You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

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Poor Timothy Olyphant.  While he’s wallowing about as the big fish in the very small pond that is “Justified,” his former “Deadwood” co-stars Garret Dillahunt (who played the psychopathic Mr. W.) and John Hawkes (Sol Starr) have found much richer material in Debra Granik’s wonderful rural thriller, “Winter’s Bone,” based on the Daniel Woodrell novel.  Moreover, these actors have delightfully reversed their earlier characters; while Dillahunt now appears as the ineffective but earnest cop, Hawkes no longer offers us his wide blue eyes as in “Deadwood,” but uses his hollow cheeks, broken nose, enormous (and beautiful) hands, and perpetual cigarette to become the terrifying meth-cooking Teardrop, who isn’t quite sure whether he cares enough about his brother’s family to help them escape starvation.

But I digress.  This movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence in the major role of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose sole concern is to find a way to keep her family alive.  Lawrence appears in virtually every scene — teaching her two younger siblings how to shoot and skin a squirrel, hunting down her father whose disappearance makes it likely they’ll lose their home, hanging laundry, frying potatoes.  This is a story about a very young, very smart woman who’s taken on the unenviable job of ensuring that her family survive (not unlike another one of my all-time favorite films, “Fresh”) in the Missouri Ozarks.  Moreover, she’s got to accomplish this job amidst the complicated, competing logics of family loyalty and disloyalty, pride in the midst of poverty, and the rules of law and outlaws; it doesn’t occur to her or anyone else that she is a child and shouldn’t have such heavy responsibility.  Lawrence plays her role with an extraordinary sureness, even when she’s surrounded by experienced actors like Hawkes whose parts give them the chance to appear more vividly creepy.  I fear she’s too subtle an actor to receive the recognition she deserves, as awards so often seem to go to the grandstanders; but she’s sure to add many more nominations to the Best Actress Prize she won at the Seattle Film Festival this year.  When she’s getting in a car with someone very scary, she turns to her younger brother and says, “Fry the potatoes till they’re brown and then turn off the stove,” exactly like a big sister would do.  She’s multi-tasking — frantically trying to teach her little siblings how they might feed themselves in case things get worse than they already are, at the same time that she’s afraid she really might not come back.

It’s about time we had a film that showed us true Southern poverty without turning its inhabitants into simplistic rubes or romantic Hollywood versions of “authentic.”  I even found myself entering into their own ways of thinking.  The characters speak of certain men in the Dolly family with a terrified reverence that verges on myth-making; but slowly one begins to realize that the women possess an equal if not superior capacity for brutality all the scarier because no such reverence for them exists.  Family pride is one place where they glean this power.  “I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered,” Ree spits at a bail bondsman looking to collect on the debt — and that pride is genuine, even if her family is the heart and soul of her problems.  There is no local color, and Lawrence never prettifies herself to ensure a career as the next Lindsay Lohan.  This film feels truer than that — and depending on its popularity, might well curb tourist traffic to the Ozarks for years to come.

And then there’s the music, which Granik uses throughout to jar us.  Acid metal blurts out of the house of her best friend, now married to a petty patriarch.  In another house, a group of old-timey bluegrass musicians play a couple of heartbreakingly lovely classic tunes — but by this time, that music seems so awfully out of touch with the grim realities of life in the Missouri mountains that we’re mostly struck by the disjuncture.  Even when Teardrop picks up a banjo and strums it with expert, if rusty, fingers (again, those beautiful hands of Hawkes’), the music comes from left field, always making you realize you don’t know what’s coming next.  (Apparently Hawkes has contributed to the forthcoming soundtrack with an instrumental called “Bred and Buttered.)  Best of all is a terrific sequence shot at a cattle auction, where Ree is overwhelmed by the sound of the cattle lowing, the auctioneer babbling, animals banging into metal cages.  It’s one of those extraordinary true moments onscreen — you have no idea how perfectly such sounds might capture her mood until you see it.

If there’s one thing that motivates everyone equally in Ree’s world, it’s talk.  Worse than Ree’s walkabout through the back woods to successively higher-ranked crystal meth dealers as she looks for her father is the resulting gossip about it.  At first Ree hopes that word will get around to her father so he’ll come back to help save the house, but it ends up serving the purpose of shaking the bad guys’ trees.  Her world hangs on the delicate balance of silence and reputation; thus, talk becomes a weapon far more effective than any other, and Dillahunt’s Sheriff Baskin knows this as well as any of the macho meth kingpins.  Not talking is a point of pride for Ree, but this is a political position that only makes sense in an environment where talk can destroy.

Granik keeps her eye on the ball.  Another director might pause for a romantic view of the hills or a charmingly dilapidated house, or insist that her characters voice those Southernisms that make a show like “Justified” so obviously designed for outsiders.  In contrast, Granik knows this is a film about focusing on the trees — the interpersonal politics and rules of a real community; even the characters’ accents aren’t overdone.  When the story really begins to cook into a thriller, you realize how fully you’ve begun to make sense of things on their terms.  This is her real accomplishment as a director: to avoid all the pitfalls of Southern stereotypes and Hollywood glamorizing of the rural.  Like Lawrence’s tight, perfect performance, Granik’s directing is unembellished while still jolting her viewers as she gradually reveals the truth of the tale.  The proof is in the storytelling, and Granik gets it.

Great film.  Go see it to get more attention for this little gem.

Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable:  “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again. 

But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show.  Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them.  Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist.  That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again.  It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.

Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment.  Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried).  Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers. 

Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath.  In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with.  Instead, he plays with the usual suspects:  comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death. 

In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene.  Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge.  He brings this up in the car as they leave.

Raylan:  “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office.  If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional.  I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”

Rachel, smiling wryly:  “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?”  …

Raylan:  “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that.  But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”

Rachel:  “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line.  And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”

Raylan:  “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”

Rachel:  “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger?  That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”

Raylan:  “What do I get away with?”

Rachel:  “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?”  (Raylan smirks.  Rachel persists.)  “You think I’d get away with that?”

Raylan:  “Go on, try it on.”  (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might.  End of scene.)

See?  It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive.  Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop.  After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control.  He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins.  Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.

And what happens at the end of the episode?  Rachel does try on the cowboy hat.  But it doesn’t fit.

“Slings & Arrows”

29 March 2010

For a moment, let me sing a song about the magical moment we enjoy in history:  not only are we fully in the middle of a renaissance for television shows, but we don’t have to pay attention to their schedule.  Between DVRs (I don’t have one, but I envy those of you who do), Netflix sending us DVDs by mail and streaming over the internet, and Hulu and all its cousins, we’re free to partake of the wonder and glory that is television today — and on our own schedule.

Give me the chance and I’ll be one of those people who gets derailed from all normal human conversation at dinner to insist, without blinking, that you should watch “The Wire.”  This is not a short conversation.  Discovering a great new show that’s already available on DVD can be dangerous, as it leads to the binge.  After my first, horrible year of teaching I watched the first two seasons of “The Sopranos” in about four days, only slowed down by the drive back and forth to the video store; I described the show as akin to crack cocaine.  Last summer, with my partner away for a few days, I swallowed the first season of “True Blood” in about a day and a half.  Steven Johnson tells us that watching these kinds of complex shows makes us smarter, but I don’t think he meant watching an entire season in one crazed, unwashed lost weekend.

Almost every night we have a routine:  we finally stop working, we drink a glass of wine and have a late dinner, and we settle down to watch something to cleanse our brains so we can sleep without having dreams about sentences, paragraphs, or teaching anxieties.  About half the time we watch a film, but the problem with film is you have no idea where it’s going to take you.  It feels like a big emotional commitment (and can haunt your dreams, as my previous post showed).  Television shows, in contrast, have a snappy pace and severely delimited structure.  Even if you’re sitting down to a couple of episodes of something dark, complex, or full of cliffhangers (“Lost,” for example, or the Shakespearean “Deadwood”), you know it’s merely a part of something longer.  It’s tidy, like a Lean Cuisine.

The problem is, we occasionally run out of shows — and we were in precisely that condition until we remembered the Canadian comedy, “Slings & Arrows.”  It’s a terrific comedy about a somewhat hopeless theater troupe trying to stage “Hamlet” after its artistic director dies and is replaced by one of his old protege/enemies, played by Paul Gross — a less malevolent Ray Liotta with Dionysian hair and raw sexuality, who’s still nursing himself back to mental health after a breakdown while acting in “Hamlet” seven years earlier.  Gross’s character is promptly haunted by the ghost of the old artistic director, and the show is off and running with Shakespearean jokes, swordfights, jealousies, young romance, and overblown theatrical egos.  We were hooked immediately.  (It doesn’t hurt that Gross can be funny, eminently watchable, and ridiculously sexy all at once.)

There’s no laugh track.  The cast is having fun, but they’re not just playing for yuks — I don’t quite know how the show does it, but it feels substantial.  It’s punctuated with some stock characters, but are they stock for Shakespeare or for modern television comedy?  There are two old queens who offer chorus-like eye-rolling and one-liners for the viewer’s benefit; an aging leading lady who sleeps with a series of hot young delivery boys; a pretentious director in leather pants who announces that the production’s unifying ethic will be “rottenness”; and the uxorious financial director (played by the great Mark McKinney from “Kids in the Hall”) and his new girlfriend, the aggressive Texas transplant determined to replace Shakespeare with productions of “Mamma Mia.”

Oh, to discover a new show — heaven.  My only regret is that it’s only three short seasons long — only six DVDs.  So I’m accepting recommendations for future viewing.