Sunday morning: Stoppard the press!

One coffee and a bad pun hits the header. What else is new?

I have Tom Stoppard on my mind this morning, though, and I haven’t even seen the production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that is in town. But I did watch Parade’s End this week, and Anna Karenena last night, and both are written by him.

The television mini-series is exceptionally good, the film is a misconceived mess. Go figure. Or, perhaps, think about how incredibly hard it is to make great art, how much ‘accident’ comes into it – especially when collaborative work is involved, as is the case with film and television.

Parade’s End, adapted from the Ford Madox Ford novels, has gotten some smart, superb reviews but most of them seem to be guarded, suggesting it is ‘no Downton Abbey‘ and that the characters are ‘harder to relate to’. Yes, thank God. What is so good about it, for me, is that it is so wittily and movingly (both!) grownup.

People are sometimes difficult to relate to, or to fully grasp. Not everyone in our life, or in a book or film, behaves in ways that we ‘get’ immediately. People can be complex, so can relationships. Not everyone in a work of art is someone who will be either our best friend forever or deeply and obviously evil. (I suppose someone can theoretically be both if we see ourselves as Loyal Henchperson #14!)

(You can probably see where I am going with this by now.)

Parade’s End (which is not flawless as the tone wobbles at times) features a really difficult man, and part of the series is about that. It is explored. He is so ‘virtuous’ he can be impossible to live with. Rectitude and principle can be a problem in personal lives. His wife  Sylvia (a stunning, can’t take your eyes off her, Rebecca Hall) is manipulative, maddening, sexually disloyal, and yet in complex ways (that word again!) a victim of her husband’s nature. It is a relationship that does not satisfy any desire for ‘clarity’, it isn’t easily summarized, and that’s what I found so wonderful about the acting and writing (and directing). If an audience (or the reader of a novel) want spelled-out simplicities, some works will frustrate. If they want a window into the way life works, in all its inconclusiveness morally, Parade’s End is wonderful. (It is also often very funny.)

Anna Karenina, the book, is even greater. It is greater than almost anything written. Tolstoy’s genius (which he seems not to have understood himself, later in life – read Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox on that) is to have an huge and intuitive grasp of so many different kinds of people and relationship. His compassion and his ‘eye’ give us a sense, reading him, of living the lives in the book. The new film undermines this with an almost shocking completeness. By choosing to emphasize artifice, setting the film mostly (not even entirely, abandoning consistency) in a theatre setting, the writer and director declare everything to be artifice. We are set back from the tragedy of Anna (and the eventual harmony of Levin and Kitty). The film becomes all about its own cleverness, and the subtext is: a modern audience cannot ‘relate’ to 19th century Russia. The story needs a ‘window’ of fakery to give us distance, just as we are distant from that time.

Almost every shot draws attention to its own cleverness. We watch the movie being made, not the story being told. And somehow – I would never have thought this possible – talented people conspire to actually make Anna herself unsympathetic.Tolstoy is natural and humane and encompassing. The film is smart people putting a gimmick on screen. It dances as fast as it can to distract. It juggles and plays the kazoo.

For me, the takeaway from the two works, aside from the remarkable fact of the same scriptwriter (a brilliant man) doing two works in the same year or two with such dramatically different results, is this: Parade’s End on television respects the viewer. Anna Karenina on screen doesn’t trust its material or its audience at all.

For some time I have been saying, as a riff on Tennessee Williams in Streetcar Named Desire, ‘I have always relied on the intelligence of strangers.’ I do. I try to trust my story and my readers, both. To not be afraid of subtlety, ambiguity, complexity, or the attempt, as best I can manage, to be thoughtful within a page-turner.

The two Stoppard works I just watched have crystallized my awareness of all of this. I am also, as it happens, re-reading War and Peace, and I just wrote an essay on re-reading in general. (I’ll let you know where it ends up.)

Needed to do something to get over the apprehension of how bad the Yankees are likely to be this year.

 

8 thoughts on “Sunday morning: Stoppard the press!

  1. Does the nature of the production play a part in your mind, with regards to the comparison between Parade’s End and Downton Abbey?

    I say this because it hasn’t played here in Australia yet, but previews have damned it with the faint praise of cashing in on Downton Abbey’s success. They have even nominated it as possible non-ratings filler.

