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In Which Charles Dickens Wanted To Hurt Everybody

Cold Feet


Great Expectations
dir. Brian Kirk

What must first be said about the BBC’s latest miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is that it looks good — it’s this sort of visual pleasure, the care taken toward both beauty and ugliness, that drives reviewers to use words like “sumptuous” or “glorious” or even “delicious.” The marshlands of the series’ beginning are perfect in their lonely beauty, washed out by layers of fog. The director, Brian Kirk, seems to take a painter’s pleasure in the scenery, and we are often treated to shots of the entire misty landscape, including a huge sheet of sky.

It must further be said that gorgeousness here is not gratuitous. Dickens is English literature’s supreme evocateur, and setting dictates mood, or maybe vice versa. Spark Notes informs me that the environment of the marsh connotes ambiguity and alienation, and that seems about right. This is, after all, where our urchin-hero Pip meets and helps Magwitch, the escaped criminal who is to become his mysterious benefactor. But in terms of triggering feeling, the setting de resistance of Great Expectations is Miss Havisham’s Satis House, with its stopped clocks, its cobwebs, its rotting wedding cake. The house has attempted to resist time and is instead overtaken by it, which is, of course, just it.

The parlor of Satis House is filled with plunder from Miss Havisham’s late brother’s exotic adventures: a tiger rug, tiny replicas of whales, horns and shells, globes, stuffed birds in glass cylinders gathering dust. The room’s focal point is a display of butterflies in a huge glass case, slowly growing over with cobwebs—it’s shabby-chic, biology-chic, like a room from the Anthropologie catalog that’s been badly neglected. “He went to the furthest reaches of the earth in his search for the purest specimen of beauty,” Miss Havisham says of her brother’s butterflies. “When he found it he stuck a pin through its heart.” Do you understand? There is a figurative meaning. To the butterflies.

Satis House is an extension of Miss Havisham, and she is its most disturbing relic. Gillian Anderson’s portrayal is brilliantly freaky — she plays her like a frail but erratic animal, speaking in a baby’s sing-song. Her lips are gray and peeling, her hands are bloody from where she has scratched them raw, and she only grows more pale and withered throughout the series, until she is literally skeletal.

Miss Havisham is only one of the characters who appear more monster than human. When Magwitch emerges from the marshes, his huge bald head and mud-caked skin make him look like a swamp creature. The evil Orlick, Pip’s brother-in-law Joe’s assistant on the forge, has black cracked teeth and dead eyes and sores covering his face, and he grins and lumbers around like a zombie. Some of these characterizations are small: the way the filmmakers give the foul but well-bred Bentley Drummle a cleft-lip to indicate his inner badness was downright Dickensian. (N.B.: when my younger brother was entering college, I asked him how his freshman orientation had gone. “It was full of dickheads,” he said. “It was dickheads-ian.”)

Pip and his true love, Miss Havisham’s daughter Estella, are, by contrast, immaculate. The actors who play them, Douglas Booth and Vanessa Kirby, both have that fashion-model beauty that is soft and unusual and endlessly compelling. In one scene they are picnicking by a lake, and Estella, overcome with abandon, pulls off her slippers and stockings and wades in the water, scandalously holding her petticoats above her knees. Pip follows her in and they share a tentative kiss. For a moment I was transported out of the series and into a Ralph Lauren perfume ad.

If you don’t remember reading about the tender picnic in your ninth grade English class, that’s because it isn’t in the book. Neither is the scene where Drummle takes Pip to his “other club,” a fancy whorehouse appearing to boast prostitutes from every continent. Thankfully the filmmakers take some liberties. I did regret their choice to omit Biddy, Pip’s childhood confidante and later Joe’s wife, from the miniseries — first because it is all too predictable that they would eliminate the only kind and sensible female character, and second because I wanted Joe to end the story with a lady by his side.

Played by Shaun Dooley, Joe is a big ruddy pillar of pathos, designed to perfectly elicit love, admiration, and pity. When Joe is enlisted by magistrates to repair Magwitch’s shackles, Magwitch claims he has stolen a piece of Pip’s family’s Christmas pie. “Us don’t begrudge you a bit of pie,” Joe says angelically. Miss Havisham finances Pip’s apprenticeship to Joe to become a blacksmith, and Joe signs the contract just “Jo,” and God, he is so strong. It sprains your heart when Pip leaves for London and Joe calls, “Don’t forget about us Pip!” and when Joe shows up at Pip’s club in London and Pip snubs him, it breaks. Your. Heart. Joe is the kind of character that bestirs ovaries, like the Irish cop in Bridesmaids.

In Vanity Fair recently there was a feature on Courtney Love, who, after losing her daughter and all her money, is now obsessed with marrying into British nobility. I thought of Courtney as I watched Miss Havisham, particularly when she pawed at Estella, clutching the letters she had sent from London and crowing, “They’re not detaaailed enough!” Miss Havisham’s desperation has no nuance, and her dialog’s anvil-subtlety supplies countless delights. When little Pip asks if her feet are cold, she replies, “All of me is cold.” “It is the ghost of a wedding cake, and I am the ghost of a bride,” she explains for Pip and anyone else who is a little behind. She vows to make Drummle’s world “a cold and joyless stone” once he marries Estella. “You know nothing about men, Miss Havisham,” Pip says, in the understatement of the nineteenth century.

Thanks to cable television, we now have a word for what Miss Havisham is: a hoarder. The source of the dysfunction at Satis House is as obvious as on an episode of Hoarders — you know, “I started that pile of dirty diapers the day my son died,” etc. Indeed, Miss Havisham and Estella are remarkably contemporary in their ability to psychologize themselves. “How could you be so cold?” Miss Havisham asks Estella. “It is what you trained me to be,” Estella replies. Estella tells Pip, “Everyone’s meant to love me. But I don’t love back,” and then Pip cries pretty-girl tears. “I wanted to hurt you. I wanted to hurt everybody,” Miss Havisham says to Pip at the end of the series. Hurt breeds hurt; you don’t have to consult Oprah to know that. You could have heard it on The Tyra Show.

It’s understandable that Estella would have some issues with marriage. She is shown hyperventilating under her veil on the day of her wedding, a shot that is echoed moments later when Miss Havisham lowers her own veil, walks downstairs to the dining room, and sets herself on fire. Miss Havisham’s self-immolation was what I was most looking forward to here, and it is worth the price of admission, even if that price were more than zero dollars. She gazes in the mirror with saintly ecstasy as the blaze envelop her body; her form becomes a shadow in the mass of flames. It is Miss Havisham herself who insists that beauty is a destroyer, and her death is the fulfillment of the visual ethic of the series — its most terrible scene is also its most beautiful.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about David Milch's Luck. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Amygdala" - Valets ft. Moral Reef (mp3)

"American Style" - Valets (mp3)

"Lines" - Valets (mp3)


In Which We Boomerang Across The Pond

Uncle Sleuth


creators Steven Moffat & Mark Gatiss

The detective work of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's version of the character is only impressive if you have never seen House or CSI, even once accidentally while waiting for something else to come on. "Noises can tell you everything," the sleuth opines, and somehow everyone around him resists vomiting in their tea. Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes treats women as if they were mentally disabled idiots incapable of understanding the logic (of noises). If Holmes treated people this way in America, he'd be qualified for the Republican presidential nomination. For christ's sake, the man smokes indoors.

Bringing this UK icon "into the 21st century" actually consists of bringing it into the late 1990s. This younger Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is barely aware of what a blog is, even though it is the major source of his notoriety. Holmes reads the newspaper every morning like a 60 year old retiree, wakes up in a bathrobe and has a servant, even though he lives in a shitty Baker Street apartment. When he is abducted to Buckingham Palace, Holmes refuses to put on clothes, but he is still super impressed: he becomes so giddy he steals an ashtray as a memento. This Sherlock is about as modern as the Queen's corgis.

There is a certain Luddite sensibility to Sherlock. Sure, Watson (Martin Freeman) uses a computer, but (1) he appears to be running Windows Vista and (2) he doesn't use much more than the thing's webcam and google search. In fact, Sherlock focuses on the insights that man can achieve without a computer, which is merely another tool in his psychic arsenal. While in a literary sense this assertion might be slightly plausible, in the real world detective work without forensics, computer science and DNA testing is about as likely as a grown man with an ex-military manservant.

To solve the crucial riddle of the show's second season premiere, Sherlock Holmes merely has to input a four character code into a mobile phone. Deciphering such a problem would merely be minutes in the life of any decent cryptographer or tattoed waif, but it takes Holmes the entire episode. Unless he is merely dragging it out to be dramatic, the display of his intuitive abilities is underwhelming at best, criminally negligent at worst.

The villain of this Sherlock is a black widow named Irene Adler. She is both a dominatrix and a lesbian, which I suppose incriminates her twice. Her lack of true interest in men is inevitably her fatal flaw. When Holmes and Watson first meet her, she shows up naked — the true villain is all woman. By the end, when he claims his final victory over her naked carapace, it is not simply enough that she begs for his indulgence, but she must also be reduced to tears like the simpering whore he believes her to be. As a final insult, he calls her, "The woman" and dresses her in a burqa.

As bad as the female gender is, Americans drive Sherlock absolutely bonkers. If a British person offends him, the ensuing Oscar Wilde-like dance constitutes an elaborate game he's going to win anyway. When Holmes encounters an American, he pepper sprays the poor guy and throws him out a window like some kind of reverse Captain America. I expect this kind of inferiority complex from Sarkozy, but threatening the people of the United States with a fractured skull just seems below the belt.

As it happens, the central plot of Sherlock's premiere (it's the show's fourth overall episode — a teleplay takes at least four times as long to write when the government is involved) concerns a grotesque caricature of 9/11. For shame. I had to watch this youtube over 40 times to get the bad taste out of my mouth and quietly sing "Neeeeen elevvvvvvven" to myself until I nodded off from patriotism overload.

Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill the original Sherlock Holmes, but he was unsuccessful in this attempt. Such a move would be too original and creative for such a predictable character. Moffat's Sherlock is just as obvious — he is more focused on what would be the most suitable quip than ever engaging with the people around him. The most surprising move he ever makes is to not have sex, another affectation that seems decidedly anti-modern. "Are you really so obvious?" his brother Mycroft asks him, which I suppose is his attempt to explain the program's inadequacies as part of its charm.

Three things manage to save Sherlock from being an outright bomb. The first is that the show looks astonishing; the Fringe-esque twists, cuts, and special effects of the show manage to make it visually stimulating even when you can see the next plot "twist" a mile away. The show's sets are also magnificent and, from all evidence, insanely expensive.

The second saving grace of Sherlock is Moffat's talent for dialogue — it's what made his version of Doctor Who and his sex comedy Coupling more than a rehash of Quantum Leap and Friends. Bouncing back and forth, Freeman and Cumberbatch are both very entertaining in their roles, each containing more charisma in their fingertips than Jude Law has in his entire body. Essentially Sherlock is a delicious but not-so filling pastry. Perhaps the real problem is that Sherlock Holmes wasn't a very good character to begin with.

The idea of the know-it-all detective actually represented a regressive move in the mystery genre. Far more interesting than the detective who knows everything is the detective who drinks too much, or the detective who is employed in a more intriguing job like that of a businessman or priest. The ideal detective doesn't even know he is one, or better yet, isn't a he at all.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about a new novel from Vernor Vinge.

"Either Nelson" - Guided by Voices (mp3)

"The Things That Never Need" - Guided by Voices (mp3)

"Cyclone Utilities" - Guided by Voices (mp3)


In Which Anjelica Huston Falls Off The Horse Again

Angel of Import


That's the great self-indulgence, isn't it? To do what interests you?

- Katharine Hepburn on the director John Huston

Anjelica Huston was born in the absence of her father. Weeks earlier, shortly after John Huston began shooting The African Queen in the Congo, he killed his first elephant. A week previous to that, the married director (not to Anjelica's mother, naturally) had made a pass at the film's 22-year old script coordinator. She cried. Lauren Bacall noted, "He was a little frightening to watch."

Anjelica's mother Ricki Soma eventually became John's fourth wife. As an eighteen year old ballerina she had been on the cover of Life magazine:

Until he divorced his third wife, Evelyn Keyes, Ricki officially occupied the position of John Huston's mistress. Still, they lived together in Malibu. Ricki's first pregnancy was something of a surprise, but by the seventh month, John was divorced and they were married. The boy was named Walter Anthony after John's father, and they called him Tony, after Ricki's.

John was soon cheating again, this time with a woman who was essentially Ricki Huston's double, Suzanne Flon. To his surprise, he fell in love with her. (One of John's exes once called him "an angel with a gun in his pocket.") Proceeds from his next picture, the popular 1953 jaunt Moulin Rouge, allowed Huston to resume a more lavish lifestyle. He rented a house in Ireland and moved Ricki there. John drove very fast everywhere he went.

St. Clerans

In Ireland Huston's son Tony almost died in a horse accident, and Anjelica lost part of her finger in a lawn mower. She also fell over their dog Rosie and badly bruised her hip. Another time, she put her arm in a clothes wringer and could barely extract herself from the device. In time, Ricki would move with the kids to Italy. But instead of then divorcing her philandering husband, she found a house in Galway, Ireland, and the family stayed together.

John's next project was a collaboration about the life of Freud with Jean-Paul Sartre. The two giants hated each other immediately. John said of Sartre, "One eye going in one direction, and the eye itself wasn't very beautiful, like an omelet. And he had a pitted face." Sartre was constantly writing down things he himself said in conversation, and he never stopped talking. The lack of respect was mutual. Sartre wrote to Simone de Beauvoir, "Through this immensity of identical rooms, a great Romantic, melancholic and lonely, aimlessly roams. Our friend Huston is absent, aged, and literally unable to speak to his guests... his emptiness is purer than death."

Anjelica lived in her own little world, only associating with the children of the household's groom. Little of their parents' angst reached the kids. Anjelica would later tell biographer Lawrence Grobel, "They were sort of two stars in the heavens when I was growing up." Anjelica wanted to become a nun, because they were the only other women she associated with on a regular basis. When she told her father of her intentions, he said, "That's great, when are you going to start?"

Her parents kept their secrets close to the vest. For a long time she did not know her father had impregnated another woman, a young Indian actress named Zoe Sallis. When John finally decided to rid himself of Ricki, they barely informed the kids. Anjelica later said, "We were just told, 'You have to go to school in London now. And your mother will live in London with you, and you'll come back to Ireland for holidays.'" She was put into the Lycée Français, where she was expected to learn in French. For tax reasons, Ricki would not grant him a divorce. John kept Ricki in London and Zoe in Rome.

John, Danny and Zoe Sallis

Once, at a family meal, the discussion revolved around Van Gogh. "I said somewhat flippantly that I didn't like Van Gogh," Anjelica recalled in Lawrence Grobel's 1989 portrait of the family, The Hustons. He said, 'You don't like Van Gogh? Then name six of his paintings and tell me why you don't like Van Gogh.' I couldn't, of course. And he said, 'Leave the room, and until you know what you're talking about, don't come back with your opinions to the dinner table.'"

They still visited Ireland in the summer. The girls would sit in the barn's hay loft, watching the horses have sex. A stallion would take on mare after mare. Anjelica's friend Joan Buck noted, "Anjelica and I thought this was the way it went."

Anjelica with Joan Buck, Christmas 1959

Anjelica hated taking the London underground to school. She wished her mother had more money so she could come to school in a limo like the other girls. Her father was increasingly absent, and her mother became pregnant by an English writer/aristocrat with a family of his own. She did not tell Anjelica she was with child until the baby's birth was three months away. (Anjelica recalled, "I thought she was putting on weight.") A week later, John Huston told her for the first time about her half-brother Danny, now two years old.

Anjelica's emotions were sky high one minute, pathetically low the next. While she was away in Ireland, her poodle Mindy died. John Huston goaded a visiting John Steinbeck into playing Santa Claus for the kids. Steinbeck's wife almost stroked out.

By the age of fifteen, Anjelica was the second-tallest girl in her class. Suddenly, John's little girl had become a woman, and in makeup and adult clothing, she was more than a simple beauty. Her mother encouraged adoption of the latest fashions, wanting to relive her own youth in her children. Ricki's friend Dirk Bogarde would remark, "There seemed to be no age difference at all."

They parted ways on the issue of drugs. Ricki desperately wanted to keep Anjelica away from London's scene. When a producer on John's new project wanted Anjelica for a role (it would have kept costs down), her mother strenously objected to that as well. Anjelica wanted to play Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's version of Shakespeare's play, and had been encouraged by several callbacks. Her father made the decision for her.

"A Walk with Love and Death"

When she showed up on set of A Walk with Love and Death, John was incensed to see she had cut her hair. (Extensions were required and took hours to insert properly.) Father and daughter did not get along on set. She later told Grobel, "The fact that I was ungrateful and petulant about it was hardly something he could have expected. Katharine Hepburn didn't criticize his direction? Why should I?"

Her next gig was as understudy to Marianne Faithful in Tony Richard's stage version of Hamlet. It helped shape her into a somewhat decent performer. Although news that a topless photograph might appear in an Italian magazine horrified Ricki, she went to great lengths to get her daughter her first spread in Vogue. The following January, Ricki's car hit an Italian pothole and her boyfriend swerved into the path of an incoming van. Anjelica's only mother was instantly killed.

Bogarde said, "Ricki was dead. I'd never see those humorous eyes, the sadness beneath them almost concealed; I'd never see the idiotic daisy-chains, hear the laughter, discuss the latest book, play, ballet or opera; never see her come in from a walk, muddy, wet, with the dogs. Life would go on, but never quite in the same way ever again." John Huston was not in great shape either. Even though he had difficulty breathing, he still smoked four cigars a day. (He tried pot once years before and had to be hospitalized.)

Her mother's death pushed Anjelica deeper into modeling. A relationship with photographer Bob Richardson was a tonic of sorts; he kept her extremely thin and yelled at her constantly.

Richard Avedon had told Ricki he thought Anjelica's shoulders were too big. Despite that, her unique look found work. "I had a big nose," she later said. "I was still growing into my body. The idea of beauty for me was Jean Shrimpton — big blue eyes and little noses, wide bee-stung mouths. It was an odd dichotomy — and this happens to many girls who find themselves in front of the camera a lot, who truly don't like their looks. It's almost as thought they can forget their looks in front of the camera. And I used to love working for the camera. But when faced with the reality of my pictures, I was generally deeply depressed." New York became her adopted home.

When her father remarried again, Anjelica was not even invited. When her relationship with Richardson flamed out, she began staying in the Palisades with John and his new wife, Cici. In time she moved into a house on Beachwood Drive. It was Cici Huston who would introduce her to Jack Nicholson. She was just 22, he was 36. They began dating straight away, in an on-and-off relationship that would consume sixteen years of her life.

It was March of 1977 when Anjelica headed to Jack's house to pick up some clothes. She intended to take them back to the apartment of her new boyfriend, Ryan O'Neal. Instead of Jack or an empty house, she found Roman Polanski and a thirteen year old girl named Sandra. When the police came back to the house with Polanski to search, they found both Anjelica and the cocaine in her purse. In order to protect herself from prosecution, she agreed to testify against Polanski. Without her testimony, it was doubtful there would ever be a conviction. She agreed, and the director fled.

Things with O'Neal were no better than they had been with Jack. He frequently exploded at Anjelica's half-sister Allegra, who John cared for as his own. Allegra still did not know who her real father was, and it was John's new wife Cici who finally forced the issue, informing the girl herself. In time, Anjelica returned to Nicholson. She came along when he travelled to England to shoot The Shining with Stanley Kubrick. They broke up for good in 1989.

In 1980 she was involved in a car accident which would alter the rest of her life. She was hit by a drunk 16 year old driving a BMW. She was not wearing a seatbelt and her face was decimated. She immediately directed the attending ambulance to Cedars-Sinai, sensing she would need extensive plastic surgery. When she left the hospital, her nose was actually looking somewhat better. She changed her life, moving out of Jack's house and living alone for the first time.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the childhood of Simone de Beauvoir. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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