Book report: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg”

 


There’s a certain kind of novel that was produced in great quantity by British writers in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s and 1950s.  They are usually brief, and set in Asia, or Eastern Europe, or Africa.  The characters are almost entirely expatriates – not only British, but Canadians, Americans, exiled Russians, and are often diplomats, or con men, or spies.  The atmosphere is usually light, until something oddly serious happens: an assassination, a declaration of war, some tragic event.

These novels were (I think) a response to the British Empire’s expansion through the world.  There were enormous numbers of British people working in countries all over the world, living in unfamiliar environments, clinging to one another (and to other English-speakers and Europeans) for a sense of community.

Think of Kipling’s “Kim” as a progenitor of the genre.  Think of Graham Greene, with his African and Asian and Caribbean comedy/dramas like “A Burnt-Out Case” and “The Quiet American” and “The Comedians” and “Our Man in Havana.”  Think of Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (did I ever tell you that I knew someone who knew her?).  Think of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.”  Think of Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” series.  Think of Muriel Spark’s first story, “The Seraph and the Zambezi,” and her novella “The Go-Away Bird.” Think of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful “The Towers of Trebizond.”

I recently discovered a prime example of the genre: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg.”

It’s a simple story: a British journalist, Lushington, goes to an unnamed Baltic country on assignment.  Lushington is in love with a Englishwoman who is, in turn, hopelessly in love with the local British attaché, who (perversely and carelessly) doesn’t care about her at all.

Whom do we meet in our unnamed Baltic country? Not one but two displaced Russian counts, one melancholy and doomed, the other probably a fake.  A local woman who’s only too eager to have an affair with Lushington.  Her husband, a clueless eminent local professor.  An American embassy worker who rattles on endlessly about virtue and progress and the future, while pronouncing himself a man of few words.  A local military officer named Waldemar, who is very pleasant and sincere, and who is trying very hard to learn how to be a true European.

We never discover the name of the country we’re in.  Everyone is speaking English most of the time, with a little bad French thrown in.  Now and then we’re told that someone speaks “in an unknown language”; the joke is that it’s probably the local language, which few of the main characters speak.

Love affairs happen.  Death happens.  Lushington goes back to England.

All in one hundred and sixty pages.

Here is Powell’s epigraph for the novel, which explains the title:

“Here, according to popular tradition, is situated the grotto of Venus, into which she enticed the knight Tannhauser; fine view from the top.”

From the sublime to the absurd: from the airy beauty of folklore and mythology to the flat pronouncements of a travel guide.

“Venusberg” is sad and funny and lovely, and gave me a few hours of pleasure, and it will stay with me.

Try it, if you can find it in your dusty old public library.  You may like it.


Movie review: “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell”

Seen not long ago on TCM: “Mr. Belvedere Rings The Bell,” from 1951, with Clifton Webb andJoanne Dru and Zero Mostel and Hugh Marlowe and a host of others.

 

Clifton Webb’s an author / lecturer who wants to pep up an old folks’ home; Hugh Marlowe is the good-but-stodgy minister running the place; Joanne Dru is the minister’s assistant, who sort of falls in love with Clifton Webb, but who’s really in love with Hugh Marlowe. There are also a passel of of wonderful older character actors and actresses playing the denizens of the old folks’ home.

And then there’s Zero Mostel, folks. I probably would have switched away, if not for him. 1951? He was testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee  that year. Zero didn’t name names, however. It was terrible for his career in the 1950s, but (eventually) he came back, and he triumphed.

In this movie, Zero is (as usual) balding and sweaty and amoral, but finally very sweet. And brilliant, as always. I can only wonder what was going through his head while he was acting in this movie. Was he testifying to Congress while acting in this? Jesus.

And Clifton Webb (who, for me, will always be Waldo Lydecker in “Laura,” typing in the bathtub), is wonderful.

As a movie, “Mr. Belvedere Rings The Bell” is a pleasant nothing. As a period piece, it’s interesting. As a time capsule, and an artifact of human culture, it’s priceless.

 

 

Movie review: “Dodsworth”

dodsworth


Dodsworth” is a gem from 1936, directed by William Wyler, based on a subtle little Sinclair Lewis novel. Walter Huston is Sam Dodsworth, head of an automobile-manufacturing firm in Ohio, who’s retiring so that he can enjoy the Good Life in Europe. Ruth Chatterton is his silly shallow younger wife, who’s fairly drooling to get to Europe so that she can misbehave (and she does).

 

 

And Mary Astor is the nice divorced lady that Sam meets on the boat going over to Europe, who lives in Italy “because it’s cheap.”

 

 

Sam adores his silly young wife, even while she cheats on him with a variety of men: English, French, Austrian.

 

 

Finally Sam and his wife part ways.

 

 

Do you think Sam will find the nice lady in Italy whom he met on the boat?

 

 

Hmm. I wonder.

 

 

Mary Astor wrote about it in her wonderful autobiography, “A Life on Film.” She especially remembered creating the scene in which she sees Sam Dodsworth coming to her from the steamship in the Naples harbor. She recreates it for us: the chalk marks on the scenery, and the silly stuff (an ashcan labeled PUT YOUR BUTTS IN HERE that was in her eyeline). And she imagined herself the heroine, and waved to an imaginary man in a boat in the harbor, and made herself believe that it was real.

 

 

And it was real. “At every theater, at every performance,” she wrote, “the audience clapped their hands. It sounded like applause, but it was sheer joy.”

 

 

See “Dodsworth,” kids. It is sheer joy.


 

Movie review: “Admission”

admission


Partner and I saw “Admission,” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, yesterday. Tina is a Princeton admissions officer; Paul is the hipster principal of a funky New Hampshire school that teaches cow-birthing and water purification alongside other subjects. Paul has a student he thinks ought to go to Princeton, and he contacts Tina, and –

 

 

Well, if I tell you that the movie is at least sixty percent romantic comedy, you can write the rest yourself.

 

 

It’s pleasant enough. There are some funny moments, and some well-acted moments. Tina is always funny and really very pretty, and Paul is an all-purpose romantic leading man: cute without being overwhelming, cheerful, smart. There’s a nice supporting cast, including Michael Sheen (who was one of Tina’s boyfriends on “30 Rock,” and who has wonderful anti-chemistry with her), Wallace Shawn (doing his funny squinting schtick, but always welcome), and Lily Tomlin (more on her later).

 

 

But the movie goes in too many directions. Sometimes it wants to be a commentary on college admissions; there’s a running gag that, when Tina or one of her colleagues reads an application, the applicant appears in physical form before them. All of them are good kids, one way or another. How do you choose between them?

 

 

But it muddles the issue. American college and universities can’t admit every applicant, so they try to balance everything: test results, transcripts, extracurriculars, essays, recommendations. They want the kids who are most likely to succeed. The movie tries to make this point, but then lets sentimentality fudge the issue. A minor character makes an icy comment early in the movie: “In England we rely on test results. Why can’t you do that here?” (She’s supposed to be a unpleasant person, so it’s assumed that she’s heartless, and we’re supposed to disagree with her. But: why not indeed?)

 

 

Also there’s a lot of foofaraw about parentage. Tina has an ambivalent attitude toward being a parent, and maybe has a kid, and maybe not. Paul has an adopted African son and a crazy alcoholic mother who thinks lawn jockeys are cute. Tina’s mother is an unrepentant 1960s feminist, of whom Tina is not very fond.

 

 

This is supposed to be interesting and meaningful. But: meh.

 

 

Overall, this movie is a minor effort.

 

 

Now let’s talk about Lily Tomlin.

 

 

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times pointed out that Tina Fey has a knack for being clear-eyed about what it means to be a feminist, both the positives and the pitfalls. On “30 Rock,” Tina created a comedy writer (played by Carrie Fisher) who was way ahead of her time, but who was now living nearly-penniless in a filthy apartment and was still writing 1970s-style comedy.

 

 

Lily Tomlin, playing Tina’s mother in “Admission,” is the ultimate 1960s feminist. When Tina walks into her mother’s house, the first thing you see is a poster of a fish riding a bicycle. (If this doesn’t immediately suggest anything to you, just Google “fish bicycle woman.”) Lily’s dogs are named Gloria and Betty. She has a tattoo with the word “Bella” on it. Just to show that some things never change, she has an “Occupy Wall Street” poster framed on the wall. Lily has a double mastectomy without thinking about it too much, and without telling her daughter Tina. “They said it was aggressive,” Lily says. “I’m aggressive too. So I got rid of it.”

 

 

I was paying attention to every moment Lily was onscreen. She made the movie worthwhile to me.

 

 

It’s not a great movie. But if you like Tina Fey, or Lily Tomlin, you should see this movie.

 

 

Because sisterhood is powerful.


 

Movie review: “Quartet”

quartet movie


There’s a certain kind of movie: you take mature actors and give them a simple drama with a simple framework, and you let them have fun with it.

“The Whales of August” was one of these movies. So was “Autumn Sonata.” So was “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

And now we have “Quartet.”

It has the simplest of simple plots: a group of elderly musicians in a retirement home. They still sing, and play, and recall their former glory. Then a great diva (Maggie Smith) comes to live there, which greatly disturbs another resident, her former husband, a great tenor (Tom Courtenay). Their friends, the sweetly demented Cissy (Pauline Collins) and the randy Wilf (Billy Connolly), heckle and coax them from the wings.

But the big gala is coming up. Will the four of them reunite to sing the quartet from “Rigoletto,” as they’d done so gloriously five decades before?

Well, yes, of course they will.

The joy is in the acting: Billy Connolly’s bright-eyed mischief-making, Pauline Collins weaving in and out of reality. Michael Gambon plays the impresario, and I swear he’s wearing his Dumbledore outfit, and he yells at everyone. Also, there are a bunch of real musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists, who came out of retirement to perform here, and they are all wonderful. (There’s a trio of elderly retired sopranos who reprise “Three Little Maids From School,” in costume yet, and they’re wonderful.)

You will not be surprised to hear that the audience (here in the Avon Cinema, a small local movie-theater on the east side of Providence) was mostly older – even older than Partner and me together (combined age 121!). This is an older person’s movie. One of the most resonant messages is this: during the credits, we see the names of the actors and performers one by one, accompanied by pictures of them when they were younger. The message is that growing old is hard, but that life is not over until it’s over.

The ultimate cliché in this kind of movie is to have someone die; it’s usually the turning point, the “message.” It doesn’t happen here. It’s not necessary. We know all too well what’s going to happen.

And in the meantime, we can still make some music.


Movie review: “Les Miserables”

les miz


We saw the new movie version of “Les Miserables” last Saturday afternoon. I’ve never seen the stage show; naturally I know some of the music (there was a concert performance on TV a long time ago, and naturally I remember George Costanza singing “Master of the House” incessantly on “Seinfeld,” and then there was Susan Boyle).

I don’t know if there’s anyone who doesn’t know the plot by now, but if you don’t, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But it’s full of escapes and tragedy and deathbed scenes, and if your throat doesn’t tighten up at least once, you have no soul.

This is a dream cast: Hugh Jackman as the haunted Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Russell Crowe as Javert, Amanda Seyfried (whom I only knew as the daughter in “Mamma Mia”) as Cosette, and a wonderful newcomer, Samantha Barks, as Eponine. Lots of critics have complained that Crowe can’t sing, but frankly I don’t know what they’re talking about; he sings beautifully, and he is properly menacing in his role. I felt sorry for poor Hugh Jackman, though, who has a great voice, but who was forced to sing about half an octave above his comfortable range. His upper register is very weak, so the higher he sings, the feebler he sounds . . . But who cares? He’s Hugh Jackman, and I’d drink a whole tubful of his bathwater if I had the chance. (There’s a scene late in the movie when he sings a high-pitched number, and then speaks a few words in a normal tone, and I swear his voice drops four octaves as he does it.)

Let me just say a word about the wicked innkeeper and his wife, played perfectly by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter. (Honestly, what happened to Helena? She was such a fresh-faced young girl back in the Eighties. Then she started playing roles like Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies, and the demented pastry-cook in “Sweeney Todd.” And now this! She probably told the movie’s wardrobe department not to worry about her; she’d just bring her own clothes and fright-wig from home.) Sacha and Helena are a treat whenever they’re on the screen; they’re fairy-tale malevolent, but their stupidity and venality always work against them, and their natural goofiness makes you chuckle every time they come on screen.

You’ve probably heard the gimmick of the movie: instead of recording the songs separately, Tom Hooper, the director, made his cast sing right on the spot as they acted. This is an interesting choice; it’s what you get during a stage show, after all, and I think that’s what he was after. Sadly, however, Hooper keeps jabbing the camera into everyone’s face all the time, and it can be a little unnerving.

But these are minor quibbles. It’s an epic story, and this is an epic production. The acting is first-rate, and the sets are just the perfect combination of stage-illusion and reality. If it doesn’t get a handful of Oscar noms, je mangerai mon chapeau.

So get out there, kids.

 

 

Aux barricades!


Movie review: “The Hobbit”

hobbit


Partner and I saw “The Hobbit” on Xmas Eve. I’m a big Tolkien nerd, so I couldn’t stay away, but I was dreading it a little too. The “Lord of the Rings” movies were beautifully made, but they didn’t always precisely agree with the way I’d imagined the books when I read them in the 1960s, and it hurt my heart a little.

“The Hobbit” is a children’s book. It tells the same basic story as “The Lord of the Rings” – a journey, lots of adventures along the way, spiders, monsters, battles, a distant mountain in the East – but it’s jokey and cute. There are some solemn bits, but they’re solemn in a long-ago-and-far-away fairy-tale way.

So the question was: could Peter Jackson take a funny clever children’s book and make something of it that wasn’t just “Lord of the Rings: the Prequel”?

The early reviews weren’t great. David Edelstein last weekend said that “The Hobbit” was “our punishment for liking ‘The Lord of the Rings’ too much.” Other reviewers complained of all kinds of things: too fast, too slow, too much CGI, too serious, too long. The only reviewer I saw who liked it was the FT’s Nigel Andrews, who calls it “a sort of masterwork.” He allows that you “have to like looking at folkloric weirdos with beards, hats, and bulbous noses,” and also that the first part of the movie has too many “walkies and fighties,” but it carries you along with it anyway.

I am here to tell you that Nigel Andrews was right, and I am the kind of person who likes bulbous noses and pointy hats, and I liked the movie very much.

First, however, the bad news: it’s much too long. The book moves along very briskly, so Jackson really had to pump a bunch of stuff into it to make it longer: flashbacks, explanatory sequences, framing devices. He drew, not only from “The Hobbit,” but from “The Lord of the Rings” itself, and its appendices, and lots of other Tolkien material. I didn’t find it tedious – as I said above, I’m a Tolkien nerd, I can name all thirteen dwarves while standing on my head – but I wondered how Partner was dealing with it. Was he overdosing on Middle-Earth?

But no! He liked it!

So there’s got to be some good stuff there.

Are you kidding? There’s a ton of good stuff there. There’s Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, funny and very (ahem) human; Ian McKellan as a (slightly) younger Gandalf, irascible as ever. Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, and he doesn’t look constipated anymore: he actually looks cheerful at times! And, naturally, you will find Andy Serkis’s Gollum, creepy and sad and horrible, in the movie’s best scene.

Jackson departed from the book, naturally, but his choices were mostly good. Bilbo and Gandalf are travelling with a group of thirteen dwarves. How in the hell do you create thirteen distinctive characters all at once and make them memorable? The answer: you don’t. You make maybe five or six of them distinctive, and rely on the rest of them to make background chatter. So we get to know Balin and Dwalin, and Bofur (I think), and Bombur (well, even in the book he’s the fat one), and Fili and Kili. And that’s plenty.

Jackson made the fight-scenes monumental, and dramatic, and even clever. (Barry Humphries, the comedian who created Dame Edna Everage, is the Great Goblin, a horrible creature with a huge goiter and a gift for snappy dialogue.)

But here’s the best bit of all.

In the book, about fifty pages along, Bilbo and the dwarves encounter three trolls with Cockney accents. The trolls want to eat Bilbo & Co., and have a big argument over how to cook them.

Before we went, I said to Partner, “I hope he gets the trolls right. And I hope they have Cockney accents.”

And they do.

Elbereth bless you, Peter Jackson.


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