Category Archives: Current Events

Why I like Wolf Hall

How many times have I read this story, taught this story, seen this story? Countless, yet I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall faithfully and fervently these past two Sundays, despite some stiff competition. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Hilary Mantel’s novels have focused a trans-Atlantic public attention on the juicy story of Henry’s “great matter” yet again, resulting in adaptations on both the small screen and the stage right now. I like the language, the characterizations, and the details of the books–and these attributes carry over onto the screen as well, but the latter also gives us both more and less. So this is what I like about Wolf Hall:

1) Cromwell-centrism: as the Protestant product of a Catholic-Episcopalian union, I have admired Thomas Cromwell since I was a teenager, so Mantel’s “revisionist” perspective pleased me in the books and continues to do so on screen, especially as presented by the amazing actor Mark Rylance. It’s a timely corrective, after years of the reign of the heroic heretic-hunter Thomas More, whom Mantel depicts as a pompous prude.

2) Stillness: everything is so quiet, in stark contrast to all of the other recent Tudor films with their booming soundtracks. Too often contemporary music is utilized to strengthen a film that has weak dialogue or transitions–this is not the case here. You can hear every well-chosen word, the papers crackling and the birds singing.

3) Naturalism: though the Tudors admired material embellishment, for the most part it was based on nature, and this was a time in which people were much, much closer to nature than we can ever realize. Wolf Hall takes place primarily indoors, but nature is always present. So many animals! Just in episode #2 alone, we see just-born kittens, greyhounds black and white, Thomas More walking around with a white rabbit which he passes to our hero Thomas Cromwell, a monkey on the More table, and of course lots of horses. Cromwell pinches a flower as he walks to a stable-conference with yet another Thomas, Cranmer.

4) Spareness: of words, of spaces, of “action”. Restraint (and dim light) rules, and each excess points to a consequential problem.

5) We are spared Henry and Anne Boleyn together: of course, I’ve only watched the first two episodes, so this will change, but the Cromwellian perspective places the two “central” characters in this oft-told story on the margins for quite awhile. This is refreshing, and spares us all the “romance” and bodice-ripping of more predictable and commercial versions of this tale. Quite literally, the change in perspective enables us to see things in an entirely new light.

Mark Rylance Thomas Cromwell Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during filming for the BBC/ PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd.


A Big Week at the Hawthorne

It must have been a very interesting week for the staff of the Hawthorne Hotel: early on it was a film set, this weekend a paranormal conference called Salem Con 2015 is on site. Strange bedfellows indeed: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and a convention of ghost hunters. Jennifer and Bradley have been in Salem before–or at least their director, David O. Russell was: filming scenes for American Hustle in and around the courthouses on Federal Street. This film, called Joy, will tell the story of “Miracle Mop” founder Joy Mangano (Lawrence) and her rise to fame and fortune, with the help of a Home Shopping Network executive (Cooper). Another Russell favorite, Robert DeNiro, plays Mangano’s father, and I think he was filming here as well. This is really nothing new for the Hawthorne, which has served as the temporary home for a succession of Salem-visiting celebrities for years, from its opening in 1925 to the present. The hotel even had a starring role of sorts, as the stucco-clad “Hawthorne Motor Hotel”, in two episodes of Bewitched in 1970: Samantha and Darrin drive right by the real hotel, turn the corner, and park outside of the Hollywood Hawthorne.

Bewitched Salem Sign

Bewitched still 3

Bewitched Still 2

Still scenes from “The Salem Saga”, Season 7 of Bewitched (1970-71).

No fake Hawthorne for Russell: he was filming in the real thing, although I’m sure the name will not make it into the movie outside of the credits. As is always the case, movie-making requires a lot of stuff, so equipment vans and trucks clogged the Common neighborhood surrounding the hotel. Descending well down the ladder of celebrity—to the very bottom if not below the ground–next up for the hotel is this weekend’s “Salem Con 2015” , at which attendees can“meet some of your favorite paranormal celebrities, see and purchase some of the latest “gadgets”, and investigate beside them [the gadgets?] during the celebrity “Ghost Hunt”. I think I’ll let this event speak for itself, with that line and its lovely poster: such a subtle use of the noose! I have just one closing question: WAS THERE EVER AN EVENT SO APTLY-NAMED?

Hawthorne Salem News

Salem Con

All in a week at the Hawthorne Hotel: Day for night on this past Tuesday, KEN YUSZKUS/Staff photo, Salem News; charming poster for Salem Con 2015.


Third Thursdays @ PEM

On the third Thursday of every month, Salem’s thriving and always-in-motion Peabody Essex Museum stays open until 9:00 pm and hosts an interactive party in its vast atrium around a particular theme: in the past there have been Steampunk, La Vie Bohème, and “I’m a Lumberjack” evenings; last night was “Artopia”, focusing on arts in the community and of the everyday. Admission is free for all Salem residents and museum members, and a mere $10 for those who are neither: a great value as much is offered: music, installations, food and drink, activities, presentations, the omnipresent photo booth, and eclectic company. It’s always a mixed crowd in terms of age (one of the things I like best about Salem: continuous age diversity), but last night seemed both particularly family friendly and interactive: not only were people eating, drinking and talking, but (occasionally simultaneously): sketching, painting, knitting, and making meatballs. My friend Adeline Myers has just published her first cookbook, Global Meatballs, and she gave two interactive gallery presentations ably assisted by her friend Andy Varela of Maitland Mountain Farm here in Salem (producer of amazing pickles). These two were quite engaging in their discussion of the production and processing of food in general, and Addie is quite evangelical in her assertions of the global and historical qualities of meatballs in particular; in fact, I’m inspired to dig into some of my Renaissance cookbooks as soon as I finish this post!

PEM 007

PEM 024

PEM 013

PEM 017

PEM 019

PEM Activities

PEM 033

Artopia at the Peabody Essex Museum: the progress of events (and light) in the atrium; artwork by students at Beverly High School; activities in the Maker Lounge; Andy Varela and Addie Myers making middle eastern and Spanish meatballs. The evening was supported by the Lowell Institute and sponsored by the Salem Arts Festival (held every June), and presented in partnership with The Scarlet Letter Press & Gallery and Creative Salem.


Fabled Friday the 13th

What’s wrong with Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month? I thought I might try to uncover the foundations of this supposedly long-held western superstition but as is generally the case, all I found was a mishmash of “biblical”, “medieval”, and mostly-Victorian assertions. The biblical basis is the Last Supper, at which there were thirteen attendees including Jesus of Nazareth and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, followed by the fateful/fatal Friday on which Jesus was crucified. Somehow, somewhere (the story goes) the gathering of 13 and the Friday execution are assimilated to create a dreadful day on which evil or (in Chaucer’s middle English verse) “mischance” can occur: And on a Friday fil al this mischaunce (The Nun’s Priest’ Tale).

Friday 13 Flinch Cards

There is an entire book about the number 13 and its associations are easily discerned, both negative (the antithesis of the perfect 12; 13 steps to the hangman’s noose; the 13th tarot card represents death; Apollo 13) and positive (a baker’s dozen; thirteen colonies, the thirteenth amendment), but the customary connection between the number and the day is a bit more elusive. One particular Friday the 13th that is often mentioned is Friday, October 13, 1307, the date on which the Order of the Knights Templar in France were formally indicted by King Philip IV “the Fair”, so that he might confiscate their vast wealth during the first years of the Avignon Papacy which rendered them defenseless. Certainly the Templars have resurfaced in the last decade or so with the publication of Dan Brown’s incredibly popular Da Vinci Code, but the Victorian era–a golden age of fraternalism–was also intensely interested in this suppressed and secretive order, and the fates of its members.

Royal 20 C.VII, f.44v

Tarot Cards XIII

British Library MS Royal 20 C VII, f. 4v: Templars being burnt at the stake; Tarot Cards no. XIII, representing Death, from the later 15th century (Victoria and Albert Museum Collection) and the later 19th century (see here for the full deck).

In the first decades of the twentieth century, this particular Black Friday (preceding our own commercial one) seems to have been become firmly established. There was the bestselling novel of Thomas William F. Lawson about a plot to bring down Wall Street on Friday the 13th (by sheer coincidence [?], the author’s namesake 7-masted schooner sunk on Friday the 13th) and then, in an obvious nod to the general acceptance of the day, Miss Rose Cade was crowned Queen of the Lemons on Friday, February 13, 1920.

Friday 13th.

Friday 13 Queen of the Lemons Rose Cade

Miss Rose Cade as Queen of the Lemons in California, February 13, 1920, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


British Bakers

I am certainly saddened by the end of Downton Abbey’s season last week, but I am devastated by the conclusion of its lead-in, The Great British Baking Show, to which I became positively addicted. Everything about this show drew me in: the amiable (never snarky) contestants, the chatty hosts, the authoritative judges, and (most of all) the setting: a turreted tent in the midst of a perfect green English field dotted with sheep and bordered by blooming perennials. Under the tent, all is pastel perfection: the set designers seem to have taken their cues from the classic 1903 Book of Cakes by T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley (which was reissued in 1991 as The Victorian Book of Cakes).

bake-off

Pastel Time

Book of Cakes 2

Great British Baking Show (Bake-Off in Britain) judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, this past season’s contestants under the tent, and a page from Lewis & Bromley’s Book of Cakes (1903).

I never knew baking was so difficult, requiring so much precision and patience! The weekly technical and “showstopper” challenges make those on Top Chef look like cakewalks. And all for the title of “star baker” and (the ultimate prize) an engraved cake plate. Victoria sponge cakes, Farthing biscuits, Swedish Princess cake, twenty-layer Schichttorte: these British bakers can do it all. I learned a lot (not that I will ever really use this knowledge) and really enjoyed being plunged into this cozy world on a weekly basis. I’ll miss all the people and all the pastry, and most especially all those beautiful Gorenje refrigerators on set, so much so that I might have to buy one for my own kitchen!

Gorenje-RF60309OC-L-As-seen-on-great-british-bake-off-739x1024

Baking Winner

THE refrigerator; Berry and Hollywood with this season’s best baker, Nancy Birtwhistle.


Salem Film Fest 2015

We’re in the midst of the eighth annual Salem Film Fest, featuring a diverse menu of documentary films from all over the world. I’m for any initiative that plays to Salem’s worldly past rather than its witchy one, and this extremely well-planned festival does just that: its slogan is Come to Salem, See the World and this year you can embark on a “curated itinerary” following the themes of arts and artists, films about music, righting wrongs, films about identity, contemporary political and social issues, land and sea, and living on the edge–giving it all. Several screenings include Q and A sessions with the filmmakers, and there are also forums which explore particular aspects of documentary production. I always have an ambitious itinerary of my own, but generally end up only seeing one film. Perhaps I’ll do better this year. This weekend I saw Dennis Mohr’s Mugshotwhich examines the cultural significance of these little pictures, from law enforcement tool to celebrity signal to object of art. It was great, perfectly mixing past and present and imagery in my favorite way. Then I got focused on an academic project (a good thing) and missed American Experience Presents, about the making of the iconic PBS series, later on Saturday afternoon as well as today’s screening of Sex and Broadcasting, focused on the independent New Jersey radio station WFMU. There are still several screenings left of what looks like the “feel good” film of the festival, The Optimists, about a Norwegian volleyball team for women aged 66 to 98, so I think I’ll probably see that one, and I’m also interested in Seeds of Time, which examines one man’s mission to save the world through seed-saving and crop diversity.

Mugshot9-LW-14058-770x433

SexDave_the_Spazz_Ray_Ray_Sunshine_Films1600-770x433

Optimists

Seeds of Time

Cats and dogs:  the festival mixes its worldliness with local perspectives by including shorts by local college students and promotional “Salem sketches” which offer a frame of city life in very short films–a minute or two. I love this one featuring our local cobbler (and his cat) and even though “Snow Place like Salem” dates from a few years ago, it perfectly captures life in Salem this winter.


From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.

800px-Joris_Hoefnagel_Fete_at_Bermondsey_c_1569

Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,328 other followers

%d bloggers like this: