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.

Depravity in the Quaker City: George Lippard’s Monks of Monk Hall

George Lippard’s The Quaker City; Of The Monks of Monk-Hall is a strange and lurid entry into the subgenre of Philadelphia Gothic.  It is, in part, an homage to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 Gothic novel The Monk: A Romance.  Lippard does his damnedest to out-shock readers of it and other controversial, graphic, and even offensive novels of the time.

Its sprawling, sensationalistic plot hinges on the evil denizens of a secret club, The Monks of Monk Hall, who gather every night in a decrepit-looking mansion in Southwark. But inside the walls of this house lurk all the horrors of the modern age: vice and crime, rape and murder, perpetrated on a nightly basis. Within Monk Hall is a tower with three levels below its ground floor, including a crypt formerly used by a real monastic community that occupied the house in the 18th century, and, deepest of all, a dark pit, into which bodies fall through trap doors, never to be seen again. Lippard takes all of the conventions of the gothic novel — a decaying castle/mansion chock full of secret, labyrinthine passages, trap doors and underground pits for prisoners, cackling torturers, sorcerers, innocent damsels about to be ravished, evil “monks”— but doesn’t give them the usual medieval setting of a gothic novel. Instead, he drops them right down in the midst of an urban Philadelphia in 1842. — Edward Pettit for Citypaper

The novel, published in 1845, is based a murder trial and considered the first muckraking novel:

The Quaker City is partly based on the March 1843 New Jersey trial of Singleton Mercer. Mercer was accused of the murder of Mahlon Hutchinson Heberton aboard the Philadelphia-Camden ferry vessel Dido on February 10, 1843. Heberton had seduced (or raped – sources differ upon this point), Mercer’s sixteen-year old sister. Mercer entered a plea of insanity and was found not guilty. The trial took place only two months after Edgar Allan Poe‘s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story based on other murder trials employing the insanity defense; Mercer’s defense attorney openly acknowledged the “object of ridicule” which an insanity defense had become. Nonetheless, a verdict of not-guilty was rendered after less than an hour of jury deliberation, and the family and the lawyer of young Mercer were greeted by a cheering crowd while disembarking from the same Philadelphia-Camden ferry line on which the killing took place. — Wikipedia

Lippard knew his lineage well; he dedicated the novel to the memory of Charles Brockden Brown, the author who arguably originated Philadelphia Gothic.  But Lippard’s depraved monks outpace anything Brown’s wandering young protagonists ever dreamed of.

Archive.org has a fascinating version of The Quaker City, with illustrations and extensive marginalia, available to read for free online.  There are also partial annotations available, with lots of interesting Philly details.

Lippard also wrote Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of Wissahickon, which injects his luridly Gothic style into a local legend about a brotherhood of cave-dwelling monks in the woods outside Philly.

The City as Labyrinth: Brown’s Arthur Mervyn

If we’re talking Philadelphia Gothic, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Charles Brockden Brown’s other 1799 novel, Arthur Mervyn.  While Edgar Huntly skirts the city boundaries, this one plunges you right into the nightmare of its urban setting.  Philadelphia becomes a labyrinth of terror as an outbreak of yellow fever spreads among the inhabitants.

Brown knows the city well, as he lived on Second Street, about a mile from Broad Street and what was then the edge of the city.  The yellow fever plague is itself based on fact; an outbreak swept the city in 1793.

Using the PhilaGeoHistory map overlay, it’s possible to get an idea of the city’s layout, and actually trace Arthur’s walk from the bridge over the Schuylkill to Front Street.  It’s actually quite a hike.

I was almost unmindful of my way, when I found I had passed Schuylkill at the upper bridge. I was now within the precincts of the city, and night was hastening. It behooved me to come to a speedy decision.

Suddenly I recollected that I had not paid the customary toll at the bridge; neither had I money wherewith to pay it. A demand of payment would have suddenly arrested my progress; and so slight an incident would have precluded that wonderful destiny to which I was reserved. The obstacle that would have hindered my advance now prevented my return. Scrupulous honesty did not require me to turn back and awaken the vigilance of the toll-gatherer. I had nothing to pay, and by returning I should only double my debt. “Let it stand,” said I, “where it does. All that honour enjoins is to pay when I am able.”

I adhered to the crossways, till I reached Market Street. Night had fallen, and a triple row of lamps presented a spectacle enchanting and new. My personal cares were, for a time, lost in the tumultuous sensations with which I was now engrossed. I had never visited the city at this hour. When my last visit was paid, I was a mere child. The novelty which environed every object was, therefore, nearly absolute. I proceeded with more cautious steps, but was still absorbed in attention to passing objects. I reached the market-house, and, entering it, indulged myself in new delight and new wonder.

I need not remark that our ideas of magnificence and splendour are merely comparative; yet you may be prompted to smile when I tell you that, in walking through this avenue, I, for a moment, conceived myself transported to the hall “pendent with many a row of starry lamps and blazing crescents fed by naphtha and asphaltos.” That this transition from my homely and quiet retreat had been effected in so few hours wore the aspect of miracle or magic.

I proceeded from one of these buildings to another, till I reached their termination in Front Street. Here my progress was checked, and I sought repose to my weary limbs by seating myself on a stall.

— Charles Brockden Brown, Arthur Mervyn

If you just can’t get enough of this particular brand of Philly Gothic, Brown’s other works are worth reading as well.  Ormond uses the same 1793 yellow fever plague as a starting point, while Wieland is set on a farm on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Vintage Movie Monday: The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited is a solid entry into the haunted house film subgenre.  It’s less scary than spooky, but the moody atmosphere and psychological mystery at its center make it a great Halloween watch.  I caught it on TCM this weekend, and I’m glad I did.  It reminded me of Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca, for several reasons, but I would actually say that this film is more gorgeously shot.

Though it’s an American film, the plot revolves around a brother and sister who move from London to the English seaside when they fall in love with a big old house.  Stella, the granddaughter of the house’s owner, initially tries to keep them from buying it, but they move in and befriend her.  Strange things start happening at the house, and Stella gets caught in the center of a battle between supernatural forces and her family and new friends.

According to Wikipedia,

The Uninvited was among the very first Hollywood feature films to portray a haunting as an authentic supernatural event. Previously, ghosts were often played for comedy (The Ghost Goes West, 1936; Topper, 1937) or revealed to be practical jokes (Blondie Has Servant Trouble, 1940) or subterfuge to obscure an illegal activity (The Cat and the Canary, 1939; Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost, 1941).

The old house, filled with disembodied crying sounds, phantom perfume, and a wealth of untold family secrets, makes this one of the more truly Gothic films to come out of Hollywood.  It has a great deal in common with British Gothic novels like Wuthering Heights, perhaps because the film is based on Dorothy Macardle’s 1942 book, Uneasy Freehold.

The film was quite popular, and was nominated for ab Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography.  Its score also spawned a hit jazz song, “Stella by Starlight.”

Spidermamas: Judy Budnitz, Louise Bourgeois, and Kristeva’s abject

One of the perks of grad school is getting to put together class presentations on a range of crazy fun topics.  This week, I’m presenting in my American Gothic class on the stories of Judy Budnitz and their relation to Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection.

I structure my presentations a lot like I structure my blog posts: I pull together quotes and images, offer analysis, and try to expose my audience to related materials they may not have seen before.

So what is abjection and what does it have to do with spiders and mothers?

The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. — Dino Felluga, Purdue U

Much of what we understand about the abject and abjection comes from the French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva.  Her essay “Powers of Horror” details the effects of the abject, especially as it relates to Lacanian psychoanalytic thought.  She writes, “The abject confronts us… with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language” (“Powers of Horror” 13).

Judy Budnitz’s short story “Where We Come From” is a perfect example of abjection at work in literature.  The story tells of three mothers in succession: the first a mother in a foreign country, the second a would-be immigrant mother, and the third an American mother who adopts the second’s baby.

Much of what is abject in the story revolves around the second mother, who tries time and again to cross the border and have her baby on American soil.  Where she comes from is unimportant — there is a placelessness to the third world country of her origin that stands in for all third world countries.  Repeatedly rebuffed at the (rather mythical) border, she carries her baby for four years, until she is finally able to give birth in an American hospital.

Budnitz’s evocative fabulism makes this take of twisted motherhood work:

“She carries him for two years.  She constructs a sort of sling for herself, with shoulder straps and a strip of webbing, to balance the weight.  She uses a cane.  She looks like a spider, round fat body, limbs like sticks.”

This spider imagery immediately reminded me of the sculpture work of Louise Bourgeois.  She crafted a giant spider sculpture, called Maman (French for mother), for the Tate Modern in 1999.  Bronze replicas of Maman have been exhibited all over the world.

Bourgeois meant her work as a tribute to her own mother, but its grotesqueness does, in a way, comment on how we view motherhood.  (Another version of this can be found in the film Alien, in which a terrifying, acid dripping alien-mother impregnates male bodies, dooming them to be ripped apart by her parasitic offspring.)

Abjection can also be understood as the state of being experienced by women, people of color, unwed mothers, and other marginalized groups.  Budnitz’s story, I think, deftly weaves all these various strands together (spider pun intended!), while at the same time implicating America in the ongoing abjection of the mother.  What does it say about us, if this is indeed “Where We Come From”?

Vintage Movie Monday: Stage Door (1937)

On a recent late-night TCM binge, I came across this 1937 gem starring Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn.  These are two of my favorite actresses, and I’d had no idea they had done a picture together.  What’s more, the film featured a slew of other notable faces, including Lucille Ball and Ann Miller, both at a very young age.

The premise of Stage Door is sheer delight: a gaggle of girls trying to make it on Broadway board together at the Footlights Club, where they tease, cheer, and agitate each other regularly.  Rogers plays Jean, a dancer with a quick wit and an extremely sharp tongue.  Hepburn is Terry, a wealthy newcomer determined to try her hand at acting.  Her money and manners keep her aloof from the other girls, though she grows to care greatly about them.  Terry spends the film scheming and maneuvering to ensure the girls are protected in various ways, but never takes credit for herself.

The end features a surprise, melodramatic twist that I don’t want to spoil here.  Suffice to say, after an hour and a half of Rogers and Hepburn trading quips, I was really thrown off by the final, emotional moments of the film.  Still, the performances make this odd comedy/drama worth seeing.  Hepburn is good, but Rogers is stunning — possibly quicker than she’s ever been.

What’s more, the ensemble of female actors is largely freed from the banal weight of romances and male-dominated scenes.  While each girl has her own detailed backstory, many of which include suitors, they’re all given free reign to play and be merry in the boarding house.  It’s a genuine pleasure to see so many talented actresses goof off together as well as care for each other in the more serious moments.

Has Hollywood ever made a more dedicated paean to female friendship?  If so, I’ve not yet encountered it.

Unexpected reading binge: Eastern Europe

Have you ever had those days where one little link clicked in the morning leads you down a rabbit hole of reading for the rest of the day?

It happens to me a lot.

Today a few things conspired to lead me on a binge of reading about Poland and Eastern Europe in general.  Based on this review, On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk is going to be a great read, as soon as I can track down a copy.

From there I found reference to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  While my library has a copy, it’s in the section of the stacks that are currently moving and inaccessible.  Luckily, The Atlantic has the rather lengthy magazine version available online for free.  I’ve always meant to read some West, and never have until now, but she is truly wonderful and I can’t wait to finish the whole long piece.

It was in a London nursing home. I had had an operation, in the new miraculous way. One morning a nurse had come in and given me an injection, as gently as might be, and had made a little joke which was not very good but served its purpose of taking the chill off the difficult moment. Then I picked up my book and read that sonnet by Joachim du Bellay which begins: ‘Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage.’ I said to myself, ‘That is one of the most beautiful poems in the world,’ and I rolled over in my bed, still thinking that it was one of the most beautiful poems in the world, and found that the electric light was burning and there was a new nurse standing at the end of my bed. Twelve hours had passed in that moment. They had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about for three hours and a half, and had brought me down again, and now I was merely sleepy, and not at all sick, and still half-rooted in my pleasure in the poem, still listening to a voice speaking through the ages, with barest economy that somehow is the most lavish melody: ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’

— Rebecca West

Though wildly unversed in it, I have a fondness for Eastern European and Polish history and literature that stems in large part from my own Polish roots.  Stasiuk and West’s books will likely join Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus on my (short) list of excellent Eastern European travel books.  (This NYT piece points out some complications with Kapuscinski’s body of work, but I, like its writer, still admire the strengths of his work.)

Today is also the birthday of celebrated Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (who died in 2004 at the age of 93).  I love Milosz’s ABCs, a strange and irreverent little collection of prose reminiscences.

Admiration: I have admired many people.  I have always considered myself a crooked tree, so straight trees earned my respect.

I firmly believe that the best way to experience Milosz’s poetry is to hear him read it.  Poets.org has a few suond recordings available.  My favorite of the bunch is “And the City Stood in its Brightness.”