocks in my book because it could not be better at what it’s good for.

He Said: The movie is generally good at what it’s good for. The plot, though, is a bit cliché and definitely episodic, and its careful intentionality might not be what viewers are expecting from a Greengrass movie. The cinematography as you mentioned is noteworthy, and kudos to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski for those great vistas of New Mexico disguised to look like Texas. Hanks is flawless in the sincere humanitarianism he brings to the role, and the young girl, film newcomer Zengel, does a bang-up job with very few lines in English. I’m gonna go ahead and give this film three Soderberghs. It’s definitely worth a watch.

This Week’s We Watched It so You Don’t Have To:
He Said: 
Wonder Woman 1984

Hot Take: The new Wonder Woman that premiered on Christmas has the saving grace of retaining the glorious Gal Gadot in the title role, but has the misfortune of trying to be equal to one of the best superhero films ever made. It really doesn’t rise to the challenge and has a messy story that goes on for two and a half hours without really going anywhere.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

A Children’s Bible

A Children’s Bible

Lydia Millet (2020)

It’s not unusual for a literary text on any level to depict parents as complete idiots whom their children are forced to save through their superior savvy and common sense, and replace those in power with a “new society.” This is almost the universal plot of comedy, from Menander and Plautus through Shakespeare (Merchant ofVenice?) to Back to the Future. But when the older generation’s ignorance or blindness involves denial, self-delusion, and mendacity, we’re no longer in the realm of comedy. We’re beyond even tragedy, which charts the fall of the individual. We’re in the Waste Land.

Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible takes us to that land. Named one of the best books of 2020 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, NPR, and Time magazine, Millet’s novel begins like one of those comedies I mentioned: We’re in the environs of a large 19th century mansion, rented for the summer by several families with their children, ranging in age from seven or eight to seventeen. The parents spend most of their time drinking and lounging in the house, while the children form their own little world apart from the parents and trying not even to acknowledge them—they even engage in a game in which they try to determine which parents belong to which kid. The parents are a huge embarrassment: “As the evenings wore on, some parents got it into their heads to dance,” the narrator laments. It’s a “Sad spectacle . . . . They were a cautionary tale.”

The book begins with such simple language that it seems itself to be intended for children:

“Once we lived in a summer country. In the woods there were tree houses, and on the lake there were boats.”

But it quickly becomes obvious that this is no nursery tale, and we are led to expect that at least a few of the teenagers will be hooking up in this loose environment.

The narrator and protagonist of the novel, a teenaged girl named Evie, has a younger brother named Jack who is obsessed with studying animals and who receives from one of the less hedonistic mothers a Children’s Bible, which (unfamiliar with any organized religious tradition) he reads with some interest, trying to figure out the point of these stories. Meanwhile the children, eager to put some distance between themselves and the pointless fecklessness with which the parents squander their days, row some boats a few miles downstream to a beach where they intend to camp out for the night. On the beach they meet some fellow teenagers whose parents are parked offshore in yachts. These one-percenters bring in the first real hint of truly dark clouds on the horizon (at least metaphorically) when they discuss the well-stocked bunkers their parents have outfitted, just in case they need to survive a coming environmental apocalypse.

When actual dark clouds move toward shore from the ocean, the kids hurry back to their parents in the great house, which is battered by a violent hurricane. The electricity goes out, flood waters surround the property, but the parents, unconcerned that anything bad is really going to happen, spend the night doing drugs and swapping spouses. The kids, giving up on their parents completely, decide to take matters into their own hands. They take one of the roomier cars and set off in an attempt to reach the ten-room house one of their families owns in New York’s Westchester county. But the storm has wreaked havoc all the way to New York and Boston, and the children, unable to make it further, wind up on a farm in Pennsylvania, near Bethlehem.

If that particular detail isn’t enough to clue you in, let me belabor the obvious. This is a novel full of biblical allusions, including, of course, an Eve who is forced to leave her Eden; a Noah in the form of Jack, who traps animals in the woods to save them from the flood; a Moses figure who leads the children to a promised land, goes up a hill to use his cell phone to call the absentee owner of that promised land and comes down with a set of “rules”; a Cain and Abel pair; a birth in a barn; a crucifixion; and a host of other examples, not the least of which is the disaster itself, framed as the beginning of a climate-change-induced apocalypse. And it is Jack, reading his Children’s Bible, who sees a number of parallels. Jack, with no prior religious education, tries to make sense of what he is reading in the light of what he is experiencing, and puts forward a new interpretation of the scriptures: When the authors of the book talk about “God,” Jack decides, it’s actually a “code word” for nature. “Jesus,” moreover, is the authors’ code for science:

“’And the proof is, there’s lots the same with Jesus and science,’ Jack says. ‘Like, for science to save us we have to believe in it. And same with Jesus. If you believe in Jesus he can save you.’”

As for the Holy Spirit, Jack finally reveals in the last pages of the book that this refers to the things we make—technology, perhaps, or one might say art (this may owe something to Dante, who called Nature the child of God, and Art the child of Nature—but that’s a whole new essay). This may be Millet’s subtle condemnation of contemporary “literary” novelists (as opposed to science fiction writers, perhaps) who have failed to address the climate crisis—the most important problem of our age because of its existential implications—and have, like the parents in this novel, brushed it off as something human ingenuity would solve or, worse, been led politicians and their sycophantic religious followers who advise us not to “believe” in science.

No such charge could be made against Millet’s fiction. She holds a Master’s degree in environmental policy from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and spent two years working for the Natural Resources Defense Council before taking a job as editor and staff writer for the Center for Biological Diversity, where she has been since 1999. Much of her fiction has focused on human beings and their shaky relationship with their environment: Her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, a collection of comic vignettes featuring celebrities’ encounters with other species, was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Her 2012 novel Magnificence showcases a taxidermy museum uncomfortably comprising extinct animals. But nowhere before has she so blatantly featured the coming mass extinction, an extinction possibly including the species that caused it: humankind.

This is what the children in the book get and the parents do not. Early on Eve says of the definitively un-woke parents:

“They aimed their conversation like a dull gray beam . . . What they said was so boring it filled us with frustration, and after more minutes, rage. Didn’t they know there were urgent subjects? Questions that needed to be asked?”

Chief among those questions is what to do about the climate crisis, which the parents and their government representatives have ignored and still do nothing, even at this late date. But the children know. They are embodied in Greta Thunberg chastising the adult leaders of the world for ignoring the real problem. At one point two of the book’s yacht kids, talking about their end-of-the-world bunkers, mention what would have been the parents’ old bugaboo, nuclear holocaust:

“The nuclear threat. So quaint.”

“It’s like, if only. Right?”

“The climate deal makes nukes look kind of sweet. Like being scared of cannons.”

“Slingshots.”

The biblical allusions to Jack’s Children’s Bible are, like the sense of tragedy, meaningless here, since to have any meaning we must ultimately be in a world made meaningful by human beings’ acceptance of God’s biblical injunction to act as stewards of the world. To do that, as Jack insists, we would have to believe in science. Despite its title, the book is not intended for children. Like Lord of the Flies, to which it has been compared, it’s aimed at parents. The kids already know. Maybe, just maybe it’s not too late for the parents.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

George C. Wolfe (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Netflix

Length: 1 hour 34 minutes

Names You Might Know: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

He Said: August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” sometimes called the “American Cycle,” is one of the great achievements of American theater. A series of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, is intended to chronicle the African American experience over the course of the last century. All but one of these dramas was nominated for the Tony Award for “Best Play” the year it premiered on Broadway, and that neglected play, Jitney, ended up winning the Tony when it was revived in 2017. Fences, the other play to win the Best Play Tony, also received the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, and Wilson’s The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer as well in 1987. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the first of Wilson’s plays to be nominated for the Tony, and is the second of the Pittsburgh Cycle (after 2016’s Fences) to be made into a major film through the efforts of Denzel Washington, who has expressed his intent to see all of the cycle on film.

