Book review: Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2015 by Mistlake

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Dante is lost in the woods – metaphorically, one assumes – when he is met by the spirit of the poet Virgil (whose greatest hit is The Aeneid), who says he is on a mission from Dante’s dead love Beatrice to show him hell and heaven so that he may mend his ways and achieve salvation.

There is no denying that The Divine Comedy is of inestimable importance in the development of European thought and literature in a post-Roman world (the poem was written in the early 14th Century), nor that in many ways it sums up and expands upon Medieval Christian mythology, nor that it proved once and for all that real art could be created in Italian (and other national tongues), not just in Latin, which was still the dominant literary language of the time. These are a few of the concessions I’m willing to make, and many a scholar throughout the centuries has exalted Dante to the status of superhuman genius, so there is obviously a lot to the guy. But, to the modern day reader with a genuine interest in literature but no interest in analyzing it into oblivion, is The Divine Comedy, as it were, the good stuff?

Well, I don’t know Italian, Medieval or otherwise, so I’ve only read this book in translation. Said translation (Ingvar Björkeson’s Swedish one) is acknowledged as a good one, but I do hope the verse sounds a hell of a lot better in the original, because the version I’ve ogled can’t hold a candle to Shakespeare or Homer (or Virgil, for that matter). It contains many brilliant descriptions of heavenly light shows and – famously – inventively sadistic suffering in a vividly constructed Inferno, but many of Dante’s similes and metaphors (quite a few of them extended in absurdum in the classical style) are tediously repeated several times like encores at a best-of concert (yes, lightning is indeed very fast, Dante, don’t keep going on about it). Strangely, the poetry works better if read as poetic prose rather than lyrical verse, since there is a chatty quality to it rather than the ringing, clanging melodiousness of other epic poems.

Physical description is Dante’s strong point, painting living, breathing worlds outside of our own and filling them in with masses of detail and structural systems (hell, it turns out, is a highly organised, compartmentalized place). Many of the organizational arrangements of the hierarchical levels of Inferno and Paradise are borrowed from the various mystics Dante loved, and they give him the chance to show off his wide, esoteric reading habits. This is all very interesting if you have an edition as rich in explanatory footnotes as mine, but if you try reading The Divine Comedy without what we can call a road map to the places, thought systems and characters, you’ll soon find yourself lost in Dante’s obscure references.

Unsurprisingly, the first part, “Inferno”, is far more arresting than “Purgatory” or “Paradise”, which two latter sections drop virtually everything except long-winded, cloudily reasoned “logical explanations” about the nature of god and heaven, and about the “evidence” for their existence. This soon gets boring in its over-earnest, pious repetitiveness.

Guided by Virgil (and later on by others), Dante travels through realm after realm, making himself guilty of vast quantities of namedropping. Technically, the book is a narrative poem, but the scant story just serves as a clothes-hanger from which hangs a plethora of natter with the departed souls Dante encounters. These fall into three categories: 1) famous historical people such as various European kings, along with Plato and Aristotle, 2) famous fictional characters such as Odysseus and the Virgin Mary, and 3) people who are in Inferno/Purgatory/Paradise solely based on Dante’s personal opinion of them.

The conversations he has are often a kind of faux-Socrates style “investigation”, which is really just a whole lot of drivel trying to make sense of religious faith and the nature of god and the architecture of heaven and hell, as if any of those things actually could make sense. Dante’s whole faith and philosophy, and his theories about his “holy” subject matter take the form of a strange hodgepodge of Christian mysticism, Graeco-Roman mythology and a smattering of science to make his dragged-out-of-his-rear-end ideas sound superficially plausible.

Dante’s visual imagination and advanced taste in reading matter are impressive, but ultimately the whole poem becomes more misguidedly didactic and garrulous than beautifully resonant. He sounds like a guy whose primary goal is to convince the reader of a non-cohesive idiot belief of no substance. Which is of course exactly what he hopes to achieve. One could have wished that he had spent more effort on the poetry and general sense of awe, wonder and terror, where his strengths lie. As it is, The Divine Comedy gets dull rather quickly, and also waters down much of its power through the absolute opposite of the noble, selfless religion Dante espouses, namely his recurring, small-minded bitching about Italy, his hometown of Florence and the people who exiled him from there in real life.

One more thing: despite all the thought Dante put into erecting his Paradise, it comes across as singularly unappetizing place, where all you do is feed the ego of a smug megalomaniac by singing all day about how great he is. The fact that this god equates “infinite mercy” with boiling people in hell just makes him look like that much more of a real pal.

So no, I don’t think The Divine Comedy is the good stuff. If I wanted to be facetious – which of course I do – I could say it has a great setting, but needs a better story and more well-rounded characters. And far less backyard “theorizing”.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Dante, in which he is blissfully unaware that he is perfectly describing his own random grab bag of theological ideas: “Do not hasten towards yes and no in matters where your eye is blurred; foremost among fools is he who thoughtlessly and without discernment denies or claims something he has not tried. An opinion one makes without reflection often leads astray, and the love that arises for it locks up reason.”

Rating: 5 of 10 in terms of reading pleasure. A lot more than that as a view into the early 14th Century mindset.

Gustave Doré's famous illustrations often upstage Dante's text.

Gustave Doré’s famous illustrations often upstage Dante’s text.

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Film review: Way Down East (1920)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: D.W. Griffith. Writers: Anthony Paul Kelly, D.W. Griffith, based on the play by William A. Brady and Lottie Blair Parker. Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Josephine Bernard, George Neville, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale.

 

Lascivious Lennox Sanderson (Sherman) stages a fake wedding to get to have sex with innocent Anna Moore (Gish). His plan succeeds, leaving Anna disgraced with a baby born out of wedlock.

Way Down East is an old fashioned film even given its date. The central idea of a poor waif in tragic circumstances was a Victorian staple, as was of course the notion that there is something horrid and unforgiveable about an unmarried woman having sex or giving birth. Certainly today, there is still a double standard as to the sexual behaviour of men and women respectively, but in no reasonably civilised society is it enough to have a woman ostracized the way Anna is in this story. As a view back at women’s situation in earlier times (and still, in too many parts of the world), Way Down East has its interest, but it’s perfectly laughable that Griffith felt the need to have Anna tricked into bed so that he could tell his tale but still keep his heroine pure as snow (one of his obsessions).

Always a great actress, Lillian Gish’s early career specialty was grieving and suffering while remaining cute as a button. That combination is quite irresistible, and she alone creates what emotional investments one can make in this film. Unfortunately, not even she can save it, due to some strange scripting decisions which terminally dilute Anna’s story.

The pompous title cards at the start tell us that this is to be a tale of the misfortune of women in a society more permissive towards men … and then the movie itself turns out to be predominantly lowbrow slapstick with an all action finale (which is admittedly inventive and exciting). Once Anna finds tentative refuge in a rich farmer’s household, Way Down East is overrun by a wide assortment of mugging yokels and other silly archetypes, among whom Anna’s pain and worry stand out like isolated segments added in from an entirely different movie.

So a film that presents itself as striking a blow for monogamy and women’s rights spends most of its duration romanticizing rural life while poking fun at it. Apart from Gish and Barthelmess, the actors don’t help matters either, delivering performances as broad as they can possible muster. And Barthelmess, good as he is, has a thankless role, in fact the traditionally female one, mostly just walking around pining for love.

Way Down East is nice to look at. Some of its indoor sets look stagier – perhaps due to the camera setups – than in earlier Griffith productions, but there are some lovely outdoor scenes, including the thrill-packed finale among ice floes rushing down a river.  Eye candy is, however, not enough to make movie great or even good. And what’s with the eternal barn dancing sequence? Scenes of music and dancing in silent movies always have something ridiculous about them, and this one overstays its non-existent welcome by what feels like hours.

The American Museum of Modern Art has made a tolerable restoration of Way Down East. Among the work they’ve done is replacing a few lost scenes with stills and/or descriptive title cards. The restoration means that the film is now a two and a half hour monstrosity, bloated way beyond the needs of the flimsy premise. My guess is that the previously available 100 minute version is more digestible – nothing wrong with long movies, it’s just that there’s nothing in Way Down East to warrant such an exorbitant running time. Go with Griffith’s, Gish’s and Barthelmess’ superior Broken Blossoms instead. This is just a wafer thin melodrama of a type that was out of fashion before the first frame was shot.

Rating: 4 of 10. More Gish and fewer rural retards would have raised it a point or two.

For a different opinion on this film, visit the excellent Movies Silently blog via this link.

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Film review: Broken Blossoms (1919)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: D.W. Griffith. Writer: D.W. Griffith, based on a short story by Thomas Burke. Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp, Arthur Howard, Edward Peil Sr., George Beranger, Norman Selby.

This review contains some spoilers.

A Chinese man (Barthelmess) leaves China to spread Buddhism in Great Britain, but before long he’s reduced to being a disillusioned shop keeper in London’s squalid Limehouse district. His eye is caught by Lucy (Gish), a young girl suffering under her abusive father, the alcoholic boxer Battling Burrows (Crisp)

The late 19th and the early 20th Century saw a peculiar fondness for impoverished, angelically patient little waifs in the style of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. These impossibly saintly girls were, according to the norm, to go through much crying, want and cruelty before emerging, with childlike gratitude, into a happy ending (meaning of course marriage). Lucy is such a character, and superficially, Broken Blossoms seems to be such a story. But there is much more to it than that, and events in it don’t follow the typical template.

As expected, Broken Blossoms is weepy to the point where you’re probably expected to keep a basin by your seat so you can wring out your handkerchief at regular intervals. At the same time, however, it is unremittingly nasty, having Lucy and the Chinese man go through a level of suffering that is on a completely different level from what you would find in most tales of this type. There is a certain poetic justice to the ending, but it’s most emphatically not a happy one, and in fact the softer, happier moments experienced by the two lead characters can be measured in minutes rather than hours. And poor Lucy never does learn how to smile.

This sort of thing is emotional audience manipulation at its most extreme, but one does care about Lucy and the Chinese man, perhaps partly thanks to just how vicious fate is being towards them. Another reason for one’s allegiance to these two people consists of the way they’re played: they share similar patterns of movement (whether this was intentional or not), both of them moving like little birds who have been so manhandled by life that they remain in a continual state of hesitation and trepidation. In short, they seem brittle. One wishes to reach out to them and reassure them, make things better. Alas, one can’t, and it’s not the kind of story where happiness is about to shine its rays upon them. In fact, even Griffith himself allegedly found Broken Blossoms so sad and depressing that he had a hard time editing it.

Naturally, a film that hinges so critically on the audience caring deeply about its lead characters, needs the very best of actors. Lillian Gish is, as always, sublime: deeply emotional without even coming close to overacting, her face and eyes conveying every ounce of the sadness and weariness permeating Lucy. Her strange movements never feel contrived, but rather like the natural tics picked up by someone who has spent her entire life lonely, disappointed and tired to the bone. Towards the end of the film, Gish has a tour de force scene of pure anguish and terror, and the way she plays it and the way it is edited makes it one of the most unforgettable film sequences I’ve ever witnessed. Gish carries the film and almost singlehandedly lifts it out of the “dusty antique” corner where it might have ended up based solely on its old-fashioned storyline and sad-little-waif clichés.

Barthelmess is a different kettle of fish. His performance cannot be faulted, and arguably he has more to work with than Gish in terms of pure character, since the Chinese man is no angel (he partakes of the opium pipe from time to time), and one gets the sense that he’s always thinking more than he’s saying. A fine acting job, but there is of course the problem (more obvious today than in 1919, I’m sure) of having a Chinese character played by a Caucasian who couldn’t pass for Asian even in a dark cellar. This casting choice (standard practice until well into the 1950s) bugs me to no small extent, but one has to take it for what it is: a relic of the time when the film was shot.

Battling Burrows is as one-note as they come, just a horrible brute with no redeeming features, but Crisp delivers a forceful performance, which is notable for the boxing match at the end, in which Crisp and Selby go at it in medium shots that make clear that they’re not pulling their punches.

Due to Birth of a Nation, Griffith has a reputation as something of a racist, but if he was, his bigotry evidently did not extend to Chinese people. The Chinese in this film are generally portrayed as far more sensible and admirable than the Englishmen, and, especially in the early parts, we’re shown some painstakingly researched tableaux of genuine Chinese culture. That the male lead is played by a chalk white American is not Griffith’s fault specifically, but that of Western mentality in general, so I would go so far as to say that Broken Blossoms is a rare example of racial tolerance during an era where “The Yellow Peril” was a term on most everyone’s lips in the Western world.

In terms of the feelings and events depicted, Broken Blossoms adheres to the “why use a fine brush when you can toss the entire paint bucket at the wall” school of subtlety, but sometimes less isn’t more. Sometimes more is more. It’s a gripping, heart wrenching film that takes wing to soar far above its genre conventions.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Book review: William Shakespeare – Henry VI, Part 3

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2015 by Mistlake

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This review contains some spoilers.

King Henry VI is too mild-mannered and forgiving, and Richard Duke of York too easily distracted by shiny objects – specifically Henry’s crown – for there to be any lasting peace in England. And while York, following some initial martial success, is soon dealt with through the determination of Margaret, Henry’s less forgiving queen, the royal couple ain’t seen nothing yet: York’s three sons Edward, George and Crookback Richard are just as rebellious as their father and decide to give this whole insurrection thing a gory go.

There is plenty of violence in all the Henry VI plays, but the third one ups the ante yet further. There is much stabbing of children, people dying en masse in one battle after the other, plentiful beheadings, and the artificial but still touching scene where Henry observes a father unwittingly killing his son and a son unwittingly killing his father (a scene which feels more 20th Century topical drama than 16th Century history play). This, then, is Shakespeare’s earthquake of a rendition of the War of the Roses, a conflict which in reality was a rather less bloody affair, at least in terms of the number of casualties.

The scope of the slaughter is not the only component with which Shakespeare takes a lot of licence; unlike the previous parts, here we see the author rather faithless to actual history, putting the need for thrills and dramatic structure ahead of factual considerations. The most noticeable instance of fabrication is the way Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III) takes an active part throughout the war, despite having been – in real life – a child for most of it. Then there’s the characterisation of Richard Duke of York as a power mad would-be usurper when in fact many people believe he had a better title to the crown than Henry VI. In all fairness, this is mentioned in the play. (A small aside: a dear English friend of mine was a staunch socialist and anti-royalist, but would frequently burst into fiery speeches about the unfairness of York never being crowned king.)

The dramatic Shakespearean changes to the real story virtually all work in the play’s favour, as it’s nowhere near as messy as Part 2 in terms of random characters showing up to mystify the audience. Part 3, too, features oodles of people and events – historical and fictitious – but they are better integrated into the overall plot and are mostly easier to tell apart from one another. In fact, 3 Henry VI abounds in something the second part lacks: memorable characterisations. Whereas the second play really only had Jack Cade, the third one has Warwick the Kingmaker, Richard of Gloucester, lascivious Edward of York, steely queen Margaret and the by now more sharply defined Henry VI – all of them characters who appeared in the previous installments, but who become far more vivid (and prone to spouting classic lines) than before.

In some respects Warwick is the true head of state during both Henry’s and Edward’s tenures on the throne (he’s not known as the Kingmaker for nothing), and his arrogance, machinations and changeable allegiances are the spine of the entire play. No less fascinating is Queen Margaret who, over the course of the three plays, evolves from an innocent young girl into a first rate diplomat and military strategist, her motives constantly questioned by others with an interest in ruling the realm.

And then there’s Richard of Gloucester, who didn’t do much in Part 2, but who spends his time in Part 3 changing from, if you will pardon the comparison, Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. His breaking point comes when his brother Edward ignores his advice and takes a bride highly unsuitable and politically dangerous to the Yorkist future. Following this scene, in which Richard feels betrayed by his previously cherished brother, he starts becoming more recognizable: he reveals to the audience his new idea of gaining the throne for himself, he begins to develop his trademark psycho sense of humour, and plunges headlong into a gleeful orgy of murder. Oh, I do love that guy, unpardonable monster as he may be.

Looking up from the minutiae of characterisation to view the big picture, 3 Henry VI is a huge, loud and warlike play that revels in the metric tons of carnage and betrayal it depicts, but like so often with Shakespeare, there’s a more sober and reflective side to the work as well. One really does feel the futility of this, erm, game of thrones, and easily sympathises with Henry VI when he has his monologue about the relative happiness of common people compared to the fear, violence and treachery suffered by those living in the more rarefied airs of the royal and noble hierarchy. As soon as one person has installed himself as king, six others begin plotting his downfall, and so it goes on and on.  This is not merely discussed in Henry’s soliloquies (and similar ones in, for example, Richard II), but also shown in the story at large, where martial victory and defeat are fickle things, undulating to and fro, fortune smiling on this side, then that, aided and abetted by the equally fickle loyalties of the various throne pretenders’ supporters. This whole, more philosophical – almost existentialist – layer of the play culminates in Warwick’s final speech, which is tragic and beautiful enough to bring tears at least to my eyes.

Quite simply, The Third Part of Henry VI is an excellent play, moving at a snappy tempo while stopping to sound the depths as needed. Downsides? Not numerous or big ones: the last two acts feel a lot like one big, winking foreshadowing of Richard III, and then there’s the unintended hilarity of our dear Bard’s brownnosing depiction of young Henry Richmond, later Henry VII and grandfather to Shakespeare’s benefactress Queen Elizabeth.

3 Henry VI ends the trilogy with a bang, but of course all three plays form part of a gigantic eight play sequence, and quite rightly the real climax comes in the next and final part, Richard III.

Rating: 8 of 10.

Richard Duke of York

Richard Duke of York

Forensic recreation of the facial features of Richard of Gloucester, aka Richard III.

Forensic recreation of the facial features of Richard of Gloucester, aka Richard III.

Book review: William Shakespeare – Henry VI, Part 2

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2015 by Mistlake

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2 Henry VI 2

Having lost France in its entirety, England is in turmoil. The people’s discontent is brewing, and the peers of the realm pounce upon the weakness of their king Henry VI, plotting against him and each other to further their own agendas. In fact, the seemingly unassuming Richard Duke of York even has his mind set on winning the throne for himself.

This play (originally titled The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster just to confuse things) is quite a different animal from Part 1. The second part is an entirely domestic affair, although the shadow of the failed French wars lingers over everything going on, and the play has enough to chew on without going abroad for material. Too much to chew on, perhaps, for it lacks the sleek narrative flow of its predecessor (which, in all fairness, was written a couple of years later).

Characters abound as Shakespeare tries to cram in everyone who had any significant part to play in the War of the Roses and its surrounding occurrences. People like Lord Scales (the master of the Tower of London) and Alexander Iden (who earns the king’s gratitude in a specific way) and others have one or two scenes apiece, making 2 Henry VI a little bit scattershot, the very epitome of the confusing history play, where numbers of people show up all of a sudden without much context or explanation. On the one hand, this displays an uncommon degree of verisimilitude on Shakespeare’s part, since he’s not playing as fast and loose with historical accuracy as he would later in his career, but on the other hand, one could perhaps wish he had combined certain characters to reduce the number of bewildering cameos. I consider myself possessed of a tolerable knowledge of English history, but I’ve still had to read and watch 2 Henry VI a few times to make sense of it.

Compounding the problem of this wild-grown garden of personages is the fact that it takes quite a while before anything resembling a central character emerges. The title character is feebler than ever, a mere pawn in the power games played around him, and while York is constantly in the background pulling strings, he is not actually on stage that much (something that changes in Part 3). However, once York tasks commoner Jack Cade with starting a rebellion, Cade becomes the sole focus of the dramatics.

Cade and his ignorant, easily swayed followers (mainly butchers, weavers and other craftsmen) become the colourful character roster the play sorely needs. The one performance I’ve seen of 2 Henry VI (the BBC one from 1983) makes this rabble army tremendously annoying goons you just want to see punished severely this instant, not for their rebellion, but for their knuckle dragging apishness. In the text of the play, Cade and company are still repulsive enough in their hatred of anything above their own atavistic level (for instance, they kill a man just for being able to write his own name), but they’re also quite entertaining. Cade himself is a vicious, remorseless killer and iconoclast, horrifying in his brutish passion for violence and destruction, but he is also a buffoon. His pretentions and ludicrous claims of noble blood have his own people making continual fun of him behind his back. This mixture of frightening monster and blithering idiot makes Cade unforgettable even apart from the strangely 20th Century-sounding communist dictatorship he promises his adherents if they will help put him on the throne.

While Cade is far and away the most vivid character in the play, we’re also introduced to someone who will become more electrifying yet: York’s son Richard, who will of course go on to star in his own play, Richard III, as the vilest bastard in all of Shakespeare’s work (with possible competition from Iago). Richard doesn’t show much of his evil in 2 Henry VI, but it’s good to “see” him. He, like his father, becomes more prominent in the next play in the sequence.

There is much murder and mayhem in the pages of 2 Henry VI, so one can’t fault its liveliness. It’s an action packed play, a sprawling historical pageant where you can’t complain about the spectacle, drama, dialogue, juicy scheming or even humour, but whose overall construction would have been more elegant if Shakespeare had done his usual thing, suiting history to his story rather than the other way around. Maybe one can excuse him, since 2 Henry VI was one of his earliest plays. Also, while it does have a proper ending, it does feel like its main job is setting the stage for Part 3, which deals with the War of the Roses proper.

For all the play’s flaws and perhaps youthful inexperience, the verse is smooth and gorgeous, containing a classic line or two (“First thing we’ll do let’s kill all the lawyers), as well as stage directions which are too detailed for me to believe they were written by Shakespeare himself. There is no shortage of dramatic speeches and intense emotion in the unsurpassed language that is so characteristic of Shakespeare’s work.

Still a fine play, it’s just that we know that old Shakes could do so much better.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Book review: William Shakespeare – Henry VI, Part 1

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2015 by Mistlake

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King Henry V is dead, and his son Henry VI is too young and inexperienced to effectively wield the royal power. During the incessant wars with France, England faces a new, formidable foe in the shape of Joan de Pucelle (that’s Joan of Arc to you), who rallies the French Dauphin Charles and his forces to renewed and successful efforts against the English. In the midst of all this, a power struggle commences between Lord Somerset and Richard Duke of York, who following a quarrel pick a red and a white rose respectively to be the symbol of their factions. Thus the seeds are sown for the War of the Roses which will throw England into civil war.

The fifth play in the sequence beginning with Richard II.

Like most of Shakespeare’s history plays, The First Part of Henry VI has a complicated story and an enormous cast to make it feel rather daunting to a first time reader. This potential barrier is felt even more keenly when one knows that the narrative continues through two further, even more complex plays (and beyond them into Richard III). There really is no easy way into this enormous dramatic project, except to realise that Part 1 can be read as a stand-alone work.

My suggestion would be to attain a working knowledge of English history from the 14th Century to the 16th, and to read each play more than once, and if possible see them performed. You will be rewarded by seeing the many characters transform from an impenetrable forest into individual trees, by beginning to see just how skillfully Shakespeare has streamlined and dramatised the tangle of historical events, and by being able to smugly point out the historical facts he got wrong and the things he (or the chronicles he used as sources) simply made up.

Is it worth all this work? Maybe not if you regard it as work, but if you take joy from the process itself, the gradual clarity acquired will make you appreciate just what a thing of beauty this play is. There is a small minority who claim that the Henry VI sequence is the best thing Shakespeare ever wrote. I beg to differ, but like many of his works, these plays improve with each reading, and even the very first time there is no denying the power and beauty of the verse – it echoes and booms one minute, only to turn to trilling birdsong the next.

Evidently, Shakespeare didn’t write 1 Henry VI on his own; the evidence points to collaborators or to Shakespeare simply revising an older play, but if such is the case, the other hands involved were brilliant in their own right, for while there is some difference of expression within the play, the words remain uniformly gorgeous. The verse, which I think is the main reason why people read 1 Henry VI, has a remarkable number of rhymed couplets, which is unusual for Shakespeare, who generally favoured the more natural sounding unrhymed blank verse. The many rhymes, sometimes in alternating lines spoken by two different characters, make the dialogue sound more like interconnected poems than people talking, and when there are prolonged stretches of this, it does grow rather stilted. That’s nothing good actors can’t handle, of course, but it might be an obstacle to the reading flow if one is reading to oneself. Whatever its merits as dialogue, there is no questioning the fine quality of the poetry as such.

The complex story is solidly structured as the setting moves between England and France: the narrative divides itself neatly between increasingly violent disagreements at the English court on the one hand, and the tribulations of the wars in France on the other. There are threads connecting the two, such as the quarrel between York and Somerset preventing reinforcements from arriving in time, leading to a military disaster. Once one becomes familiar with the play and acquainted with the proliferation of names and titles (which would have been common knowledge in Shakespeare’s day), one finds it remarkable how much narrative sense the author(s) manage to create in this sprawling drama.

There is evidence to suggest that 1 Henry VI was written after the second and third ones, and if you know this, you can actually see signs of this being a prequel of sorts: before the events of the plays to follow, Richard Plantagenet needs to regain his lost title as Duke of York, which happens rather summarily, and most importantly, there needs to be some background to and foreshadowing of the War of the Roses, which dominates parts 2 and 3. This latter goal is achieved through 1 Henry VI’s most famous scene, the one in the garden, where the future enemies pick their different coloured roses. This scene is of course pure invention without historical precedent, but it is clever, beautiful and economical in a storytelling sense, as it cuts to the chase rather than have the characters tediously going on and on about the real and inconceivably convoluted events behind the war.

Looking at the surfeit of characters, there are a few who immediately stand out even on first reading. Two of them would be the main villains, both of whom, interestingly, have religious connotations: the not terribly pious Bishop of Winchester, who is utterly implacable and greedily ambitious, and of course Joan of Arc, who is revered as a saint in France, but is presented here in accordance with English tradition as a Satanist witch bitch with nary a redeeming feature. Then there is powerhouse soldier Talbot, whose martial prowess would put Ajax to shame. His super power – killing Frenchmen by the truckload – is not his most interesting feature, however. Much more intriguing is his passionate pride in his family name and the glorious reputation thereof, which informs the play’s single most touching and emotional scene. Another character, Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of York, comes across as quiet and reasonable, and as a consequence less colourful than the people arguing and fighting around him, but he will play a much more important role in the second and third installments. Also, he is of course the father of Shakespeare’s perhaps greatest villain.

1 Henry VI may act as a prequel, but importantly, it does stand firmly on its own two feet, giving us a dramatic, violent and deeply felt tale of heroism, defeat, civil strife and foreign wars, with lashings of patriotic regret at the manner in which the military victories and conquests of Henry V were so quickly negated following his death. Henry VI himself may be a secondary character in the plays bearing his name, but there is nothing secondary about this play in the oeuvre of Shakespeare: commencing with a funeral and ending with a truce, The First Part of Henry VI sports a beginning, middle and end, all filled with enough poetry, bombast and stormy action to satisfy any sensible admirer of Elizabethan drama. In my firmly held opinion, it is far superior to the more widely lauded Henry V.

Followed by Henry VI, Part 2 and Part 3.

 

Rating: 8 of 10.

William Shakespeare

Film review: Horror Express (1972)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Eugenio Martin. Writers: Arnaud d’Ussau, Julian Zimet. Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Alice Reinheart, Ángel de Pozo, Helga Liné, George Rigaud, Juan Olaguivel.

This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1906, and professor Alexander Saxton (Lee) has discovered a frozen, prehistoric ape in Manchuria. He intends to take it back to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Express. Before he can even depart the station, however, he already has one dead body to puzzle over, its eyes strangely turned white. During the train journey, Saxton and his old acquaintance Dr. Wells (Cushing) realise that what they thought was a dead ape is in actual fact a frisky critter bent on using its vast mental powers to cause a great deal of harm.

All right, there is much that’s hokey about Horror Express, primarily the clueless pseudo-science babble and the monster’s wildly inconsistent back story, which can’t decide whether it’s a supernatural being or just a highly evolved one. There are other bugs too: if the creature has been stranded on Earth since the rise of the first protozoans, say a billion years, what makes it think that its own civilization is still in existence? And then there’s … but no, I find this a film that’s quite difficult to wax grumpy about, despite my natural proclivities.

Plainly spoken, Horror Express is a wonderful horror movie. The script may be silly at times and repetitious at others, but Eugenio (he calls himself “Gene” here) Martin’s tight direction, together with the lovely turn of the century sets and rich cinematography, makes this fine and often superbly creepy hybrid of old style Gothic horror and the newer, gorier stuff of the 1970s.

The makeup effects are quite good too, especially the gory ones (for instance, Cushing once more gets to saw open yet another brain case) and the ones showing the monster’s glowing red eyes and its victims’ white ones. These effects, and the rather more iffy monster suit, are intelligently lit and shot by DOP Alejandro Ullea to make them look their best.

Tension is derived from the tried and true isolated environment of a train barreling through the wilderness, in this case Siberia, which is beautifully evoked by snowy model landscapes shot in atmospheric blue hues. When the creature starts exhibiting new abilities, namely the power to transfer its consciousness into other life forms (which explains how it ended up as an ape in the first place), suspense mounts. The viewer is at all times aware of the monster’s identity, but the characters in the story are not, which adds to the horror as our heroes try to find a way to identify the danger. Given the nature of the creature, its motives and abilities, Horror Express actually makes me think of The Thing, particularly John Carpenter’s 1982 remake. The icy isolation adds to that feeling, and Horror Express has the same kind of “who can you trust?” paranoia to it. Of course, the protagonists of The Thing aren’t British, which according to Cushing’s character makes all the difference …

All that I’ve spoken of so far would have been enough to make this an impressive little horror film of some originality, but there is one more element that makes it stand out, and that is the combination of actors, characters and dialogue. Much like in Murder on the Orient Express, the train abounds with colourful people, all of whom are important to the plot one way or the other. Notable are the Rasputin clone Pujardov (de Mendoza), a monk who goes crazier with each mile the train travels, and late-appearing guest star Savalas as scenery chewing Cossack Captain Kazan, as well as Reinheart as Cushing’s butch assistant Miss Jones.

Unsurprisingly, though, Horror Express belongs to Lee and Cushing fair and square. The script thankfully gives them some excellent lines, both serious and funny, to counterbalance the “scientific” derpaderp they have to spout. It also provides them with some nice scenes of physical action, not least when the movie goes completely batty at the end. Cushing and Lee were of course friends in real life, and it’s a shame they were almost exclusively cast as adversaries, because Horror Express shows just how much fun they could be when on the same side. You can tell they’re enjoying themselves (despite Cushing’s personal reasons for initially not wanting to do the film), and the dynamic is still there between them, since Lee’s pompous and rather aggressive Saxton is perpetually annoyed by and disapproving of Cushing’s curious, rule breaking  and mischievous Wells. Yet they end up working together against the threat, and it’s a joy to behold.

Horror Express is one of those curiosities, an enormously entertaining horror film that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The best commendation I can give it is that I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen it.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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