Friday, January 25, 2013

All in the Eyes

D. gave me the book The World of Downton Abbey for my birthday in September—which might be funny (see how the literarily mighty have fallen!) if it weren't for the fact that I've never been anywhere near as "literary" as people seem to think I am. (Example: At lunch the other day, a former colleague was telling me about her book group and how much she loved Democracy, the 1880 Washington novel by Henry Adams. "Have you read it?" No. "Oh, I really think you'd love it." Hmm, maybe. But what evidence have I given you that makes you think so? I'm not really drawn to Washington or political fiction, and I read mostly contemporary literature, albeit sometimes set in the past. By the way, did I like the much-lauded movie Lincoln? No, I thought it an endless, wonkish bore, as did D. Perhaps the subject of the future, contrarian post.)

Back to The World of Downton Abbey. The fact that I've read it might also be funny if it weren't such an interesting, gorgeously designed, and skillfully researched and written book (by Jessica Fellowes, niece of the show's creator, Julian Fellowes), about the history and sociology of the era and class divisions as much as about the show itself. Oh, and a book that happens to be about a TV series I'm so addicted to that I've seen most episodes at least three times.

For Christmas I received the book's sequel, The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, which is mostly tied into the third season (the first book covered the first two). It looks equally yummy, but I haven't explored much beyond the photos yet because I'm nervous that it might give too much away. (I already inadvertently heard two spoilers when I was in London in November, where the season had finished its run.)

One of the first book's insights pertains to one of my favorite characters, O'Brien—the lady's maid who is as loathsome as a badly overripe and discolored cheese, yet (in the third season) an increasingly, and strangely, sympathetic character, even as she plots revenge against her former ally, the footman-turned-valet Thomas. We're seeing more of her fear now as well as her sadness. She's becoming, for the first time within her downstairs world, a victim.

Siobhan Finneran and Rob James-Collier ( Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for Masterpiece)
"O'Brien moves almost seamlessly between floors; she is very good at her job, proud to be so, and her ease amongst both servants and family is a measure of this. Of all the servants, O'Brien is probably the best actor, showing only the face she wants her colleagues or her employer to see. Lady Grantham, after all, believes they are friends."

As for the actress who plays O'Brien, Siobhan Finneran, I agree with a comment in the same book by Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas: "Siobhan is a fantastic actress to work with—you really learn from her. She's very measured and it's all in the eyes. In rehearsal you think there's nothing going on and then you see it on screen and you think 'wow—everything's happening.' "

A similar thing occurs when you watch an episode for the first time . . . and then for the third.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Laughter and Silence

Judy Dench as Ophelia, 1957 (Jimmy Sime/Getty Images)
If there's one path not taken that I'd choose if I had the chance, it would be to be involved in theater. I participated in a small way when I was a kid (and very briefly in college), and these days I've been lucky to see a few notable plays a year, but I think I would have enjoyed a career working in theater in some capacity. It seems to have a real sense of community that I sometimes find myself envious of.

This feeling arose again as I read Judi Dench's And Furthermore, which I finished tonight. It's not an autobiography (a point she underscores herself), more a collection of reminiscences and anecdote from her life as an actress. In fact, I read in the New York Times that it was assembled from transcripts of conversations with a friend and biographer, and that's exactly what it seems like: Judi Dench chatting, just talking. If you've heard her interviewed, she sounds exactly, but exactly, that way in this book. It's not great "writing," but it's worth the price just to have the amazing Judi Dench's voice residing in your head for however many days or weeks it takes you to read it.

If you lived in Britain from 1957 to more or less the present day, you could see Judi Dench onstage at least once or twice a year—that's how busy an actress she has been. It's of course partly a function of the difference between English and American theater, but I can't think of a single living American actor you could say that about.

As for the book, here's one passage I liked:

"On a film you have to sit and answer questions about what you think of the part, why you wanted to play the part, and I think that's none of the public's business. Why should you know the ins and outs of everything? You don't say to a dress designer like Betty Jackson, 'Why have you made a dress like that? Why did you cut the dress like that?' Why should the public know everything? The joy of the theatre is not really going and knowing that somebody had terrible difficulty playing this part, or why they did it; it is to go and be told a story, the author's story, through the best means possible. In any case, I never know why I've done something, it's for lots of reasons. I want to keep a quiet portion inside that is my own business and not anybody else's."

And these, the final words, at the end of the last chapter, "What Every Young Actor Needs to Know: Answers to Questions I've Been Asked Over the Years." For some reason, despite their simplicity and directness, they haunt me a little:

"What is the greatest reward of being an actor?

"Laughter if it's a comedy, silence if it's a tragedy."

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Perfectly Good

I just finished A Perfectly Good Man, a novel by the gay British writer Patrick Gale, whom I discovered on one of my visits to London.

I’d previously read his book Rough Music, which I liked a lot. That one is a family story involving an adult gay son having an affair with his sister’s husband (revealed pretty early on, so this is only a semi-spoiler); his mother, who has early-stage dementia; a long-ago childhood vacation that became an incubator for parental adultery; a present-day return to the same spot, leading to a sweet and sexy love story between the gay son and a mysterious artist guy; and regular shifts in time.

A Perfectly Good Man moves back and forth even more—not only in time but also among quite a few characters. It’s another family drama, this time hinging in part on questions of faith and loss of faith, and is centered on the life of a minister, a married father of two, on the Cornwall coast, where Gale lives and most of his work seems to be set. It’s not as gay as Rough Music, but a peripheral character is a gay man, and the minister’s daughter, whose sexuality is kind of indeterminate throughout the story, ends up marrying a woman, which is nice and in fact one of the book’s pivotal events.

Gale’s strength is his mastery of structure, time, and perspective. A Perfectly Good Man (his most recent book) felt ever so slightly less compelling to get through than Rough Music, but darned if I didn’t close it pretty amazed at what he’d built and where he’d taken it. He even manages to make a unicorn reference work! (On that note, if you ask me what I thought of Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, I’ll tell you I found it a moving invocation on a momentous occasion, but I could have done without the rainbows.)

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Turning the Page

I’m going to try something to get myself unstuck—a condition that has various reasons but one result: no posts for a very long time. For a while anyway, I’m exclusively going to post comments on something I’ve read—a book, an article, some kind of story. (Maybe I’ll allow a movie or a play; they’re “read,” too, after all.)

I need the focus and (loose) strictures. If I end up veering off track and writing about my life or my family or my travels, so be it. As long as I can get myself back to putting sentences together for their own sake and mine, with no audience or expectations in mind—the original goal of this blog back in 2005—I’ll be satisfied.

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