Research Round-up no. 2: the hodgepodge of American culture

I’m just getting going on writing this first chapter — I’m at that terrible beginning part where I can’t figure out what to say first — so I’m not researching as heavily right now.  Still, it’s nice to put some things together and remind myself why this project is fun.

One song

I chose this piece, a modern performance of an old-time banjo song, to correspond to the excerpt below about “negro melodists.”  Hugh Reginald Haweis names it as a song one might have heard by African-American performers abroad at the turn of the century.

Sometimes while reading Wharton, it’s easy to forget that these types of American culture were happening in concert with the more rarefied air of Renaissance art scholarship (like the Berensons did, below).

Two people

Bernard Berenson (1865 – 1959)

It’s kind of hard to imagine, but Renaissance art wasn’t always the hot tip when it came to collecting.  In fact, a market for Old Master paintings didn’t take off in the US until the early 1900s.  When it did, American art historian and attribution-poineer Bernard Berenson was perfectly poised to become the preeminent authority on the topic.  He helped Isabella Stewart Gardner grow her art collection; he was praised by William James for his manner of applying “elementary psychological categories to the interpretation of higher art”; and, importantly for my research, he served as friend, reader, and traveling companion to Edith Wharton.

Mary Berenson (1864 – 1945)

Born Mary Smith, Berenson’s wife was also an art historian.  According to Wikipedia, she is now thought to have helped Berenson write some of his influential books on Renaissance art.  Sadly, as happens all too often, she has been overshadowed by her husband and his memory.  Her writing appears to be entirely out of print, though Harvard has an extensive archival collection dedicated to her and her husband.

The daughter of Philadelphia Quakers, she had attended Smith College and then the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College) as one of its first eight students. She studied Berkeley, Hegel, and other philosophers, and recalled how once, after hearing the English art critic Edmund Gosse mention the “sacred word Botticelli” during a Harvard lecture, she looked at her brother, essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, “with eyes brimming with emotion and excitement,” and exclaimed: “Oh Logan! We are at the very centre of things!”

Diane E. Booton, in Harvard Magazine

Three lines

Madame de Trezac had lately discovered that the proper attitude for the American married abroad was that of a militant patriotism; and she flaunted Undine Marvell in the face of the Faubourg like a particularly showy specimen of her national banner. The success of the experiment emboldened her to throw off the most sacred observances of her past. She took up Madame Adelschein, she entertained the James J. Rollivers, she resuscitated Creole dishes, she patronized negro melodists, she abandoned her weekly teas for impromptu afternoon dances, and the prim drawing-room in which dowagers had droned echoed with a cosmopolitan hubbub.

— Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

Further adventures

For a random assortment of photos, quotes, video, and other items tangentially related to my thesis, check out nonmodernist on tumblr.

And as always, you can follow all my grad school adventures in real-time via the “grad school is forever” tag on tumblr.

Vintage Movie Monday: Intolerance (1916)

After working with D.W. Griffith on several smaller silent film projects, Anita Loos helped write some of the title cards for Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance.  She is often not credited for this work, which is a shame.

The film is considered one of the great classics of the silent era, due largely to its epic scope and unconventional plot structure:

The three-and-a-half hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines each separated by several centuries: (1) A contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption; (2) a Judean story: Christ’s mission and death; (3) a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572; and (4) a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. (from Wikipedia)

The various plots have their own detailed visual styles, not only matching sets and costumes to the time period, but also utilizing color coding and themed title cards to help audiences tell them apart at a glance.  The Babylonian story, for example, has a yellowish cast and detailed title cards with historical footnotes.  The French story’s blueish title cards feature a fleur de lis motif.  The contemporary melodrama, on the other hand, has a more standard black and white look and simple title cards like the one below.

Loos worked on the titles for Intolerance, but it is impossible to know which ones she wrote.  Laura Frost hazards some educated guesses about which titles might have been Loos’s:

In most cases, we can only speculate which writer was responsible for which title, but the stylistic differences are suggestive. Loos was clear about her role. In her memoir, she recalls, “D. W. bade me put in titles even when unnecessary and add laughs wherever I found an opening. I found several” (GI, 103). Interspersed among the instructive and weighty inscriptions are lighter and more ironic captions that seem more reflective of the “Loos-style.” For example, in the scene in which The Dear One, who has jealously watched a woman’s undulating walk draw men’s attention on the street and decides to imitate her by tying her skirt into a hobble, a title dryly comments that “The new walk seems to bring results” as men flock to her ridiculous gait.

Intolerance is popping up a lot recently; the still above has appeared in both the video game L.A. Noire and this year’s big Oscar nominee, Hugo.  

It is by all counts a marvel of silent cinema, one that demands a huge attention investment from its viewers and rewards them in turn with a complicated intercut narrative structure and many gorgeous visual moments.

Loos worked Intolerance into her own later work by giving Lorelei, the protagonist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a story about her cameo in the film.  Fittingly, Lorelei is supposed to have played one of the vampish Babylonian maidens — frankly a perfect role for her buxom chorus girl character.  And given Lorelei’s later screen life as the perfectly-cast Marilyn Monroe, it is hard not to search those maidens’ faces for her half-lidded eyes and trademark pout.

Intolerance is now in the public domain; you can watch it for free or download it from the Internet Archive.  However, that version doesn’t include the color-coding of storylines, which I found really fascinating and helpful.  Netflix’s streaming version does, if you’d like to watch it like that.

Research round-up no. 1: Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country

The semester has really only begun, but I’m off to the races on my masters thesis.  I have a reading calendar that is rapidly filling up, a personal goal to write 2 pages every day, a thesis group that has already proven invaluable, and initial deadlines for each of my three chapters.

The first, which I’ve just started drafting, focuses on Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country.  I took a class on Wharton during my first grad semester, but it only scratched the surface of her extensive bibliography.  Now I’m getting a chance to dig a little deeper (though not much, seriously, she wrote so. many. things).  While it’s tangential to my argument about Wharton’s work, I’m really struck by her engagement with modernist culture, something that isn’t always clear in her novels.

One song

The 1913 Paris première of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps has been well-documented; the crowd, offended by the modern music and strange dance style, rioted in the theatre.  The moment is now considered one of those turning points of the modern era.  (For an excellent discussion of the ballet and its relationship to modernism and the Great War, I highly recommend Modris Eksteins’s Rites of Spring.)   A long list of modernist culture-makers were associated with the production, either through Ballet Russes or by being in attendance.

But it wasn’t just the darlings of the avant-garde in the theatre that night; Wharton witnessed the ballet and the riots as well.  She noted in her journal that she found the performance “extraordinary.”

Two people

Henry James (1843 – 1916)

Wharton was close friends with James up until his death in 1916.  He famously encouraged her to “do New York,” but the shadow of his influence also hung over her writing for her entire career.  He visited her in Paris in 1908, while she was just beginning to work on Custom; while there, she convinced him to sit for this portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche.

Edmund Wilson (1895 – 1972)

Wilson was an accomplished literary critic and famously kind of a dick.  In an essay seeking to do “Justice to Edith Wharton,” he described the main character of Custom as “the prototype in fiction of the ‘gold-digger,’ the international cocktail bitch.”  This phrase, and its attendent weird literary misogyny, inspired my thesis project.

Three lines

She wanted to be noticed but she dreaded to be patronized, and here again her hostess’s gradations of tone were confusing. Mrs. Fairford made no tactless allusions to her being a newcomer in New York—there was nothing as bitter to the girl as that—but her questions as to what pictures had interested Undine at the various exhibitions of the moment, and which of the new books she had read, were almost as open to suspicion, since they had to be answered in the negative. Undine did not even know that there were any pictures to be seen, much less that “people” went to see them; and she had read no new book but “When The Kissing Had to Stop,” of which Mrs. Fairford seemed not to have heard.

— Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

Further adventures

For a random assortment of photos, quotes, video, and other items tangentially related to my thesis, check out nonmodernist on tumblr.

And as always, you can follow all my grad school adventures in real-time via the “grad school is forever” tag on tumblr.

Vintage Movie Monday: The Silent Films of Anita Loos (1912 – 1916)

The silent film has gotten a bit of a boost recently: The Artist, a modern silent “classic,” scooped up many BAFTA nominations, won big at the Golden Globes, and will probably fare pretty well at the Oscars too.  I haven’t seen it yet, but my thesis research into the career of Anita Loos has meant that I’ve recently spent time immersing myself in the art of silent cinema.

Loos wrote an incredible number of screenplays, treatments, and scenarios during the silent era, and continued working in the talkies both pre- and post-Hayes Code.  Many of these films are now lost, but several of them have luckily been preserved.  Even better, a handful are available to watch for free through the Internet Archive.

While these early silents aren’t the best demonstration of Loos’s vivid wit and style, they are a fascinating glimpse into the work of a young (very young) artist who is just getting started.

For a more scholarly take on Loos’s silent film writing work, I highly recommend Laura Frost’s article, “Blondes Have More Fun: Anita Loos and the Language of Silent Cinema.”

 

The New York Hat | 1912

The New York Hat was directed by D W Griffith for the Biograph Studio in 1912. It has many of Griffith’s stock players in it. You may spot Mae Marsh as a gossip or Lillian Gish as a customer in the store but the main roles are played by Lionel Barrymore as the pastor and Mary Pickford as he girl. The script was written by Anita Loos.

This 16-minute short film was Loos’s third screenplay and the very first to be produced.  She earned $25 for it.  It was filmed at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many silent films were produced in the early days of cinema.

Loos would go on to write title cards for Griffith’s Intolerance, a huge boost for her burgeoning career.

His Picture in the Papers | 1916

A young man can only get the woman he loves if he becomes famous, and manages to get his picture in the newspapers. He determines to let nothing stand in the way of his doing exactly that, and in the process winds up getting involved with a gang of criminals and a locomotive chase.

This hour-long silent film was written by Anita Loos (still quite early in her career) and directed by her future husband, John Emerson.  It starred Douglas Fairbanks.  Loos write five films for Fairbanks and made him quite a star.

Her witty writing style is on display here in the title cards, which play with ideas of language, reading, and thinking.  For example, a title card introduces Count Xxerkzsxxv, with a note reading, “To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.” Continue reading

A detective on Christmas: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison

I blogged about a Christmas film noir, but I didn’t actually mean to read a Christmas detective story as well.  But Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison was calling out to me from the shelf where I’d stuck it, just above a collection of Poe’s mystery stories.  I actually bought the book several years ago in Atlanta, and I’d packed it up and moved it across the country with me, but I’d still never read it.

Well, I had tried once, when I originally purchased it.  But the first chapters are a bit slow, and my attention span was not great, so it returned to the shelf.  This time around, however, I pushed through the clunky opening and found myself totally taken with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

The book begins at the end of a murder trial: a neat device for catching the reader up on the details quickly, but the voice of the stodgy judge is a bit much to wade through.  Luckily, he disappears as soon as the hung jury refuses to deliver a verdict as to whether detective novelist Harriet Vane poisoned her one-time lover with arsenic.  Wimsey has been present at the trial and really taken to Vane, who he knows didn’t commit the murder.  He vows to clear her name, find the real killer if he can, and then marry Vane.  She’s grateful for the first two but has some other ideas about the last one.

The Christmas aspect is actually minimal; with the retrial set after the winter holiday, Wimsey spends the Christmas season making his investigation (and trying to convince the Chief Detective Inspector to marry his sister already).  But Sayers uses the holiday setting to get in a few witty jabs:

“Great bore, Christmas, isn’t it? All the people one hates most gathered together in the name of goodwill and all that.”

Sayers creates Wimsey as a sarcastic but lovable aristocrat who has friends in all sorts of unexpected places, always ready to help him out when needed.  I particularly love his “Cattery,” the temp typist pool he maintains and sends off to work typing jobs/do recon on suspects.  In fact, all the secondary characters, who adore Wimsey and help him in his sleuthing, are wonderfully drawn and a joy to follow.

It’s worth noting that Sayers herself was a pretty badass lady, not unlike Vane.  She was one of the first women to take a degree from Oxford and was made a Baker Street Irregular.

Sadly, it looks like the next two Peter and Harriet books, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night, are currently out of print.  I’ll be tracking down used copies as soon as I can, because I can’t wait to read more featuring the two of them.

Vintage Movie Monday: Lady in the Lake (1947)

I had this whole plan for a month of Christmas-themed Vintage Movie Monday posts.  And then finals happened.  But!  That doesn’t mean I can’t still tell you about the weirdest Christmas movie I’ve watched this year, Lady in the Lake.

It’s based on a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, so you know what that means: Christmas noir!  A terrific subsubgenre with, as far as I can tell, only one other entry, the superb Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

The film has a very strange experimental visual style, which is kind of off-putting at first.  It is told mostly in the filmic first person, as though the camera were Phillip Marlowe’s point of view.  The other actors address the camera directly, and at times, the actor playing Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) addresses the camera (himself) in the mirror.  It’s actually excellently done, but I wouldn’t want to watch a whole slew of films like this.  The studio really played up this aspect in the marketing, though, probably because it was so novel.

As these posters show, the marketing materials promised that “You” would solve a murder mystery with Robert Montgomery in the film!

I’m certain there’s plenty written (if not, there needs to be) about the viewer’s response to the direct gaze of the actors.  It might, interestingly, bring male and female viewers to the same level in some way, though of course women might also feel cognitive dissonance when Marlowe is finally shown in the mirror.

The story is a standard noir yarn: boy meets girl, boy gets mixed up in murder investigation, boy gets crap kicked out of him, boy outsmarts everyone in the end.  But in a neat reversal, the supposed femme fatale is actually the good girl who gets the boy in the end while the innocent lamb is the cold-blooded murderess.  It all takes place over Christmas, and fittingly for a holiday movie if oddly for a noir, there’s a happy ending.

All the actors are excellent, but Audrey Totter (above) is really something out of this world.  Her faces alone are worth watching for.

For some darker, more cynical but not totally depressing holiday film fare, I’d definitely suggest pairing this with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for a really fun double feature.

Vintage Movie Monday: Shall We Dance (1937)

I had a really hard time coming up with another movie to cover for the November making party.  Not a lot of films feature crafting that I could think of, especially not vintage ones.  But then I took a break from schoolwork to watch Fred and Ginger in Shall We Dance and was thrilled to notice that a very important plot point revolves around Ginger Rogers knitting.

Ginger Rogers knitting — that’s almost a great band name, definitely a great album name.

This film is not unique or special, really, in the realm of Fred and Ginger’s shared film output, but it is still just as much fun as you could hope.

See what I mean?

Orlando & the frivolous necessity of making the home

I’m not actually writing about Orlando for my Woolf paper on the plastic arts and narratology, but I do keep coming back to this moment in the novel:

Never had the house looked more noble and humane.

Why, then, had he wished to raise himself above them? For it seemed vain and arrogant in the extreme to try to better that anonymous work of creation; the labours of those vanished hands. Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust. For after all, he said, kindling as he looked at the great house on the greensward below, the unknown lords and ladies who lived there never forgot to set aside something for those who come after; for the roof that will leak; for the tree that will fall. There was always a warm corner for the old shepherd in the kitchen; always food for the hungry; always their goblets were polished, though they lay sick, and their windows were lit though they lay dying. Lords though they were, they were content to go down into obscurity with the molecatcher and the stone-mason. Obscure noblemen, forgotten builders–thus he apostrophized them with a warmth that entirely gainsaid such critics as called him cold, indifferent, slothful (the truth being that a quality often lies just on the other side of the wall from where we seek it)–thus he apostrophized his house and race in terms of the most moving eloquence; but when it came to the peroration–and what is eloquence that lacks a peroration?–he fumbled. He would have liked to have ended with a flourish to the effect that he would follow in their footsteps and add another stone to their building. Since, however, the building already covered nine acres, to add even a single stone seemed superfluous. Could one mention furniture in a peroration? Could one speak of chairs and tables and mats to lie beside people’s beds? For whatever the peroration wanted, that was what the house stood in need of.

— Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Can one mention furniture indeed.

This is also not at all what I discussed with my undergrads this week when I taught a session on the novel; we spent the majority of the time instead on tone in the opening of the novel, close reading images and trying to draw links between it and Woolf’s other works.  But furniture, furnishing, the making of a home, is on my mind quite a bit lately, just as it was on Orlando’s at a certain point in the early days of his adult life.

Virginia Woolf’s brown stocking

I’m currently in the research stages of a paper on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and the narratological metaphors of painting and knitting.  I have a long way to go before arriving at a solid argument, but the idea was inspired by a conviction that Mrs. Ramsey’s knitting is more important than previous critics have believed.

Sometimes, a stocking is not just a stocking.

Woolf herself was surrounded by both painters and textile designers: under Roger Fry, several members of the Bloomsbury group created housewares for the Omega Workshops, including Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell.

Part of my developing argument deals with the material process of creating applied arts objects, like a piece of knitting (which means the endless hours I’ve spend working on my knitted legwarmers are actually research!).

Like Mrs. Ramsey I’m susceptible to the crushing sadness of knowing there’s not enough time to finish a project:

“You won’t finish that stocking tonight,” he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted — the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.

“No,” she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee, “I shan’t finish it.”

And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something — wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things — she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so — it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? Getting up, she stood at the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is — the sea at night. But she knew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—

Woolf’s writing characteristically involves the celebration of the everyday, the small domestic details of a woman’s life, and the importance of women’s acts of creation.  But I didn’t realize, until I searched for images for this article, that Woolf was herself a knitter.  According to this short article, Woolf crediting knitting with an immense therapeutic effect after a breakdown.  “Knitting is the saving of life,” she wrote to Leonard.

Vanessa Bell painted Woolf knitting in about 1911, at the same time she was preparing the draft of her first novel, The Voyage Out.  The painting is quintessential Vanessa, who, following Roger Fry, prized form over content.  She thought a painter could leave the faces blank with no detriment to the subject.

I’m fascinated by Woolf’s left hand (the lower one), how it blurs slightly.  I wish I had been able to see this painting in person when I visited London, as that hand just begs to be analyzed in closer detail.  Are the smudges purposeful?  Could they represent some small bit of movement in an otherwise still and static image?

I also have to wonder if any of Woolf’s knitting survives in an archive somewhere.  What kinds of things did she make?  Did she herself practice the process of making Mrs. Ramsey’s reddish-brown stocking?

To the Lighthouse is available as a free ebook from the University of Adelaide Library.  It’s worth reading for a lot more than just the knitting scenes, too.