television

That post about The Keepers I’ve promised for weeks.

But first: my roommate and I watched Now and Then a couple nights ago.  It’s a fair statement that I haven’t watched that movie in fifteen years, but it’s also a fair statement that I watched it nearly every other week between the ages of, say, ten and thirteen. 

Roberta, Samantha, Chrissy, and Teeny from  Now and Then  (1995)

Roberta, Samantha, Chrissy, and Teeny from Now and Then (1995)

Even so, I remembered almost nothing of the plot besides a bunch of then teenage girls who I really like (still) turned into a bunch of grown women who I also quite like (despite their more recent travails with the celebrity press).  I had completely forgotten the plotline about how the girls pluck a mystery out of a graveyard séance, take their question to a psychic and then an older person (always the first two lines of inquiry…), and then, when all else fails, head to the dusty library basement to look through huge, bound volumes of newspapers from years earlier.  As an adult, the fact that most of them live years before finding out how their mystery relates to their present-day strikes me as particularly poignant—only Gaby Hoffmann/Demi Moore learns the truth as a young girl.

Which brings me to The Keepers—I understood the power of Now and Then, even as a tween, to be that it was about girls who turned into women who always had each other’s backs in face of everything that the world could throw at them.  How I understand the power of The Keepers means that the horrifying story of church abuses is fortified by the strength of the women-driven mystery narrative.  Two women, Gemma and Abbie, started a Facebook group to find justice for Sister Cathy, their beloved teacher.  Their group connects women who believed they were alone and who, in this new context, gain strength from knowing that other women support them.  At first, it even seems like Sister Cathy may have actually been murdered as the result of her steadfast devotion to protecting and supporting her female students. 

Gemma and Abbie are a study in unlikely detectives.  They cracked me up as they narrated for the camera how they did their research and organized their thoughts.  The last times I remember microfilm readers looking so cool on camera were early episodes of The X-Files, filmed before digital records were an option.  In The Keepers, Abbie and Gemma were also filmed organizing their thoughts via a system of coffee filters with notes written on them.  They talked candidly about deciding who took on tasks based on their personality strengths—Gemma could talk to anyone without fear so she did interviews, while Abbie focused on research deep dives.

Abbie and Gemma from  The Keepers

Abbie and Gemma from The Keepers

When we meet Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, the two women who were at the basis of the initial case about Father Maskell’s abuses at their school, they are presented as strong, intelligent women.  They are, first and foremost, shown to be capable people—they speak clearly and forcefully about how their lives have unfolded over the past forty years.  They save themselves, though they give credit to their friends and family where it is due.  This approach was fascinating to me and deeply moving.  This isn’t a story about women being victimized, but a story about women trying to fight back with the help of other women.  A story about women coming back together after years apart to learn the truth and take action.

For me, the approach to documentary story-telling that centered women’s voices proved to be the real draw.  I had chosen to watch the show expecting a splashy true crime story that would indulge my odd fascination with nuns, and got a carefully drawn portrait of a group of women who suffered guilt at their inability to save themselves and perhaps to save their teacher, Sister Cathy.  To me, that makes the criminal elements of the story feel even more galling and even more violating.  As a strategy for encouraging change, it’s a good start.

Dead Jon Snow, Dead Christ, Dead Toreador

****Spoilers.  Just many, many spoilers for Season 6, Episode 2 of Game of Thrones.****

HBO/ Dead Jon Snow, from Season 5.

HBO/ Dead Jon Snow, from Season 5.

In last night's Game of Thrones episode, many shots seemed to be direct art historical references, so I sent a few texts as it went along that I was thinking of cooking it up into this blog post.  

Well, not quite this blog post.  Earlier today, a friend sent me a Slate article that went through the resurrection scene shot by shot and COMPARED IT TO A REMBRANDT PAINTING, a comparison that had honestly never crossed my mind.  This Rembrandt painting: 

Rembrandt van Rijn,  The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp , 1632 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)/ Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)/ Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I can't speak to the technical film elements of that writer's analysis, but his point about the staging in the scene where Jon Snow is resurrected is certainly spot-on.  He writes: "the blocking resembles what you’d see in a play rather than a film—or really any medium where the audience’s point of view can’t move around the room freely. Like, for instance, a painting."  This is a frequent point of commentary where these group portraits are concerned (and, despite its mimicry of action, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp is absolutely a group portrait designed to commemorate the membership and activities of Amsterdam's Guild of Surgeons).  These group portraits balance the logistical concerns of portraying that large number of people in one space and needing to clearly show their actual faces, but also cultivating dramatic action for the viewer understand their commitment to their profession.  

From a historical standpoint, it's also worth noting that many European cultures were suspicious of medical professionals and especially surgeons until the nineteenth century.  Regular, god-fearing people feared the consequences of probing the seemingly mystical internal workings of the body, so dissections were a dicey proposition.  Surgeons were often accused of being resurrectionists à la Victor Frankenstein, meaning that they were accused of robbing graves to obtain the human bodies necessary for performing their "nefarious" experiments.

Anyway.  That is an expert comparison from that Slate author, for more reasons than I suspect he knows, and yet that was not the art historical comparison I was thinking about as the episode progressed.

Most of the shots of Jon Snow's body from the moment it is brought indoors through the moment he wakes up look something like this:

HBO (and thanks, Slate!)

HBO (and thanks, Slate!)

They are raking shots from low angles.  They look from his head down to his feet and from his feet back up to his head.  They zoom in to show the dead corpse of the Lord Commander Jon Snow in its specificity (for example, the ribs in the shot above) from a harrowing perspective even beyond that afforded to the actors who share the scene.  In many cases, the shots excise living actors, reminding the viewer of the abandonment of the body in death.  The shots are frequently so close that there can be no question about who and what we are seeing.  These tactics are sad, abject, deliberate, and intimate--they provoke a particular cocktail of emotions that fuels the efficacy of the resurrection in the final moments in the episode.

In this, Jon Snow's body is preceded by two art historical corpses in two very different eras and contexts.  They are:

Andrea Mantegna , The Lamentation over the Dead Christ , ca. 1480 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)/ Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Andrea Mantegna, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, ca. 1480 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)/ Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Edouard Manet,  The Dead Toreador , probably 1864 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)/ Image from  NGA Images

Edouard Manet, The Dead Toreador, probably 1864 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)/ Image from NGA Images

I was first reminded of Manet's Dead Toreador because of the Night Watch's black garb and the pooled blood.  My mind leapt to Mantegna's Dead Christ when these raking shots continued during the resurrection ritual.  These two paintings are frequently tied together for clear reasons related to artistic virtuosity.  There is some certainty that Manet knew of Mantegna's work, and both artists would have reveled in the chance to demonstrate their expertise at employing such a difficult perspective.  Mantegna worked in tempera, a medium that does not usually lend itself to such extreme detail. Similarly, Manet's painting demonstrates his expertise at shading in blacks, a concept that will have resonance for anyone who has ever tried to watch a lowly lit Game of Thrones episode on a laptop.

But more than that, these paintings confront the viewer with the death of a presumedly beloved character in its clear, chilling truth.  With the Dead Christ, a viewer can see the skin turning back around the holes where the nails were driven into his skin; the painting itself enacts certain tenets of faith that suggest the faithful must try to understand the particular pain of the crucifixion.  Manet's Dead Toreador was cut from a larger painting that showed the full arena; this figure was deliberate excised by Manet from a scene that included living toreadors, an audience, and, notably, the animal that killed him.  In that image, the dead body would have filled the foreground.  The National Gallery's website puts the effect of this change the best: "The fallen matador is no longer part of a narrative but is instead an icon, an isolated and compelling figure of sudden and violent death."  

As if we, as viewers, needed to feel the horror Jon Snow's sudden death any more acutely, the show drives home its violence and the uncertainty it leaves behind by using this iconography.  Before we are given our resurrected savior (or is he...?), we must be cued visually to grieve his loss.  We must understand his pain, feel certain that he has died, and give up, as Melisandre did, before he can be returned.

The Deliciously Un-Modern in Penny Dreadful

The last few weeks, as anticipation has built for the big premium TV channel premieres, I've found myself whispering to friends, "It's not that I'm not excited for Game of Thrones to come back, but..."

But: I was, and am now still, more excited by Penny Dreadful's Season 3 premiere.

I know that Penny Dreadful doesn't draw quite the audience (understatement) that Game of Thrones does, and so I often find myself trying to explain what the show is like and why people should watch it.  Depending on my audience, I change my tactics.  The show is either:

  • a deliberate and skillful re-working of familiar horror tropes in nineteenth-century London
  • a clever amalgam of familiar literary characters, much like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but not as dumb
  • a Victorian supernatural drama that brings history and folklore/myth together
  • a showcase for Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and an array of masterful theatrical actors in pristinely constructed sets (I save this one for those who find vampires, etc. tired or distasteful).

In truth, the reason I'm obsessed with the show is all of those things and much more.

Today, as I watched Penny Dreadful's Season 3 premiere, which I clicked to almost immediately after finding it had been released early, I realized that part of the reason this show intrigues me more than any other is the central role it gives knowledge and discovery (which I suspect I cannot discuss here without spoilers), and its simultaneous embrace and willful disregard for modernity (which i will discuss below).

A couple relevant plot points:

  • In Season 3, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) sees a shrink who tells her to do something she's never done before, and so she goes to the Natural History Museum.  She passes through a room of taxidermied creatures, including wolves and scorpions potent with specific symbolism from the previous seasons, and is approached by a strange and handsome man (the curator?) who tells her more about the specimen at which she gazes. (This encounter is pictured above.)
  • In Season 1, after obtaining an evil creature's corpse and finding that it displayed markings like Egyptian hieroglyphics, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) go straight to the British Museum to consult an Egyptologist with an old-fashioned, free-roaming expertise in the subject matter of which most twenty-first century scholars can only dream.

By simultaneous embrace and willful disregard of modernity, I mean this: public museums are an innovation of the late nineteenth century, the period in which this show is set, and they became a means for spurring acceptable social interaction outside the home.  This is no longer the case and is far from how twenty-first-century viewers of the show would understand these spaces.  Yet Penny Dreadful relies on these museums and public institutions of all sorts (botanical gardens, the theater, parks and gardens) to move the plot of the show forward, either by allowing for those near illicit (or actually illicit) social interactions between men or women or as a go-to for acquiring knowledge necessary for fighting the show's monsters.  

In this reliance, it is stylishly, deliciously un-modern, yet all of these interactions and the acquired knowledge have been crafted with the hindsight of a hundred years.  For example, when, near the end of the first season, doctors treat Vanessa's psychological problems as any one of the gendered psychiatric disorders of the period, like neurasthenia, we understand that this is both richly unsurprising to the other characters on the show and socially complicated by the fact that the doctors are incapable of seeing the true demonic sources of her discomfort.  The show cultivates these layers of historical and contemporary understanding with a sophistication unmatched by even the best recent period dramas.

As I've sat here writing this post, I've tried to come up with other examples where museums and similarly educational public spaces played such a deep role.  There is the episode of Downton Abbey where an art historian comes to examine the family's "della Francesca," and there is also the episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor and Amy Pond travel back to Auvers-sur-Oise in the 1880s and uncover the secret alien causes of Vincent's troubles.  But the only show I can think of that consistently engages with museums is Bones, where the museum is often a set piece, a figure of convenience, or simply irrelevant to the plot in the main.

However, in Penny Dreadful, as in Victorian London (and in this I think, too, of the Salon culture of nineteenth-century Paris), the museum and similar public spaces are so ingrained in thought and public consumption of particular social classes that they are inextricably linked to the most crucial events that occur.  Museums, scholars, and curators, as guardians of human culture and intellectual creativity, reveal to Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, and the others the tools they need to fight.  Though this show, like many others delving into witches and vampires and the like, has created its own mythology, there are ways in which the history it appropriates remains critically accurate.  And this is crucial to its paradoxically modern and un-modern charm.