Tag Archives: films

It all Centers on the House

I am recovering from my second bad cold of the year, and have spent much time over the past few days watching television just like I did during my summer sickness. At that time, I made the dreadful mistake of watching Netflix’s The Last Czars (with dawning and intensifying horror) but this time I went for classic horror and watched a succession of Poe adaptations, perfect for this time of year. I really fell for the The Fall of the House of Usher and streamed every version I could access: the Vincent Price/ Roger Corman version from 1960, the 1950 British film directed (and produced, and shot) by Ivan Burnett, and two very avant-garde silent versions from 1928, a short film produced by James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber in the US, and a longer French version directed by Jean Epstein entitled La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). Then I read the short story again, read critiques of both the films and the story, and chased down all of the illustrations of the HOUSE that I could find: I assure you I seldom do this much preparation for a blog post but I was in a full sick-bed-induced Usher fever!

House of Usher 1931

20191022_1816331931 Cheshire House edition with illustrations by Abner Epstein; 1950 British film version.

I can understand why this story has resonance with readers, filmmakers and illustrators; it’s enthralling on different levels, both in terms of its relationships and its setting. The central characters, Roderick and Madeline Usher (siblings in the original story and most film adaptations; spouses in Epstein’s film) are a very odd pair indeed and one could dwell on them for a while, but I agree with the appraisal of the narrator of the 1950 British film, who tells us that it all centers on the house. The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: it’s the end of the line and the end of the house and we readers and/or watchers witness the destruction of both, mirroring each other. I’m so fixated on houses that I often think of them as sentient, so it’s almost reassuring to see one depicted that way.

20191023_131739

maison-usher

20191022_182257

screenshot_20191023-083352_samsung-internet

screenshot_20191023-083502_samsung-internet

screenshot_20191023-074149_chromeThe house exterior in the 1928 American film, the 1950 British Film, and the 1960 Roger Corman film; Jean Epstein’s 1928 film prefers to focus on its baronial interior.

As you can see, these are all Gothic/Victorian structures, characteristic of the haunted-house trope but not the decrepit old relics of Poe’s day: The Fall of the House of Usher was first published in 1839. When looking around for a spooky house, Poe, like Hawthorne, would probably have fixated on a seventeenth-century house, sometimes also called “medieval” here in America but never in Britain. There seems to be some consensus that the house which might have inspired Poe was the Hezekiah Usher House in Boston, built on Tremont Street in the 1680s by the namesake son of British America’s first bookseller. Hezekiah Jr. was also accused of witchcraft during the 1692 trials (of course–because there is always a Salem connection) but was apparently connected enough to avoid formal proceedings. When the Usher house was torn down around 1800, two skeletons were found in the basement, and that story might have caught Poe’s attention even though he never saw the house. And thus the haunted house trope is connected to another (or sub?) trope, someone/something is buried in the basement, in the story of The Fall of the House of Usher. It seems like a pretty straight line from Usher to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw to Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House to Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger (with many more titles in between) though I suppose the Castle of Otranto might have started the thread.

House of Usher Robert Swain Gifford 1884

Usher Collage

House of Usher poe-rackham-usher Arthur Rackham 1935

Grimly CollageThe House: illustrations by Robert Swain Gifford (1884); Daniel Walper (1922), Albert Dubout (1948), Arthur Rackham (1935) and Gris Grimly (2004).

artcont_1534959296Confronting a GEORGIAN haunted house: The Little Stranger (2018). Talk about a house-centered story! In both the film and the book, the house is a MAJOR character, even more so than in Usher. The juxtaposition of the airy (though decayed) Georgian and the “presence” heightens the tension, and you realize that possession has multiple meanings.


(Reen-)Action in Marblehead

There is filming or preparation for filming all around us this July: on Salem Common, in Forest River Park, in nearby Danvers and Marblehead. On Saturday I drove over to see Marblehead’s Old Town dressed as Salem during Halloween for a Netflix film starring Adam Sandler titled Hubie Halloween. I knew that the Revolutionary reenactment company Glover’s Regiment would also be camped out at Fort Sewall in Marblehead, and I thought the two “sets” might make for an interesting cultural clash. I was right: it was a theatrical afternoon. I have to admit to being a little annoyed that Salem could not play itself: we have to deal with the real Halloween but aren’t good enough to play the fake one? But watching the set designers put together their perfect Halloween town, it was obvious that they were going for a cute, hometown Halloween, not the darker version that has emerged in Witch City. At least Salem Common will see some action. The camp at Fort Sewall was well-established by the time I got there, with cream canvas tents all in a row, and visiting “French” and “British” soldiers—the latter were appropriately camped outside the fort’s walls!  For an hour or so, it really did seem like I was wandering around some Hollywood backlot to go from Halloween in July to an eighteenth-century encampment.

