Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited is one of the BBC's dramatic productions which appeared in the US on Masterpiece Theatre. I watched about half of it when it first appeared, but conflicts prevented me from viewing the entire 11 episodes. It become one of the "one of these days" projects, and those days finally arrived a week or so ago.

The public library recently acquired the newly remastered set, and I grabbed it as soon as I heard it was available. I had read the book, but it was so long ago that I can't comment on how closely the film version followed the book.

The casting was excellent:

Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, the POV character, a first year student at Oxford, who is introduced to the less than studious set by

Sebastian Flyte, played by Anthony Andrews, whose beauty and charm make him loved by almost all, except for those faculty and students who believe university life is serious and filled with studying.

Diana Quick, as Julia, Sebastian's sister, much like her brother, a very unconventional young lady.

Claire Bloom, in the role of Lady Marchmain, Sebastian and Diana's mother, whose strong Catholic faith isn't always appreciated by her children and never by her estranged husband

Lord Marchmain, played by Laurence Olivier, who fled England for Venice because of his hatred of his wife.

Sir John Gielgud as Edward Ryder, Charles Ryder's eccentric? father. Gielgud does an outstanding job here playing a role that has to be seen to be appreciated. There's no way I can describe the character of Edward Ryder.

Nickolas Grace plays the flamboyant Anthony Blanche, another student at Oxford whom Ryder meets through Sebastian.

The setting matched the casting: beautiful outdoor scenery while the indoor locations were lavish and striking. The only disappointment was that there were so few scenes set in Venice.

I would rank this as BBC's best production, at least it's the best one I've seen, and I've seen a number of them. It is well worth the 12-13 hours of viewing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat: Quatrain II

The Second Quatrain in FitzGerald's version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam also was revised when the second version was published. The revised quatrain then remained throughout the remainder of the five editions. I personally prefer the first version.

Quatrain II-- found in First Edition

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

Quatrain II--Revised and found in Editions 2-5

Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
"When all the Temple is prepared within,
Why lags the drowsy Worshipper outside?"

I think the overall distinction between the two is that the first version tends to be more poetic, whereas the second is perhaps more straightforward and more easily grasped. "Dawn's Left Hand" becomes the more familiar "False morning" which hints also of "False dawn." A false morning or dawn refers to the transient appearance of light on the eastern horizon shortly before true dawn begins, perhaps as much as an hour earlier. The True Day has not yet begun.

But, why would FitzGerald select "Left Hand" to suggest the False morning? Perhaps it's a reflection of a prevailing prejudice that exists in some languages against left-handers. I can still remember and I know people who were left-handed and were forced in school to write with their right hands. Perhaps they thought they were trying to help the left-hander adapt to a right-handed world.

But, there is another connotation lurking in the perception of the left-handed or left-sided, one that is considerably more prejudicial. For example, the English word "sinister" is defined as "suggesting an evil force or motive, a sinister smile" or "presaging trouble or ominous." A rare meaning is "on the left side." The word derives ultimately from Latin sinister: "left, on the left, hence evil, unlucky (in augury, the left side being regarded as inauspicious." The American Heritage Dictionary includes, in addition to those merely suggesting use of the left-hand, the following definitions for "left-handed" : "awkward, maladroit" and "obliquely derisive, dubious, insincere, left-handed flattery."

If one considers these meanings found in the dictionary, then to refer to the False morning or False dawn as "Dawn's Left Hand" makes more sense.

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,

Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,

"Dawn's Left Hand" now becomes "the phantom of False morning" which dies, which suggests the transient nature of the false morning. It appears briefly and then disappears into the darkness before the True morning appears.

Moreover, the narrator in the first is dreaming when he heard a voice within the Tavern while the narrator in the second appears to be awake and only thinks he heard a voice. Here we see a change from a dream voice to perhaps a delusion? In both versions though, the Voice comes from within a Tavern, but a phantom, an illusion, more strongly suggests that which doesn't exist. Dreams, on the other hand, in some cultures may be the voice of God or a spirit which takes this method of providing advice or a warning.

"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

"When all the Temple is prepared within,
Why lags the drowsy Worshipper outside?"

The first suggests a wise teacher who sees others as students and advises them to drink before it's too late. This punning on Cup and liquor and the body with its life forces or energies or juices is repeated in several quatrains, especially in those taking place in a pottery shop.

In the second, we see a startling transformation, especially for a society whose religion forbids the use of alcohol. The "Tavern" of the second line now becomes "the Temple" and those awaiting the opening of the Tavern now become "Worshippers." Who might the speaker in the revision be? A priest? God?

Both versions do convey a sense of urgency though: the first warns of the shortness of life, while the second cautions one against being a laggard when all is ready for one, a sense of being late for an appointment.

The frequent references to wine and liquor and taverns have brought about two interpretations of the meanings of those terms. One interpretation is that they mean exactly what they are, and this interpretation provides support for a philosophy that can be summed up as "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." The second is that such references are metaphors for God, the divinity, God's grace or love, and that we should avail ourselves of Divine aid before it's too late.

I think the only way to resolve this is to read FitzGerald's version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and make up your own mind.

Or, could both be true?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Under Western Eyes: Conrad's moral dilemma

Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes is one of his three political novels, the others being The Secret Agent and Nostromo. The Secret Agent is based on a real event, an attempt to blow up the observatory at Greenwich, England, while Nostromo takes place during one of many revolutions in a mythical South American country. The focal point for all three is an attempt to eventually overthrow a government.

However, the three are quite different in concept. Nostromo concerns itself with events during an armed insurrection against a government, which is in power as the result of an earlier insurrection which overthrew the previous government and so on.

The Secret Agent, on the other hand, is set in England. A foreign government, which appears to be Russia, attempts to influence the English government to rescind its policy of being a safe haven for those suspected of terrorist acts against other governments. One of the foreign government's tactics is the use of an agent provocateur to encourage the terrorists to become active in England and thereby eliminate England's tolerance of them.

The third novel, Under Western Eyes, is a two part work. Part One is set in Tsarist Russia, while the Second Part takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, less than a decade prior to the Russian Revolution. The first part centers on a common theme found in many works. I'm sure most readers have encountered a story or a film in which one or more characters have been captured by the enemy and are faced with torture or execution unless they provide what information they have about their comrades.

I suspect that most people would argue that the individual should not give the information even though it meant torture or death, or at least hold out as long as possible. And, I think most would agree that this would be the ideal way for the individual to act, while also recognizing how easy it is to hold to this position when one is not in that position. In any case, the preferred behavior would be to withhold any information that would be harmful to one's cause, even if faced with torture or death.

Conrad, however, varies this theme in a way that makes it difficult, for me at least, to decide which is the appropriate action in this situation. The story is set in St. Petersburg, less than a decade before the Russian revolution. Razumov, the main character, is a student at the university in St. Petersburg. Conrad describes him as follows:

"In discussion he was easily swayed by argument and authority. With his younger compatriots he took the attitude of an inscrutable listener, a listener of the kind that hears you out intelligently and then - just changes the subject.

This sort of trick, which may arise either from intellectual insufficiency or from a imperfect trust in one's own convictions, procured for Mr. Razumov a reputation of profundity...By his comrades...Razumov...was looked upon as a strong nature - an altogether trustworthy man. This, in a country where an opinion may be a legal crime visited by death...meant that he was worthy of being trusted with forbidden opinions. He was liked also for his amiability and for his quiet readiness to oblige his comrades even at the cost of personal inconvenience."

It is this misconception of Razumov that leads almost inevitably to the events that follow. Razumov is seen as one who sympathizes with those opposed to the Tsarist regime and can be trusted. In truth, Razumov has no sympathy for the rebels and is simply one who wants to be left alone so he can finish his studies, gain his degree, and obtain a decent position, probably as a civil servant in that same government.

Although not a close friend, Victor Haldin is acquainted with Razumov and considers him an ally in his struggle against the government. Consequently, when Haldin and another assassinate a high ranking government minister, Haldin goes to Razumov's apartment. He asks Razumov to do two things: first is to allow him to stay there for a few hours and secondly, to contact the man who will help Haldin escape and give him information about when and where to meet later that night.

Razumov is appalled. Here is a man who has just killed a high-ranking government official, two servants of that official, and several innocent bystanders who had come to help after the first bomb had exploded and were killed or injured by the second bomb.

He sees only two possible courses of action: help Haldin or turn him in to the authorities, which would most certainly result in Haldin's execution.

Should he help him? This would certainly make him an accomplice in the death of several individuals. But, on the other hand, could he turn in someone he had known and who had come to him expecting his help? It wasn't his cause, but isn't this a betrayal?

Should he turn him in to the authorities? He didn't believe in Haldin's cause, so he wasn't betraying his comrades or the cause. Haldin had appeared on his own and not because Razumov had promised to help him. Razumov hadn't even been aware of the plot.

Haldin had murdered several people, some of whom were not guilty of being part of an oppressive government. Suppose Haldin had killed several people in the course of a robbery. Would that now make it more acceptable to inform the authorities? In both cases, innocent people had died. Was it more acceptable to kill them for a cause than for money?

There is something else to be considered. If Razumov helps Haldin escape and the government finds out, then Razumov will be considered an accomplice in the plot and most likely will be executed for something he not only wasn't involved in but actually was opposed to. On the other hand, if he goes to the government, they might wonder why Haldin came to him in the first place. Even if this doesn't happen, the government now becomes aware of Razumov, something which one definitely would not want to happen, especially if it's an oppressive government.

Razumov certainly seems to be doomed, whatever he does.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Galapagos: The Enchanted Islands

BBC has another interesting documentary to add to its already superb list. This one is a three part film on the Galapagos Islands, once known as the Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands. The Galapagos sit on the equator in the South Pacific about 600 miles west of South America. They were first discovered in the 16th century by a ship that was traveling down the west coast of South America and was carried out into the South Pacific by a strong current. More than a century passed before they were found again.

The first part focuses on the geological history of the islands and the various forms of plant and wild life that inhabit them. Part Two relates the story of Charles Darwin's visit to the islands in 1835 and the influence it had upon his thinking about the formation of new species. It, however, was 25 years later that he finally published his revolutionary work, The Origin of Species. The third part considers the various forces, geologic, climatic, and human, that have affected the islands in the past and those that are presently influencing the plant and wildlife on the island. One dismaying point brought up was that on some islands, non-native plants now out number native species.

Darwin wasn't the only one to write about the Galapagos. Some five or six years after Darwin's visit, during the early 1840s, the islands were visited by an American whaling ship, one of whose crew members was Herman Melville. While Darwin took nearly 25 years to publish his work on the Galapagos in 1860, Melville published his novella, The Encantadas, in 1854, approximately ten years after his visit.

I found the documentary to be excellent, and my only gripe is that it wasn't longer. The photography was superb, and the information was presented clearly and straightforwardly. The narrator occasionally came across as though she was bestowing the sacred mysteries upon us, but I didn't find this to be as intrusive as I have in other documentaries.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Hitchcock Classic: Rear Window

A short time ago, I watched one of Hitchcock's classic films, Rear Window, starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, and discovered that it was based on a short story written by Cornell Woolrich. I checked the Wikipedia entry for him and found that Rear Window was not the only film that had been made of a story of his but was only one of 26 films that had been based on his short stories and novels. Those who have read some of my previous postings here may have noticed that I enjoy reading stories and watching the films that have been based on those stories and then comparing the two. So, I found Woolrich's short story in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman and published by Houghton Mifflin. One of these days, I will read all of the stories in the book.

Hitchcock followed the main plot line fairly closely, but what he added to the film turned Woolrich's short story into a collection that contained one longer story, that of the murderous husband, and a number of vignettes, all set in that one apartment building. Some of the brief glimpses we get of the other residents actually are developed to the point to where there is a possible resolution--for example, the lonely woman and the composer do meet at the end.

The most significant differences between the short story and the film are Hitchcock's expansion of the brief references to the other residents and the introduction of the romance between Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. This is something Hitchcock created for the film as there is no reference to any romance in the story. Their relationship provides another subplot in the film, for the Stewart and Kelly characters differ about the course of their relationship, and this raises a question as to the future of their relationship.

Woolrich mentions some of the other residents in the building and provides brief snapshots of them in the beginning of the story. However, they disappear after this and are never referred to again. Hitchcock, on the other hand, shows them to us again and again, even to the point of showing us some of the conflicts and problems that they encounter in their own lives.

Does this harm the story? It does widen the focus, which in the short story is solely on the murderous husband, to include the lives of others which the Stewart character observes as he watches from his rear window. It may reduce the intensity to some extent, but this wider focus adds a dimension not present in the story, that of the irony in which these other residents go through their daily routine, unaware of the drama, a murder, that takes place just an apartment or two away. Normally I am opposed to the practice of adding elements to a film which is based on a story, but in this case, I think it works.

One question arose while I watched the film. He is a voyeur, and I wonder how the other residents would react if they knew he was spying on them as they went about their lives.

I wonder how I would feel if I learned somebody was watching me this way.

Good story and great film--read the story and see the film. What do you think?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Post-Election Thoughts--cont.

I was once a registered Republican, but that was several decades ago. I'm registered as an Independent Voter now.

I've read several articles recently in which some Republicans see Gov. Palin as the one to revitalize the Republican Party because of her strong anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and pro Christian religious values.

They weren't concerned about her ideas regarding

1. the resolution of the two wars now going on,
2. the economic crisis facing us,
3. the US's deteriorating relationships with what used to be friendly or at least neutral nations,
4. the need to reduce our dependence upon oil for energy,
5. the environmental crisis,
6. and a host of other problems.

I guess I won't be rejoining the Republican Party anytime soon.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Some Post-Election Thoughts

Just some random thoughts after watching the election returns last night.

It felt good to be able to vote for someone, rather than against someone, as I had been doing, unfortunately, for about the past two decades.

I watched both speeches and saw something interesting. When Sen. McCain said that he had called President-Elect Obama to congratulate him, many in the audience starting booing and shouting. Sen. McCain had to quiet the audience several times. When President-Elect Obama said that he had received a call from Sen. McCain, his audience cheered and applauded Sen. McCain.

I don't think Sen. McCain ever fully realized that his tactics, the usual strategy of character-assassination and charges that his opponent was unpatriotic and a terrorist, would actually provoke people's fears to the point of threatening Obama's life, as I saw during one speech that McCain made.

Of course, the "wise ones" all decided that the economy explained McCain's defeat. Well, at least this would help the Republicans justify their loss, although they would be far wiser to really look at what happened. Every expert last night seemed to have forgotten something. President-Elect Obama beat the unbeatable Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and the economy was not a factor. I think she made the same mistake Sen. McCain made:

It was NOT business as usual yesterday.