Sunday, August 30, 2015

Stella Dallas (1937)

I have ten movie notes to catch up on. Rather than stuff them all into one big post that will take a month to write I am going to just do short commentaries on each one separately.

Stella Dallas had been sitting in the 'unavailable' section of my movie queue for about three years when it suddenly turned up in the mail one day. Based on a novel by the once-popular Olive Higgins Prouty, whose name has turned up in these screens (those being the ones on my site) before, the 1937 movie was the second adaptation, following a silent version that had come out in 1925. King Vidor, probably better remembered among the serious now for his silent masterpieces, was the director, and the star was the great Barbara Stanwyck, who is much-loved among internet film aficionados. There were a few moments here where I thought I might be beginning to glimpse the genius of Barbara Stanwyck, though on the whole I was still not possessed by it. I thought, for example, that she often overplayed the vulgarity and low breeding of Stella Dallas, which would have been obvious at a much lower degree, though I guess the spectacle and her contrast with the country club set would have been considered humorous at the time. Even more than other movies from the Depression era, there is no ambiguity in this one about how better it is to be rich and go to the best schools and run with the best people than otherwise, even to the point of giving up your sixteen year old daughter who is all you have in the world, and renouncing all claims to seeing her again, because your social background and position is too awful and contaminating an influence if your daughter is to have any hope of a desirable life (the plot of the story is that the son of a disgraced millionaire, temporarily self-exiled to a nondescript mill town, impulsively marries the working class Stella and has a daughter with her, soon after which however their impossibly disparate backgrounds cause them to drift far apart. Stephen Dallas eventually re-unites with his old horseback-riding flame, who is conveniently widowed as well as possessed of her own millions, and the latter part of the movie concerns Stella coming to realize that of course she must give up her daughter to go and live her father and his new wife and partake in the superior life they know). This attitude is consistent with Olive Higgins Prouty's other work that I know, all of which involves to some degree the Boston Brahmin circles in which she moved, and involves a character, or multiple characters, who are the inheritors of this exalted blood, or spirit, but due to one circumstance or other need time and the undergoing of some ordeal before they can rise to the exalted level where they inherently belong.

This movie has a lot of the expected studio charms of its era, music, sets, the sense, especially pronounced in this, that there are some people out there who have pretty swell lives, and the idea that these exist should give you some twinge of happiness even if one personally is not capable of living that way himself. They really understood social humiliation back in the 30s. Modern scenes of humiliation where someone is getting mercilessly taunted and laughed at by a mob or having his manhood, either physically or intellectually, eviscerated by some alpha male or female, tend to annoy me, but the scene of the 10th (?) birthday party where none of the classmates showed up because the other families did not accept the mother, Stella, as worthy of their patronage really got to me. And the scene at the end, Laurel (the daughter)'s wedding, where Stella is forced to stand outside in the cold looking in on the service though a window, and the new rich mother demonstrates her humanity by asking the butler to leave the shades open, is incredible, because it is played as though this would be the absolutely natural thing to do in such a circumstance.    

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Annual Vacation Picture Post (Only Without Any Pictures)

I don't have easy personal access to (others') saved photos at the moment. Our various stand alone digital cameras have either ceased to work, been lost by being left in public bathrooms, or fallen into stone crevasses on mountains from which they could not be extracted, and the other members of the family now have their own camera-equipped tablets now which they scarcely ever relinquish their tight grips upon, even in sleep. So no pictures from me. Given the ridiculousness of my computer situation--especially when given my status as a significant blogger--being reduced at home to the use of a wheezing 8-year old Acer setup with the aforementioned kale-strength childproof block on the internet, I have promised myself that someday soon, perhaps when certain bills are paid off, I am going to get my very own little computer device with a camera on it, mainly because I am irritated that circumstances related to my equipment are causing me to be a less prolific producer of social media and blog content than I might be.

We did not go very far afield for vacation this year. Besides the matter of there being a baby, we have to go everywhere in two cars now, as we cannot fit the whole family in one anymore. Going anywhere also requires hours of preparation, making lunches, filling water bottles, filling multiple bags with bathing suits, towels, toys, etc. Also as the children get older and more numerous the threat of socially unacceptable behavior, conflict, etc, breaking out at any time seems to increase, and while I am somewhat accustomed/resigned to enduring social mortification if I ever want to leave the sanctity of my bedroom, my dear spouse is not.  So our vacation mainly consisted going to our camp in Vermont and taking day trips.