Ma Rainey is the cycle play set in the 1920s. Specifically, it takes place during a recording session in a Chicago studio in 1927 (the only play of the cycle not set in Pittsburgh), and focuses on Ma Rainey, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” and her thorny relationship with her white manager and producer. Determined to control her own music, the crotchety and domineering Rainey cows everyone and bends them to her will—everyone except the young cornet player in her band, Levee, who has his own ideas about how to perform “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and is composing his own songs, which he hopes to sell to Ma’s producer. Meanwhile, he has his eye on Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae, and the other three band members, grizzled veterans all, poke fun at Levee’s ambitions.

Viola Davis is glorious as the formidable Ma Rainey. An Oscar winner for her role in Wilson’s Fences, she’s probably a lock for another nomination with this performance. But the film really belongs to Chadwick Boseman as Levee. In his final role before his tragic premature death from cancer earlier this year, Boseman lights up the screen with brazen charisma, youthful charm, and raw talent. Having already given an iconic performance earlier in 2020 in Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, Boseman has to be the sentimental favorite for a posthumous Oscar this year.

She Said: I didn’t realize the Pittsburgh Cycle included a play for each decade. My sequential and structured psyche just LOVES that. 

While I respect and admire August Wilson and his work, I didn’t have a lot of affection for Fences when we saw it in the theater (remember movie theaters? Sigh…). I think it is because I found the style of discourse and dialogue distracting. Wilson has a definite style, and his characters “hold forth” a great deal, which for me creates distance between me and their individual humanity. That connection is what I love about movies, so it’s harder for me to engage with material that has such a strong stamp by its creator—which is why I often don’t love Aaron Sorkin’s work: Every character sounds like the same person, just with different viewpoints and biographical details. 

But I did find this movie engaging because the performances were so stellar, just as I did for Fences. I can’t remember anyone Viola Davis was even in a scene with because when she was on screen, my eyes were riveted on her. Wow! So much energy, perfectly unleashed and restrained in turn. Boseman also lit every shot he was in from within with the verve and ambition of his character. I did respond to the conflict in this movie between an older generation with its experience and accomplishments and the young crew with its confidence and accomplishments ahead. 

He Said: Do you think your negative reaction to the “holding forth” of the characters might have something to do with the difficulties of adapting for the screen a script intended for the stage? The film is certainly “talkier” than the conventional Hollywood film—and, though there are attempts to set a few scenes out on the streets of Chicago, the setting is essentially all in the recording studio, often in the band’s claustrophobic rehearsal space. The fact is that the director of the film, George C Wolfe, is a highly successful Broadway director, having won a Tony for directing the musical Jelly’s Last Jam (about jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton) and moving on the following year to direct Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Milennium Approaches, for which he won another Tony in 1993. He directed the second part of Kushner’s classic, then directed Patrick Stewart in his famous production of The Tempest, and won another Tony for directing Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk in 1996. This is an incredible resume, but doesn’t involve a lot of film work. 

Also, the screenplay adaptation was done by veteran stage and screen actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who appeared under Wolfe’s direction in Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway, and won a Tony for his role in Wilson’s Seven Guitars in 1996. Santiago-Hudson’s writing credits are limited to his own play, Lackawanna Blues, which he also adapted for the screen in 2006. The point is both the director and screenwriter for this movie are coming from background in the “legitimate theater.” Is the film more stagey than screeny?

She Said: I don’t know about it being the problem with stage-to-screen adaptations. I loved Carnage, which was based on the Yasmina Reza play. I thought Ma Rainey was filmed really beautifully; the sets were lush and enveloping, so it wasn’t that I felt I was watching a play that was filmed. I think the way Wilson has characters talk to each other in lengthier speeches isn’t personally super enjoyable to me, but beyond my own idiosyncrasies, I found nothing to fault in this film. Personally, I think I’d enjoy the cycle of plays more if I could view them in chronological order. And that’s another idiosyncrasy of being She Said.

He Said: Well, of course they weren’t written in chronological order, and each does stand by itself, but I see your point. Anyway, overall, I was strongly moved by his film, especially because of the power of the performances, and in that light I want to mention one more performance—that of venerable character actor Glynn Thurman as Toledo, the band’s oldest member. Recently seen as Doctor Senator in the 2020 iteration of TV’s Fargo, Thurman plays a similar role here as the voice of wisdom, experience, and gentle stoicism, a kind of foil or mocking counterpart to Boseman’s adrenalin-charged aggressiveness. The sudden and shocking climax of the film involving him and Boseman is foreshadowed but still manages to be stunning. In the end, I’m giving this film four Hitchcocks.

She Said: I won’t fight you on this. The movie is an excellent adaptation, I am sure, and it is very, very good at what it’s good for.

This Week’s We Watched It and You Should Too
She Said: Unforgotten (series)

Hot Take: I am gobbling up this British crime drama that I’m streaming on Prime via an add-on for British shows. The first season aired in 2015 on ITV and the series stars Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as London detectives solving cold cases when the bodies are suddenly found. The emotional pain is almost unbearable as the lives of the people involved in one way or another is explored as the police close in on the killer decades later. But it’s lovely to see police force in which the boss praises her staff and shows compassion for those around her. 

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Money: A Suicide Note

Money: A Suicide Note

Martin Amis (1985)

Martin Amis, son of another acclaimed British novelist, Kingsley Amis (LuckyJim), is, I’m quite certain, better known in England than in the United States, having been ranked as  No. 19 on the London Times’ famous 2008 list of the “50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945” (his dad came in at No. 9). But this particular novel, Money: A Suicide Note, made enough of a splash in the States to have been named to Time magazine’s 2005 list of the “100 Best English-language novels published since 1923.” Since I have a secret goal of reading through all of those novels before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I picked this one up, not quite sure what I was going to get.

Amis himself has said that the book “is essentially a plotless novel. It is what I would call a voice novel,” adding that “If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed.” I would take issue with his contention that the novel is plotless—episodic, yes, but there is a plot structure that I’ll get to later. As for the voice, the protagonist/narrator John Self, a director of commercials seeking to make his first feature film, has a voice as distinctive as Holden Caulfield, or Augie March, or Humbert Humbert, but a good deal less likeable—even than Humbert, and that’s going some. Nabokov and Bellow are two of Amis’s chief inspirations for the novel, along with Heller’s Catch-22 and that prototypical English novelist, Dickens. 

The names in the novel are Dickensian. If you want a protagonist who’s a fat egoist addicted to excess, how can you give him a better name than “Self”? His money-grubbing unfaithful live-in girlfriend, Selina Street, seems one step above streetwalking, while his slick-talking producer is named Fielding Goodney, and he’s all about feeling good. And then there’s the venerable American actor booked to star in Self’s film, Lorne Guyland, a name that, if you happen to be British, you can’t pronounce without it sounding like the way certain New Yorkers pronounce “Long Island,” which is where the guy lives. Even Self’s car has an appropriate name: He drives a purple Fiasco.

In a nutshell, the book is Self’s confession of the ups and downs of his attempt to put together a film based on a story idea he has involving a father and son both romancing—to use a euphemism—the same young woman. The projected title of the film is Good Money, though that evolves instead into Bad Money as the project progresses. Self is a highly successful 35-year-old director of TV commercials for “smoking, drinking, junk food and nude magazines,” who spends most of the book wallowing in his own addictions to smoking, drinking, junk food and nude magazines, not to mention other forms of pornography. He also fills up his nights with drugs, gambling, hitting women, and obsessing about the getting and spending of money. He already has a lot of money, and there are a number of people who owe him money (none of whom ever repays him), but essentially he is a fat, overindulgent degenerate wanker who skates relatively unscathed through life because he has, you know it: money.

This is, of course, the ’80s, that decade of Ronald Reagan, of Margaret Thatcher, and of unbridled corporate greed, of Gordon Gekko’s iconic “Greed is Good” speech in Wall Street. Reviewers of Amis’s book have called it representative of the overriding spirit of its age, the kind of time capsule, perhaps that Bellow’s Augie March was to the ’50s, or Heller’s Catch-22 to the ’60s (despite its setting two decades earlier).

It’s when Self meets the American producer Goodney by chance on an airplane, the producer convinces him to meet with potential “big money” people to get the film financed, and then the idea for the film takes off. Self, himself half-British and half-American, shuffles back and forth between his home in London and his hedonistic home away from home in New York, meeting with the four principle stars of the film, each of whom is a pampered celebrity with a long list of demands that conflict with each other and with the projected details of the film. There is ageing star Lorne Guyland (supposedly based loosely on Kirk Douglas, as the entire book is inspired by Amis’s experiences as script writer for the ill-fated Douglas vehicle Saturn 3): Guyland wants to be able to beat up the younger guy in the film’s fight scene, and wants lots of nude sex scenes with both women. The young female lead, Butch Beausoleil, is a bit of a “dumb blonde” but not nearly as dumb as her young romantic co-star with the regrettable name of “Spunk” Davis (a name he sees no reason to change), who believes that “halibut” rhymes with “Malibu,” and as a born-again Christian won’t have sex on screen or play the drug dealer he’s cast as. And then there is big-name veteran actress Caduta Massi, who refuses any love scene with Guyland and wants at least five children in the film.

Meantime Self has to deal with harassing phone calls from “Frank the Phone,” who seems to be jealous of Self’s success and blames him for his own failure, and threatens to beat him up; and if that’s not enough, Self learns that his own father, Barry Self (who also owes him money) has a contract out on him to be beaten up. Things are not improved when the screenplay for Good Money (penned by a woman he tried to Harvey Goldstein) comes in and makes none of the actors happy. Self gets a London writer named, self-referentially enough, Martin Amis, whom he met in a pub, to rewrite the script, ultimately making everybody happy with scenes that Self plans to cut in the editing room.

You may wonder why any reader should care at all what happens to this fat hedonistic slob. Well, the fact is that Self is self-aware enough to engage in a deal of self-loathing, and is continually vowing to clean up his act—to quit smoking, to quit drinking, to quit his fast food and pornography addictions, to quit beating up women, again and again backsliding on his vows, though to his credit he does keep the one about hitting women except for one lapse, but it must be said he was mightily provoked. So at least he knows what a scum bag he is. What he never considers is dropping that dependence on money, the love of which is the root of all his evil.

For it isn’t true that Money is plotless. I won’t say anything specific that might act as a spoiler to anyone reading the novel, but The New York Times, in its review of the book, stated:

“The plot of Money is in a basic, grand tradition. A guy gets totalled.”

That grand tradition is the tradition of tragedy. If you remember from your Aristotle, the tragic hero is someone in some way superior to the average person (usually in power, status, or virtue, but in the case of John Self, in the possession of disposable wealth). He falls from this high position into ruin and/or death through some hamartia, variously interpreted as an “error of judgment” (Self errs by placing his trust in the wrong people—Goodney, Selina, his father Barry) or as a “tragic flaw” (Self’s hedonistic lifestyle). The hero suffers a shocking reversal or peripeteia, in a twist I certainly will not reveal here, and loses everything, but the suffering ends up having some kind of meaning, anagnorisis. In this case, it is Self’s realization after his fall: “With money, double-dazzle New York is a crystal conservatory. Take money away, and you’re naked and shielding your Johnson in a cataract of breaking glass.”

What keeps Money from being a true tragedy is the darkly comic, sardonic tone, similar to that of Catch-22, that permeates the book. True tragedy, born of an impulse to explain the presence of suffering in a moral universe, must presuppose a universe with meaning. But this world? At one point Self asks the rhetorical question “What is the point of me?” and here, as in much postmodern fiction, the point may be that there isn’t any point. This world is governed not by a god but by the blind force of capitalism, whose sole purpose is to make money by exploiting people’s basest natural impulses, hence the focus on alcohol, drugs, fast food, pornography. In a world that has no meaning but this, tragedy can’t exist. Only a regrettable fall off the money train. And that has no real effect beyond the Self.

