Saturday, December 31, 2016

Bonus Quote of the Day (Samuel Pepys, on a Prior ‘Year of Publick Wonder and Mischief’)

“Thus ends this year of publick wonder and mischief to this nation, and, therefore, generally wished by all people to have an end....[P]ublick matters in a most sad condition; seamen discouraged for want of pay, and are become not to be governed: nor, as matters are now, can any fleete go out next year. Our enemies, French and Dutch, great, and grow more by our poverty. The Parliament backward in raising, because jealous of the spending of the money; the City less and less likely to be built again, every body settling elsewhere, and nobody encouraged to trade. A sad, vicious, negligent Court, and all sober men there fearful of the ruin of the whole kingdom this next year; from which, good God deliver us!”—English government official and master diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), diary entry of Dec. 31, 1666, in Pepys’ Diaries

It’s nice to know that 350 years ago, men worried about matters of state similar to now—foreign enemies, a dysfunctional legislative body, lack of public investment, a dormant economy, a malfunctioning judiciary, even ‘the ruin” of the country—and somehow still survived.

See you on the other side of the calendar in 2017…

Appreciations: Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ at 500—An Enduring But Ambiguous Vision

In Belgium, Thomas More, a restless English lawyer serving on a diplomatic team negotiating a commercial treaty, began a philosophical inquiry about a community that owns property in common, renounces war for non-defensive purposes and has no use for attorneys at all. Influenced by Plato’s Republic and The Travels of Marco Polo, Utopia—published in Latin in December 1516 in Louvain, Belgium—in turn created a literary genre entirely its own: the fantasy novel of an ideal society.

An ardent Christian humanist, More clearly found inspiration in the dialogue form used by Plato. But the travelogue—not to mention the European community’s ambivalence about the genre—may have been even more consequential for creatimg this touchstone of the early English Renaissance.

Utopia had its greatest impact far from the Western Europe that inspired it. On the North American continent, where Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine wrote that mankind had the power “to begin the world over again,” communities organized loosely around the ideas outlined by More were set up in the 19th century in New Harmony, Ind., and Brook Farm, Mass., as well as in the communes of the 1960s and 1970s. In Russia in 1917, a revolution based on Marxist notions of a classless society seized control. Such was the power of its vision that the Soviet Union continued to attract apologists long after it had become clear that the regime was engaging in human-rights abuses.

Such a spectrum of extreme responses underscores the distinct possibility that More was not, in fact, proposing an unalloyed vision of good. “Utopia is an ambivalent and ambiguous work in which various absurdities, for example, are paraded in the most apparently innocent and unsatirical manner,” notes Peter Ackroyd, in his astute 1999 biography, The Life of Thomas More. “But it also harbours various contradictions which render the account.. very suspect indeed. The counter-argument, the case against Utopia, in effect, is internalized within the narrative itself.”

More’s study in ambiguity is likely to be lost on modern readers, for reasons starting with its original audience: readers of Latin, the official language of the Church and the government. That allowed the book to be read by an international community that was spurring the growth of the Renaissance—scholars looking beyond the recent past to ancient Greece and Rome, while increasingly curious about the world beyond their borders.

The Age of Exploration begun in the 14th and 15th centuries had opened up new lands and a new manner of considering them. For some, tales of different inhabitants fed dreams of personal fortune in newly discovered gold, spices or other valuables—or, for the spiritually inclined, a mass of people, with minds as blank as slate and equally as open to converting to Christianity.

Strange tales of these far-off lands drifted back. At the start of the modern era, artists as varied as Shakespeare, Montaigne and Swift would consider in what ways what they were hearing might affect their own societies.   

Yet, while some of these wild tales were true, others were exaggerated or even wholly fictional. If the latter did not originate with natives’ desire to tell the explorers what they wanted to hear, they sprang from adventurers’ need to promote their achievement so that they might stay in the good graces of the mercantile companies that funded them.  

The tale that launched a thousand ships, Venetian merchant Marco Polo’s account of his 24-year trek to the Far East, was so stunning that many dismissed it as fabricated. Only a decade before More wrote Utopia, another Italian traveler, Amerigo Vespucci, produced accounts of his voyages to the New World that also aroused skepticism.

When More discloses, then, that the Portuguese traveler Raphael Hythloday has journeyed with Vespucci, that is not necessarily meant to add to the credibility of his tale. Moreover, the Englishman's contemporaries understood—far more quickly than modern readers—that many of the names of people and places in the book had a fictional quality (e.g., Utopia, “no-place”; Hythloday, Greek for a cunning purveyor of nonsense or gossip; Anydros, “river without water”: Amaurotum, from the Greek for dark or dimly seen; Ademus, the governor, or one who has no people).

In other words, More is engaging in an early experiment in meta-fiction, or a tale in which a narrator winks to the reader about the artificiality of what’s about to unfold. Engaging in play himself, he wants readers to stretch their brains, too, by asking whether a crucial participant in his dialogue is intelligent or even reliable. (A century later, the astronomer Galileo would resort to a similar method in undermining a participant in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by calling him “Simplicio.” But Galileo’s lack of ambiguity on this point exposed him to his enemies, including within the Vatican.)

If Utopia is, quite literally, nowhere, then the next question becomes: Is it nowhere now, impossible to imagine, or so bad that it should never come to fruition—i.e., what has been called more recently a dystopia? Again, More does not make it easy for readers to discern his intentions.

The book’s discussion of punishment, for instance, exudes both common sense and humanity. (“For by suffering your youth wantonly and viciously to be brought up, and to be infected, even from their tender age, by little and little with vice, then, a God's name, to be punished when they commit the same faults after being come to man's state, which from their youth they were ever like to do—in this point, I pray you, what other thing do you than make thieves and punish them?”) Yet on other points, such as euthanasia, the Utopians not only advocate positions contrary to More’s Roman Catholic faith but to his publicly stated beliefs.

Ultimately, More’s work is an extended display of reason, couched in an imaginative exercise. It is an enigma, a paradox, and, therefore, a statement on the public good that has appealed across regions and ages, especially when it is understood--as today--that societies are a far way from it.

Quote of the Day (Ann Beattie, on Years and Moments)

“People forget years and remember moments.” —Ann Beattie, “Snow,” in Where You'll Find Me: And Other Stories (1986)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Flashback, December 1936: Ford’s Irish Project, ‘Plough and the Stars,’ Misfires

Eighty years ago this week, RKO released the passion project of one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded directors, starring one of its best young actresses. But The Plough and the Stars, once highly anticipated, pleased none of the principals involved: the studio, director John Ford, star Barbara Stanwyck, and the Irish playwright whose work was adapted, Sean O’Casey. It raised legitimate questions over how faithfully the film industry would treat complex, provocative subject matter.

Probably Ford’s most famous utterance, at a legendary 1950 Screen Directors Guild showdown over the blacklist (“I am John Ford and I make Westerns”), could just as truly have been rephrased as “I am John Ford and I am Irish-American.” Ireland was second only to the West as a favorite subject.

In the mid-1930s, his most recent Irish project had given him a virtually unrivaled reputation as an artist. The Informer, adapted from the Liam O’Flaherty novel, not only brought him a Best Director Oscar but, for a few decades, a distinction that has since gone to the likes of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: critical acclamation as the greatest film of all time.

In other words, he was now close to the hottest director in Hollywood. Within the strict bounds of the studio system of the time, his RKO bosses wanted to make him happy.

From the first, everyone should have known that problems would need to be surmounted in translating the material from stage to screen. The Plough and the Stars, like the other parts of the “Dublin Trilogy” by Sean O’Casey, The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, is a tragicomedy about boastful, cowardly or delusional men and their long-suffering women, set in the tenements of Ireland’s largest city amid the nation’s war of independence and civil war.

The Irish themselves were divided over the meaning of the play, as indicated by a riot during its initial 1926 run at the Abbey Theatre (an event described in this prior post of mine). Certain scenes—including an off-screen orator using phrases from a leader of the Easter Rising, Padraig Pearse, the Irish tricolor brought into a bar, and a prostitute soliciting business—had aroused the ire of the patriotically correct. If the Irish, the people with the most direct knowledge of the events depicted, couldn’t agree about it, how could one ever expect the band of callous outsiders in Hollywood to make sense of it?

John Ford would have none of that.   

What could go wrong? As it turned out, way too much:

*Pleasing the Puritans. One source of the Dublin rioters’ anger was O’Casey’s prostitute character Rosie Redmond. Such fallen women, they complained, were not emblematic of Irish womanhood. No matter how much O’Casey complained about these critics and the censorship they advocated, however, they did not succeed in significantly diluting Rosie’s depiction on stage; only Hollywood managed to do so. It might be argued that this did not affect the political stance of the movie. But it did soften the Marxist O’Casey’s picture of the desperate lengths to which Dublin’s tenement dwellers would go in order to live to tomorrow. Nor was the cantankerous playwright happy about satisfying British censors who requested the removal of any references to God.

*Miscasting of leads. Ford got his wish to hire four members of the Abbey Theatre (including Barry Fitzgerald, who would go on to an Oscar-winning career of his own as a character actor). In return, however, RKO insisted that he hire American stars for the leads in order to assure some box-office revenues. The result was two markedly different acting styles: the stage-based, naturalistic emoting of the Abbey players, vs. the broader manner, honed for the big screen, of Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster as, respectively, Nora and Jack Clitheroe. Stanwyck looked particularly out of place, despite the fact that, consummate pro that she was, she threw herself into the role, including trying to get her Irish accent just right. But, according to her biographer Victoria Wilson: “One night, in the projection room, one of the producers decided that somebody had to be understood. The Abbey players couldn’t change their dialect. Barbara was chosen, but the early sequences in which she used a heavy brogue were never reshot.”

*Disagreement over politics. Playwright, director and studio held sharply different views on the justice and effectiveness of the Easter Rising, leaving the point of view of the finished film a muddled mess. O’Casey, at one point a member of the Irish Citizens Army, eventually parted ways with the republican movement for putting nationalist goals above socialist ones. Surviving family members of Irish executed during the rising believed he was ridiculing the patriot cause. On the other hand, the opportunity to plead that cause was part of what drew Ford to the project. His nocturnal scene of Irish soldiers listening to their commander lent the troops an ineradicable dignity. “Events and actions which are only reported in the play (the meeting, the occupation of the GPO) all now appear on the screen,” observe Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill in their 1987 study, Cinema and Ireland. “Inevitably, these additions undermine the importance of the domestic sphere as the central site for action and with it the virtues that are to be found there.” But Ford’s views clashed with Sam Briskin, RKO’s recently hired production chief, who couldn’t understand what the Irish wanted in the fight. To Ford’s reply—“What did George Washington want? They wanted liberty”—Briskin responded in a way that could only have made Ford bristle: “They’ve got liberty.” In the end, Hollywood’s requirement for a happy ending made a hash of O’Casey’s point about the futility of Pearse’s “blood sacrifice” for nationalism when ordinary human needs for food, shelter and dignity went unmet.

*An ornery director. “Terse, pithy, to the point,” actress Mary Astor once characterized Ford’s directing style. “Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal.” Astor understood him well, and Katharine Hepburn, whom he had directed earlier in 1936 in Mary of Scotland, did more than that: she loved him. Stanwyck did neither. Her early remark about her role—that it was so insubstantial that she could “walk through” it—led Ford to continually taunt her later on with, “Come on, Barbara, and walk through.” After filming was completed, Ford departed for his boat and refused to come back to supervise any additions. That opened the door to Briskin, never comfortable with such a political picture, to changing Jack and Nora Clitheroe from a married couple to lovers, necessitating additional scenes shot without Ford’s approval.

According to Scott Eyman’s biography of Ford, Print the Legend, the movie cost nearly a half-million dollars but only grossed three-quarters of that. That failure made the studio reluctant to take on future potentially prestigious projects, even low-budget ones, if they couldn’t promise a predictable revenue stream. (One of those was another O’Casey masterpiece that had caught Ford’s eye, Juno and the Paycock.) RKO’s post-production alterations led Ford both to depart for Twentieth Century Fox, where he would have a somewhat freer hand, and to become a driving force at the Screen Directors Guild (later the Directors Guild of America) as a counterweight against studio interference.

Ford was in no way done with Irish subject matter, however. In 1940, he wove several Eugene O’Neill one-act plays into The Long Voyage Home. Throughout his Westerns of the 1940s, Irish characters frequently appear as soldiers who perform lonely and dangerous duty on the American frontier. And, in the same year he suffered through one of his most frustrating projects because of his passion for an explicitly Celtic subject, he optioned another short story that, when he finally filmed it 15 years later, netted him his fourth and final Best Director Oscar: The Quiet Man.

Amazingly, for all his negative experience with The Plough and the Stars, he wasn’t done with O’Casey, either. Shortly before the latter’s death in 1964, the playwright agreed to allow filming proceed on the portion of his autobiography dealing with his early life. Unfortunately, Ford could not bring his vision to pass in this case, either. When he fell ill, Young Cassidy fell into the hands of cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Ford, in declining health, made only one other movie thereafter.