    So, having enjoyed it, can you provide a clue as to your impression of its ultimate success? Does it seem an uncompromising work that is complete in the conclusion of its initial aims……or is it a stylish facsimile that has been cut short due to a failure to find an audience – as is being intimated by TV reviwers here?

    I should declare my utter distaste for Downton Abbey. Bland pea soup dressed up as a rich ragoo. Perhaps that is why it is so popular?

    I have a theory regarding rich illusion replacing authentic production in TV. Perhaps i’ll bore you with it another time.

    George.

    P.S – what did you think of BBC’s SHERLOCK?

  2. Does the nature of the production play a part in your mind, with regards to the comparison between Parade’s End and Downton Abbey?

    I say this because it hasn’t played here in Australia yet, but previews have damned it with the faint praise of cashing in on Downton Abbey’s success. They have even nominated it as possible non-ratings filler.

    So, having enjoyed it, can you provide a clue as to your impression of its ultimate success? Does it seem an uncompromising work that is complete in the conclusion of its initial aims……or is it a stylish facsimile that has been cut short due to a failure to find an audience – as is being intimated by TV reviwers here?

    I should declare my utter distaste for Downton Abbey. Bland pea soup dressed up as a rich ragoo. Perhaps that is why it is so popular?

    I have a theory regarding rich illusion replacing authentic production in TV. Perhaps i’ll bore you with it another time.

    George.

    P.S – what did you think of BBC’s SHERLOCK?

  3. Not the place for full critique of either show. Downton is, for me, mostly silly, sometimes irritating. Any critic saying the Ford adaptation was conceived as just cashing in is just being inept and even silly – though I have no doubt marketing will be telling people that here is another fix of early 20th c England.

    There is NO possibility it was cut off incomplete or any such. It wraps very effectively. Any reviewer saying that it was cut off is displaying ignorance. It is an adaptation of the novels! (It stops, wisely, after the third of four, which a lot of people, including Graham Greene, thought Ford ought to have done.)

    I think some of the critical disappointment I am reading is, however, along the lines you are gathering: people expect more Downton pablum and are startled by difficult characters, some elusiveness, and hard-to-grasp behaviour. (There are also some too-swift tonal shifts.)

    Liked SHERLOCK very much, though not each episode equally. Looking forward to the third season.

  4. Not the place for full critique of either show. Downton is, for me, mostly silly, sometimes irritating. Any critic saying the Ford adaptation was conceived as just cashing in is just being inept and even silly – though I have no doubt marketing will be telling people that here is another fix of early 20th c England.

    There is NO possibility it was cut off incomplete or any such. It wraps very effectively. Any reviewer saying that it was cut off is displaying ignorance. It is an adaptation of the novels! (It stops, wisely, after the third of four, which a lot of people, including Graham Greene, thought Ford ought to have done.)

    I think some of the critical disappointment I am reading is, however, along the lines you are gathering: people expect more Downton pablum and are startled by difficult characters, some elusiveness, and hard-to-grasp behaviour. (There are also some too-swift tonal shifts.)

    Liked SHERLOCK very much, though not each episode equally. Looking forward to the third season.

  5. Thank you Mr. Kay. Succinctly put.

    I would watch Benedict Cumberbatch open an envelope, could listen to him read the phone book……am I being too obvious?

    And Rebecca Hall. Injenue.

    If I wasn’t already a fallen man, ‘I’d gladly ruin myself to make her happy for an hour.’

    If I was religious these two would be my pantheon of worship. I wonder, have I painted a picture or exposed the charcoal scribblings of obsession?

    I expect Cumberbatch to draw an authentically anguished KHAAAAN!!! from Chris Pine later this year. Can’t wait.

    Thanks again for setting my mind at ease.

    George

  6. Thank you Mr. Kay. Succinctly put.

    I would watch Benedict Cumberbatch open an envelope, could listen to him read the phone book……am I being too obvious?

    And Rebecca Hall. Injenue.

    If I wasn’t already a fallen man, ‘I’d gladly ruin myself to make her happy for an hour.’

    If I was religious these two would be my pantheon of worship. I wonder, have I painted a picture or exposed the charcoal scribblings of obsession?

    I expect Cumberbatch to draw an authentically anguished KHAAAAN!!! from Chris Pine later this year. Can’t wait.

    Thanks again for setting my mind at ease.

    George

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *