Angle of Repose

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“You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”

“Routine work, that best of all anodynes which the twentieth century has tried its best to deprive itself of—that is what I most want.”

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

I have no idea why I started reading Angle of Repose, but I am not sure that any book I’ve read recently captured so perfectly that sense of wishing I could breathe life into my own late grandparents’ stories (or the stories of anyone who has left this life)… longing to bring all the details I never thought to ask to life again, to recreate their individual histories and the story they built together. To have, or at least imagine, all the answers to questions I never thought to ask. This history lost to time, as it is in all families. I was quite unexpectedly moved by this quite long book.

“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

Perhaps the best of books do this to us – we don’t know what to expect going in, and we are constantly surprised, even when what we are confronted with is quite simple, but beautiful. Angle of Repose is certainly both, the richly historical fiction of the American West coupled with two rather tragic but unsentimental stories (one from the past, one in the present, which was, at the time of the book’s publication, the early 1970s.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Wolf Hall: “You’ve made a mistake threatening me, sir”

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Any history buff is well and truly familiar with the story of Henry VIII and his many wives. There have been many books written and movies and TV shows made about his reign. Most recently The Tudors provided a sexed-up look at Henry and all his wives. The latest to take a new tack with much of the story is Wolf Hall, which is told more or less from the perspective of historical figure Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell is portrayed as perfectly dull and unassuming – and Mark Rylance looks exactly like these historical portraits of the real guy. It is something of a revelation when this modest man saunters in and so politely threatens people, such as when Harry Percy claims he has a binding marriage contract with Anne Boleyn, which would prevent her marrying King Henry.

Yes, politeness and decorum mixed with menacing threat: Cromwell will get someone to “bite the bollocks off” Percy if he refuses to quit his claim to Anne.

It is Rylance as “the ruffian” and cunning lawyer Cromwell that keeps the story moving forward and keeps me interested. Despite the brilliance of his wielding the law and persuasive powers, Cromwell appears fair, even if King Henry calls him out at one point, threatening, “Do I keep you for what’s easy? Do you think I’ve promoted you for the charm of your presence? I keep you on because you are a serpent. Do not be a viper in my person.” The balance is struck as well as it is thanks to Rylance’s subtle performance. Damian Lewis as Henry VIII seems a bit miscast – and it is rather a small role. I tend to think he has worked well with what he has here, but despite the story revolving around him, it is not really about him. Lewis is always excellent as a sniveling tyrant, much as he showed in the miniseries, The Forsyte Saga. He even showed us some of this indecision in his conflicted self-destruction as Nicholas Brody in Homeland.

Rylance’s performance, combined with writing that projects modernity onto an age-old story, bringing intrigues and political machinations to life, make Wolf Hall one of, if not, the best fictionalized pieces on this era. It would not seem logical that something like this would garner high viewer numbers, but in fact, Wolf Hall appears to speak for itself in that regard. A persuasive aspect of Wolf Hall that initially draws one in is its attention to historical detail, which is no accident. But it is the rich and refined performances that elevate this show to greatness (such as those of Joanne Whalley as the cast-aside Catherine of Aragon, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn), none more so than Rylance’s performance. (It may be more surprising to viewers because Rylance is not well-known outside of theater work, although I remember him from the small-scale but somewhat controversial film from Patrice Chéreau, RIP, Intimacy (2001), which featured actual sexual acts between the actors. It raised a lot of eyebrows, as if it were pornography or just lasciviousness for the sake of raising the film’s profile. The film, though, showed exactly the tawdriness and neediness of this sexual affair between the two main characters – again, elevated by Rylance’s performance alongside New Zealand actress Kerry Fox, who as recently as 2012 was still defending her performing a real sex act in a film from more than a decade earlier.)

Rylance is a respected stage actor, and as I felt – and later read – his being virtually unknown to television audiences created a double blindside. We the viewers don’t expect this committed, understated yet powerhouse performance – and most of the characters that Cromwell comes up against underestimate his cunning and influence… but definitely should not.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Reign: Historical fiction

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Most women my age – and probably a fair number of men, too – watched and maybe even loved the CBC/PBS miniseries, Anne of Green Gables. Megan Follows, while she has had a rich and long career since, will never quite shake her identity as Anne Shirley. And Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s academic rival, friend and eventual husband in the Anne of Green Gables series (a series of Canadian books set in Prince Edward Island, Canada that adolescent readers have devoured for the many decades since they debuted), had life breathed into him by Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie. He has appeared here and there in other things, perhaps most recently and notably in The Good Wife, but he has been tied all his life to his reputation-making role as “Gil”. Sadly, Jonathan Crombie passed away this past week at the age of 48, which plunges the hearts of “kindred spirits” of my age into “the depths of despair” – to use some of Anne Shirley’s over-the-top, verbose, well-loved language.

Ultimately, though, this was not meant to be about Crombie or his passing. (Or to question the “dying young” passing of Canadian actors who graced Canadian tv institutions. Referring here to the 2007 death of Neil Hope, who was “Wheels” on the original Degrassi Junior High.) Instead, I had just been watching this week’s episode of Reign, which sucked me in despite not being my style at all. In large part, I tune in week after week to watch Megan Follows’s regal, scheming performance as Catherine de Medici. Follows finally outshines her past, defining role as Anne Shirley and is the one reason I keep coming back to Reign.

This is not to say that Reign isn’t a decent show. I like these kinds of historical fiction programs in that they may not paint a full or accurate picture of historical events, but they breathe life into long-past history that may ignite curiosity in those non-historians among us. We might then make moves toward reading real history and finding out what in these programs (like Reign, The Tudors and Wolf Hall, to name a few recent entries) is true and not true. History brought to life, regardless of creative license employed for television audiences, can only pique interest and perhaps make history a more interesting subject for otherwise disinterested generations (each generation, at the risk of sounding like a cranky old person, seems less and less interested in history).

I am driven by my viewing of Reign to go back and read the history – and often enjoy the modern music pairings that make up the soundtrack. Occasionally an interesting person will turn up as a guest star – Amy Brenneman as Marie de Guise (a great piece of casting!), Yael Grobglas as Olivia (best known now as Petra on Jane the Virgin) and even Battlestar Galactica’s Helo (Tahmoh Penikett).

Considering all these factors, especially Megan Follows’s presence, now that I know the show has been renewed for another season, I will continue to watch (even if my mind is very much stuck now on Anne of Green Gables, Anne and Gil and Jonathan Crombie, resting in peace.)