Saturday, January 5, 2019

Movies You May Not Like: The Favourite

For some reason New Years Day in Hampton Roads is always gray, damp, and unseasonably warm.  It sucks.

So its a perfect day to go to the movies, and it has become something of a tradition for me to pack myself off to the theater to start the new year.  This year, I saw The Favourite, because it was a movie that my wife did not really want to see and it would allow me to get back home by 1:00 in the afternoon, just in time for the customary Upper Malakvian New Years lunch of salted Cod, salted Potatoes, salted beans, salt, and Schlivovitz -- who wouldn't want to miss that!

The Favourite was very well done, engrossing, and kind of unsettling, in a way, mostly due to how the movie ends.  Part farce, part political drama, it is (loosely - very, very loosely) based on actual events, where the favored advisor to Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough, is slowly supplanted by Abigail Masham (nee Hill).  It imagines them in a sort of love triangle, which is, apparently, actually possible but not substantiated.  I think its been shortlisted for some awards and for good reason - Emma Stone and Olivia Coleman give fantastic performances; Coleman's Queen Anne in particular being fascinating.  The costuming and sets are incredible, it is well shot, the soundtrack is haunting.  I would recommend it, though I found the movie a bit depressing, in that it is another one of those movies that has no real hero, no positive influence, and the ending is abrupt and stark and really sticks with you.  I think the last good movie in which I saw something of the heroic was Dunkirk, and that was going on a year and a half ago.  These are dystopian times.  And I am sure there is more that I can say about the movie's sexual dynamics and the #MeToo movement and all of that stuff, the cultural moment we find ourselves in and how the movie reflects on some of that.  But my friends, I simply don't have the cultural acumen to do it.

Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne in The Favourite
But I do have some historical acumen, and that might come in handy if you decide the movie.

Here's the thing:  aside from the fact that it was set in the 1600s or 1700s, I had little idea what it was going to be about.  I knew there was a Queen, and some sort of power struggle, and that it was supposed to be good, and because I do whatever the New York Times tells me to do I should go see it; but that was about it.

To my joy, I found that I was in the one situation in my life where my smattering of British history was actually useful, as I could draw on some useless trivia to give me a firmer footing in a film that otherwise may have been rather confusing from the start.  Maybe the film-makers would rather you didn't have any background at all - but I found it to be useful.  

It isn't much, but this is what I brought to the table: 

So at the beginning of the movie there is reference to a war that is ongoing and draining the British purse, and this war comes to dominate a lot of the political machinations the characters go through as they struggle over the decision to fund it by taxation or sue for Peace from an advantageous position.

Now,  I know that I recently said "No More War Movies" in 2019, but fortunately the combat is kept far away and my new year's resolution is intact.  

Anyways, in this scene at the beginning of the movie, Queen Anne speaks of a great victory and, thinking the war is over, is prepared to give the Duchess of Marlborough a palace.  

The war in question:  The War of the Spanish Succession, fought in the early 1700s over who would be king of Spain (I suppose).  The Bourbons in France had a claim, and the British, Dutch, and others were determined to stop them.  Much of the war was actually fought in what is today Belgium (I think).  

The victory is probably the Battle of Blenheim, a massive victory by the British and their coalition over the French in 1704 that changed the course of the struggle.  The leader of the British forces was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, husband to (and here is where the connection comes in) Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough and aide to Queen Anne.  And yes, John Churchill is the ancestor of THAT Churchill, old huffen und puffen, trinken und sleepen Winston Churchill himself, with those stupid paintings of his.  You know who was a great painter?  Who could paint one room, in one afternoon, two coats?  I'll give you two guesses. 

The palace proposed at the beginning of the movie was built in honor of the Battle of Blenheim, and is actually called Blenheim Palace.  I think in the movie they refer to its name one time.  We also see the Duke of Marlborough (who second to Wellington is probably Britain's greatest military leader of all time) occasionally but he is a minor character.

And that is really it.  The war would drag on until 1714.  Of the political intrigue in Queen Anne's Court I had little notion.  

As I write all this, it makes me think that maybe it was a conscious choice of director Yorgos Lanthimos to divorce the action on screen from the details of the actual back story, placing the action in a sort of alternative reality where the rumors behind the relationship between the three protagonists is allowed to flourish with all of its Sapphic fire.  If the movie hewed more to a more likely reality it may have only left a sort of tension between the three that may or may not have been sexual in nature, though again the actual relationship between these three women is, based on what I know, difficult to be sure of.  They may has simply been every effusive in their letters to each other, or they might have been true bed fellows.  The only ones who really know, probably, are Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail Masham.  And maybe their dogs and those rabbits the Queen liked to keep in her bed chamber.  All long gone.    

The ending of the movie is what makes it so dissonant, but I will leave that to the brave.  The Favourite; run time two hours; rated R for some fruity language, some sex acts, and the odd nipple here and there.  


Monday, December 31, 2018

In Which I go Very Public with My New Year's Resolutions

A new year is upon us!  And what better way to start the new year then by laying bare my deepest ambitions for the entire world to see!

I did  a decent job with my 2018 New Year's Resolution, keeping 2 out of 4.  I maintained a presence at the gym -- even if it at times that was by having a past version of myself haunting the One Life Fitness in Newport News.  Did you feel that chill go down your spine as you walked towards the rowing machine?  That was the ghost of my better intentioned, more motivated self circa May, before I got deep into Summer, baseball games, and Nachos.

I also managed to complete the reading of 23 books this year!  That was an increase on last year's 20.  It does not include the many books I started, got anywhere from 10% - 60% through, and gave up on.

So not bad!  I did not write as much as I would have liked too -- far from it.  And I also did not progress as much with my German as I would have liked either.

So here, with 5 hours left to go before the end of the year, are next year's resolutions:

1.  No war movies in 2019 (with some caveats)  

I have watched too many war movies, and I am not sure why I do it - they are on the whole depressing.  It was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I so I watched, this year, some excellent movies commemorating the war (2017 Journey's End is one I would highly recommend).  But I've decided, at last, I can take no more.  They don't do me a lot of good.

So, no war movies in 2019.

You must understand, this cuts a rather wide swath  through today's cinema.  Yes, the classic war movie is one in which a young man or woman finds themselves in an army or a flying corps and has their innocence dashed by the brutality of conflict and must grope their way through the experience of warfare - the most complex human experience on earth, I'd reckon - as their friends die around them, over which they must lay the matrix of the many reasons that have brought them to the war in the first place, be they good, bad, or senseless.  And/or the veteran comes home from the war and tries to readjust to civilian live, maybe the second most complex human experience on earth.  The classics are ones like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Jarhead (the first one), Glory, The Patriot, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dunkirk, the list goes on and on and on.

But you have to add Superhero movies to the list as well.  Or at least most of them.  Batman fights crime, sure.  But Transformers?  Those are war movies.  Wonder Woman, admirable though it may have been, was definetly a war movie.  Star Wars (GASP!!!) are -- well, as the name suggests, war movies.  Even those damn Alice in Wonderland movies that Johnny Depp plays the mad hatter in are war movies.  Forrest Gump?  War movie.

So there will be a lot of stuff I can't see.  There are two caveats:

Caveat a:  If a war movie comes that is hailed as truly being transcendental, something that is just going to be amazing and needs to be seen in theater, I'm willing to relent and go to it.  Dunkirk was such a film.  Something on that level.

Caveat b:  If a decent movie on Napoleon, or the Napoleonic Wars, comes out, or if the BBC/HBO can put together a half decent mini-series of the subject, I will see that too.

2.  Keep up at the gym

I did  stick with the gym this year, though you might have gathered I did not go as often as I probably should have.  Often enough to make it monetarily worthwhile - the price of membership was not wasted - but not often enough to really look or feel much different.

So a little more gym going in 2019. 

3.  Read (complete) 25 books in 2019

Pretty self explanatory.  This two more books than I managed to complete in 2018, so it may be difficult.

4.  Improve on my German

This is an odd one, it may seem.  I have no German ancestry and have little need to know German for my profession.  Yet my inability to speak a foreign language has always gnawed at me.  German is my best shot, because I took it in high school, took some more lessons through a friend at St Mark, and have kept at it through various means.  It is probably better than it has ever been, but there is so much more room to improve!  Plus, the SAWE Conference in 2020 is in Hamburg, and I am going even if I have to swim for it.

I did improve in 2018, but would like to continue doing so in 2019.

5.  Write more in 2019

Probably the most important.  I had the goal last year of writing 50 poems and 3 other things.  I did not even come close...I wrote maybe 20 poems an a few blog posts.  I really, really, want to do more in the new year.

6.  Present an Open Hand Rather than a Closed Fist

I don't really think of myself as a closed fist, but we could all be more open, more understanding, and kinder, and sometimes I can certainly be hard-hearted.  So it is my hope that I can cultivate some more compassionate virtues the new year.

That is it.  A pretty long list but with a few tweaks I think I can get there.  Number 6, actually, may be the hardest.

Well, 2018, you were a hell of a year.  Trump was Trump, the planet is dying, and many of my friends have had a rough time of it, and the Hokies nearly blew up their bowl streak.  Sometimes it is hard enough to gin up the energy to push the boulder up the hill everyday, much less do it joyfully.

Here's hoping for a better 2019!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

In Which the Link Between a Luscious Nude and a Factory for War Machines is Pointed Out.

So here is a question for you:  What could possibly be the link between this:

Cabanel's Birth of Venus, sometimes referred to simply as "The painting of the woman with the boobs and the water".

And this?

Newport News Shipbuilding, sometimes referred to as the place where they build the things that launch the things that deliver things that make other things go boom in the name of Freedom.  

The answer is this:

An unlikely link between the two, though if you are smart you can probably guess what is going on here.
So what is all this then?

The first picture is The Birth of Venus, by Alexandre Cabanel, a huge hit at the Paris Salon of 1863.  Napoleon III, upon seeing the painting, purchased it immediately; probably not because of its artistic value but rather because in addition to some highly polished brushwork and a rather realistic depiction of an ocean wave it features - rather prominently - a very naked woman.  Perfect for adorning the study of the man who has everything and is worried that his adventures in Mexico are beginning to flounder. 

All joking aside, though, the painting really was very much adored.  It was just within the bounds of propriety of the time, where painting nudes was okay if it fell into the historic/mythological schools of French painting, featuring seamless brush strokes, accurate depictions, and a purpose of either imparting a moral lesson, exemplifying beauty, or telling a story from France's glorious past.  We might look at this Cabanel and see it as something not much better than soft core pornography, laden with all the chauvenistic baggage that western culture has loaded on to itself.  But for the Parisian of 1863 it checked the boxes.  The most scandalous aspect of the painting, the thing that was up for debate at the time, was the look that Cabanel's Venus is giving as she peeks out from under her arm.  Is she actually in repose, or do her eyes suggest a sort of post-coital contended grogginess?  The critics in Paris battled it out, could not agree on any kind of consensus, and the mild whiff of controversy only added to the overall warm reception to Cabanel's work.

I'm getting a bit off track here, but it should be noted that the adoration of Cabanel's nude was in direct contrast to the derision hefted almost joyfully against Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refuses (a special sort of extra Salon held featuring paintings rejected by the Paris Salon jury of 1863, after there were objections that the jury was too harsh).  One of the problems with the painting, as the Parisians saw it, was that the men were wearing contemporary clothes and were in a contemporary setting.  In 1863 this just wasn't normally done.  Pictures of everyday life took a back seat to stunning histories or mythological settings, usually featuring men wearing nothing but plummed trojan helmets and women in various stages of undress, modesty sometimes preserved by the fortuitous fold of a toga.

Manet was one of the first to paint the modern people of Paris with all their glory and grit going about their everyday lives, doing things like going to horse races, listening to music, drinking absinthe, and having lunch with naked women in the city parks, because that is apparently what normal French people do.  Anyhow, the idea that painting contemporary people going about their ordinary lives could actually be meaningful required the artistic mores of the day to undergo a pretty significant adjustment.

Secondly, the painting depicts the woman as a likely prostitute; the everyday clothing of the men, the casual discarding of her clothes, and the frog placed towards the right side of the painting all suggest that this woman was being paid to be there, and though prostitution was rife in Paris in the 1860s it was not kosher to depict the workers who plied their trade.

Third and final:  critics found the woman in Manet's painting to be ugly, and painted without technique or depth, the uniform pallor of her skin akin to a photograph.  People didn't like that.  Though somewhat risque, Cabanel's Venus by comparison was seen as a charming painting of a beautiful naked goddess as opposed to a rather brash work depicting a scene of questionable morality that did nothing to further the study of the beautiful. 

Manet's controversial Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.  I have no idea what the bather in the background is there for.  Don't ask.  
So now to Newport News Shipbuilding.  The Shipyard was founded in 1886 as the Chesapeake Dry Dock and Construction Company by Collis P. Huntington. Long before that, he made a ridiculous amount of money building railroads (he was heavily involved in building the transcontinental railroad), and was known for being fairly unethical, which in the world of 19th century business and politics is really saying something.   Still, he is known for saying the words that are inscribed onto every shipbuilder's heart:  "We shall build good ships here;  at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always good ships".  Later, when he found out the rum runner he was building for Johnny K. Chesterton & Sons was going to be behind schedule because the paint had failed due to the high levels of humidty present during the summer in Hampton Roads (something he clearly did not think hard enough about), he uttered the immortal shipyard motto:  "It is what it is."

When his first wife died of cancer in 1883 he married Arabella Yarrington Worsham, a Richmond courtesan who somehow struck up a liason with Collis P. Huntington after the Civil War, perhaps thanks to Huntington's love of cards and gambling and her presence at a popular Richmond faro house doing...stuff?  Not sure, really.  The details are vague.  But she became his mistress at the age of 19 and was moved to New York City with her entire family where she and Collis carried on for 14 years until finally getting married in 1884.

Even before their marriage, Arabella was one of the richest women in America.  And when you are filthy rich, with all the power and status that that entails, you need a painting of yourself, a portrait, that shows to everyone else how fucking filthy rich you are, yes?

And here is where we come full circle back to Cabanel.  In addition to being a very gifted painter of T&A, he was a renowned portrait painter.  Portrait painting was the bread and butter of the many less successful artists of the time and Cabanel was so wealthy and famous he really didn't need the money - but he apparently enjoyed it, and many of his portraits of fully clothed and very wealthy men and women (even one of Napoleon III himself in 1865) would receive acclaim in Paris Salons well beyond that of 1863. He gained international fame and during the Gilded Age was the best known French painter in America, aside from maybe Messionier; many Americans - especially women - desperately wanted to have Cabanel paint them.  It was a fairly meaningless status symbol, the tricked out SUV of the day.   

Cabanel never came to America, so in 1881 or 1882 Araballa Worsham arranged through an agent to sit for Cabanel and she made the trip over to his Paris studio to sit - or rather stand - for her portrait, which is the third picture shown above, entitled "Mrs. Collis P. Huntington", completed in 1882.  I would note it is unusual, in that most Cabanel portraits of the time were 3/4 length, but here we have Bella Huntington in full length glory, perhaps showing the stature she commanded at the time.  It is also noted that the title of the painting seems like a reverse anachronism, as Arabella was not married to Huntington at the time; though perhaps in 1882, with his first wife (Elizabeth Stoddard)* dying and Arabella well established in society, she may as well have been. 

So there you have it.  The future wife of the founder of Newport News Shipbuilding had her portrait painted by the very same man that wowed all the men of Paris with a painting that they could study with great intent in the name of the artistic beauty that it inherently stood for, examining some parts perhaps more closely than others.

It is amazing, sometimes, how such things are connected to each other.

The portrait was donated to a museum in California by her son Archer Huntington, who incidentally founded the Mariner's Museum.  But that, to use one of the cheapest endings of all time, is another story.

If you want to learn more, I recommend the book "The Judgment of Paris" by Ross King and a couple of articles online; one about Arabelle Huntington and the other about Cabanel and his portrait painting.  A lot of the facts I allude to, but perhaps don't quite set correctly, come from these sources.


*Aside from the fact that she was Huntington's childhood sweetheart, little is known of Elizabeth Stoddard.  She apparently lived a rather quiet life in her New York City mansion as her husband criss-crossed the country.  It is possible that Elizabeth knew of and accepted Arabella, as documentation shows that Arabella and her mother helped during Elizaebth's illness.  One wonders what kind of woman she was, and what kind of life she lead.