Thursday, April 19, 2012

Upstairs, Upstairs

Last month it was 30 years ago exactly that the finale of Brideshead Revisited aired in the United States.

I was 15, although in my memory I was older (you may hear that read in Jeremy Irons' languid voice if it helps get you in the mood). I was gripped by the series when it first aired, holding my breath from week to week. So were my friends. I think we loved: 1) the Stuff, big and small: Castle Howard, the period clothes, Oxford; 2) hot dudes--I was especially besotted with Anthony Andrews; 3) the doom and nostalgia and sacrifice and love; 4) the fantastic score; 5) the words. Words, words, words--drowning in them (stingless). Poured into our ears for eleven solid episodes, via Irons' voiceovers and a lot of other English actors with quite notable diction.

I watched it again recently for the first time since then, I think--the whole thing. It was the equally popular Downton Abbey that sent me back to it, for, truly--I say this with all the love in my Anglophilic, Maggie Smith-worshipping heart--Downton Abbey sucks now. The first couple episodes were great, but I have never seen a series pulled so thin, so far past its natural size; it's like a string of gooey mozz stretching halfway across the room.

Nothing really happens in Downton Abbey. Characters are collected in groups, over and over, as letters arrive and even the most dramatic events--like Bates' wife's murder--are patched together off-stage in lamp-smelling ways. It reminds me of Veterinarian's Hospital on The Muppet Show (the intertwined cheeseball plotlines in season two of the perishing Lavinia and the will-Matthew's-wiener-work? war injury pushed me over the edge). It's soap opera, but it's not good soap opera, which is a very good thing.

That's what made me curious to watch Brideshead again. Downton Abbey has devolved into such meager story-telling most of the time that I can only assume it's the art direction and location shooting at an English castle and costuming that makes people so melty about it. That stuff was a huge part of the popularity of Brideshead Revisited as well (influencing fashion and decor at the time), but I wondered if there was as much to it as I remembered, outside of the gorgeousness. There are superficial similarities between the two, too, that made me want to go back: Mary Crawley and her grasping ex-fiance Richard Carlisle are a bit like Julia Flyte and a more unidimensional Rex Mottram; youngest daughter Sybil Crawley's interest in good works is rather like youngest daughter's Cordelia Flyte's, for instance.

Brideshead Revisited has aged well, it turns out. The fact that it so closely follows the novel is in retrospect its greatest strength; because it is allied first to the book's language, plotting, and surfeits, this inhibits, paradoxically, the worst of cinematic excess. It's still about the agonies of beautiful English aristos, but there are so many words to get through in this TV serial--dialogue, voiceovers--that too much stretching isn't possible, despite lingering shots of Oxford walls and Venetian canals. They don't actually linger that long. There are missteps; scenes of a hunt in Episode 5, for instance, are filled with needless aerial shots and scoring that departs from the more understated music in the rest of the series (extremely well done by Geoffrey Burgon)--too smug and Ralph Lauren. Sebastian's decline into sothood certainly happens for a very long time in very gorgeous rooms. But most of the time there is a forward-moving quality to the lush world Brideshead inhabits. It has bones. People who hate the story won't think so (it isn't often funny), but I think it does. Even the way the editing at the end of each episode is designed--with a fast cut to the credits, accompanied by the start of the theme--feels refreshing and brisk and is still one of the oddly affecting things about this adaptation.

The book has been much criticized--by author Evelyn Waugh himself, even, not long after the book's publication--for its snotty and gluttonous mourning for an aristocratic world presumed dying when it was written (during World War II). There is something about our distance from the story now that neutralizes the self-pity of it all a bit. Time has dulled the nostalgia into something a little more straightforward; the framing device of Charles stationed at Brideshead later in the Army--his despair at the "age of Hooper"--is much less compelling than the main story, although it is not effaced. I wonder now at my 15-year-old love of the elegiac qualities of the piece--the way I remember it, my friends and I just gobbled that up, found it a completely natural way to involve ourselves in the story, as if we ourselves were mourning our lost Oxford youths in Ohio. Perhaps that is a testament to Brideshead's estimation (as Martin Amis called it) as a "good bad book."

Another thing that stands out watching it again is the way that Brideshead Revisited handles the relationship between Sebastian and Charles that drives the first half of the series. The book is not explicit about the nature of the relationship between the two men ("naughtiness high on the catalogue of grave sins"), and neither is the series. Despite showing the men together in all kinds of intimate situations, dressed and undressed, they never kiss or make love. The story is not silent on the topic of gay sexuality--there is casual reference to "sodomites"; Charles and Sebastian are called "fairies" by dance-hall girls; their "pansy" friend, the stuttering, debauched Anthony Blanche, points by his existence (with derision, sometimes) to the end of the spectrum on which we are to see their connection--but it is not overt. It is, however, extremely romantic, especially the first two/three episodes, which depict the connection between the two men, lost in each other at Oxford and their summer idyll at Brideshead. Charles' famous thoughts about going to lunch for the first time at Sebastian's, seeking love, hoping to find that "low door in the wall others, I knew, had found before me," seem so universally poignant and true. More so now.

Maybe it is a failing, to not flesh out the intimacy between the men more, despite the limitations in the book's text. Maybe that makes this series complacent in its desire to see their love (as Lord Marchmain's mistress says) as one of "these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans…very good if they don't go on too long." One thing that strikes me strongly watching it now, however, as it often does when comparing how we handle things Now to things Past, when there more restrictions about what could be said or shown, is (strangely) how much more disapproving--disbelieving--we can seem in our desire to do credit to something shocking for the time. The 2008 movie version of the book (I tried to watch it multiple times, but just couldn't) marketed itself luridly with the idea of Charles! In Love! With a Brother AND a Sister! but it in this adaptation it all unfolds pretty naturally. At age 15 I didn't see this with much subtlety, but I accepted it without question, as I think I did the romance between the two men. I remember buying a magazine with a friend at the time because Anthony Andrews--or maybe Jeremy Irons--was featured in it and realizing only later that it was a magazine for bisexual men, which made us twitter in embarrassment--we were sure the clerk must have thought we were gay. We didn't even notice until afterward, though.

Race, and class, beyond public school variations, aren't handled with any particular sensitivity in Brideshead. There is no Downstairs. The occasional servant, such as the butler Wilcox, who appears throughout most of the series, is shown only in reference to the other characters, given no life of his own. And the occasional racist comment is casually tossed off with no self-awareness: "dago," "Jew-boy," "N-----," "Chinky vases," "half-castes," some comments about black partygoers. What did I think of this then? It bothers me to think that maybe I heard it mostly as general evidence of snobbery/class. I wonder if filmmakers would take out these comments now--I wonder if filmmakers did in the 2008 version? Or maybe (guessing here) rounded them out to make their disapproval of them clear? The blithe way these distancing words are spoken by the main characters makes me think of a passage by Dorothy Sayers; how "the real offensiveness of the educated Englishman [is] that he will not even trouble to be angry…the awful, bleak, blank…facade."

The issue of class begs more comparison to Downton Abbey, which looks above and below stairs for its stories. This is one of the things I like about Downton Abbey--and like much more about Downton writer Julian Fellowes' Gosford Park (2001), an infinitely better country-house creation all the way around--Lady Trentham is a less jolly, but more interesting creature to me than the Dowager Countess of Grantham--but I wonder if in its attempts to live in the past without offense that it cleans up some of its horrors. I like that Downton Abbey shows how interdependent the worlds above and below are, but (I'm sorry, Hugh Bonneville, I love you, but) it reeks of a paternalistic complacency at times, to keep viewers content with its inequities. As one critic of Downton Abbey has pointed out, the servants' clothing is awfully clean for the dirty work they had to do. But they are people. They aren't in Brideshead.

There are amazing characters--and acting--in Brideshead Revisited. That hasn't paled. Nickolas Grace's turn as Anthony Blanche is still exhilarating and bold and makes you long for more real eccentrics in your life (and in Downton Abbey), friends who bawl The Wasteland through a megaphone off the balcony. John Gielgud as Charles' father is just amazing: batty and waspish and reactive; thoroughly outside of the world of the Flyte family, but holding his own against it. Lawrence Olivier is (I'll say it) kind of a mumble-mouth in Lord Marchmain's famous Castle Hill speech, but extremely charismatic. Claire Bloom seems somewhat bland as Lady Marchmain, lacking the charm that makes her so deadly, but Bloom's unearthly perfect diction and composure does add to her character's formidable quality. Irons is a real star in his difficult role as observer/participant, carrying the whole thing through with great change in his character, becoming rather dreadful for at least one whole episode without reproach.

These characters all have a lot of room to do that--to change, to expand, to be. As Troy Patterson wrote in his excellent estimation of Brideshead Revisited, "the pleasure's in the leisure." It seems rather unusual for these days, when filmmakers often forcefully shape our reactions to period pieces with seemingly so little faith in us or the text. It's especially notable in the last episode, which is almost wholly given over to the climax of the tension about religion--Catholicism--that charges the book; there's even less scoring in the denouement than in other scenes. Brideshead Revisited gets quieter at the end. That seems like a great gift to have gotten at age 15: the spaciousness and size of tangled emotions and language. It still clutches at your heart. The words, the music, these people, the doomed, fantastic Anthony Andrews sliding down the hole to ruin--it's all still there.

Ought we to be drunk every night?


Elisa said...

Found this through Roger Ebert's post on Facebook. I just want to say Thanks for this rememberance of something I loved dearly. Still do, really. On my Netflix list, of course. Have loved Irons ever since, especially his reading of Lolita which I bought at Never a better voice, better words. Yes. Words words words.

Elizabeth M. Tamny said...

Thank you! and yeah :) his voice is something unworldly good