Not counting the first day spent packing, cleaning the house, fixing the lawnmower/cutting the grass, doing laundry and finally around 7pm driving over to Brattleboro, the days of the vacation were passed thus:

Day 1: Drive on Route 9 West (VT) to the Hogback Mountain overlook and gift shop, and then onward 3 miles further to Molly Stark State Park and a 0.8 mile climb up Mt Olga. We had done this once before a few years back. We have actually climbed almost all of the easier mountains within an hour of Brattleboro at this point. The group had to be coaxed through this activity, as the younger children especially would prefer to be taken somewhere with amusements and junk food. I like those places too, but unfortunately it costs a lot of money to go to them with five children. After the hike my car was nearly out of gas, so rather than risk not making it back to Brattleboro (about 20 miles), I went a few miles further west and got the people who were with me got donuts or popsicles at the gas station, which seemed to be the highlight of their day.

The gift shop at Hogback Mountain

Day 2: Drive to Manchester, VT, about an hour to 75 minutes through the Green Mountain National Forest. Manchester is popular with the affluent, and consequently there are a lot of attractive restaurants, shops, inns, and restored/kept up hundred year old houses. We were not able to go into any of these places, though I had hoped to go the Northshire bookstore, which I had been to before and which is one of those places where you know you are surrounded by the right people, the ones who have achieved some mastery over the modern economy and education system. Their children's area, which takes up most of the upper floor, is considered by some to be the best in New England. But as it turned out, it was too late in the day and everyone was too tired and fussy at the end of the day's main activity, which was visiting Hildene, the summer estate of Robert Lincoln, son of the revered sixteenth president, and, as president (himself) of the notorious Pullman Railroad Corporation, a considerably wealthier man than his father, though one destined to be eternally dogged with the reputation of a lightweight in comparative character. His too open enthusiasm for golf--he served for a while as president of the local country club--expensive automobiles and (apparently) exploitative capitalism could not have been worse calculated to endear him to his father's most fervid admirers. As a tourist attraction, I was most impressed by the size of the grounds--the amount of land that they retain strikes me as huge, and the house, in its approach, layout, design, portal, furnishings, etc, are handsome in that 1910s-1920s way that is suggestive of weekend parties or endless summer days of lounging in windows reading or writing letters and waiting for it to rain. However, unless you paid extra for a guided tour, which, as it was already fairly expensive to get in, I opted not to do, you walked through the house and garden yourself, which normally I think I would like, but in this instance I did not know very much about the occupants of the house and what happened there, and there was no very informative written information to help with this, and also I had most of my children with me as I went through the house and was distracted by having to watch them (usually if there is a guided tour my wife and I will go on alternate sessions, leaving such children as are too twitchy to endure the ordeal to run around in the surrounding grounds). So I did not feel like I learned anything or had the satisfaction of an encounter with anything pleasingly intelligent, which was disappointing.

Hildene in the snow

They had a farm on the grounds with goats, sheep, cows, chickens, etc. The barns where these animals were kept were tended by young and very serious girls, whom I took to be college students who were studying something in the agricultural way because of this seriousness and because they were intelligent-looking in the college rather than the traditional country wisdom kind of way. I noted this because there are lot of girls of this type in these parts, in Vermont especially, and they reminded me of the kinds of girls I thought I might have been able to get along with when I was that age (because they were smart but not evidently fixated on clothes or money, which were areas of life that seemed at the time especially beyond any abilities I had to gain mastery over) but could never quite puzzle out either where they were or how I might ingratiate myself with them. Now that my oldest son is going into eighth grade I can already see that any verbal advice one might offer on these subjects is neither going to be welcome or adhered to--but I think the parent can still steer and expose the child as much as possible to the kinds of environments and activities where the parent thinks he will be most likely to meet the kinds of people whose association has a positive influence on him (assuming the parent is a competent arbiter of taste and his child's nature in these matters, of course).

Day 3: We went to Boston on day 3. I would have rested after the Hildene trip and gone another day, but this was a Wednesday, which is the day the MFA is free after 4pm. Since it is impossible for us to get out of any house before noon, the afternoon was well along by the time we got there. We stopped first at the Common, which was a hotbed of activity. There was some kind of festival going on (The Outside the Box Festival, the internet informs me) in various locations all around the grounds, which seemed to be celebrating diversity, tolerance, and left-wing politics, all things that are certainly outside the box for me (just kidding, though the credibility of any man with six white children can only be stretched so far with all of the matters and peoples that demand enlightened tolerance now). I took my older two sons to visit the Massachusetts State House, which we had never made it into before, while my dear wifey stayed with the younger children around the Frog Pond and the playground nearby. The sky appeared to be threatening thunderstorms all afternoon, which made for a great atmosphere, though potentially stressful with so many little children, but other than a few drops nothing ever came of it. The Massachusetts State House, or at least the older part of it anyway, was very pretty and inspiring in the classic state house style, and most of the people and events from the state's history memorialized in paintings or statues are readily recalled, certainly by me, and many even by the children. In contrast with the usual state capitols that are located in smaller cities (and less self-important states), the politicos, media people, and government employees milling about the building tended to move and scowl a little more urgently and brusquely than we are used to certainly in Concord, where the idea of the state house as the possession of the People still holds some sway. The scene in Boston was more like a mini-Washington D.C., especially with all of the television crews around (Even though we get all kinds of television crews in New Hampshire during the primary season, there is always a carnival atmosphere about it that was decidedly missing from the clench-jawed reporter we saw breaking down the day's political activities for one of the local TV news broadcasts). The contrast between the names and pictures all over the walls and staircases and ceilings and the current occupants of the building was hard not to remark upon. The Puritan strand, and even the old Boston Brahmin strand were nowhere in evidence among the living, at least those whom we saw.

The MFA is always something of a challenge with the children, but it is one of the better art museums in the country, and if I only get to really look closely, by whatever confluence of circumstances, at two or three things on a visit, it is usually worth it to me. I am actually thinking of becoming a member, since coming down on Wednesday nights is inconvenient most of the year now, and paying the full admission price for a single day's visit, for us, puts a certain amount of pressure on the visit, in the event that someone is unable to behave that day or whatever. Family membership is not that much for the year, for us barely more than two regular visits (I think I won't mention how many children I have).

I did make it up to the Impressionist room to check out the Monet painting of his wife wearing a geisha that was the source of controversy earlier in the summer (in case you missed it, to recap, the museum, in some kind of marketing stunt that I don't really understand, was encouraging people to try on replicas of the geisha in the painting and pose for a *selfie* with it [the painting]. Some people protested that this was racist or imperialistic and the museum promptly ditched the promotion. I should note that when I arrived in the room, there was a twenty something man wearing a geisha with a group of about five other young people--they all looked Japanese to me but I don't really know--posing in front of the picture and getting a big laugh out of it. Unfortunately we could not stay long in that area because our mortal MFA enemy, the guard who looks like somebody sort of famous whose name I can't remember now** and who hates children, was working in the room and yelling at my children every two seconds for talking too loud, wandering off, reaching a hand threateningly in the direction of an exhibit. The last time we went he was working in the modern art area, which I thought the children would like but which was actually a bad idea because everything there looks to them like something you can touch. On that occasion I actually thought the guy might pull out a revolver and start shooting my four year old he was so worked up. But he obviously loves art, knows art, feels art, lives and breathes art, and we are really little better than a pack of animals descending on this sanctuary of real civilization, the symbol of everything most abhorrent to this man. There is no middle ground there. I wish I could describe this guy. He's pretty young, though he might be getting on to thirty by now. Very styled wavy froofy blondish hair, stylish black-rimmed 1962 glasses, knows how to wear a blazer. Excellent posture. Gay, I would suppose. And boy, does he hate us.

This was what the controversy was about. 

Day 4: We stayed home and hung around the pool at the camp (the pool is a small in-ground pool that dates from the 1960s). I suppose I should note, for the sake of thoroughness, that there was swimming every morning and, if time permitted, in the evening after returning from our outings as well.

Some of the unamused protestors. 

Day 5: By this late phase of the vacation people were ceasing to get along. Even under normal circumstances all of our games and activities, even when eagerly anticipated and nominally enjoyed, end in tears, accusations of cheating and deception, death threats; the early part of Day 5 featured all of this, but much more extreme than usual. It was decided that the group needed to be broken up, so I ended up taking a group of three to Mt Ascutney State Park, an easy hike that I discovered that was only 40 minutes from Brattleboro that we had not been to yet. Ascutney is one of the older state parks, dating from the 1930s, and consequently there is an auto road to within 0.7 miles of the summit, families, or at least women and children, one supposes, not being expected in those days to devoting the better part of a day in scaling a mountain. As with other of our activities, the increase in the family has had the result of our having to cut down on our ambitions with regard to hiking, at least for the time being. When my two oldest sons were four and five even we used to take on 2+ mile climbs, Mts Monadnock and Major in New Hampshire, Haystack in Vermont and a few others, but the younger children as yet have not demonstrated that kind of stamina, 1.3 miles being about the outer limit of what we can ask of them, besides that it is impossible for us to get out early enough in the day now to undertake a longer hike anyway. That said, the 0.7 mile stroll up the immaculately maintained and public-friendly Mt Ascutney trail after driving up the auto road past the numerous fitness warriors who are running or bicycling up the same feels about equivalent to going down into the cellar to retrieve a beer from the reserve fridge (I don't have a wine cellar per se. That is, my cellar would actually be an excellent wine cellar, only I don't have any actual wine in it). The mountain and trail are very pretty however, cool and shaded, lots of moss and northern birds such as woodpeckers and a bluish-blackish mountain bird that is attractive though I don't know what its name is. There is an observation tower at the top with illustrated signs telling you what other mountains and natural features are in view, and unlike what often happens in such instances, I really could make out the outlines of the other famous mountains. The summit gave me some satisfaction also, with its electric wires, communications towers and the abandoned bases of (presumably) a former fire tower playing off against the natural beauty. In the evening, after dinner back at the camp, we went home for the night.

