Thursday, January 18, 2018

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

It's hard to describe Emil Ferris' My Favorite Thing is Monsters. It's partly a coming-of-age story set in Chicago's gritty Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s; we read the sketchbook diary of the 10-year-old narrator, Karen Reyes, as she discovers some of the secrets of the adults around her and begins to harbor a few of her own. The book is printed to resemble a lined, spiral-bound notebook of the kind that Karen carries with her and draws in obsessively. Ostracized and bullied at school, Karen symbolizes her sense of difference from everyone around her by drawing herself as a young werewolf, with elongated lower canine teeth, protruding jaw and pointed ears.

As that self-portrait suggests, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is partly an homage to the horror comics of the era, which make up the bulk of Karen's reading (the story is interspersed with mock covers of titles such as Terror Tales, Ghastly and Dread).

It's also partly a cancer memoir, as Karen watches her mother slowly being ravaged by the disease. And it's also a mystery, as Karen sets out like a trench-coated, fedoraed Harriet the Spy to solve the murder of a sympathetic neighbor, Anka Silverberg, and learns of the hidden torments in her past.

It's also an expression of a love of art nurtured not only by lurid comic-book illustrations but by afternoons spent at Chicago's Art Institute (or as one character has it, "the art castle"), where Karen is taken by her protective older brother Deez.

To encompass such a wide range of narrative registers and tones Ferris deploys an equally wide range of drawing styles: highly detailed and finely cross-hatched realism, comic-book fantasy, corrosive Weimar-style expressionism, dashed-off sketches, and renderings of famous artworks.

As Karen discovers, "there are a lot of things we don't see every day that are right under our noses. . .Just maybe — monsters are right under our noses, too. . ." My Favorite Thing is Monsters portrays many kinds of horror, and the saving (and disturbing) power of art.

This is one of the most strikingly drawn and vividly imaginative graphic novels I've encountered. The only disappointing thing about it is that the story isn't yet complete. For that we'll have to wait for Book Two, which was initially announced for October 2017, but has had its publication date pushed back twice and is now scheduled for release in August 2018.

For an interview with Ferris in which she discusses being paralyzed by West Nile virus (and which links to the story of the entire 10,000-copy first print run of her book being held hostage in the Panama Canal by the shipping company's creditors), see "Emil Ferris: 'I didn’t want to be a woman – being a monster was the best solution'" in The Guardian.

Update 22 December 2018: My Favorite Thing is Monsters was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Books.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Doctor Thorne

Harry Richardson as Frank Gresham and Stefanie Martini as Mary Thorne in Doctor Thorne

To make an enjoyable literary adaptation for the screen the source doesn't have to be a masterpiece. In fact, trying to adapt a masterpiece for film or television can raise expectations that are hard to fulfill, since great novels offer a richer imaginative experience. Jane Austen's novels, for example, have frequently been travestied on film: badges of shame have been earned by adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (1940 and 2005), Mansfield Park (2007), and Persuasion (2007). [1]

On the other hand, Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Samuel Taylor took a little-known French thriller with an improbable twist, Boileau-Narcejac's D'Entre les Morts (From among the dead, 1954), and turned it into a masterwork of romantic obsession, Vertigo (1958). [2] So a source of the highest literary quality is hardly a necessary condition for a good film or television version.

In 2016 Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, adapted Anthony Trollope's novel Doctor Thorne (1858) as television series broadcast on ITV in Britain and on Amazon Prime in the US. (The Amazon series and the DVD split the original three episodes into four.) Doctor Thorne is probably the weakest entry in Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire series. It relies on not one but two highly implausible plots, one a rags-to-riches story and the other an inheritance narrative so contrived that I previously wrote that it "seems like it was taken from Charles Dickens' reject pile." [3] Nonetheless, Fellowes' version makes for very enjoyable watching.

The series was not well received on its initial broadcast. After the final episode The Guardian's Viv Groskop wrote, "I thought I needed a lie-down (by which I mean 'full medical sedation') after Downton. But after this I need some kind of horse tranquiliser. Or a memory drug to forget it ever happened." In The Telegraph Gerard O'Donovan damned it with faint praise by saying that "it was a rare case of pretty much everything coming to an end exactly as expected. . .all the more relaxing for removing the need to constantly guess at what might happen next." In other words, Doctor Thorne managed the neat trick of being both utterly farfetched and absolutely predictable. [4]

Well, yes. But this is true of the novel as well. You don't read Trollope for his plots; he himself wrote in his autobiography that plot "is the most insignificant part of a tale." [5] Trollope excelled at creating indelible characters, and Doctor Thorne (in both incarnations) offers its full share:
  • Sir Roger Scatcherd (played in the series by Ian McShane), a former mason who after spending time in prison for killing the seducer of his sister makes an immense fortune building railroads;
  • his long-suffering wife (Janine Duvitski), who from a laborer's helpmeet finds herself suddenly elevated to Lady Scatcherd;
  • Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front), whose husband owes vast sums to Sir Roger, and who in order to rescue the family fortunes does everything in her power to get her son Frank (Harry Richardson) to marry a rich woman;
  • Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), Frank's childhood sweetheart, beautiful but poor and of "uncertain birth," who finds herself suddenly unwelcome in Lady Arabella's home;
  • Miss Martha Dunstable (Alison Brie), an American heiress whose considerable wealth (derived from her father's dubious patent remedy) frees her to say what she thinks and do what she pleases;
  • and the decent and kind Doctor Thomas Thorne (Tom Hollander), Mary's uncle and surrogate father, and the friend, confidant and physician to most of the other characters.
You might wonder exactly how an ex-convict stonemason became the richest man in the county and a baronet. Fellowes doesn't bother much about that, or about Henry Thorne (Tim Wallers), Thomas's rakish brother who seduces and impregnates Roger's sister—Henry appears in the first moments of the first episode only to be struck and inadvertently killed by a drunk Roger. Many of the novel's other side-plots and characters are reduced or shed entirely to keep the focus in the series firmly on the obstacles facing the union of Mary and Frank.

Rebecca Front as Lady Arabella Gresham and Phoebe Nicholls as the Countess de Courcy

Chief among these is Frank's mother. Rebecca Front does a wonderful job as the formidable Lady Arabella Gresham, who is far more concerned about her family's (meaning her own) status than her son's happiness. She even demands that Frank propose to Miss Dunstable, but when he tries to do so (and Fellowes doesn't have him go as far in the series as he does in the novel), Miss Dunstable is flattered but has to remind him that he should be true to Mary.

The other obstacles to the marriage of Frank and Mary, of course, are her relative poverty and lack of social status. If only Mary were an heiress. . .which she becomes when—mild spoiler—Sir Roger wills his estate to the eldest child of his sister should his own son, the worthless souse Louis (Edward Franklin), pass away before he turns 25. But for Mary to inherit, both Sir Roger and his son will have to die, and be quick about it. . .

Apart from the too-obvious creaking of the machinery of the plot, the weakness at the center of Doctor Thorne is that both Mary and Frank are more acted upon by others than themselves active shapers of their destinies. Frank is definitely made less fickle and more sympathetic in the series than in the novel. Among the scenes Fellowes left out is one in which he thrashes the inept Mr. Moffat (Danny Kirrane), who has jilted Frank's sister Augusta.

  Mary Thorne with her uncle, Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander)

As for Mary, she is sweet, self-sacrificing and forgiving. In his Alastair-Cooke-like commentary before and after every episode on the DVD release Fellowes mentions that Trollope's heroines are more complex than those of Dickens. In some cases, certainly. To mention just a few, Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington has a sparkling vivacity; Grace Crawley (in The Last Chronicle of Barset) has a firmness of principle belied by her young age; and of course Lady Glencora Palliser (in the Palliser novels), as I wrote earlier, "is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies." [6] But Mary could be precisely one of those "virginal and flawless" heroines that Fellowes claims is typical of Dickens.

Ian McShane as Sir Roger Scatcherd

Really, it takes more than gorgeous gowns, stunning country houses, lush greenswards and elegant candlelit interiors for us to enjoy a 19th-century literary adaptation. But not much more. While Frank and Mary are attractive and charming, and Tom Hollander's Doctor Thorne provides the series' (and the novel's) moral center, the real entertainment is provided chiefly by McShane's blustering, bibulous Sir Roger, Front's dismissive, disapproving Lady Arabella, and Brie's genuine and gamesome Miss Dunstable, one of Trollope's most delightful characters (although Brie, whose striking beauty cannot be disguised by a severe hairstyle, is nowhere near as plain as my image of her novelistic counterpart).

Alison Brie as Martha Dunstable

Fittingly, the series ends with a nicely subtle suggestion that Miss Dunstable, after fending off the overtures of several fortune-hunters, may have found the man she wants to marry—only clearly he's not yet aware of it. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the sequel, Framley Parsonage, to discover if she succeeds. Here's hoping that Fellowes (or better yet, Andrew Davies) is working on it now.

Update 22 December 2018: Doctor Thorne was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Movies and television.

  1. For my favorite and least favorite Austen adaptations please see the post Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts.
  1. For a discussion of the parallels and differences between the novel and film, as well as the source of a key Vertigo scene in the obscure Pre-Code film Hot Saturday (1932), please see the post Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchock's Vertigo and its sources.
  1. For more on Trollope's Doctor Thorne and the other Chronicles of Barsetshire novels please see A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire.
  1.  Viv Groskop, "Doctor Thorne recap: episode 3 - let's take a memory drug to forget this disgrace." The Guardian, 20 March 2016. Gerard O'Donovan, "Doctor Thorne delivered a fairytale ending - review." The Telegraph, 20 March 2016.
  1. Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography. William Blackwood and Sons, 1883, p. 169:
  1. For more on Lady Glencora and Trollope's Palliser novels, please see A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 2: The Palliser novels

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Marschallin's farewell: Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

On May 13, 2017, at the Metropolitan Opera, Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča gave their final performances as the Marschallin and Octavian, respectively, in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911). The occasion was broadcast in the Met Live in HD series; although we were forced to miss the event (and a later scheduled broadcast was cravenly cancelled at the last minute by our local PBS station), in November this performance was released on DVD and we finally had a chance to see it.

Robert Carsen's production is set at the time of Der Rosenkavalier's premiere, just a few years before the outbreak of World War I. The Austrian society in which it takes place is already highly militarized, and the production is full of signs of the impending conflict. The three orphans who plead for alms from the Marschallin in the first act are cadets, both Octavian and Baron Ochs and his retinue wear military uniforms, and in the third act the inn is full of soldiers on leave.

The directorial choice to set an opera at the time of its composition instead of the period specified by the composer and librettist can be illuminating. Patrice Chéreau's centenary Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, for example, turned Wagner's mythological saga into a parable of the Industrial Revolution. But Carsen's production is frustrating. It departs from tradition in many ways, some of which are thoughtful, and others of which either make little sense or make what is implicit in the libretto too obvious. Here are a few of my notes from Act I:
  • The opera opens, not in Marschallin's boudoir as usual, but in the anteroom outside it. The door opens and Octavian wanders out in his nightshirt for a post-coital cigarette; soon he is joined by the Marschallin. But later when they are back in the bedroom and Baron Ochs is trying to gain entrance, the Marschallin mentions that her footmen will prevent him from coming in. If footmen are waiting outside her bedroom, wouldn't Octavian and the Marschallin have been seen when they went out for a cigarette?  They are not indifferent about witnesses because later in the act they are very keen to conceal Octavian's presence. To avoid this inconsistency there seems to be no compelling reason for the opera not to begin as it usually does, with Octavian and the Marschallin in bed together.
  • Baron Ochs, the impoverished rural relative of the Marschallin who has come to Vienna to marry a rich middle-class girl, is younger and more vigorous than usual (Günther Groissböck is wonderfully appalling in the role). This accords with Strauss's own conception of the character. While Ochs is usually portrayed by basses in their 50s or 60s, Strauss wrote that "Ochs must be a rustic Don Juan of 35." 

    Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs and Renée Fleming as the Marschallin

    However, Strauss also wrote that Ochs "is after all a nobleman, if a rather boorish one...who knows how to conduct himself decently." Carsen directs this Ochs to flop down next to the Marschallin while she's still in bed and maul her chambermaid "Mariandel" (Octavian in disguise) right in front of her. His rampant lecherousness and heedless sexual aggression make him a kind of Harvey Weinstein avant la lettre—but it's hardly likely that the Marschallin would tolerate these lapses (or that an Ochs who "knows how to behave decently" would commit them). Strauss also wrote that most productions "have presented him as a disgusting vulgar monster with a repellent mask and proletarian manners. . . This is quite wrong."
  • When in the early morning Ochs bursts into the bedroom of the Marschallin, Octavian hides in a closet and emerges disguised as the servant Mariandel. In most productions he is dressed in a maid's outfit, but that raises the question of where the clothes would have come from. (Surely the Marschallin does not keep a chambermaid's costume in her closet for emergencies.) In this production Mariandel's costume is clearly one of the Marschallin's dresses, a choice which makes more sense (ladies' maids often received their mistresses' cast-offs). 
  • During the levée (a kind of late-morning open house) many visitors enter the Marschallin's chamber: the orphans mentioned earlier, couturiers, sellers of exotic animals, purveyors of scandal sheets. Among them is the Italian Tenor (Matthew Polenzani, costumed to look like Enrico Caruso; he even signs a 78 for the Marschallin), who sings a love aria.

    In most productions the Tenor is competing for the Marschallin's attention with the other clamorous visitors, and while he is singing other conversations and the Marschallin's toilette continue. In this production the lights are lowered and the Tenor steps into the spotlight (literally); everyone else falls silent, gathers around, listens attentively and applauds when he is finished. Even if the lighting change is intended to reflect the singer's exaggerated sense of self-consequence (or his fantasy of holding the spotlight) it is a moment of unreality that comes out of nowhere.  (It must be said that Polenzani sings the aria beautifully.)
  • Clothing is a significant marker of class in an opera where those distinctions are very important to the characters. When the Marschallin is finally fully clothed, her black dress and beige blouse look like something a bourgeois housewife of the time would wear, not something that a princess would don to go out in public. During the levée we've just seen a fashion show of fabulous period gowns; why would the Marschallin choose to wear such a drab outfit? There's no wartime austerity yet.
  • The act closes with the Marschallin alone onstage. In most productions this moment is treated as an extension of her great scene with Octavian a few minutes earlier in which she laments the passage of time and the inevitable end of their affair, "today or tomorrow." Traditionally she gazes into a hand-mirror, and then slowly lowers it (in Strauss's words) "half weeping, half smiling." This moment foreshadows the glorious trio in the final act, in which she recognizes the moment that she must give up Octavian has come all too soon.

    But Carsen has Fleming play the end of Act I differently. On his return Octavian has brought a bouquet of roses, which he places on her bed. When the Marschallin is alone in the final moments of the act, she picks up this bouquet, holds it in a way that suggests an embrace, and then gazes around the room one last time. She is clearly flooded with tender memories of the night before, rather than with sorrowful anticipation of the inevitable future. This choice subtly changes the dynamic of the trio in the third act, making us think the Marschallin may be even more unready to end the affair than she is usually portrayed.
The second act opens in the ultramodern house of Faninal, the rich merchant who has betrothed his daughter Sophie to the Baron. Sophie is portrayed by Erin Morley, who like most Sophies looks a bit too mature for the role. Sophie is supposed to be 16; Morley seems almost ready to play the Marschallin herself.

In traditional productions we learn that Faninal has made his wealth by "supplying the army"; in this production he is an arms dealer. How can we tell? Two huge howitzers are parked in his reception room, and just in case we didn't get the connection, boxes of ammunition labelled "Faninal" lie scattered about.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in front of Faninal's howitzer

These props don't seem to be intended as entirely symbolic, that is, not actually present, since the characters regularly interact with them. And later Faninal and his servants brandish rifles. But not only is this bizarre (surely Faninal would not actually have military hardware in his house), it doesn't accord with Faninal's aspiration to be accepted into the nobility. Would he not attempt to disguise rather than flaunt the source of his wealth?

Fortunately Carsen has the howitzers rolled offstage before the "love at first sight" duet between Octavian and Sophie:

Later in the act Morley nicely captures Sophie's outraged shock at the Baron's gross over-familiarity. In this context the Baron's grabbiness works better than in the first act. It reads as a manifestation of his contempt: he doesn't feel that he has to behave well with the Faninals, since they are of lower social status. It would be more effective, though, if he hadn't been just as boorish in front of the Marschallin, who significantly outranks him.

But it's in Act III that Carsen makes his biggest miscalculation. In traditional productions the scene is set in a seedy inn where the Baron is hoping to seduce Mariandel; in Carsen's staging it is an outright brothel, complete with a bevy of prostitutes clad in merry widows and garter belts. That Sophie or the Marschallin would ever enter such an establishment, much less sit or lie down on a bed in one, defies belief.

The setting also undercuts much of the humor of this sequence. In traditional productions Ochs believes that Mariandel is an inexperienced girl; he plies her with wine but to his dismay she becomes maudlin rather than amorous. In Carsen's production Mariandel is dressed as one of the prostitutes, and brazenly comes on to a flustered Ochs. But again this doesn't make sense: for one thing, Ochs must realize that the Marschallin would not have a prostitute for a ladies' maid; for another, what would Octavian have done if Ochs responded with eagerness rather than confusion?

So Carsen is keenly attentive to some details but oblivious to others, and makes some jarring and/or nonsensical choices. His production does not compare favorably with the subtlety and elegance of, for example, Otto Schenk's 1979 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, which remains a first choice on DVD. This isn't only a matter of adherence to the creators' specified settings, but of telling details in the interactions among the characters. In preference to Carsen's version, on video I would also recommend the 1985 production from the Royal Opera House and Paul Czinner's 1960 film of the Salzburg Festival production.

That said, Elīna Garanča almost single-handedly redeems the proceedings. Her Octavian is one of the best I've ever seen or heard. It's not only a matter of her looks, which are convincingly boyish to an almost uncanny degree. It's also her physical and vocal characterization; she is every inch the ardent young suitor.

In her between-acts interview with Polenzani (thankfully moved to the end of the DVD as an extra) she mentions that she has been playing the role for 17 years (coincidentally, Octavian's age); on the evidence of this performance she could have continued to play him for another decade should she have chosen to do so.

I have a sentimental connection to Fleming's Marschallin: she sang the role in the first Rosenkavalier I ever saw, 17 years ago at San Francisco Opera, with Susan Graham as her superb Octavian. But her performance as directed by Carsen in this production doesn't quite muster either the emotional vulnerability or the inner fire of Gwyneth Jones in the Munich production. Neither is she as coolly aristocratic as Kiri Te Kanawa in the Royal Opera House production or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Czinner's film.

One key moment encapsulates the differences. In the final act, when Ochs finally realizes what Mariandel/Octavian was doing in the Marschallin's bedroom, it is a moment of real menace. "I don't know what I should think of all this," he blusters. The Marschallin cuts him off. "You are, I believe, a gentleman?" she replies. "Then you will think absolutely nothing. That is what I expect of you." Fleming utters these lines almost with a smile, as though colluding with Ochs. But at this point the Marschallin isn't suggesting her complicity with the Baron. He is desperate, looking for any way to salvage his wedding with Sophie, and he has just understood that he might be able to blackmail the Marschallin. In contrast to Fleming's insouciance, Gwyneth Jones shows a flash of anger that lets us understand that the Marschallin recognizes the danger; Kiri Te Kanawa and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are commanding, as though it is inconceivable that Ochs could disobey. Fleming's half-smile suggests unconcern, and so prematurely dissipates the dramatic tension.

In her book The Inner Voice Fleming wrote, "it has always been my goal to stop when I choose to and not when I have to" (p. 146). Her retirement of the role of the Marschallin raises the question of whether she will continue to perform in staged opera. Although she insists that she is not completely retiring, if these are her final opera performances it would be fitting. After all, Der Rosenkavalier is an opera about recognizing when the moment has come to let go even of the things we most cherish, and bid them a fond farewell.

For more on Der Rosenkavalier please see: