Martha Bayles: February 2008 Archives
My sense of duty is as well developed as that of the next critic (let's not go there), but I couldn't bring myself to watch the whole Academy Awards last evening. I enjoy watching film clips and preening stars as much as anyone, but I couldn't abide the ads.
I don't mean the commercials, which would have served as a great plague on Pharoah, if only the Lord had thought of it. No, I mean the ads congratulating the Academy for being so wonderful and putting on all those wonderful awards shows of the past. I know there's been a writers' strike, but did they have to show all those replays of funny, touching, uplifting bits, when everyone knows that this year's nominees are sorely lacking in all three qualities?
The coverage focused on the "dark" mood of Hollywood, which according to some reporters is out of date now that a Democrat might get elected. But the darkness in American films has been building up for a long time now, especially in those precincts of the movie colony where people are just as cynical about politics as they are about everything else. To my knowledge, the only candidate who has said anything about the sick violence now pervading mainstream films is Barack Obama. So go figure.
This stylish, apolitical darkness dominates all the nominated films, with the exception of Juno - as host Jon Stewart put it, "Thank God for teenage pregnancy." Even the kerzillion-dollar blockbusters that keep Hollywood going feel obliged to get progressively "darker" with each sequel or lose their franchise.
So get ready for the sequel, Ratatouille Twouille , which will feature a demon rat voiced by Johnny Depp, who tears American tourists apart with his long yellow fangs, then drops the pieces into a savory boeuf bourguignon, which his pal Rémy will then feed to other American tourists. Maybe then the Academy will take notice ...
A reader writes to correct my statement that The House of Eliott was never aired in the States. It most certainly has -- on A&E, PBS, and BBC America. It also won top US awards for costume design, including an Emmy and a BAFTA.
Never again will I trust the Internet Movie Data Base, at least when it comes to television distribution.
Apologies for back-sliding into sin of blog neglect. I'm up to my eyebrows in work on my book, and when I am done for the day, the last thing I want to do is spend more time in front of the computer.
But I do have a tip for voracious fans of British TV who have already gone through the better known classics. The House of Eliott, a series about two sisters who start a fashion business in the years after World War One, was never shown in the US. It was also knocked for being the last production shot on videotape in the BBC Television Centre, and (more serious) for concentrating on two touchy British themes: social class, and the relation between art and commerce.
There are some awkward moments in the series, on both fronts. The ancient tradition of treating the working class in a comic-ignoble way and the upper class in a tragic-noble way, persists to a degree. But this is not a series about the working class and the upper class, it's pre-eminently and definitively a series about the middle class. What's more, it's about three flawed but admirably brave and resourceful entrepreneurs: the Elliot sisters Beatrice (Stella Gonet) and Evangeline (Louise Lombard), and their good friend (and eventually husband to Bea) Jack Maddox (Aden Gillett).
Fashion, even the haute couture undertaken by the House of Eliott, is not considered serious art. On the contrary, it is regarded as a parasitical growth, feeding off genuine creativity not contributing to it. Its elitist clientele only add to the problem. It is extremely hard to deal with these topics in a TV series, not least because TV itself suffers from some of the same disdain. But we are in a golden age of longform TV these days, and programs like The House of Elliot made that possible by exploring their characters and themes at novelistic length. It helps that this show was "devised" (as the Brits put it) by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who also created (the hell with "devised") the unforgettable 1970s series, Upstairs, Downstairs.
Unfortunately, the Beeb canceled The House of Elliot after the final episode of the third season was completed, so many loose ends were never tied up. But if you are willing to tolerate that (and some unattractive opening credits), you will be richly rewarded.