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History by HBO

Much, most, actually all of the last week was spent in bed with the world’s worst cold, which dragged on and on and on. At first I thought fine, I need a break, I’ll just lie here and read, but I was so stuffy and sneezy and miserable that I couldn’t really concentrate on most of the books I had on hand, so I gave in and turned on the television. Hours passed by staring rather blankly at the screen, and my beloved TCM let me down by showing too many Marx Brothers movies and musicals, so I became my own programmer and ordered up a bunch of HBO movies. I know we’re in the (second) Golden Age of Television, but I really couldn’t commit to an entire series–after all, I could have died at any moment. I started with Elizabeth I (2005) which is actually a miniseries, but I have seen it before so I thought I could commit (or live through) four hours–and it always makes me feel better to see or think about Elizabeth. This particular Elizabeth is characterized by a rather plodding narrative of events during the latter half of the Virgin Queen’s reign, but Helen Mirren (of course) gives a tour-de-force performance and the production values are amazing: you don’t feel as if you are jettisoned into Tudor World as completely as with Wolf Hall and its natural light filming, but Tudor texture is definitely there. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly weary of the exclusively romantic focus: the hardest thing to govern is the heart reads the film’s tagline, but that’s not really true.

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Once I left Elizabeth I, I started searching for something that was a bit more foreign to me–and that brought me to films about the twentieth century. I’ve actually watched some of HBO’s films about the very recent past (Recount, Game Change, Too Big to Fail), but I wanted to go a bit further back: the twentieth century is my least-familiar, least-favorite century, so I knew I wouldn’t grind my teeth over every little detail as with a Tudor film. I landed on a rather inanely titled film named Conspiracy (2001) which I had never heard of but which almost immediately caught my attention–and held it, rapt. Conspiracy is about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference which settled upon the Final Solution in a single afternoon, actually only 90 minutes as it was more of an announcement that a settlement. The whole movie is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action: the conversation about “evacuation” happens during a long lunch in the beautiful dining room of a suburban Berlin villa. Not just the idea, but the logistics of the Final Solution are discussed while horrible men (played by wonderful and familiar actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) are eating and drinking. A really chilling film that deserves a less generic title.

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Conspiracy was so good I wanted more, but I didn’t really find anything that came close among my options: John Frankenheimer’s Path to War (2002), about LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, probably came the closest because you felt a bit of a chill (when American generals were talking, rather than German Nazis) but it still seemed like more of a “made-for-television-movie” rather than a film. Michael Gambon as Johnson was riveting, though, as most British actors playing American presidents are. Most, but not all: Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a pre-presidential FDR dealing with his diagnosis of polio in Warm Springs (2005) really pales–I suppose it has to–in comparison with his haunting characterization of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Hangman” and/or “Blonde Beast” and chair of the Wannsee Conference, in Conspiracy. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Mr. Roosevelt and grasped the empathetic development of his social conscience, just like HBO wanted me to. Still in the mood for statesmen, I finished my HBO history film series with two biopics about Winston Churchill: Winston in the wilderness in The Gathering Storm (2002, featuring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) and Winston at war in Into the Storm (2008, featuring Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer). Both were fine, with the first better than the second, which suffered from the Elizabeth I problem: we are not satisfied to focus exclusively on Winston when World War II is on in full force. By that time, even with my foggy brain, I had discerned the HBO formula for a historical film:

  1. A lavish budget: to purchase the services of the best directors and actors, and realistic sets, perfect in every little material detail.
  2. A focus on personalities. “History” is represented solely as the acts or reactions of people, with little or no attention given to larger environmental or intellectual forces, or context. This approach works best with individuals, which is why so much of HBO history is biography. Conspiracy is an exception, as multiple viewpoints are represented, and even though the context is assumed, there is an underlying subtext of SS infiltration of the entire Nazi regime which enhances the complexity of the presentation.
  3. Narrative. Given this biographical approach to history, departures from narrative can be as confusing as multiple perspectives.
  4. The more recent, the better. Because of the reluctance to engage in complexities and the personal approach, the better HBO histories are going to be focused on relatively recent topics and personalities where there is some familiarity or expectation on the part of the audience. This is why, despite all of the above, Helen Mirren, and a reliance on the BBC’s 2005 Virgin Queen series, Elizabeth I seems rather soul-less and unsatisfying.
  5. Intimacy. Ultimately, HBO wants to get us into the room where it happened. And of course, we can’t go there.

Calm Descends on Salem

It always takes me a few days to recover from Halloween here……two nights ago I had an all-too-vivid nightmare about a bacchanalian orgy in the Charter Street cemetery. But I woke up to a calm and beautiful day: Election Day, always a hopeful day for me. You’ve got to love off-year, local elections when the big issues are new trash barrels and cobblestones! Actually I am trivializing our election quite a bit: the large, looming development projects that I’ve been writing about all year are also big issues (but trash is big too). After I voted, I walked to work and checked the cemetery and Witch Trials Memorial along the way: all was calm and a few respectful people were walking around, really looking at the grave- and memorial stones rather than sitting on them! Salem has been returned to its residents, the dearly departed are not being trespassed, and I slept much better last night.

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Feeling fortunate that two great, smart people ran for councilor of the ward that I live in, and that I can walk by the beautiful PEM garden on a 70-degree day in November.

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Feeling fortunate that all those disrespectful people are GONE………

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and that someone left an appropriate memorial to their ACTUAL ancestor, and that I get to walk by my favorite Salem house, now artfully adorned with pumpkins, several times a week.


Turnip Ghosts

There is a great quote from the prolific and eminently quotable British writer G. K Chesterton about ghosts–or really belief– in general which references turnip ghosts in particular: I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. This is from a column in the Illustrated London News in 1936: the assumption is that his audience would immediately understand the phrase “turnip ghost”, and as they were British, they probably did. An American audience would and does require some translation. A turnip ghost refers literally to a Jack o’lantern made out of a turnip (but I would also include turnip-headed scarecrows)–something out there in the fields that was not a real ghost but that could create fear–a bugaboo (the best word ever). Old World turnips predated New World pumpkins as the material of choice for All Hallows Eve Jack o’lanterns, and remained predominate for some time, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. And you can easily see why: turnips are scary.

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Turnip Jack o’ lanterns from Work of Fiction (+directions); my own ghosted turnip seed packet.

The turnip-headed scarecrows are equally eerie: they turn up on Halloween postcards from the early twentieth century in both the United States and Europe, but are not exclusively tied to the holiday. Turnips just easily lend themselves towards anthropomorphic expressions.

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Turnip Head Shakers

Vintage Halloween card, c. 1920; the Turnip-head scarecrow from  Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle; Vintage salt & pepper shakers available here.

I bought some turnips the other day–larger ones from a farm up north and smaller ones at our farmers market–with the intent to carve them into something scary, but I’m not sure I can do it–even with Martha Stewart’s assertive advice. They don’t have the soft insides of a pumpkin, and they are much more diminutive. I might chicken out and merely draw on them, because I’m not sure that I want to put in the time and effort: every single time I’ve carved out a pumpkin it has been stolen days before Halloween, and I’m sure my little turnip lanterns would be even more vulnerable!

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Martha Stewarts Turnips

My turnips and Martha’s creations: I might just settle for the turnips (and radishes) in a dish decoration, lower right. See a very scary traditional turnip Jack o’lantern here.


The Pumpkin Pouncer

Even though we have all lived together for several months, we are still adjusting to our newest cat, Trinity, and she to us. She’s either in constant motion or a state of complete collapse, like a youngster, which she is. She had a litter out in the wild before she was even a year old, and they were all rescued by our local shelter: the kittens were adopted first and then she came to us in late June, newly-fixed, and still very much a mother, in nesting mode. Not a scrap of fabric was safe in the house all summer–clothing, dishtowels, throws, even pillows—were carried up to my husband’s closet. If the door was closed, she would simply make a pile until it was open. Her beloved pink blanket, brought with her from the shelter, was always in close proximity. About a month ago, the fixation on fabric seemed to dissipate, but now she has a new focus:  pumpkins. Not real pumpkins, velvet ones, which I have been collecting for some time (before they became fashionable). Large or small, wherever they happen to be situated, she pounces on them, tears at them, carries them upstairs and then drops them from the second-floor landing to the entrance hall below, and scatters their insides (rice) on the floor, furniture, and even the dining-room table. At least she’s moved on from her fabric/kitten fixation (either that or she was a very bad mother).

