Sunday, March 31, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 4: Pig Cheeks

Seven weeks into the project, everything is great now that the new scullery maid is at Manderston.  The daughter of a farmer, Ellen is actually used to hard physical labor and doesn't shy from the nastier tasks like plucking fowl.  Since she arrived, the kitchen has been humming, and Monsieur Dubiard and Antonia are so happy and relaxed, and...

Where did she go?

It turns out that Ellen and Kenny are enjoying a clandestine relationship.  Despite Anna and Bates carrying on with the full knowledge of both the staff and the upstairs, it turns out that servants are expressly forbidden to have relationships.  If Ellen and Kenny had been caught together in Edwardian times, she would have lost her job and he would have been disciplined.  But since this is 2001 and the staff don't want to hire yet another scullery maid, Edgar can only give them a stern talking to.  However, all of their secret trips to smoke cigarettes are causing them to neglect their work, to the point where the rest of the servants gather to figure out how to deal with the problem.  They decide to "punish" Kenny by removing the screen that separates his bed from full view, so he has no more privacy.  At the same time, the other servants envy his and Ellen's intimacy, as it reminds them of the intimacy they once had with their loved ones.

Meanwhile, the upstairs are planning to invite over guests for a weekend "sporting party" of hunting, fishing, and shooting.  This despite the fact that the Olliff-Coopers have found that the constant diet of animal meat has made regular bowel movements a challenge.  Sir John therefore requests that Monsieur Dubiard prepare modern meals with more fruit and leaner meat.  Monsieur Dubiard bristles at Sir John's willingness to deviate from Edwardian standards whenever it suits him, and instead chooses to serve the upstairs an Edwardian delicacy for dinner -- pig cheeks.  To be precise, Monsieur Dubiard cooks an entire pig's head in the oven and right before the family's eyes, the cheeks are sliced up and served.  Ugh.  This show might make me a vegetarian yet.  Sir John is more than a little unnerved to see his dinner staring at him, and orders the staff to take the pig's head away.

Edgar states mournfully that he is certain Sir John feels betrayed by him.  Which is unfortunate, because Edgar has become practically a surrogate father/brother/best friend to Sir John, even giving him his morning shave.  Likewise, Miss Morrison has become Lady Olliff-Cooper's BFF, to the point where they are comfortable doing a joint presentation on the way ladies' underwear works.  It's actually rather fascinating for the uninitiated.  Though women of that time period wore tight corsets and legs hidden under multiple skirts, there was, um, a gap in the crotch area.  The gap leaves the woman's lady parts completely exposed (albeit under a ton of skirts), allowing for greater ease when squatting over the chamber pot.  It certainly beats having to lift those skirts to pull down your undies.  But doesn't it get a bit chilly... well anyway --

So while Edgar and Miss Morrison have grown ever closer to Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper, the rest of the family is becoming alienated.  Jonty writes in his mother's diary asking for some private time to have a chat with her, as he has hardly seen her for eight days.  Guy has quickly soured on Edwardian life, so lacking in computers and family interaction.  Funny, I had almost forgotten about him -- so much for the "cute kid" taking over the show like I feared.  Guy prefers hanging around with the downstairs staff to building model ships in bottles upstairs, or whatever upper-class children did.  Lady Olliff-Cooper notes that she does not want Guy to get too close to the servants because when he inherits the estate, he will have to be their employer.  Then she realizes that Guy will never inherit the estate.  But for that one moment, she lost herself in the Edwardian fantasy...

The one suffering the most from the rigid class system is Miss Anson, an independent PhD in real life.  In Edwardian times, she would not be expected to hold an opinion about anything, and would be completely under her brother-in-law's thumb.  The set-up has created a distance between Miss Anson and Lady Olliff-Cooper, who used to be very close.  To hear Dr. Avril Anson describe it after the fact, her sister and brother-in-law really did internalize the values of the day and did think of her as less valuable for not having a husband.  Miss Anson mentions with disgust that Sir John once said that it was worthless to spend money educating women.  If that is John Olliff-Cooper's true opinion, and not just Sir John's, one wonders why he married a doctor.  Then again, some men claim to be attracted to strong women, but still insist that those women put aside their ambitions to cater to them (*cough* Paul McCartney).  The only freedom Miss Anson has from this system is escaping on her bicycle out into the countryside.

Still, even that outlet isn't enough, and Miss Anson soon reaches her breaking point.  She is released from the project for a time in order to recover her bearings at a "spa".  In fact, Dr. Anson states that the reason for her "breakdowns" and departure was because she had food poisoning.  I'm surprised more people didn't suffer her fate.

Finally the hunting party guests arrive, and lots of loud rifle shooting commences.  Some of it is just practicing with clay targets propelled into the air, but after a while, they're shooting the real thing.  Not surprisingly, the narrator proclaims that hunting parties were predominantly male.  We watch as bird after bird falls from the sky for the hunters' pleasure.

Then they are brought to the servants, where they are cooked up for the grand dinner.  Unfortunately, so much work was put into cutting the fowl to make it look attractive, it lost some of its heat -- something that Sir John is quick to notice and complain about.  Edgar notes that Sir John just humiliated his chef in front of his guests.  In a sad voice, he proclaims that the more the servants give, the more their masters expect, and the less gratitude they show.

Downton Observations

Poor Old Fellow(es).  I've been a bit hard on Julian Fellowes, setting him up as a straw man whom I can pelt with my criticisms.  From what I've read, he seems to be fairly aware of how untenable the norms of Downton truly were.  The same person who created Lord Grantham and Carson also created Mrs. Hughes, who tells Carson: "I don't worship them as you do."  If Downton Abbey never acknowledges the dark side of the power imbalance between master and servant, at least Godsford Park does.  And it's nice that Fellowes recognizes that even the lowest servants (like Daisy) may have desires beyond their station.

That said, I still object to him painting Downton Abbey with such a bright, cheerful brush.  Oh sure, there are serious dramatic conflicts downstairs, but it never concerns the nature of their work -- just their personal relationships.  And despite knowing that a gross power imbalance exists, Fellowes may be no more aware of the extent of servants' hardship than Sir John.  It is nice to say that a good master would help a servant in need, and no doubt there were good masters who wouldn't shy from helping the scullery maids and hall boys.  But if the system presented in Manor House is accurate, most masters would have never heard of, much less met, these lower servants.  The system designed it that way.

Women's World.  It's good to see that on Downton, the "spinster" is finding ways to be self reliant.  Although the enormous psychological cost, not to mention the sheer waste of talent, of demeaning women can never be overstated, it should be pointed out that some "spinsters" of that time period did manage to overcome their social restraints.  Florence Nightingale is a notable example.  During the Victorian era, she founded modern nursing, improved health care, and paved the way for modern statistics among other things.  However, it should also be noted that not only was she born to a wealthy family, but she also received critical support from her father.  Even among wealthy women, having the father's support for greater achievement was rare.  Without such support, many women with similar aims were left to founder.        

Doesn't Anyone Work?  One thing both Downton and Manor House do equally is present an impression that no one upstairs did any meaningful work.  No doubt there were masters who only knew how to wallow in pleasure -- that's how they lost so many of those great houses.  And at least Downton acknowledges that Lord Grantham's complete uselessness is not a virtue, but a danger to the estate's long-term viability.  However, I don't know if Sir John's life is portrayed completely accurately.  Just as Lady Olliff-Cooper would probably be more hands on in real life, I think that Sir John would still be heavily involved in his business.  Such was the case with other people in his position, like Sir John Guest and Baron Belper.  (Again, giving commoners titles for striking it rich did not start with Edward VII.)  There would be hunting and shooting, but also lots of time spent touring factories and dealing with employees and contracts.

So Now That There's Romance...  Should we expect Kenny's insane ex-wife to appear and threaten to kill herself unless he takes her back?

Next Time: Episode Five.  Time moves forward to 1911, and the upstairs encounters racial tensions.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Les Miserables the Movie: Impressions of the DVD Release

It seemed only fair to end my Les Miserables fan-girling with my impressions of the recent DVD/blu-ray release.  In some ways, I wish that Universal had waited a little longer, because the movie was still doing pretty well at the box office (better than expected) and given another month or two, it might have overtaken Chicago and even Grease to become the highest-grossing musical in the United States.  Oh well.  I'm sure the movie will get another chance when it is rereleased with the extended cut.  *exaggerated wink*

Like many, I purchased the Target "deluxe" DVD set, which came with a "stage to screen" booklet and a bonus disc.  The blu-ray disc contains exclusive bonus material, as did the bonus disc.  So what did I think?

Blu-Ray Disc

As expected, the blu-ray disc had crystal clear graphics that were beautiful to behold.  However, the disc itself was a complete fail.  It plodded along from one segment to the next, taking a very long time to process or upload new material.  Worst of all, it not only gave you no option to skip the commercials, but it also showed commercials on the menu screen.  Oh sure, you had the option of turning off the ticker, but the ticker should never have ever been on in the first place.  There has to be a separation between the commercials and the main event, especially on a DVD that you have paid to own and watch multiple times.  And while the disc had no trouble playing the actual movie, when I paused it for a length of time, I found that I could not get it started again.  Instead, it went back to the beginning -- the very beginning, which meant that I had to watch the commercials all over again.  Forget it.     

That said, if you can stomach the commercials, the blu-ray does provide some very good special features, some of which are available on the regular DVD and some of which are not.  The features unique to the blu-ray are The West End Connection (under A Revolutionary Approach), Les Miserables On Location, Battle at the Barricade, and Live Singing.

1.  The West End Connection

It takes a look at some of the West End performers from past and present who are taking part in the movie.  The list includes Colm Wilkinson, Frances Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser, and Samantha Barks.  This was a nice feature overall, but not nearly long enough.  It would have been nice to get a runthrough of every West Ender associated with the film, since there were dozens.  More clips with different actors would have nice as well.  I also wish that the feature had shown clips of the actors' past performances, but maybe there was concern about too much comparison?

2.  Les Miserables On Location

Another nice feature that was, sadly, not nearly long enough.  The best part was the sequence where they set up the opening scene with the convicts.  Otherwise, we got glimpses of the French countryside, the Royal Naval College where a lot of Parisian footage was filmed, and the manor house that served as Marius's family home.  If you watched the clips the preceded the movie's release, there is not much new here.  

3.  Battle at the Barricade

This feature describes the manner in which the students and other cast literally tossed together the barricade in 10 to 15 minutes.  They did such a good job that Hooper decided to use their barricade instead of the one he had pre-made.

4.  Live Singing

Now this is the real gem of the bonus material.  At first it starts out very much like the live singing featurette that was released prior to the movie.  But then it expands to show how "Master of the House" and the "Confrontation" looked and sounded without the aid of an orchestra.  We also get to see the process of the orchestra figuring out how to play according to the beats of the actors' singing.  One very good sequence involved Cameron Mackintosh complaining that "Do You Hear the People Sing?" did not "combust" the way it should.  If you could choose only one extra to watch, this should be it.


Happily, the DVD allows you to skip the commercials.  If you have a high-quality flat screen and don't want to deal with the hassle, I would say watch the movie on this disc.  It contains bonus material that is also available on the blu-ray, except for the features mentioned above.  Apart from Tom Hooper's commentary, there is not a whole lot that is new if you have watched the promotional clips.  Nonetheless, it still contains some interesting nuggets.

1.  Tom Hooper's Commentary

Hooper is the only one with commentary on this set, and he provides a very rich, detailed take on the filming process.  You really get a sense of appreciation for how much hard work and thought went into planning and filming each scene.  I won't give away everything he says to those who have not listened, but here are some things that stood out for me:

  • The "fountain" that Javert falls into when he commits suicide was actually a pick up shot.  Hooper and his crew felt that Javert plunging into the water was not dramatic enough, so they added a bath in after the fact.  It was supposed to look as though it was "tempting, calling to" Javert.  
  • Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried's first scenes together were the Epilogue.  I would imagine that such an intense bonding process created a connection that could be felt during other scenes.
  • It was Russell Crowe's idea for Valjean and Javert to be sword fighting during the "Confrontation."
  • Hooper originally filmed the 1848 barricade ending, but in a wise move, decided that he preferred the ghostly barricade, and did not want living people (such as older Marius and Cosette) mixing with the ghosts.
  • In the scene where Valjean is leaving and tries/fails to lift the trunk, Hooper notes that since he had been "practically drowning" in sewage, it's not surprising that he could have caught something that would make him frail.  
  • Hooper wanted Amanda Seyfried to play Cosette as intelligent and aware (which is also why he added the scene where she is told of Valjean's departure) because her character in the musical is so passive.
  • Eddie Redmayne, ever perceptive, feared that Marius would seem callous if they went straight from Eponine dying to him seeking out Cosette.  Hooper dismisses his concerns, but I think he was right.  What is more, watching that bit of commentary, I got the impression that "Her name was Eponine" was never filmed.  Can anyone else watch that part and confirm?

2.  The Stars of Les Miserables

Again, very little that you haven't already seen if you watched the promotional releases.  Hooper needed the "perfect storm" of singing and acting.  The movie would not have been made if not for Hugh Jackman's existence.  Anne Hathaway's mother was Fantine.  The one new thing I learned -- and I'm not so sure it's new -- courtesy of Samantha Barks: Eddie Redmayne has a very strong falsetto.

3.  Creating the Perfect Paris

See above.  Paris was recreated on the Richard Attenborough sound stage, the largest in the UK, because the Paris of 1832 no longer exists.  The French tore up the narrow streets in the 1850s because they were so prime for starting revolutions.

4.  The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo's Les Miserables

This feature looks at Victor Hugo's life and influences, and makes the connection to parts of Les Miserables.  Notably, Hugo went into exile after Napoleon III's coup and did not return until he was deposed.  His funeral had two million spectators.  Oh, and it would appear that throughout his life, Victor Hugo had an incredibly high forehead.  

Bonus Disc

The supplemental disc mixes already familiar material with some surprises.

1.  The Genesis of Les Miserables

Nothing new if you watched the promotional releases.  In fact, I think this is the same retrospective as the one they released before the movie.  It traces the musical's evolution from its French origins to its opening at the Barbican in London.   

2.  The Transformation of Hugh Jackman

This one goes maybe slightly more in-depth into the transformation he went through to play convict Valjean.  It also features fleeting scenes that never made it into the final cut, such as Valjean emerging from the water after his plunge following the "Confrontation."

3.  The Young Revolutionaries

Yay, we get to see Aaron Tveit speak!  This is probably the best of the bonus content.  Aaron Tveit describes the bond between Marius and Enjolras, and says that all of the "students" bonded throughout filming.  Eddie Redmayne mentions being "terrified" that so many of the ensemble students had actually played Marius on the West End.  The students show off their "death makeup" before going off to film the scene where they die horribly.  It's fun to watch, and a nice tribute to the "barricade boys," whose tweets I followed during the filming process and who have been overshadowed by the major players.

4.  Anatomy of a Scene: Lovely Ladies

Another good one.  Hooper really wanted to create a hellish landscape, so he brought in fish to be gutted and let it slowly rot, as well as covered the set with slime.  Anne Hathaway says that her nose constantly running was not acting, but a reaction to the chilly set.  As with the West End bonus, I just wish that all of the "ladies" could have been introduced, since many have played prominent roles on the West End, yet the only one I recognized was Frances Ruffelle. 

5.  Anatomy of a Scene: Master of the House

This one is good as well.  We watch the actors work out how to do the dance choreography.  Helena Bonham Carter notes that a lot of the comedy was not written and it took work to figure out before filming.  She also introduces her newfound ability to pickpocket.  For whatever reason, only Bonham Carter and not Sasha Baron Cohen was interviewed for this.  Did Baron Cohen have laryngitis that week?  Not that I'm complaining.

6.  Les Miserables Lives On

This one surprised me when I first saw it.  It draws very explicit connections between the anger in 1832 and the massive inequality that gave rise to the Occupy movement.  Not that those connections aren't apt, but I was surprised that Hooper and company were so openly political, that they didn't just invoke a bland "universality" theme to avoid alienating a segment of consumers.  Overall, very interesting and worth watching.      


The discs definitely feature a lot of good material, including new material that was not released before the movie.  At the same time, I felt as though something was being held back.  I wanted more interviews with the extended cast, as well as commentary from the actors.  An extended scene of the actors either singing live or filming the barricade sequence would have also been great.  If there is ever an extended release, I have no doubt we will get to see more of this material.  Until then, what we have is pretty good.

So adieu, Les Miz.  Thank you for providing so much entertainment.  Maybe I'll catch you next time on Broadway in 2014.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 3: Revolt!

If the house seemed like a well-oiled machine in the last episode, it quickly collapses in this one.  Four weeks have passed and the servants are dead tired.  Their fondest dream is to have some honest-to-goodness time off, which is at Sir John's discretion.

Kenny grumbles that if he doesn't get so much as a half day off, he will kidnap Jonty and hold him for ransom.  Antonia muses that if she were really a kitchen maid in the Edwardian times, she would have quit service and become a prostitute.  The reasons?  She would never have to worry about scandal for smoking and drinking, and her feet would never be tired because she would be on her back all day.

The servants are also getting sick of having to smile with good humor whenever one of the family makes a funny.  Rob tells Charlie that he wanted to "plunge a knife in their backs" when they laughed at him for being tired.  He singles out Jonty's "girly laugh" for criticism.

For their part, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper acknowledge that the servants work hard, but little else.  Sir John claims that "humility" would make him say that he could be a servant, but in reality, he's "not the servant type."  Would he say that if he were born the fifth of 10 children to a factory worker?  I think that determines your "type" a lot more than your personality traits.  Kenny, who is also not the servant "type," laughs quietly behind him on the fishing boat as Sir John gets repeatedly tangled in the line.  Meanwhile, Lady Olliff-Cooper thinks that whether you love or hate your servitude depends upon your "state of mind."  She mentions the way Miss Morrison always has a smile on her face and seems to love her job.  Well yes, but (1) she's an upper servant who does very little menial work compared to the maids and (2) what she does isn't so different from her modern vocation.    

The only time the servants get a real break -- especially the maids -- is when they attend church every Sunday.  The narrator states that while all the Victorians were moral and went to church, Edwardians were nonobservant.  Yes, on January 21, 1901, everyone was moral, but on January 22, everything changed.  Just like that!  Narrator, I'd like to introduce you to Lady Carbury, who only went to church when she visited the countryside because she felt like it was the "thing" to do.  And this was in 1870.

The maids are too low to be allowed to travel in carriages, so they must walk to and from church, two miles each way.  It is actually not a bad thing because the countryside is beautiful and it is one of the few times they get to breathe fresh air.  On this Sunday, Sir John takes the time to announce in church that the family will be holding a charity fair for the local hospital.  For this event, the servants have the rare pleasure of being able to mingle with their betters by running stalls and giving performances.  It is also rumored that Sir John will let their loved ones attend!

However, the brief respite from work and the promise of loved ones isn't enough to prevent the staff from getting hit by illness.  First victim is Becky, who trudges around cleaning the stairs before finally collapsing into her bed.  She weeps that she misses the comforts of home and feels bad that she has to stop working, as it means more work for everyone else.  Even today that's a dilemma, thanks to unforgiving work schedules and employers who are stingy with paid time off.  The next victim of illness is Mrs. Davies, and then they all start to fall like dominoes.

It eventually gets so bad that Monsieur Dubiard of all people has to drag Lady Olliff-Cooper and Miss Anson downstairs to see how understaffed they are.  Lady Olliff-Cooper notes that this is the first time she has ever been in the (rather cavernous) downstairs area.  In reality, she would probably be more familiar with it, as the "lady of the house" was expected to keep things running smoothly and would meet with the upper servants regularly.  Of course it varied from household to household, but she really wasn't supposed to just sit back and do nothing.  Anyway, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper tell Edgar that from now on, he must let them know when the staff is in trouble.  Sir John decrees that the house needs another maid and a scullery maid, which still leaves the house understaffed, if slightly less so.  He also gives the servants a half-day off each week.

This time, there is no delicate period clothing on the new arrivals -- two modern girls, jeans and all, are dumped into the Edwardian setting.

Erika Ravitz ("Erika"): A textile design graduate with a passion for kick boxing, she will be the third housemaid.

Carly Beard ("Ellen"): A farmer's daughter and customer service advisor, she will be the second scullery maid.  Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper gave her the new name "Ellen" because they preferred it to Carly.  They could do that back then.

Kenny is crushing on Ellen already, even as she's being shown by Monsieur Dubiard how to make soap out of a nasty mixture of orange peels, vinegar, flour, salt, and water.  Because Erika and Ellen are so low on the totem pole, they will not only need to share a room, but a bed.

Meanwhile, on their whole half-day off, Kenny, Rob, Becky, and Jess go bicycling in the countryside and then to dinner at "the best restaurant in town."  The narrator proclaims that they cannot afford it and their "antics" do not go unnoticed.

Now, I can't say how much of the following was staged.  I certainly don't think that anyone, from Sir John to Miss Morrison, would have been offended by the sight of 20-somethings dining in a fine restaurant today.  Miss Morrison might well have caught sight of them, thought it was funny, and planned to keep it to herself until a producer nudged her the other way.  Regardless, Miss Morrison tells Lady Olliff-Cooper about the servants' antics, and then Sir John calls all of the servants into the hall to address them.  Sounding as if he is reading from a script, Sir John tells them that he is horrified by their behavior and, as a result, only the upper servants will get to see their families, not the lower servants.  So all of the lower servants were there, not just the four we saw?  The lower servants are furious, and Antonia attempts to address Sir John and explain what happened.  Sir John refuses to listen, telling her that she will need to filter her outrage through the upper servants.

Poor Miss Morrison has been turned into a leper, and the other servants are practically ready to charge upstairs with pitchforks.  Edgar attempts to keep the peace by having Antonia into his office, who tells him that it is their right to see their families.  In fact, Edwardian servants were rarely allowed to see their families, or have amorous relations with the other servants.  Edgar advises Antonia to write an apology letter to Sir John, perhaps with an eye toward getting him to change his mind.  Then he arranges to have an 80-year old named Betty come visit, who actually worked at Manderston when she was young.

Betty is like a breath of fresh air for all involved, including the viewer.  As entertaining and understandable as the servants' complaints may be, they get tiring.  "Didn't you know what you were getting into?" I want to ask.  But then, I guess you can never really know, can you?  Anyway, Betty tells them that things were pretty bad when she was young -- the butler sexually assaulted her, and the footman once locked her in a closet so he could go to the "pictures."  But she still managed to appreciate the sheer beauty and grandeur of Manderston House, and in turn helps Becky and Jess feel very lucky to be there.

Then fair day arrives.  To bridge the gap between master and servant, Jonty helps the footmen carry the posts used for setting up the stalls.  Antonia's letter must have helped because now the lower servants get to see their families.  There is much rejoicing and embracing.  Kenny's parents comment that they expected to find him emaciated.  People from the village come and mingle on the Manderston property, and everyone is having a grand old time.

Just then, some socialists arrive on bicycle and begin talking to the servants.  Coincidence, or producer arranged?  You make the call.  The servants are more than a little receptive to the socialists' message, while Sir John naturally disagrees.  He argues that if the estate were liquidated and eight million pounds were given to eight million people, no one would have anything and 300 people would be out of a job.  Well, what if you liquidated the estate and divided it equally among the 300 instead?  They could use it to start their own businesses and hire more employees.  Everyone wins!

Something tells me that Sir John wouldn't be receptive to that argument either.  Nor is he particularly pleased when the servants start singing "The Red Flag," the socialist anthem.    

Downton Observations

Well I Am Shocked.  Shocked!  Shocked that servants didn't have ample free time to go to country fairs, or to the "pictures," or to uncover plots to blackmail their husbands.  That they had to work long, grueling hours and had few privileges.  You lied to me, Downton!  Lied!

Master or Servant?  That "I couldn't be a servant because I'm not the servant type" comment is interesting because, really, how many people are the servant "type"?  Those who are disciplined, obedient, and hard-working could just as easily be found in the upper levels of management as in more menial jobs.  If by "servant type," Sir John means less intelligent... well, those people certainly exist at the top of the food chain, too, as many working people could attest!

I say this because, interestingly, I could see most of the roles easily reversed at Downton Abbey.  In fact, it would be great if as a spoof, the producers created a short "Downstairs/Upstairs" version for YouTube, where the servants were the family and the family (and distinguished visitors from previous episodes) were the servants.  Carson and Mrs. Hughes could be the lord and lady, Thomas the spoiled heir, Anna the beautiful older daughter, Daisy the envious younger daughter.  Meanwhile Lord Grantham could be the butler, Isobel the housekeeper, Mary the lady's maid, Edith the first housemaid, and so on.  With different clothes, hair, and accents, would anyone ever remember the way they were before?

And who would the Dowager Countess of Grantham play?  Herself, of course.  Though if she were younger, she would be a housekeeper.

Next Time: Episode Four.  Sir John only likes to be an Edwardian when it suits him, and Miss Anson cracks from the pressures of her position.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 2: Dinner Party!

So two weeks into the "experiment," both upstairs and downstairs are settling into their roles.  Lady Olliff-Cooper plays tennis with Jonty, while Guy exclaims that the whole experience has given her a virtual happiness orgasm.  Not his exact words.

In Lady Olliff-Cooper's defense, anyone in that position would feel the same way, especially given the harried nature of her real life.  That includes the people downstairs who complain about her upkeep.  Who wouldn't want to give up having responsibilities for two weeks?  Best vacation ever.

Still, many people must work very hard to keep her so comfortable, and the strain is beginning to show.  At one point, a weepy Antonia proclaims that she only got three-and-a-half hours of sleep the night before, and that she misses her family and her boyfriend.  There is a lot of weeping and missing the family on this show.  But at least a new scullery maid has arrived:

Kelly Squires ("Kelly"): Whereas in real life, she does office administrative work, here she will get the joy of scrubbing pots and pans 16 hours a day.

Kelly seems to be made of stronger stuff than Lucy, and seems to get along with the rest of the staff.  However, even she gets rankled by her position before too long.  And all of the servants' fortitude is tested by the news that Sir John intends to hold a dinner party in order to suck up to his betters.  Barons and dukes and whatever else will be invited, and the servants are expected to prepare with no additional help.

Before long, Kelly and Ken (or rather Kenny, as he seems to be known) are arguing over which position involves more labor.  In order to keep the peace and prevent another scullery maid's departure, Charlie offers to let Kenny experience life as a footman for a day, while Kelly does Kenny's job and Charlie does Kelly's job.  Mr. Edgar approves, but secretly disapproves, as this is not how things would go in Edwardian times.  Back then, the butler's word was law and feelings were not tolerated.  He tells the tale of how his grandfather, a former butler, hardly ever spoke to him and terrified him out of his mind.  Only later did he find out that his grandfather really loved him.  How sad.  Still, Mr. Edgar approves of Charlie's initiative and not-so-discreetly favors him above the rest of the staff.

Meanwhile, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper must determine whom to invite and proper place settings.  One wrong seating could be a social disaster!  Lady Olliff-Cooper writes invitations to all of the guests.  Sir John meets with a wine steward who shows him two bottles of a dessert wine that originated in the 1870s and was enjoyed by the Tsar of Russia.  There are only 12 bottles left in the whole world.  Sir John jokes: "And we have to waste it on the guests?"

At this point, I feel as though the series missed the mark by not drafting someone to play Sir John's daughter.  She wouldn't even have to be his daughter -- she could be a niece who comes to stay with them as Sir John's "ward" because her own parents died of typhoid or whatnot.  While it is nice to get the perspective of the spinster aunt, missing are the pressures faced by a young debutante in that society, and by her father to make a good match.  Imagine the tensions that would percolate if Becky and Jess not only had to clean "m'lady"'s room every day, but also the facilities of "Miss Olliff-Cooper," a girl their age who had nothing else to do besides look pretty.

Despite Kelly and Kenny's respite, the servants are nearly cracking under the pressure.  Monsieur Dubiard is especially frantic, as he must prepare several elaborate courses while using (in his modern eyes) substandard equipment.  He bickers with Antonia.  At one point, Lady Olliff-Cooper invites him upstairs to discuss the dinner menu, and we can see the filth of his labor embedded in his fingernails.

Seeing how low his staff feels, Mr. Edgar gets Sir John's permission to hold a fun gathering one evening, two nights before the dinner party.  It involves period-appropriate dancing jigs around the fire, and everyone seems to be having a blast.  Except for poor Monsieur Dubiard, who must sit in the kitchen plucking pheasants all by himself for the upcoming meal.

Alas, no one monitored the alcohol intake, for the next morning, Charlie and Kenny are as sick as dogs from alcohol poisoning.  Mr. Edgar lets Charlie sleep in a bit longer than usual.  But when he and Kenny don't appear at all, Mr. Edgar decides to investigate and finds both of them passed out on a slope next to the lake.  Heart-broken by their betrayal (especially Charlie's), he orders them to go back to their duties, and spends the rest of the day curtly reminding them that he is in charge and will not tolerate any dissent.

Around this time, Kelly decides that she can't hack it as a scullery maid anymore.  She seems more philosophical about her departure than Lucy, stating that she was being a negative influence and was dragging the team down.  No one seems to have any hard feelings.      

Finally the big evening arrives!  The wealthy and famous slowly trickle in, with their period-appropriate mullets and trifocal glasses.  The narrator tells us that the reason these aristocrats give Sir John the time of day is because they are impoverished and in need of extremely wealthy friends.  But as Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper stand by to welcome each new arrival, the narrator informs us of their first major faux pas.  For you see, on formal occasions like this, Sir John should be wearing a white waist coat and tie.  Instead, he is wearing a black waist coat!  At which point Violet, the Dowager Countess appears to tell him that she needs a drink.

Downstairs is chaos, as Monsieur Dubiard works like a madman to prepare each elaborate dinner course.  The food looks truly inspired and inventive, but squick! how can anyone eat without worrying about being poisoned?  So much delicate meat and no refrigerator.  It makes me realize that there are some real hazards to this period recreation "experiment."  Back in Edwardian times, their gastrointestinal systems were used to the conditions, but the same conditions could be absolute murder on ours.  I wonder if the producers ever thought about that.

Still, beautiful food is delivered to the appreciative guests, who struggle to talk about the popular subjects of 1905.  What they don't talk about is the subject that was likely at the forefront of their minds: September 11 and the World Trade Center Towers.  It turns out that 9-11 took place during the filming of this episode, and while everyone was informed, they were not allowed to read about it in the newspaper, or otherwise break out of their Edwardian roles.

In 1905, the crisis is that the extremely rare dessert wine isn't in the nearby cooler where Mr. Edgar put it!  He informs the footmen and Kenny, with the slight implication that he thinks they might have snatched it.  But they don't know anything about the wine, so they help him look for it.  Fortunately they find it in the cooling room, and Sir John is able to present it to his guests.  The evening is saved!

At long last, the party is over and the relieved staff gathers to clear away countless glasses and plates.  And sample the leftover wine, of course.  Sir John is proud, Mr. Edgar is proud, and everyone feels really good about the way things have gone.  If only it would last.

Downton Observations

Daughters Versus No Daughters.  One thing Downton certainly has covered is the daughter angle.  Need to see what resentful pawns of the marriage business look like?  Look no further!  Need to watch a young girl's soul shrivel as she learns that without marriage, her only value is that of her parents' nursemaid?  Over here!  So yes, if we viewed the two series side by side, we would see one cover what the other leaves out.  It's still too bad, though, that Manor House doesn't have a Miss Olliff-Cooper, because I think she would be the only one in the household to stand up to Sir John.  Lady Olliff-Cooper is too damn happy; Jonty doesn't seem like the type; Guy is too young; and Miss Anson is not in a "secure" enough position.  A teenage daughter, on the other hand, would probably feel entitled enough to speak her mind to her father -- at the dinner table in front of everyone, no less.  I would love to see the look on Sir John's face.  But then he would probably claim that she was having a nervous breakdown and ship her off to a health spa.

An Actual Dinner Party?  Have the Crawleys ever held a major dinner party?  Maybe in the Pamuk episode, but otherwise?  Usually they seem to have only a few guests for dinner, like the local clergyman.

Puts It in Perspective.  O'Brien and Thomas's scheming really resonates when you see the type of conditions they would have lived and worked in.  Yet the funny thing is that they actually have it better than most of the other servants.  Meanwhile Anna, the servant tasked with getting on her hands and knees and scrubbing away the dirt, is as cheerful and fresh as a daisy.  Her uniform never looks soiled.  She talks openly with her master rather than face the wall when he appears.  She has plenty of time to take trips to London to see her incarcerated husband.  And in all of the episodes, I've seen her hold a duster maybe once.  No wonder Fellowes thinks that the country house life was so idyllic for servants -- he has obviously never spoken to a real one.     

Next Time: Episode Three.  The servants get sick and then rebel!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 1

Manor House, or The Edwardian Country House (as it was known in the UK), aired on American television in 2003.  It was part of a series of reality shows that also contained history lessons, including The 1900 House and The 1940s House.

Manor House was ahead of its time, in that its producers sensed our thirst for opulent period drama long before Downton Abbey became a hit.  And like Downton Abbey, Manor House took place in the close-yet-far-away time period of pre-World War I Britain. The house and lifestyle were meant to represent wealthy living during the years 1905 and 1914.  Unlike Downton, the actors playing the "upstairs" and "downstairs" didn't get to leave their roles at the end of the day.  Instead they lived them every day for three months.

This series also has a fundamentally different outlook from Downton Abbey.  With Downton, the objective is to show how harmoniously the classes lived together, how kindly and paternal the master was to his inferiors.  With Manor House, partly because reality shows need conflict, the objective is to show how incredibly difficult life was in the Edwardian period if you were a manor house servant.  This series doesn't even try to pretend that there is anything superior, or beneficial, about the "old" way of life compared to the present.  In fact, Manor House is counting on its "downstairs" participants realizing just how unfair the old way is.

The first of the six episodes does not have a lot of action, so I will use it as an introduction to the series. The manor house in question is Manderston House in Berwickshire, Scotland, home to the Fourth Baron Palmer.  It is as lush an estate as anyone could hope for, certainly standing shoulder to shoulder with Highclere Castle.  One by one, we see modern people arrive at the house, already dressed in early 1900s costume.

Hugh Edgar ("Mr. Edgar"): An architect who has built royal residences all over the world, he will be the straight-laced, no-nonsense butler.

Jean Davies ("Mrs. Davies"): She once ran a restaurant, is an enthusiastic gardener and cook, and understands the fundamentals of housekeeping.  She will be the housekeeper.

Denis Dubiard ("Monsieur Dubiard"): An acclaimed chef in real life, he will be the resident Chef de Cuisine.

Eva Morrison ("Miss Morrison"): In real life she was a hairdresser for 15 years and runs a haberdashery shop.  Here, she will be the lady's maid.

Rebecca Smith ("Becky"): While in real life she works for Tourist Information, here, she will be the first housemaid.

Jessica Rawlinson ("Jess"): In real life, she does unspecified work in the accounts department of a firm.  On Manor House, she is the second housemaid.

Charlie Clay ("Charlie"): A former model and current sales manager, he is the first footman.

Rob Daly ("Rob"): A recent university graduate with a degree in genetics, he is the second footman.

Tristan Aldrich ("Tristan"): He has trained under an Olympic carriage driver (I didn't know that was a sport) and looks after 24 horses.  Here, he is the groom.

Ken Skelton ("Ken"): He lives with his parents and looks after people who suffer from neurodegenerative illnesses.  Here, he has the inglorious role of hall boy.  And yes, he really does sleep in the hall.

Antonia Dawson ("Antonia"): In real life, she is a police control room operator.  Here, she is the kitchen maid.

Hmm, I feel as though I'm forgetting someone.  Who could that be?

Anyway, the downstairs staff arrives first, going around the back the way "the help" did in those days.  It turns out that everyone has a rule book for his or her designated position (even the upstairs) and they giggle over rigidness of their roles.  Mr. Edgar auditions Charlie and Rob for the position of first footman, which carries more prestige and responsibility.  Footmen are supposed to be the "peacocks" of the house, designed to showcase the master's wealth.  Because I'm shallow, I think Mr. Edgar should have chosen Rob, but instead, he chooses Charlie because he is taller.

Then the staff cheerfully prepares for their new masters' arrival, in denial about the extent of their hardship, though it is already becoming clear.  Servants can only take one bath per week (!).  The second footman must empty the footmen's chamber pots every morning (!!).  That leads Rob and Charlie to vow that neither will ever get up to use the pot in the middle of the night.  There is also no refrigerator, which means that large blocks of ice must be hauled in and then broken down.

Just then, someone knocks at the front door.  Oh yes, now I remember --

Lucy Garside ("Lucy"): A waitress in real life, she will be the scullery maid.

She cheerfully announces her arrival to Mr. Edgar's thousand-watt stare.  He directs her to go around the back way, with Rob guiding her.  It turns out that Lucy's role is the lowest of all the servants, although hall boy could give her a run.  She must scrub pots, pans, and the kitchen seven days a week, 16 hours a day.  Lucy didn't realize when she took this role that she'd have to actually, like, work, and she quickly starts to rebel against its requirements.  Just as she threatens to become a huge thorn in everyone's side, she decides to up and leave a mere two days after arrival.

But before that happens, we meet the Olliff-Cooper family as they're being transformed into the "upstairs."

John Olliff-Cooper ("Sir John"): A man made for being a nouveau Edwardian aristocrat, he has run a flooring business for 30 years and sails Edwardian yachts every August.  Here, he will be Sir John, a businessman-turned-baronet eager to climb the social ladder.  The series narrator points out that Edward VII, unlike his mother, bestowed people with knighthoods and baronetcies simply for becoming wealthy.  What, they don't do that anymore?

Anna Olliff-Cooper ("Lady Olliff-Cooper"): A part-time emergency room doctor (how does that work?), she has been married to John Olliff-Cooper for 11 years.  Now she will be "m'lady" to everyone she encounters.

Dr. Avril Anson ("Miss Anson"): Anna's sister and a self-employed Marketing Consultant who used to lecture at the University of Exeter, she will be the resident spinster and object of pity.  In reality, Avril has a live-in boyfriend, but because that situation was not accepted in Edwardian times, she will have to be apart from him for three months.  She will likely spend her nights writing love letters by the light of a low-wattage lamp.  Oh, and because her hair is naturally short, she will need to wear a wig.

Jonathan ("Jonty") Olliff-Cooper ("Mister Jonathan"): "Jonty" is Anna Olliff-Cooper's son by another marriage.  His real life almost perfectly resembles that of an heir: graduated from a prestigious public school and bound for Oxford.  While in real life, he would not be the natural heir of Sir John, in the series, I think we are meant to see him as Sir John's firstborn.

Guy Olliff-Cooper ("Master Guy"): Guy is the "adorable," "precocious" 10-year old son.  I think we're supposed to find him endearing, but he just makes me queasy.  But he does what the producers want, which is speak without a filter and express the attitudes of the upstairs.  In the series, the "lovable" little moppet plays himself.  He gets to make observations about how low on the totem pole everyone else is, and how he can boss everyone around.  I suppose you could call him the Violet of the show, minus the wit.

Reji Raj ("Mr. Raj-Singh"):  He doesn't join the family quite yet, but in the series, he has the "privilege" of being Master Guy's tutor and of existing in the gray area between upstairs and downstairs.  In real life, he is a primary school teacher.   

The Olliff-Coopers get into costume and arrive at the house by vintage car.  By the model, it looks as though the time period is set a half-a-dozen years before the first episode of Downton.  The downstairs is anxiously lining up to greet their new masters, and everyone "oohs" and "ahhs" at each other's costumes.  The downstairs people note that the Olliff-Coopers don't carry the slightest whiff of modernity with them, and seem all too willing to play their parts to the fullest.

Already feelings are starting to get injured.  When Lady Olliff-Cooper encounters Becky on the stairs, Becky is required to face the wall and pretend to be invisible.  After "m'lady" leaves, Becky tearfully confesses that she resents being looked upon as if she doesn't matter, after all the work she and the downstairs have done.  

Still, there is awkwardness for the upstairs as well.  Miss Anson seems highly conscious of the fact that actual people are waiting on her and are sacrificing for her needs.  And even though Lady Olliff-Cooper likes feeling "pampered," she is aware that in some ways, the upstairs is restricted by such opulence.  Upstairs members of the household must dress five or six times a day for each meal and/or activity.  The Olliff-Coopers have their own rule books and their own rigid rules to abide by.  In truth, it's possible that whatever "superiority" complex they put on is heightened by the requirements of the rule books.  Just as Rebecca wouldn't turn and pretend to be invisible to Anna Olliff-Cooper, Anna Olliff-Cooper might be kinder and more openly gracious than Lady Olliff-Cooper.

On the other hand, when Sir John says something like "The system makes sense," it's hard not to think that the real John Olliff-Cooper is speaking with all of his out-of-touch heart.          

Downton Observations

Whither the Valet?  Sir John can afford to have a hall boy, but not his own valet?  Lord Grantham could never get by without a valet tying his shoes for him.  Maybe Manor House thought that too many high-level servants would go against its attempt to highlight the differences between upstairs and downstairs living.

Lack of Dishpan Hands.  We certainly never saw Daisy on the ground scrubbing her skin off every other episode.  Daisy was never simply a scullery maid, but since Downton did not have a separate scullery maid until Series Three, I presume she did a lot of scullery work.  Come to think of it, Ivy never did any scrubbing, either.  Maybe because the floors of Downton were clean enough to eat off of, unlike the floors of Manderston.  My god, that kitchen is just a salmonella outbreak waiting to happen.  Brrrr.

Chef Instead of Cook.  That the "Mrs. Patmore" role is filled by a male chef creates an interesting dynamic that is much different from the one in Downton.  In Downton, although Mrs. Patmore is in charge, she still seems like "one of the girls."  Or at least, someone comfortably situated among the downstairs residents.  Whereas Monsieur Dubiard seems almost like an alien presence downstairs, unable or unwilling to connect with the mostly female staff beneath him.  Whether that is solely because he is male, or because of his personality, or because a chef has more status than a cook, I can't say.

Enough Servants?  As with Downton Abbey, I question whether there are enough servants to run such a massive house.  In this case, I'm sure the answer is no.  Where is the groundskeeper?  Where is the estate manager?  Where is the laundry maid?  I've gone back and forth about the number of servants a wealthy man of that time period would possess.  One source claimed that only the wealthiest of men kept as many as 20 servants, while another source mentioned a duke who kept up to 40 servants!  All I can say is that "at least 20" sounds right, whether for Downton or for Manderston.  In the latter case, I think the numbers are kept lower because (1) logistically, it would be too difficult to get 20-plus servants all in one place and make them memorable, and (2) it creates more hardship for the existing servants, which in turn leads to more conflict and emotion.

Next Time: Episode Two.  The downstairs must pull together for a lavish dinner party.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

My Very Un-Girls-Like Twenties

The HBO show Girls has received both acclaim and criticism for its portrayal of young women of the Millennial Generation.  Whether the acclaim is deserved or the criticism too rough, I don't know or care.  I also don't care about whether Girls captures the essence of the Millennial Generation, because it doesn't.  How can four white urban girls and their friends accurately represent the experiences of millions?  How can four anyone anywhere?  No, the issue I have is how Girls portrays young creative people striving to break into an elite and unforgiving world.

A decade ago, my life looked something like Hannah Horvath's.  After graduating from college and saving money, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a television writer.  I have always loved to write character-driven dramatic stories, and have usually received good feedback.  At the time, cable channels were multiplying and creative, intelligent dramas were being produced at a stunning rate -- The SopranosSix Feet Under, Gilmore Girls, The West Wing.  Surely they would need to restock their stable of writers.  My older sister had friends in "the Industry," and one of them had even found work as a production assistant on a popular show within his first year.  It would take persistence, I knew, but I was sure that I could break through somewhere, somehow.

So I found a cheap apartment in a part of the San Fernando Valley that hovered between "respectable" and "slum."  I also found some cool friends, most of whom were trying to make it in "the Biz" in one way or other.  Then my path diverged from Hannah's -- I went to find a job.

To Hannah's credit, she was working at the beginning of the series -- in an unpaid job that gave her exposure to her chosen field, which disappeared right out from under her when she asked for money.  Yet the first paid job that she landed -- barista in a hip, independent coffee shop -- feels like the sort of day job that writers wish we had rather than the jobs we have.  My first day job was a lot less glamorous than Hannah's.  You know file clerks at mortgage lending companies?  My job was beneath theirs.  My role consisted of carting files back and forth, pulling them from shelves and putting them back all day long.  People like me were so disposable, we weren't even given a desk, let alone an office.  This was the first job I landed after weeks of searching.

But it paid my bills during a time I went on interviews for positions at production companies, where the basic requirements were that I serve coffee, run a copier, and take abuse with good humor.  It was also where I met my best friend, who was looking to become a music producer.  If she had sex with pretentious artists in her spare time, she chose to be discreet about it.  She planned to go to medical school if her Hollywood dreams did not pan out.

I think what bothers me most about Girls is that it fails to capture the sheer monotony and frustration of trying to break into a creative field.  Granted, I had a set goal for a specific industry, while Hannah has vaguer goals for publishing her writing, but the monotony element would be there all the same.  She might send her writing to different publications and get rejected.  She might do lots of free writing for recognition on subjects that didn't excite her.  She might join writing organizations hoping to meet established writers, but instead find the meetings filled with wanna-bes like herself.

Maybe HBO and Lena Dunham thought the above examples would make for a shabby, dull viewing experience.  Yet Dunham seems content to create a different sort of monotony: Hannah and her friends drift from one party to the next, one partner to the next.  These are the sorts of experiences that are supposed to encapsulate "Our Twenties," yet it's more like a television or movie version of what twenty-somethings are like, rather than an accurate portrayal of how creative twenty-somethings behave.

I went to parties, yes, but most of my nights were spent writing.  In Hollywood, to get to the writers' room, you either climb the rungs from production assistant to staff writer, or you go through an agent.  Having failed with the first option, I tried the second.  I began to write "spec" scripts -- original "episodes" of certain popular shows -- that I then entered into contests and peddled to agents.  I churned out hundreds of query letters, most of which went unread.  I was always conscious of when "pilot" season started and when shows "wrapped" for the year.  I finally got a new job that paid a living wage -- a position editing ads for a search engine company.  It was like working on a digital age assembly line.

Yet there was also collaboration and experimentation -- creative experimentation.  I worked on scripts with other writers, experimented with other media, and finally won my first script competition after writing an original pilot episode.  One thing that I have yet to see on Girls is two young artists collaborating.  Hannah goes to meetings with wacky creative heads, but all of her creative experiences are solitary.  (Unless you count the cocaine trip she shared with her roommate, Elijah, which I don't.  Even if they took cocaine together, only Hannah would be tasked with putting the experience on paper.)

So in short, I was constantly working, even though I had little to show for it.  This always befuddles people when I tell them about my experiences.  "You were there for that long, yet you didn't even sell one script?"  How could I make them understand that selling a television script was not like having your letter published in the newspaper?  That the television world was cloistered and difficult to penetrate, and even freelance opportunities were rare?  That my victories had to be measured in the number of agent meetings I took, or the finalist and semi-finalist placements in competition?  Anyway I did earn some money -- $500 for winning the pilot competition.  It paid one month's rent... almost.

Maybe HBO and Dunham thought it would be boring to show Hannah constantly working at her craft, making red scribbles on her drafts, jumping up from the table and taking a deep breath when the words on her laptop were not the ones she wanted to express.  I realize that you cannot make a whole show about writing, but surely a few scenes wouldn't hurt in place of yet another bored, weird sex scene?  When Hannah sits down to write her eBook, it's like the first time she ever sat down to write anything, even though that obviously would not have been the case.  Showing a little more of the writing process could go a long way toward making Hannah a relatable character -- someone with concrete ambitions who is willing to work for them.  Would it have been too much for Girls to admit that being a twenty-something isn't a daily adventure, but as tedious and hard as any other decade of living?  

I won't hold my breath waiting for Hannah to reach a point where she realizes that her goals won't be met and it's time to reassess.  It took me about five years to reach that point.  Girls may not even last five seasons.  And if it does, no doubt Hannah will meet the right people just in time, who will give her all the chances she needs to succeed.

When I first heard of Girls, I was ready to embrace it.  From the pilot episode, it looked as though Hannah would need to sacrifice to afford living in the city that she loved, pursuing the work that she loved.  I rarely see that portrayed accurately, and it seemed like Girls would finally be the series to do it.  But two seasons have passed, and that early promise has faded. Hannah and her friends are less serious and less interesting than everyone I knew during my Hollywood "adventure."  It's not that I need Hannah to fail in order for her to be interesting -- I just need to see her try.  Not "TV" try, where the character is shown pounding on a laptop for two scenes and then never again, but really try.  When all of the characters on Girls are shown to be drifting, it says that creative twenty-somethings are poseurs who lack the same work ethic and ambitions of people in other fields.  That they need to be "rescued" and placed in a structured environment, like graduate school or corporate America.

On the other hand, couldn't it be argued that just like the Millennial Generation, Girls does not -- cannot -- represent all creative twenty-somethings?  It's set in New York, for one thing, not Los Angeles.  That's true, but I guess the difference is that you could point to plenty of series where Millennials are having completely different experiences, and thus take the claim that Girls represents an entire generation lightly.  Yet there aren't too many series about young people pursuing creative dreams.  Each series that shows a "writer" who never writes, or an "artist" who never creates, makes it easier for viewers to reach the conclusion that creative people don't do real work.  It's especially problematic when the series claims to be "real."     

While there are things that I regret about my six years in Hollywood, I don't regret doing it and I don't regret leaving.  I can admit now what I couldn't then: that Hollywood is unstable even for those who "make" it.  People with achievements that I envied might bounce from show to show each year, even multiple times a year.  While I could have stayed on the same path forever, I did not find it fulfilling.  My life was spent working a tedious job by day and writing "episodes" for other people's shows at night.  I wanted a career that would bring me satisfaction even when my writing wasn't selling, and to spend evenings on my own plots and characters.  Now, in my thirties, I won't pretend that I have everything I want, but I have made definite progress.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: RENT (Part Two)

I'll start by saying that I don't think it's a coincidence that both RENT and The Phantom of the Opera released "live performance" recordings years after the movie adaptations came out.  In both cases, the movie failed to capture the essence of what made the stage production so enjoyable.

I went into some detail about the stage production in Part One.  Part Two will focus on what the movie adaptation does to improve, or not improve, upon its source material.

Even though I don't think RENT (2004) is a good movie, I also don't think it is a particularly bad one.  There is nothing that stands out as a glaring "Oh my god I can't believe they did this I can't look" like Phantom's casting of Gerard Butler.  RENT the movie was directed by Chris Columbus, who has a track record of making films that are competent, if not cutting edge.  Of course, RENT's main problem is that it needed someone who was cutting edge, who was willing to take risks with the material, to create something that might not have followed the musical to the letter, but captured its spirit.

Unfortunately, Chris Columbus is known for slavishly following source material to the letter, while draining it of its charm and excitement (see the first two Harry Potter movies).  With RENT, Columbus did several things that seem so right, yet one could also argue were mistakes.  The most significant is that he chose to fill the roles with members of the original cast, with the exception of Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Traci Thoms as Joanne.  On the one hand, that seems like the right move.  It was the original cast that inspired such a fervent, loyal following, and even eight years later, their chemistry was strong.  Anthony Rapp, the original Mark, has a charming quirkiness, while Adam Pascal is appropriately angsty as Roger.  Most of the cast is similarly good, and Dawson is a huge upgrade over Daphne Rubin-Vega.  I'm sorry, I know Rubin-Vega has her fans, but I can't stand her throaty smoker's voice or her Carol Channing whine.  She's the reason I never purchased the RENT soundtrack even though I like many of the songs.  

At the same time, one could argue that by casting the original actors, the movie loses a certain freshness.  It is generally believed that most of the characters are in their teens or 20s.  I'm not one who thinks that creativity automatically stops at the age of 30, so I don't find it unbelievable that they could be older in the movie.  But if Chris Columbus's goal was to portray 30-somethings, he needed to bring something different from what we see in the stage version, and I'm not sure he did.  (For that matter, I don't believe these characters are supposed to be older, given that Mimi tells Roger that she is 19.)  Columbus did bring something different, but I'm not sure it's an improvement.

The Good  

I'll start with a list of improvements Columbus did make because, let's face it, it will be shorter.  The first is that he took the jumbled first act and spread it over a few days instead of a few hours.  That means we don't have to suspend our disbelief that Roger would meet Mimi, Collins would meet Angel, Benny would seek to collect the rent, and Maureen would hold her protest all on the same night.

Columbus also grounds the movie in a specific time period: 1988 or 1989.  That is important because with the early 1990s came breakthroughs in the way HIV/AIDS was treated.  Until then, there was just AZT and the near-certainty that you would watch your friends die.  The stage version of RENT was set "sometime" during the 1980s or early 1990s, but it was never pinned down.  By choosing a specific year, the movie does render certain references anachronistic, such as Angel's Thelma and Louise reference in "Today 4 U."  But whatever, I never liked that song anyway.

Columbus also manages to use montages effectively for the most part, cleaning up awkwardness and confusion in the stage production.  For instance, in Act Two, a montage in "Without You" shows Angel's deterioration, Mimi's struggles with addiction, and Roger's frustration much better than the stage version could.  On the other hand, while "One Song Glory" probably needed some flashback scenes to explain what happened to Roger's last relationship, I don't like the way they overwhelm the song and prevent us from seeing Roger's anguish.

Finally, Columbus added a scene here or there that made Act Two slightly less choppy, such as when Mark and Joanne arrange a contract with the tabloid.  However, in doing so, Columbus did something else that I consider unforgivable, which I'll get into later.

Overall, I think he managed to showcase the actors' chemistry onscreen, or at least knew how to get out of the way.  The actors engage and seem wholly committed to the material, which as I noted, is what RENT requires. 

The Bad        

The Energy Is Gone.  While Columbus does stay faithful to the source material, his direction completely leeches the almost giddy, frenetic energy of the stage version.  In its place is a quieter, burnt-out tone.  If Columbus were trying to show struggling artists in their 30s, who are past the idealism of their 20s and are now living this life through sheer force of will, that would have been interesting.  However, nowhere in the movie does it suggest he is trying to do this.

See, for example, the stark differences between the openings in the stage production and the movie.

The stage production is constantly in motion, almost to the point where you have trouble following what is happening.  Characters whom we won't officially meet until later appear to set up the stage, reminding you that this is a stage-bound production and that they're not even going to honor the fourth wall.  Mark is exuberant, and he and Roger create an energy that reverberates off of the ceiling as they sing about the rent threat.      

By contrast, Rapp's Mark sounds tired and pessimistic.  Living the hard life isn't a fun adventure for him, and you get the feeling that the documentary is a last resort, not a "cool" experiment the way it is for Kantor's Mark.  That's not a bad acting choice: wouldn't you be tired of seeing such poverty even after a couple of years?  However, the fatigue factor -- while ever present -- is never really addressed throughout the course of the movie.  

The biggest factor in the movie's subdued tone is Columbus's choice to turn sung moments into dialogue.  In some ways, it solves problems with forced rhyming (see again Angel's "This body provides a comfortable home" line), but it also removes a lot of the clever, playful wordplay.  For instance, take Angel and Collins's first meeting in "You Okay, Honey?":

ANGEL: We'll get along fine.  Get you a coat, have a bite, make a night -- I'm flush.

COLLINS: My friends are waiting.

ANGEL: You're cute when you blush.  

Whereas in the movie, Wilson Jermaine Heredia's Angel is not the least bit playful, when he meets Collins or anywhere else.  To the point where it's actually startling, and a bit embarrassing, when Angel launches into "Today 4 U" in Mark and Roger's apartment.  

The tired, uninspired dialogue and the more subdued tone undercut the musical's message of seizing the day and living life to the fullest while you can (see "Another Day").  Because this is a structural issue, I'm not sure the problem could have been solved by casting younger actors.  (And for what it's worth, most of the cast in Live On Broadway were in their 30s.)  

It Is Bland.  And dare I say, too... white?  That's a slightly unfair charge, since Larson himself was white and grew up middle class, and Mark and Roger both come from white, middle-class backgrounds.  Yet while the movie shows glimpses of street life, and Mark and Roger's building is appropriately run down, there is something staid and... safe about the way their life is presented.  When I imagined Angel's funeral, I pictured it being in a small city church next to a deli, with a cemetery nearby -- not an ornate cathedral in the lush countryside.  I imagined Maureen and Joanne's confrontation song "Take Me Or Leave Me" taking place in a grungy hallway, not an expensive reception hall.  By contrast, desperate characters are constantly pushing their way to the forefront of the stage production -- the "Honest living!" squeegee man, the dispirited homeless singing about their condition, the HIV-positive man asking "Will I lose my dignity?".  Some of that is in the movie, but it is more... confined somehow.  Maybe Columbus, purveyor of incredibly white middle-class entertainment like Adventures in Babysitting and the Home Alone series, feared that if RENT were too gritty, it would scare away a potential audience.  That might be, but had Columbus -- or another director -- made such a movie, it would probably have gained more appreciation in retrospect and have become a cult classic.               

It Doesn't Fix Major Weaknesses in the Source Material.  And in some cases exacerbates them.  Take, for instance, the weak plot line about the characters having to pay rent.  The movie's opening not only doesn't clarify it, but also adds "flourishes" that make it more confusing.  In the stage production, only Mark and Roger are threatened with eviction from the building for not paying rent.  The others getting evicted are the homeless people in the lot next door.  In the movie, it appears that everyone in Mark and Roger's building is facing the rent threat, as well as the building next door and the building across the street.  So Benny owns the entire block?  Mark, Roger, and the other tenants all express their defiance by lighting the eviction notices on fire and tossing them out their windows.  That makes for a dramatic moment, but still an immensely confusing one.  Furthermore, why would Mark and Roger waste their heat source by tossing an entire garbage can filled with flaming papers out the window?

As with the stage production, there is no real follow up, apart from Maureen's vapid protest.  No loud tenant meetings, no protests in the hallway, nothing. 

Another failed opportunity is the plot line involving Mark "selling out."  In the stage version, Mark reluctantly signs the contract with the tabloid, and we see about a minute of his actual work before he quits and focuses on his own film making.  When a scene was added where he and Joanne meet the tabloid to discuss a contract, I thought Mark's "selling out" would be more developed.  Instead, Columbus cut the scene that showed why the tabloid went against everything Mark believed in.  The movie just shows Mark deciding, in the midst of singing "What You Own," that he wants to work for himself.  Therefore, we're left without understanding why Mark would turn his back on paid work -- especially when, as in the stage version, we never see the finished film!      

It Cut the Best Sequence in Act Two.  You could argue that some of the feelings expressed in "Halloween/Goodbye Love" are expressed in "Without You" or "What You Own," but this is still the most poignant sequence in the musical.  Angel has just died; the group is falling apart; and Mimi learns that Roger's worst fear is watching her die.  Yet you won't see most of this in the movie because Columbus cut it so that the scenes would flow better.  Oh, and because it featured Mark and Roger singing at each other when they talked in every other scene.  Dude, no one cares!  Everyone sings at everyone else in the movie, even with the added dialogue.

Part of "Goodbye Love" is in the movie, but without the Mark/Roger/Mimi scene, the group's separation feels like less of a loss.  The Roger-Mimi relationship especially gets the short shrift.      

At least the scene was filmed and later cut, so it is one of the DVD "extras."  Here is what the full "Goodbye Love" would have looked like had they left it in:


Again, RENT is not a bad movie.  It's just not a great one.  Watching it, you will wonder what "magic" people see in RENT, because all you see is a movie about a bunch of sad people that's kind of entertaining, but doesn't really address major issues in a meaningful way.  Then again, neither does the source material, but at least that has charm and energy.  That is one reason why I prefer watching the Live On Broadway production, though it doesn't hurt that the cast is fantastic.  While Kantor and Rapp are pretty much equal in terms of performance, I prefer Will Chase's Roger to Adam Pascal's.  Pascal has a unique, angsty voice, but tends to just stand there when he sings, whereas Chase's Roger is more dynamic and expressive overall.  And while I agree that Idina Menzel is a Broadway legend, Eden Espinosa does a terrific job with the Maureen character.  Traci Thoms is great in both the movie and Live On Broadway, but is a little better in the latter.  

So if you really love RENT, don't skip the movie if you haven't seen it, but know that the musical you love is probably better distilled in the Live On Broadway production.  

Wow, that was a lot to write for a musical that I hated until fairly recently.    

Friday, March 8, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: RENT (Part One)

I have a somewhat complicated attitude toward RENT.  Had you asked me even two years ago, I would have said flat out that I hated it.  I hated its confused storytelling, its whiny protagonists, and its overplayed affirmation songs.

I saw RENT live for the first and only time in London in 1998.  I was able to see most of the original cast, save Daphne Rubin-Vega's Mimi, which was fortunate.  I remember feeling bored and confused, somewhat moved during the second half, but only able to remember two songs afterward: "One Song Glory" and "Light My Candle."  RENT wasn't a revolution -- it was a mess.

It seemed almost set up to fail.  Creator Jonathan Larson, a promising Broadway writer and composer, died at a young age on the morning of RENT's opening in 1996.  His death added another layer of tragedy to his musical, which dealt substantially with young characters facing their mortality, and fueled the legend of RENT as something Real and Important that had Something to Say.  I had heard over and over that seeing RENT changed people's lives.  Therefore, I came in with expectations soaring, and walked out dragging them behind me.

I continued to feel that way until fairly recently.  Then I started watching RENT: Filmed Live On Broadway (2008) on YouTube, and the musical grew on me.  Now I would say that I like parts of RENT, but that the parts don't add up to a whole.  Therefore, while I like the parts, I still don't like the musical overall.  Its structure is far too clunky, something that probably would have been addressed had Larson lived, but is now set in stone forever.

The movie version of RENT does not do much to improve upon these flaws, and has problems of its own, which is why it joins Evita and The Phantom of the Opera as a Movie Musical That Got It Wrong, as opposed to Dreamgirls and Les Miserables.  In discussing the movie, I will first look at the musical itself, its flaws and its strengths.  I will then look at the movie in comparison. 

The Musical

In some cases, I can get by discussing the movie without seeing its source material.  Most of the time I have no choice, since I don't live near Broadway or the musical closed down.  In this case, I can't talk about the movie without talking about the source material first.  The movie alone is kind of pleasant, but rather confusing and muted.  From the movie alone, you would never guess that RENT was so interestingly fucked up.

The musical is modeled loosely on Puccini's opera, La Boheme.  While there is some dialogue, most of the musical is sung.  The overarching story -- to the extent that there is one -- revolves around Mark, an aspiring filmaker, and Roger, a musician and ex-heroin addict.  They live in an unheated loft at the top of an industrial building in New York's East Village in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  Next to the building is a lot where many homeless people live.  Mark and Roger have been living rent-free, until one day they learn that their former friend Benny, the building's owner, has decided to makeover the building and the lot... and Mark and Roger will have to pay rent!  Benny tells them that the threat will be revoked if Mark convinces his ex-girlfriend Maureen to stop her protest of the homeless people's eviction from the lot.  Maureen is now seeing a lawyer from Harvard named Joanne, who is constantly worried that Maureen will stray.  Maureen refuses to stop the protest, and Mark's footage of the ensuing riot gets on the evening news, which gains him unexpected fame.

Meanwhile, Mark and Roger's friend Tom Collins, a professor and anarchist, has returned to New York, only to get a rude welcome when two homeless men mug him.  He receives help from Angel, a street performer and drag queen, with whom he is instantly smitten.  Finally, Roger, who recently lost his girlfriend to suicide, meets Mimi, a 19-year old dancer at a strip club who is a heroin addict.  He struggles with his feelings for Mimi, until they both learn that the other is HIV-positive (as are Collins and Angel).  The rest of the musical looks in varying ways at themes of love, connection, and identity.  

Act One takes place over one day, while Act Two takes place over one year.  This would be the source of many of RENT's problems.

It Doesn't Flow.  Act One takes place on Christmas Eve and ends shortly after Maureen's protest.  Did I mention that Act Two crams in an entire YEAR?  Needless to say, Act One feels too long and Act Two feels too short.  Even worse, Act One has two or three scenes that feel like they are meant to be the last before intermission -- especially the montage of singing that leads to Maureen's dramatic entrance.  There is this build up, build up, build up to Maureen's protest, so when she finally appears, I expect the protest to be the first scene in Act Two.  But no, it's time for Maureen to give her protest, and... I'll save the details for later.  Only after an extended sequence called "La Vie Boheme," an affectionate homage to La Boheme, does Act One finally end.

Act Two then showcases the characters' struggles and conflicts following that "magical night" in Act One.  (Note that not only does Act One take place on one day, but given that it starts at "December 24th, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time," it takes place over just three hours.)  That's where things start to get interesting.  But instead of unfolding smoothly and organically, Act Two just jerks along to its (admittedly touching) conclusion.  By the end, I feel as though I should have seen these people learn and grow, but instead all I saw was repetition.  Of course, maybe I wouldn't feel that way if there were an actual story.

Where Is the Story?  RENT is about Mark and Roger trying to figure out how to pay the rent they owe Benny.  Or is it about Mark, Maureen, and company fighting to save the homeless people's encampment?  Or is it about Roger and Mimi learning to love and trust?  Or is it about Angel and Collins's one true love?  You could argue that RENT is about all of these things.  The problem is that it doesn't showcase them very well.     

Take the first plot line, the very thing that RENT is supposed to be about -- paying rent!  Mark and Roger aren't earning any money, so homelessness should be of great concern.  The title song suggests that the musical's main plot will involve the characters either taking a stand against paying rent or finding ways to pay it.  Yet after the title song, the rent threat is virtually forgotten.  Maybe the reason Mark and Roger aren't more concerned about being homeless is because their parents keep calling them.  But that's for later.

Then there is the plot with Maureen's protest.  So much of Act One is spent building up to Maureen -- she is always mentioned, but never seen.  Then she finally appears to give what we assume will be the dramatic performance of a lifetime.  Instead, it is silly and nonsensical, involving a cow in "Cyberland".  Certainly attention grabbing, but with a negligible connection to the circumstances she's protesting.  Her song, with minor lyric changes, could have been sung anywhere.  Then, once the protest is over, Maureen lapses into secondary character status for the rest of the musical.

The most well-developed plot line involves Roger and Mimi, but even that becomes a repeated pattern of arguing and breaking up.  RENT constantly threatens to be about Something, but usually Something can only be seen at the margins, when minor characters sing, instead of in the main plots.

Unlikeable Characters.  The characters in RENT actually grew on me with subsequent viewings, but still, on paper they have to be some of the most unsympathetic characters around.  Mark and Roger expect to be able to live rent-free forever (in, granted, a shit hole), without having to adopt adult responsibilities like finding a job that earns money.  In fact, when Mark finally gets a job working for a tabloid, he rejects it as going against his values.  The way the tabloid is presented, we are supposed to support his actions and his commitment to his craft... yet we never actually get to see the movie that he spends so much time filming.  Maureen is self obsessed and careless, flirting with and sleeping with everyone who catches her fancy, not caring how it affects Joanne.

Even the "sweetheart" characters are rough around the edges.  At one point, Collins aids Mark and Roger with money that he essentially stole from an ATM -- however, we're supposed to find it clever and sweet, because he did it by programming the ATM to respond to the code "ANGEL."  As for Angel, our first major introduction to him is in the song "Today 4 U," where he sings about killing a dog for money.  Oh, he didn't actually kill it with his bare hands, but was merely paid to drive the dog insane until it killed itself by jumping off a building.  Never mind that akitas are not little yappy dogs as portrayed.

That may be one reason why I didn't respond to Angel as a character.  He is supposed to be the heart of the group, to the point where other characters are questioning how they can go on without him, yet I never saw his positive, life-changing influence.  He takes Collins to an affirmation meeting, yes, and is kind to a homeless woman, but that's it.  Then in Act Two, everyone is like: "OMG, Angel, you were so original and amazing!" and I'm like: "Huh?"  It doesn't help that I don't like either of Angel's big numbers, "Today 4 U" or "I'll Cover You."

The character I like best is Joanne -- especially as played by Traci Thoms.  She is the only member of the group who is earnest, hard working, and well meaning.  Next is Mimi, who, despite her self-destructive behavior, manages to hold onto a somewhat optimistic view of life.       

That Brings Me to What I Did Like.  Despite RENT's obvious flaws, it has a certain frenetic charm that gets inside you when you least expect it.  Songs constantly run into each other and the tempo changes at the blink of an eye.  That irritated me when I watched the stage production in 1998, but not as much when I watched the Live on Broadway performance, maybe because it was easier for me to follow.  One minute you're watching a soulful ballad, the next a charged-up group song.  RENT couldn't be more different in its approach from the 80s mega-musicals, with their emphasis on soaring ballads, dutiful lyrics, and spectacle.

The stage production has a certain raggedness that works in its favor.  The main characters' lives are frequently interrupted by calls from their parents, which provide some humorous moments.  ("Kitten: no Doc Martens this time.")  Homeless characters gather together to sing about "no sleigh bells, no Santa Claus, no yule log, no tinsel" on their Christmas.  The staging is frequently jumbled, and though it could benefit from some smoothing out, even that has a certain charm, as if you are getting a sense of what New York living is like, with everyone on top of each other.

The song lyrics are frequently creative, eschewing simple "june/spoon" rhymes.  "Light My Candle" is a standout:

MIMI: They say that I have the best ass below 14th Street.  Is it true?

ROGER: What?

MIMI: You're staring again.

ROGER: Oh no.  I mean you do -- have a nice -- I mean --

Though sometimes the creativity produces clunky results:                   

ANGEL: This body provides a comfortable home for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

COLLINS: As does mine.

ANGEL:  We'll get along fine.


MARK: Why are entire years strewn on the cutting room floor of memory?  When single frames from one magic night forever flicker in close-up on the 3D IMAX of my mind?      

Yet the musical would undoubtedly fail without the enthusiasm of its cast.  RENT demands that its cast not only believe whole heartedly in the material, but that they give their all during each performance.  From the Live on Broadway performance, at least, it is clear that the cast more than meets the challenge.  For instance, while I'm not sold on the Angel character, I was drawn to the performance of the actor, Justin Johnston.  Also great were Adam Kantor as Mark, Will Chase as Roger, Renee Goldsberry as Mimi, Eden Espinosa as Maureen, Traci Thoms as Joanne, Michael McElroy as Collins, and Rodney Hicks as Benny.  The whole cast, really -- even the supporting cast.  Maybe they were extra enthusiastic because it was their last performance, or because they were being filmed, but it shows how enthusiasm and commitment can really elevate the material.  

So while I would not say I like RENT per se, there is a lot that I like about it, which is more than I could say two years ago.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I like did not make it into the movie.
Next Time: Part Two, how the movie improves (and doesn't improve) upon the stage production.