Tag Archives: Television

18th-century-esque

Next weekend is the first-ever Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall, commemorating Leslie’s Retreat, Salem’s opening act of the American Revolution, as well as the spirit of resistance over time and in our own time. Its organizers are encouraging, but not demanding, period dress so I have to figure out what I’m going to wear. I have a magic closet on the third floor full of evening dresses from the late 50s and early 60s that I rely on for all formal occasions, but I think this event calls for something different. It’s too late to go the custom reproduction route and I detest cheap costumes. About a decade ago, I commissioned a period gown (and stays!!! which were actually more expensive than the gown) for a ball marking the 200th anniversary of the Salem Athenaeum: I just assumed I would wear this regency gown for the Resistance Ball but when I took it out, put it on, and pranced around in it the other night I realized it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late, too Jane Austen, not enough Abigail Adams. So now I’m at a loss as to what to wear.

Resistance Ball

If I had realized my mistake sooner I probably would have ordered a dress or a robe à l’Anglaise from one of the amazing seamstresses out there: I have an old silk petticoat that would suffice. I particularly like the silk jacket below, but putting together an outfit around that little number would take time and considerable money, not just for the jacket, but for all the underpinnings: it’s all about the silhouette in historical clothing. With my time constraints, I’m thinking about the basic design elements of late eighteenth-century fashions—corsetry, cinching, embellishment, neckline, silhouette–and seeing if I can come up with something “18th-century-esque” for next week. I don’t think I’m going to go as far as the Versace corset dress from the 90s below, but I definitely want an updated eighteenth-century look.

18th century jacket

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There is lots of inspiration out there because of the combined aesthetic influence of Hamilton and Outlander: polyvore sets abound! American Revolutionary women have never been singled out for their sartorial style, but their near-contemporary across the Atlantic, Marie Antoinette, seems to have a fashion moment every twenty years or so. Now, however, the Schuyler sisters and Clare Fraser rule. There are lessons for updating in the strategies of the costume designers of both productions. Hamilton designer Paul Tazwell seems to focus on color, and notes that “in keeping the overall design as contemporary feeling as possible while still in the silhouette of the 18th century, I kept the detailing as simple as possible so that it didn’t feel too decorative and fussy. I used mostly silk taffeta for the dresses on the women because it stays crisp and light and moves in a way that viscerally feels like the 18th century to me”. Outlander designer Terry Dresbach (who maintains a beautiful blog with many insights into her process) is dealing with a time-traveler, so a bit of adaptation is required: a 1940s Dior jacket that Clare might have worn in her 20th century life is transported to the eighteenth century along with her, and both are altered in the process!

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outlander-christian-dior-exclusive-designHamilton’s Schuyler sisters on stage, dressed by Paul Tazwell; the Dior inspiration for Outlander’s “time-traveling” jacket by Terry Dresbach.

Thinking about both the essentials of eighteenth-century style and their adaptation, I browsed around for hours (what a rabbit hole!) and put together a working digital inspiration board. Pinned mostly from ebay and various designer archives, these are the dresses that seem to represent the look I’m going after best. Moving around the board clockwise, we have a very editorial look by Jean Paul Gaultier, a detail of a really beautiful Prada black taffeta gown, an Azzedine Alaia wedding ensemble (for some reason this screams 18th century to me!), a Zac Posen dress, a Carolina Herrera gown, and Dita von Teese in a Vivienne Westwood toile dress complete with panniers. Even if I could find one of these pieces, I couldn’t afford them, but they got me thinking in different directions about bodices, bows, draping, and toile…….what about a toile dress? Too day/summery? It would have to be the right toile, and the right style–too late for that now.

Resistance collage

Of all the designers above, it is clearly Vivienne Westwood who has been the most immersed in and influenced by the eighteenth century over her long career. She’s amazing at focusing in on the key elements and bringing a new artistic sensibility to them. The poster for the big present/past fashion moment several years ago, Le XVIIIeme au goût du jour (The 18th Century Back In Fashion) exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, features (half of) her bold dress on its poster, and two years ago her eighteenth-century-esque clothes were exhibited in situ at the newly restored Danson House in London (lately seen in the television series Taboo). Westwood’s “Sunday” day dress from a few years back looks to me like the perfect distillation of eighteenth-century style, but it’s really too informal for a ball and I can’t find one anyway.

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18th century Westwood Cut From the Past Danson House 2015 A Vivienne Westwood corset at Danson House.

So that’s where I am now, pretty much nowhere, although I can just raid my third-floor closet and wear classic vintage formal. I’m trying to remember what my now-vintage Laura Ashley dresses, which I think are still at my parents’ house up in Maine, look like, though I seem to recall they are more nineteenth-century-esque than eighteenth-century-esque. And very puffy sleeves: all wrong.


Victoria and Elizabeth

I can’t say that I think the newest PBS series Victoria is very good, but yet I still seem to be watching it: it’s cozy, just what we need for winter and these anxious times. I also can’t put my finger on what I dislike about it: the acting and consequently the characters draw one in, but the world in which the latter live seems somehow airbrushed and empty, hardly the colorful milieu of Victorian London. Victoria should not be thrust into the arcades and slums of course, but when there is a ball at Buckingham Palace more than twenty people should be in attendance. So far, it seems like a 1980s miniseries to me, with less anachronistic hair and clothes. The “downstairs” scenes and storylines seem so contrived, and so desperately anxious to remind us of Downton Abbey. I will say that the second episode piqued my interest, because it touched on something I’ve been curious about myself: the “relationship” between Victoria and the first long-reigning English queen, Elizabeth I. Victoria is wondering about her romantic future, and she gazes upon the coronation portrait of the Virgin Queen and wonders aloud to ever-present sexy Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewall–who probably is the major reason I’ve kept watching) that perhaps she should abstain from marriage as well. Later on she dresses as Elizabeth for a masquerade ball (at which, again, there are maybe 30 people in attendance). Did this ever happen? I don’t think so, but I do know that there were lots of comparisons made between Victoria and Elizabeth in the popular press, both at the beginning of the former’s reign, and later on, when they were “two great queens”.

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Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria in Elizabethan fancy dress.

The comparisons began with Victoria’s coronation procession in 1837, and continued until the end of the century, coinciding chiefly with moments when the Queen had to exercise her limited political powers, such as during the debate over the Irish Church Bill in 1869, or when there was a general concern about her presence, or lack thereof. The later 1860s was clearly a time to summon Elizabeth, the strong queen who ruled alone, in order to compel Victoria to come out of the prolonged mourning state she had been in since the death of her beloved Albert in 1861: in “A Vision” (third from the top): a “frowning” Elizabeth tells Victoria that she has “let grief prevail over duty”. Newspapers with anti-Republican leanings could use the Virgin Queen as a patriotic symbol and make their points without carping editorials. I’m not quite sure what the Hamlet allegory means, but the depiction of Prime Minister Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of Elizabeth’s Cecil ministers, and favorite of Victoria, as a modern-day Walter Raleigh would have been a rather obvious comparison, I think. Ultimately the first great queen (looking very mannish I must say) bows to the second, at the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

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Elizabeth and Victoria in British periodicals from 1837, 1843, 1868, 1869, and 1887, ©British Museum and ©National Portrait Gallery.

 


Samantha Should Go

If I were Queen of Salem for a day the very first thing I would do is smite Samantha. I like Bewitched and Elizabeth Montgomery as much as the next person, but a television character has no business occupying such a prominent parcel in Salem in statue form–especially such a bad statue. I think public art should either be beautiful or significant and Samantha is neither: she should go. I never really understood exactly how she was deposited right there, in Lappin Park on Town House Square, in June of 2005. It was a deal struck between the TV Land television channel, who commissioned the statue from StudioEIS in Brooklyn, then-mayor Stanley Usovicz, and the Salem Redevelopment Authority. Is she supposed to be with us forever? I was in one of my periodic disengagement-from-Salem-because-it-is-driving-me-crazy moods at the time so I wasn’t among the protesters, but even one of the statue’s creators admitted it was crass at the time:

“If I were one of the people who had a house on the beautiful common there, would I hate it?” asked Ivan Schwartz, sitting at a conference table last week and discussing the Samantha statue. “Yes, probably. But it seems like [Salem] was going down that path long before this TV Land thing ever surfaced.” (Washington Post)

Well, Mr. Schwartz is correct: Salem has been “Witch City” for quite a while, which is why my feelings towards Samantha have evolved: I don’t really want to destroy her anymore, I’d just like to move her–to a less prominent and more appropriate place–where she can represent Witch City rather than Salem. Maybe in front of the Witch Museum? That’s a perfect pairing.

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The Samantha Statue in Lappin Park (somewhat dressed for winter, but before our recent snow), courtesy Destination Salem.

So who or what could replace Samantha?  That is a difficult question, despite, or perhaps because of, Salem’s rich history.

An “old planter”?  Well we already have the magisterial statue of Salem founder Roger Conant by the Common. Unfortunately he is often mistaken for a “witch” because of his proximity to the Witch Museum as well–maybe he and Samantha could trade places? No, I think not.

Accused “witches”?  Well, we already have the subtle but stately Witch Trials Memorial on Charter Street. This is a reflective place (when it is not full of tourists eating sausage rolls on its memorial benches) deserving of its official status, but is could be supplemented by a more humanistic installation at Town House Square, I suppose. Statues of Bridget Bishop and George Jacobs–the victims from Salem Town?  Philip English–who escaped, survived, and sought revenge? My very favorite memorial to a witch-trial victim is the relief sculpture of Katharina Henot, burned at the stake in Cologne in 1627, in which she is paired with Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest who served as a participant/confessor in several witch trials before he wrote an extremely influential indictment of such proceedings (the Cautio Criminalis (1631)), on a facade of the Cologne City Hall. They are actually quite modern creations, one of 124 relief figures carved for the exterior of the Rathaus. The Lappin Park site is a courtyard, rather than a building, so I think we need to go for something/someone more freestanding.

Rathausturm Koeln - Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, Katharina Henot

Samuel McIntire? Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors from Salem? Timothy Pickering? One of the Derbys? We already have a great statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne on Hawthorne Boulevard. The great philanthropist Captain John Bertram and/or his granddaughter Caroline Emmerton, founder of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association? If I had my druthers (which I would, because I would be Queen), I’d probably go with Captain Luis Fenollosa Emilio of the Massachusetts 54th, a Salem native and author of The Brave Black Regiment (1891). He fought with the 54th for three years and was the sole surviving officer of the ferocious battle of Ft. Wagner in 1863: he deserves commemoration somewhere.

Statue Emilio

Captain Luis F. Emilio of the Mass 54th and 23rd, Library of Congress.

If I step down from my throne, however, I think it’s probably best to install something less literal and more abstract or conceptual in this particular location: something that could speak to as many people as possible and really make both passersby and crowds stop and think (or at least stop). I could even go in a more whimsical direction: the people who like the Samantha statue generally mention its “whimsy” but I think whimsy has to emanate from good art and Samantha looks like she is sitting on a turd rather than a cloud. We can do better.

Just to get the ideas flowing, I rounded up some of my favorite installations: most are public, some I have seen in person rather than just in pictures, some are memorials and some are just “statues”, all are (in my humble opinion) just great.

Reading Chaucer Jackson

Philip Jackson (b. 1944), Reading Chaucer, Portland Gallery, London.

Statue Les Voyageurs Marseilles

One of Bruno Catalano’s Voyageurs in Marseilles–travelers with missing parts!

Statue Shoes Budapest

The extremely poignant installation of “Shoes on the Danube” in Budapest by Gyuala Pauer and Can Togny, dedicated “to the memory of the victims shot by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45”.

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A “house” with roots by Leandro Erlich at the Summer Festival in Karlsruhe, Germany via Designboom. (I would LOVE to see something like this in Salem–a 17th century house!)

Appendix: Just adding a few lines as this post was shared quite widely on Salem Facebook groups and there was a lot of commentary that readers of the blog won’t see. Lots of love for Samantha; she is widely credited (not the statue so much as the television character and show, which filmed in Salem in 1970-71) for saving Salem from the wasteland that it was becoming at that time. So the statue is seen as a symbol of revival through witchcraft tourism. Also: tourists love her so she should stay, she’s “whimsical” so she should stay. There were some people that supported a move: to the Willows & the Hawthorne Hotel in particular. No support for Captain Emilio!


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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HBO History Collage 1

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.

May it always be May

May seems especially sweet this year after our cruel winter, and last week was particularly beautiful–with the wisteria and the dogwoods in full flower along with many of my favorite plants: bleeding hearts, Solomon seals, Alexanders, and lilies of the valley. It was also one of the busiest weeks of the academic year, with grading, senior events, and graduation, so I rushed around from place to place while still managing to stop and smell the lilacs. Warm days, cool nights: perfect hair and cotton sweater weather. Gorgeous, golden light in the late afternoon and early evening spilling into my north-facing front parlor. The only off-key event of these lyrical days was the Mad Men finale which was just not worthy, in my opinion:  I don’t want to see Don Draper chanting om! Sorry for the digression–I just had to get that out there. Back to the real world, which I would like to always be May-like, but then, of course, May would not be May, but just everyday.

Pictures of May in Salem starting with a colonial musician walking down Chestnut Street, then the view from my bedroom, the view from my office, and lots and lots of flowers.

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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.


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).

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Pastel Time

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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!

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Baking Winner

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


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