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Pumpkin Pouncer


Broken Brooms?

Besides dodging the crowds (and zombies) here in Salem on this past (absolutely beautiful) Columbus Day weekend, we went up north for a bit. Just off the highway in my hometown of York, Maine, I became fixated on an installation of witches on bicycles at the entrance to Stonewall Kitchen: as if I didn’t have enough witches in Salem! Of course, they resonated with me not just because they were witches (on bicycles) but because of the Wizard of Oz visual reference: few things were scarier in my childhood than the transformation of Miss Almira Gulch into the Wicked Witch of the West during the terrifying tornado. The fact that I have this very vivid image seared into my brain is one of the reasons that I’m glad I was born in the ’60s (although I think the ’70s would work too): every year when the Wizard of Oz came on we were glued to the screen and each scene made at impression because we would have to wait the entire year until we could see it again: we couldn’t just rewind a DVD or access a YouTube clip. So we remember.

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The Last of Summer & September

We’ve got a deluge of rain on the way, which we desperately need, but I imagine that the garden will be beaten down after it subsides so I thought I’d take some of the last pictures of the season. I also had a rare afternoon in the Back Bay of Boston so I took some window-box pictures as well: some in the full flourish of summer, others harbingers of fall. I’m always melancholy in late September, more because Salem’s witching season begins assertively on October 1 than because it marks the onset of autumn and colder weather. Prepare for that prolonged rant over the next few weeks–or stay away! I am working on a few interesting (at least to me) Witch City posts for October, but no doubt I’ll also retreat and focus on the more distant past as well. Or leave town.

Still-flowering Boston, September 28:

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And then Home: lots of lavender and catmint and a very fluffy rose, anemones, perennial agertum (a great fall plant, and much more blue than it appears in this photograph); Trinity in the garden, like a ghost of our dearly-departed Moneypenny.

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Scholarship and Shopping

Few moments are more exciting for me than when my intellectual and material endeavors merge, and believe me, they are fleeting! One happened this past Saturday. I had been struggling with two pieces that I am writing for publication on Frank Cousins, Salem’s turn-of-the last century architectural photographer, and a passionate advocate for all thing Colonial. I know a lot about Cousins, and I have a lot to say about him (because no one else has said anything), but I am not a trained 1) American Historian; 2) Architectural Historian; or 3) Art Historian, so that is why I was struggling: could I place him in his proper context? It’s one thing to refer to his “imaginary walks through Salem” and lectures on “Old Architectural Salem” and quite another to assess his contributions to American architectural history and the Preservation movement. I had finished one piece and was thoroughly blocked on the other, when I decided to go over to the first ever (and hopefully not last) “Vintage Market” on Derby Square. I just love the idea of an antiques market in Salem, which has such a long tradition in this trade, and even though I appreciate our farmers’ market, I would rather buy things than vegetables in Derby Square! So off I went, and there was some great stuff: baskets, bottles, buttons, snowshoes, pottery, tins, bottles, and prints, lots and lots of prints, including an old box full of Frank Cousins prints. These were not the original albumen images, mind you, but large reprints made for resale at a mid-century Salem gift shop according to the man who sold them to me, who happens to run his own Salem tours. I bought quite a few, took them home, spread them out on the floor of my study, and waited for inspiration to strike. It took a while (more than a moment to tell the truth), but eventually I finished my article. I think there are two lessons here: 1) if you’re writing about someone who expresses himself visually, you must consider these expressions and 2) shopping always helps.

Close-up: offerings at the First Annual (?) Vintage Market on Derby Square in Salem, and my catch of Cousins photographs.

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Collectibles Collages Salem Vintage Market

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