This is a major novel. Four Shakespeares.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Borgen

Borgen

Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram and Tobias Lindholm (2010-2013)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Netflix

Length: 3 seasons of 10 episodes each 

Names You Might Know: How well do you know Danish actors? 

Language: In Danish with subtitles

She Said: When Netflix serves me a foreign-language television series, I’m all ears and eyes because of how completely sucked in I have been all year to such series on any platform—TrappedBron/Broen, The Beforeigners, Tehran, etc. Somehow, the Netflix algorithm knows about my Covid-isolated psyche and how much I miss all the trips we were going to take this year, and so it gives to me these substitutes, which I cling to like my online-shopping-tracking apps at Christmas. 

But not many scenes into this show, I started to doubt myself and the algorithm (well, mostly the algorithm). Clearly it was an inside look at Danish parliamentary politics, and while the lead was an engaging character, well-acted by a believable and appealing Scandinavian actor, how much did I care about the intricacies of a system I don’t understand except in the broadest of strokes? I always like seeing European cities I’ve traveled to and hearing another language, but I was afraid much of the drama would escape me without more context. I was wrong.

Not long after the inklings of doubt sprouted in my mind between subtitle screens, the unexpected occurs in dramatic Copenhagen scenes that hooked me then and there for the rest of this episode and 29 more: The ripples of an incident in the (private) personal life of TV1 reporter Katrine Fønsmark, who seeks help from ex-boyfriend Kasper Juul, who just happens to be the current “spin doctor” for a minor centrist party leader, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, are immediately felt through the halls of power in Christiansborg Palace, or “Borgen,” how Danes refer to the political center of their nation. The series follows these three characters and those close to them throughout its three seasons, and I was so grateful to get to be led along.

First, I loved the focus on a woman leader. Nyborg, who is played by beloved and highly respected Danish actor Sidse Babett Knudsen, is idealistic, driven, ambitious, self-assured andself-doubting, charismatic at crucial times as well as unable to see the obvious when it matters most to her marriage and family. In the first episodes, she rises to the top of the political shuffle after a close general election partly by speaking plainly and truthfully in a television debate in which the leading male rivals are focused on taking each other out quite effectively. She goes home to her husband and children and worries about her clothes being too tight to look good on TV. She struggles with her obligations—when she’s at home, she works, and when she’s at work, she dodges personal commitments and pays the price for doing so—but not in a cliché or tired “this is probably how women feel as imagined by male show creators” kind of way. 

Also, I loved that Birgitte Nyborg and all the characters that fill any of the series’s regular roles are complex individuals, and the 30 episodes of Borgenfollow Nyborg’s complexities as well as the intersecting triumphs and tribulations of Fønsmark and Juul (played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Pilou Asbækas, respectively), the large and small stakes of national politics and the noisy and quiet battles of personal relationships, both in the halls of government and at home. By focusing on the individuals at the heart of a very singular, foreign situation, the show becomes less local to Denmark and much more exportable to our living rooms.

Finally, the people became very, very real to me. Maybe it was because I was listening to them speak while reading the subtitles that made their words feel so much more a part of my own experience, or the fact that much like a play, there is so much talkingas characters seek to justify, cajole, explain, negotiate and rationalize their desires, hopes and needs. I found myself dreaming of them—mostly Nyborg—hearing a kind of dream Danish, and yet knowing without dream subtitles exactly what she wanted and how she thought she might get it. I wish I could watch it all over again for the first time.

He Said: So I imagined while watching and reading this series (and sometimes you have to read pretty fast because those Danes just refuse to talk slow for us foreigners) that this experience must be something like the experience Danish or German or French viewers must have had watching episodes of The West Wing. How oddly antagonistic our two-party system must have seemed to them even at that time. I suppose that some may have wondered if their system might be improved if it were more like ours. 

Because I certainly had those thoughts about the Danish system. Factions within parties in the United States are often able to push parties in directions the majority of the party may be unhappy with. In Denmark, heck, you just start yourself a new party and see who salutes, and maybe you can get a handful of seats in Parliament. Since no one party has a majority, coalitions must be formed in order to form a government, and people from a variety of allied parties bargain for seats in the cabinet. And the shifting alliances make for pretty riveting TV.

I do want to point out that Kaspar Juul, like me, has a double “u” in his name, and that’s what happens in Scandinavia so stop spelling my name wrong, people.

But I digress. I am curious in getting your take, Jones, on the role played by the media in Borgen. Fønsmark and Juul switch positions halfway through the series, so that he works for the media and she becomes a political media relations consultant. As someone who’s worked in both fields yourself, what do you think of their portrayal here?

She Said: Thanks for reminding me of another aspect of the show I love, Ruud (with two u’s, one d)! I’ve worked for daily newspapers, and I’ve worked in public relations and marketing, though never as a “spin doctor” for a political candidate or office holder. I did go from working at a daily paper that reported on a university to running that university’s public relations and marketing, so I personally do understand that shift, and I really did enjoy the portrayals of both the ethics and goals on both sides in Borgen.

Personally, I love journalism movies and shows (The Paper is one of my all-time favorites), and the coverage of the government—the fourth estate—is portrayed as so integral to a working democracy here. I loved seeing the give and take between reporters and their subjects, as well as the complexity of their goals and masters. All media aren’t presented equally, either, in Borgen. TV1 is clearly of a higher standard than its rival sensationalist paper and channel, the Ekspres, run by a political foe of the Moderates and Nyborg specifically. Fønsmark’s media boss, Torben Friis (played by Søren Malling) is a particularly fascinating character given the forces that pressure him throughout the series, journalistically, professionally, ethically and personally. 

On a related note, one of the fun things about watching a show in another language is hearing what words and phrases from your own language make their way over in the original, and apparently, “spin doctor” is one such phrase, though the Danish definitely seem to use it as almost the formal job title. As someone with a master’s degree in communications management (PR) and formal accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America (APR), “spin doctor” is a term I hate: Ethical public relations is the strategic management of mutually beneficial relationships, not “spin,” which to my mind is akin to lying, or at least obfuscation. But that didn’t stop me from chiming “Look! I speak Danish!” every time Nyborg said “spin doctor” because I didn’t need the titles to tell me who she was talking about. 

He Said: Yes, the different levels of journalistic integrity were pretty interesting to watch. Obviously we have the same sort of thing in the United States, though most of the insidious and terribly unprincipled outlets here tend to be online—we don’t have quite as much of the tabloid craziness one sees in Europe and in this show. On another note, I was glad to see that the creators of the series and the principle actors have agreed to go ahead with a fourth season, to be aired in 2022.

Rating:

She Said: Obviously, I give this four Hitchcocks. It’s got all the goods, brilliant and believable writing, plot-driven verve and energy, engaging and lovable—despite their obvious flaws—characters in a beautiful setting. It’s both intimate and grandiose, as well as incredibly touching. 

He Said: I too found the series to be well-written and well-acted (especially on the part of Knudsen as Nyberg), and with excellent production values. It has a special kind of educational function for Americans, I think, in the way it presents European politics. And as with The WestWing, there’s something refreshing about seeing ethical politicians, even if they are fictional. It would be churlish of me to nitpick and give it a lower rating, so I’ll go with the four Hitchcocks as well.

This Week’s We Watched It and You Should Too:
He Said: Let Him Go
Hot Take: We did watch Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in this thriller/domestic drama last weekend. Mainly because as She Said told me, “Kevin Costner is not not hot.” It will certainly manipulate your emotions—what would you do if your dead son’s widow married a blatant scumbag who splits with her and your toddler grandson without leaving a forwarding address? Anyway, there’s enough intensity there to keep you glued to your seat for a couple of hours, so this is probably one of those things it would be worth watching. (It’s a $20 streaming rental on Amazon.)

NOW AVAILABLE:

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.