Mt Ascutney at a distance

Day 6. The vacation was not quite over yet though, as when we got up in the morning we had another fun trip ahead of us, to Wells Maine for an overnight camping trip. Our time there on Day 6 was taken up with meeting some relatives of mine from Pennsylvania whom I had not seen in several years who were passing through the area. This social interaction put a little strain on me but the other people enjoyed seeing the children, whom they allowed to use the pool at their hotel and bought pizza, and I got to hear some of the gossip from the extended family and the old social network, which I otherwise do not get news apart, as I do not have any of these people as Facebook friends, if they are even on there.

This guy is doing something right. 

Day 7. This social visit out of the way, the last day was spent battling to find parking spots and then with the high tide at Wells Beach. My children got to go to the amusement arcade with an allowance of $10 in quarters apiece, and we also explored several of the gift shops near the beach, which made everybody temporarily happy, as that is all some of them wanted to do anyway, and the tension of not knowing whether or when these events were going to happen was the cause of excessive stress in the others. There is a large used book store on Route 1 that I keep intending to go to every time we go down there but there is never time. I went to it one time back in 1986 when I lived in Maine as a teenager, just a few weeks after I moved there, and bought a number of old classic type books from collectible sets that I still have, so the place has positive associations for me. We are going back for four more days this weekend, so maybe we will get there. One of my children (the sensitive one) did say that he felt bad when I did not get to go the last time. I took some consolation in getting a very fresh, crisp and vacation-y fried shrimp dinner from the to-go window of a restaurant on Route 1 before starting out for home. One thing I do miss with having all of these children is that we really cannot go out to restaurants at all, even apart from the expense. I am susceptible to videos like this one the New York Times put up about Martha's Vineyard the other day--how nice it would be, I imagine, to go to a gastropub, or some place exuding prosperity and brains and good looks in its patrons, or to a bar after dark (!) though my wife pooh-poohs all of these supposed social yearnings I have as vanities not properly considered. My shrimp was the only meal I had 'out' the whole week. When we to Boston we took one group of children to Subway and another to Sal's Pizza. I was supposed to get something at one of the cafes when we went to the MFA--that was going to be my special treat*, to indulge my ego and play the part of the kind of guy who eats light meals at museum cafes, complete with miniature wine bottle or $5.50 bottle of microbrew ale, but there was an issue with parking the two cars and the two parts of the group not meeting up for some time--for of course we don't have cellular telephones, though with each bumbling of this kind, my wife threatens to make us get them. It has come to the point now where it is something of an inconvenience not to have them, just because everyone expects you to, but it's also another expense, and I just can't take any more expenses.

The inside of the book store at Wells that I have not been able to get in to see

We were here.

While it is sad to depart from Maine on a Sunday night in the rain at the end of one's vacation, we live near enough (about 90 minutes) that it is always there for us to go back to, and indeed when it was over 90 degrees the following Friday my wife took the children back down (to York Beach) for the day. When school starts again I might even be able to sneak down to York for lunch and be back in time to go to work at 3. There is an old-style luncheonette there that looks like the kinds of places my grandparents took me to when I was a child, square tables with four chairs set around, paper place mats, wood paneling, lamps with yellow light bulbs in sconces on the walls, heavy curtains framing the windows. I've had a desire to go there for a number of years, but it has never been convenient. I know, I know, the real man makes sure everyone else is committed to making things convenient for him, or their presence is not tolerated. But I'm going to try to make it down there one day in early fall before it closes for the season.

Goldenrod Kisses, York Beach. Object of planned pilgrimage

*Doubtless some suspicious types will say: What about your wife? Doesn't she get to eat? But I assure you, my wife eats whenever and wherever she feels moved to do so. Lately she has taken to bringing her own food everywhere both for health reasons and not to be at the tyranny of whatever limits the food situation in unfamiliar locales might present her.

**Just remembered. The guard looks like Jonathan Franzen, the writer.