20190713_124346-1

20190713_134107

20190713_124537

20190713_124703

20190713_134040

20190713_133935

20190713_133633

20190713_125438

20190713_125234

20190713_125348

20190713_125425

20190713_131439

20190713_130837

20190713_131017

20190713_131335

20190713_131306

20190713_131720


Beautiful but Deadly

In support of the summer-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem, better known as the House of the Seven Gables, Salem State has offered up a Hawthorne film series in partnership with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and this week our last film will be shown: Twice-Told Tales (1963). Since we started with The House of the Seven Gables (1940), it will be interesting to see Vincent Price, who played Clifford in that film in a rather straightforward fashion, in what I assume will be his more characteristic over-the-top style. He plays key characters in all three stories of this anthology film, and Dr. Rappaccini himself in the central story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, which just happens to be my favorite Hawthorne short story (it was actually first published in book form in Mosses from an Old Manse rather than Twice Told Tales, but I’m sure this was of no concern to Hollywood). Rappaccini’s Daughter is the favorite Hawthorne tale of many, and it has inspired many visual and literary impressions and adaptations—particularly in the last decade or so. Its allegory makes it endlessly captivating for successive generations, but I think its most recent popularity is due to its rather macabre storyline: the transformation of a young beautiful woman who tends a garden of poisonous plants and in doing so becomes both immune but also a poisonous vessel herself is Gothic in the extreme.

Poison Garden Jessie Willcox SmithJesse Willcox Smith, 1900

My particular fascination is the paradox of beauty and toxicity in nature. How can plants as beautiful as monkshood and foxglove be deadly? I have neither in my garden at present, but my very first garden at this house was comprised entirely of plants used in the medieval and early modern eras as plague cures. It did not last long, as most of these plants were really unattractive and I didn’t have quite enough sun for them anyway, so I dug it up and dispersed the more attractive plants in a more conventional flower garden. My favorite survivor of the “plague garden” is rue, a beautiful and ethereal blue-ish gray shrub with yellow flowers that I just sheared off yesterday, with not a care in the world for the potential harm that its leaves could have caused to my skin. How could the “Herb of Grace” cause harm? Obviously it’s not the plant itself but ignorance of its “attributes”; it’s not the medicine but the dose. It’s not nature; it’s man (or woman).

Poisonous Rue 3

Poisonous Rue 2 Cadamosto

Poisonous Actea RubraMy newly-shorn rue and its illustration in my favorite Renaissance herbal, that of Giovanni Cadamosto (late 15th Century, British Library MS Harley 3736); A much more OBVIOUS poisonous plant in my garden, baneberry or Actaea Rubra: beware of those berries!

Even more paradoxical than a poisonous plant is a poisonous garden, as gardens are supposed to be places of rest, relaxation, wonder and contemplation: sanctuaries where one can find refuge from the busy (and threatening) world outside. Rappaccini’s Daughter is set in Padua, so I believe that Hawthorne was likely influenced by its famous Botanical Garden, established in 1545 and still thriving with over 7000 plant varieties including a collection of poisonous plants, “which are also in the medicinal plants sector because in suitable quantities they can be used to treat illness and diseases”. Also didactic, but a bit more menacing, is the Duchess of Northumbria’s Poison Garden in Alnwick, England, which features more than 100 lethal plants, several of which are in cages, all just part of a much larger botanical attraction and experience. The Duchess wanted to pique the curiosity of children in horticulture, and it probably doesn’t hurt that her estate “starred” as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. She also produced a series of books for children titled The Poison Diaries, the first of which has absolutely amazing illustrations by Colin Stimpson of venomous plants “in character”. Scary, but not nearly as scary as the Poison Tree which “stole” into William Blake’s garden, his own creation.

poison04

Poisonous Diaries 2

Poison Tree BlakeAlnwick’s Poison Garden; a Colin Stimpson illustration from the Poison Diaries; William Blake’s Poison Tree from Songs of Experience, 1794, British Museum.


Salem Film Fest 2018

It is that time of year again: time for the annual Salem Film Fest, now in its eleventh year and very firmly established on the cultural calendar. Over the years, it has been very inspiring to see the festival’s growth: in terms of participation, attendance, offerings and impact. The care taken with curation is always very apparent to me: resulting in a nice balance of films with themes that are global and local, environmental and material, very serious and a bit more whimsical. One of the first films I saw at the festival was Grown in Detroit, way back in 2011: this was an interesting window into the urban crisis playing itself out in Detroit at the time and this year’s Beauty and Ruin offers another by focusing on the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, which some thought might provide a solution to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. I’m really looking forward to this film: as most of you know, the sanctity (and proximity) of a community’s treasures are important to me, and this film will be playing in PEM’s lovely Morse Auditorium!

FilmFest

FilmFest2 Stills and scenes of Detroit past and present in Beauty and Ruin.

I have a friend who oversaw the recent Skinner auction of items from Avis and Eugene Robinson’s collection of African American history (and also this beautiful–but troubling—catalog), so I’m also interested in seeing Black Memorabilia, which examines “the subculture around the collectibles and antiques that serve as reminders of America’s troubled racial past and present”. And speaking of subcultures, I might go for Mermaids, in which a select group of individuals idolize, identify and occasionally “become” sirens of the sea. In keeping (somewhat) with the marine theme, the South Korean film Old Marine Boy about a daring North Korean deep-sea diver in the South, looks amazing. On a very different note, I’m kind of interested in seeing Rodents of Unusual Sizeabout the enormous orange-toothed swamp rats (nutria) which have infested the waters of Louisiana post-Katrina and oil spills, but I’m not quite sure I want to spend so much time with these odious creatures on the big screen.

Mermaids Film

Old Marine Boy

Rodents2Scenes from Mermaids, the Old Marine Boy, and the poster for Rodents of Unusual Size.


Connecting my Courses

This is that time in the semester when I am inevitably behind in my course content, racing towards the end of classes in early December: in one course I’m only in thirteenth century when I should be in the fourteenth; in another I’m in the eighteenth and I should be in the nineteenth. It’s either poor organization or too many tangents, likely both, but I’ll manage to wrap everything up somehow. Just the other night, as is my custom, I was watching an old movie on TCM and I stumbled upon an odd connection between the two very different eras I am trying to get out of, forestalling my mental departure for a little while longer. The film was Anthony Adverse (1936), a rather disjointed story about an abandoned boy who navigates the challenges and opportunities of the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and the connection was a foundling wheel. 

anthony-adverse-1936

In a film that shifts (laboriously) its locales from Italy to Cuba to Africa to Paris and somehow manages to incorporate both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Napoleon, it was the foundling wheel that caught my attention. It is the mode of entry by which the cruel aristocratic husband of Anthony’s mother deposits him in a convent following her death in childbirth, just after he killed her lover (Anthony’s real father) in a duel. The convent is conveniently located in northern Italy, adjacent to the trading business of Anthony’s maternal grandfather and later foster father, but let’s not get bogged down in the narrative. It’s all about this nifty device, an invention of the thirteenth century resurrected in the eighteenth.

Connecting 2

Connecting 1

Connecting 3The evil Marquis Don Luis (Claude Rains) places little Anthony Adverse in the foundling wheel.

Two eras of dynamic demographic growth in Europe: in the former, Pope Innocent III, the very pinnacle of the very purposeful high medieval papacy, sought to discourage infanticide via exposure by offering parents an anonymous means by which to “donate” their unwanted children to the church, and the first “window of life” was installed in the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Rome in 1204. In Omne Bonumthe absolutely wonderful English illuminated encyclopedia of the next century (a time of dramatic demographic decline), the entry for expositus (abandoned child) shows an tightly-swaddled infant being deposited at a city gate and a cleric lecturing the supposed parents, indicating a collaborative policy of church and state. Foundling wheels reappeared in the eighteenth century, when the beginnings of an “illegitimacy explosion” (the number of illegitimate children born in Europe increased from 3% of births in 1750 to 20% by 1850) prompted the establishment of foundling hospitals in nearly every major European city. The revolving barrel in which Anthony Adverse was placed would more likely have been part of a secular institution than the convent of the film in the later eighteenth century, but of course it’s Hollywood history. It looks right!

Foundling Hospital Rome

Foundling Wheel

Foundling collage

Foundlings 1-innocenti-domenico-di-michelino2

Foundling Hospital London WellcomePiranesi print of the church and hospital of Santo Spirito, Rome from the ‘Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna‘, Rome, 1741-8, British Museum; the Foundling Wheel at Santo Spirito, Expositus illuminations from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, British Library MS Royal MS 6 E VI/2; “Madonna of the Foundlings” (also very wound up!) by Domenico di Michelino c. 1446, Ospedale degli Innocenti di Firenze; The London Foundling Hospital in the 18th Century, Wellcome Collection.

Appendix:  Apparently there is a limited but controversial 21st-century revival of the foundling wheel, in the guise of the much less rolling barrel- or lazy susan-ish “baby hatch” or “baby box” in several European countries–as well as Asia.


The Beautiful Barrett House

I’ve just returned from a brief getaway to the Granite State during which I drove all over much of its lower half (two-thirds?) but became focused on just two towns: New Ipswich and Tamworth. I don’t think I’ve ever developed a proper appreciation for this neighboring state and so I’m trying to work on that: I’ve lived in Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts, and so New Hampshire was always just a place “in between”, to drive through rather than a destination. Growing up, my father worked at two universities on either side of the state, Dartmouth and UNH, but we lived in Vermont during the earlier period and Maine during the later–and not just over the line of either adjoining state. So I think I always wondered secretly: did my parents DISLIKE New Hampshire? During my teenaged years in southern Maine, Portsmouth, New Hampshire was our go-to town, but somehow I always disassociated it with the rest of the state, as if it was an island. It is not. This particular weekend I was headed up to see a friend in the Lakes Region but decided to take a detour to the southwestern part of the state so I could see a Historic New England house that I’d never visited before: the Barrett House in New Ipswich. Amazing: a high Federal house in a very unlikely place—or is it? New Hampshire is full of perfect white two-story federals, but the Barrett House is something more grand: Portsmouth-like, or even (dare I say it) Salem-like. What’s it doing in sleepy New Ipswich?

Barrett House

Barrett House exterior

Barrett House placque

Well of course New Ipswich was not sleepy when pioneering textile manufacturer Charles Barrett built this grand house as a wedding gift for his son Charles Jr. and daughter-in-law Martha Minot, whose father promised to furnish the house in a manner complementing its (then) cutting-edge style. Across the field in front was the textile mill, down the road was the (Third) New Hampshire Turnpike, connecting Vermont and Massachusetts. After New Ipswich chose not to accept a railroad stop several decades later, its manufacturing era came to an end but an impressive architectural legacy remained, including the 1817 “Appleton Manor” which is now for sale. Successive generations of the Barretts owned and occupied the house into the twentieth century, also their Boston businesses determined that it became more of a country retreat than a primary residence. This evolution echoes that of several houses in central New Ipswich, contributing to the preservation of its architectural landscape. Historic New England’s predecessor, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), acquired both the Barrett House and its neighboring George Barrett Sr. house in 1948.

Barrett House 1904

BarrettsThe house in 1904, Cambridge Historical Society; Barretts remain on the walls.

Like all of Historic New England’s properties, the house is interpreted in a very personal way, utilizing extensive family furnishings: Barrett Mill-made linens, Barrett-bound books, portraits, furniture, all manner of accessories. All of this creates a feeling of intimacy, as does the smallish scale of the rooms–I found the rather imposing exterior of this house to be somewhat deceptive. It’s perfectly open and light (look at all of those 12 over 12 windows!) and square and Federal: no Victorian additions or “improvements”, and only a bit of stuffy Victorian decor in a back parlor. Even the third-floor ballroom, which extends over the width of the house, retains an aura of intimacy: sparsely furnished with family chairs of different eras, gathered in a circle for conversation and company.

First Floor: front parlor and dining room (with Zuber et Cie wallpaper!). I particularly loved the Chinese Export dishes, which did not belong to the Barretts. The back parlor is a bit more of a mix, befitting a family room.

Barrett Parlor

Barrett downstairs

Barrett DR

Barrett Mantle

Barrett China

Barrett downstairs 2

Barrett books

 

Second Floor Bedrooms: back and front.

Barrett Bedroom 3

Barrett dining room

Barrett Linens

Barrett Bedroom

Barrett bedroom2

Barrett Chair

LOVE these “peacock” chairs, and below: “furnishing” for an early twentieth-century bathroom, one of the few additions to the house.

Barrett Bathroom

 

Third-floor ballroom.

Barrett ballroom

Barrett Ballroom 2

 

Outbuildings: Like Salem’s Ropes Garden, the Barrett House was the setting for the 1979 Merchant-Ivory film The Europeans. Actually it was used far more extensively than the Ropes, for both interior and exterior scenes, and the Barrett’s Gothic Revival gazebo was a particularly effective backdrop. The Carriage House is full of carriages (of course), including a carriage-hearse!

Barrett House collage

Barrett Carriage House 2

Barrett Carriage House 3

Barrett Carriage House

 

Just a few more New Ipswich houses, for context, beginning with Charles Barrett Sr.’s house next door. There seems to be a fondness for those center projected gable entrances, perhaps inspired by the Barrett House?

Barrett House Senior

Barrett House NI

Barrett House NI2

Barrett House NI4

Barrett House brick


Give me Mrs. Miniver

My husband, myself, and my stepson can rarely find a movie we all want to see together: the latter is 16 so of course all summer movies are made for him, but I can’t stand the bombastic computer-generated imagery and violence and the predictable scripts. When Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came out, we all wanted to see it and so went together last week: a rare occasion. We did not return home together, however, as I had to run out less than halfway through! It wasn’t that it was bad–it was actually riveting–but also just too painful for me to watch all those men on the beach, so exposed and so vulnerable. I knew the Armada was coming but I couldn’t wait for it.

Dunkirk film

Dunkirk real The film and the reality, June 1, 1940 ©Imperial War Museum, London

It’s ridiculous I know, but I think I prefer the Mrs. Miniver version of Dunkirk, in which the gentleman-architect Mr Miniver takes his pleasure craft (conveniently docked in front of his Hollywood-perfect expansive English cottage) out into the Channel and returns only slightly battered (and bearded) a few days later. During his absence, Mrs. Miniver battles a downed Nazi in their kitchen. She wins, of course, but the Director William Wyler gives him a speech intended to bolster the Allied effort (by the time the film was released in 1942, the United States had already entered the war, but during its production Wyler was concerned about American isolationism): We will bomb your cities…Rotterdam we destroy in two hours. Thirty thousand in two hours. And we will do the same here! Combined with all other “inspirational” details in the film, including the bombing of the Miniver house, the heartbreaking death of their new daughter-in-law, and the village vicar’s closing sermon, it’s no wonder that Joseph Goebbels was afraid of it.

Mrs. Miniver 2

Mrs Miniver

It was acceptable to make propaganda films in the 1940s: today things must be as real as (technically) possible and sometimes that is unrelenting, at least for me: I fear my stepson is inured due to a steady diet of video games. I would like to see the Dunkirk miracle play out so I think I’ll have to steel myself to go back and see this film again, but in the meantime I’ll occupy myself with more distant records of this epic event, in paper and a paint. The Imperial War Museum in London has many photographs (including several of the Germans moving in after the evacuation), oral histories, and paintings of Dunkirk among its collections, although after I spent some (digital) time with these memorials I realized they weren’t that distant after all.

Dunkirk collage

Dunkirk 1940 IWM jpeg

Dunkirk painting 1940

Dunkirk Drawing IVW

Dunkirk abstractJune 3 headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Times; a small fraction of the 200,000 British Expeditionary Forces who were evacuated (+140,000 French troops), ©IWM; Charles Ernest Cundall, The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, 1940© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 305); “little ships” in Muirhead Bone’s The Return from Dunkirk; Arrival at Dover, 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 251); Rudolf A. HaywoodThe London Fire-Boat ‘Massey Shaw’ approaching Dunkirk at 11 pm on the 2nd June 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 248).


%d bloggers like this: