Wednesday, July 31, 2019


“Oh, Mrs. Dalloway…always giving parties to cover the silence.”
The Hours - the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham

When I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s celebrated 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway (an inner monologue of a 1920's society woman as she prepares for one of her many self-distracting parties), the first thing that occurred to me was how remarkable it is that someone had actually found a way of committing to the printed page that restless state of lying in bed, wanting to sleep, but being unable to because one’s brain will simply not turn off. I never would have imagined the rules of grammar could accommodate such an accurate depiction of the way the busy mind, stimulated by darkness and silence, sets about the delicate balancing act of entertaining several simultaneous, often contradictory, thoughts while erasing the distinctions between past and present. All in a manner so emotionally vivid that it feels as though an entire lifetime has been lived in one’s mind while lying in a state of turbulent calm during the wee small hours of a sleepless night.

I was also struck by the canny way Woolf’s not-so-easy-to-grasp stream of consciousness prose—communicating the myriad thoughts, impressions, and reactions of her characters by way of free-form, intermingled, inner monologues—so poetically captured a personal trait of my own that has plagued me for as long as I can remember: the habit of overthinking everything. A tiresome habit that grants equally weighty consideration to all experience, trivial to significant, till even the smallest activity or interaction occasions an "off to the races!" mental barrage of feelings, rear-view ruminations, and emotional responses.
Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway
Michael Kitchen as Peter Walsh
Sarah Badel as Lady Sally Seton Rosseter
John Standing as Richard Dalloway
In the shifting-time format of Mrs. Dalloway, which concerns itself with the dark/light duality of life, Woolf reveals a profound understanding of how mental multitasking is not only a natural way for individuals to process experience (although rarely spoken of), but an exasperatingly easy habit to fall into when working, carrying out menial tasks, or while tending to the maintenance of an appropriately serene outward appearance. A habit fine-tuned to accommodate the expectations of others: i.e., society, family, friends, and random strangers.
These days, technology—by way of smartphones, earbuds, and the like—does its part in making easy-access distraction the preferred method by which individuals can readily seal up the cracks of silence that would otherwise allow for the painful intrusion of introspection and self-confrontation. But back in Virginia Woolf’s post-war London of 1923, particularly as it applies to one Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway of Westminster, one had to make do with throwing parties. 
Natascha McElhone as Clarissa Parry (young Mrs. Dalloway)
Alex Cox as young Peter Walsh
Lena Headey as young Sally Seton
Robert Portal as young Richard Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of a single day in June 1923. A day in which middle-aged socialite Clarissa Dalloway is to give one of her celebrated soirées. In a life of hemmed-in privilege and limited usefulness, giving parties is Mrs. Dalloway's "gift" to herself and others: "It's all I can do. Give people one night in which everything seems enchanted."  As she goes about the business of preparing for the event—her outward excitement betraying hints of inner desperation—Mrs. Dalloway’s slightly distracted demeanor leaves one with the impression of watching an individual trying very hard not to think about something, yet finding at every instance they’re unable to do anything but.

Advancing age and illness have conspired to make Clarissa sensitive to her isolation and loneliness (her daughter's nearly grown, she and her husband sleep apart) fueling her barely-acknowledged depression and fostering within her a sense of futility of purpose. Though she largely succeeds in valiantly suppressing these emotions through an obstinate refusal to let the Gods "have their own way" and a staunch observance of the social norms befitting her wealth and status as the wife of a member of Parliament; Mrs. Dalloway nevertheless remains haunted by echoes of her youth. A time when life held for her the potential of a more vital existence.
The reappearance of a past suitor (the unmoored Peter Walsh, whose proposal of marriage Clarissa rejected to wed the more dependable Richard Dalloway) trigger memories of the impossible but very real love she felt for her cigar-smoking, free-thinking friend Sally Seton. A mutual spiritual and sexual attraction whose repressed passion now challenges Mrs. Dalloway’s fragile sense of happiness.
Rupert Graves as Septimus Warren Smith
Amelia Bullmore as Lucrezia (Rezia) Warren Smith

Running concurrent to Clarissa Dalloway’s story is a parallel, mirroring narrative involving the tortured Septimus Warren Smith and his desolate wife Rezia. Septimus is a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose mental deterioration and difficulty in readjusting to postwar life reflect Clarissa’s depression and isolation…only rendered in stark, bas-relief.
Septimus’ mental illness (manifest in trauma-induced hallucinations and suicidal thoughts tied to suppressed feelings for a fellow soldier whose death he witnessed) is of the unruly, socially-unacceptable kind. While Clarissa, forearmed by years of aristocracy-born training in learning how to stifle emotions, is able to channel her own mental illness (depression and a melancholy fixation with death) into socially-acceptable, gender-mandated pursuits like hostessing.

Yet in spite of their differences and never meeting (the film devises a moment, not in the book, where each catches a glimpse of the other in a moment of vulnerable recognition), Clarissa and Septimus have much in common. Principally, an intense guardianship of the soul, a love of poetry, an appreciation of nature, and a sense of life’s beauty even when overwhelmed by the fear of never being able to feel anything.
Connected by duality, their fates take tragically different paths. But each, in their way, succeeds in their determined resistance to surrendering their private selves to the control of others. A small victory perhaps, but for each, a distinct act of courageousness. In a world of you must and you should, the fight to preserve the privacy of one’s soul is the ultimate triumph of self-ownership.
Virginia Woolf’s interpersonal stream-of-consciousness narrative is transferred to the screen with a conventional Masterpiece Theater/ Merchant-Ivory fidelity that I nonetheless found to be deeply affecting and superbly realized in its casting and the depth of its performances. Relying on voiceovers and flashbacks, Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris (director of 1989s Best Foreign film Oscar winner Antonia’s Line) and screenwriter Dame Eileen Atkins (co-creator of the 1971 BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs) may not have been able to come up with a cinematic style equivalent to Woolf’s distinctively fluid, intimate prose, but the relatively straightforward approach given the material achieves a kind of melancholy poetry.
A product of both her upbringing and her time, Mrs. Dalloway is fearful that age brings the end of sensation. Ironically sensing that it is precisely her fearfulness that has brought her to a life where only the structured, organized activity of giving parties and playing hostess provides her the opportunity to feel anything at all. 

I came around to reading Mrs. Dalloway by a somewhat circuitous route. A few months ago, my partner, knowing I’d never read any Virginia Woolf at all, by way of an introduction to the author gave me a copy of the 1975 short story collection Mrs. Dalloway’s Party: A Short Story Sequence. The accessibility of this introduction into the world of Clarissa Dalloway led me to seek out the movie adaptation, which then made me feel I was at last ready to tackle the novel itself.
I absolutely adored the book. So much so that I’m glad I saw the film first. Had the sequencing been reversed, I would have come to the film with far too many impossible-to-meet expectations. As it is, the film was able to enchant me on its own merits, the novel helping to inform the screen characters with a greater depth not possible given the relative brevity of a film's running time.

I ended up watching the movie a second time, during which the book seemed to work in concert to give me a greater understanding of Woolf’s themes and a richer experience overall. 
"It's so very dangerous to live for only one day."
Clarissa and her “double” Septimus both suffer from depression. English society’s rigidity is reflected in the manner in which doctors (William Bradshaw) and friends (Lady Bruton) display an impatience with and indifference to mental illness. Deeming emotional health to largely be a matter of personal rectitude, this (still pervasive) attitude reminds me of the scene in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) where the strict headmistress Miss Mackay dismisses the notion that the heroine of Verdi’s La Traviata could actually die of a broken heart: “Violetta did not expire for love of Alfredo. Violetta was a thoroughly silly woman with diseased lungs. If she’d been properly brought up, she’d have been out on the hockey field breathing deeply.”

"They were meant to be red."

It's a great gift when a film can make me cry, and at times Mrs. Dalloway achieves moments of such heartbreaking beauty and sensitivity, that the waterworks dam overflows. Nothing but praise for the luminous color cinematography by Sue Gibson and the delicate, affecting musical score by Ilona Sekacz.

As a story about a woman hemmed in by the gender limitations of the time and her social status, Mrs. Dalloway shares several of the themes found in one of my all-time favorite plays (and Glenda Jackson movie): Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. For starters, the title of each work conveys the central conflict of self-identification facing its characters. The lack of a first name in Virginia Woolf’s book reflects the heroine’s sense of the loss of her individuality in marriage (“Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway. I’m not even Clarissa anymore”). On the opposite spectrum, the maiden name emphasis of Ibsen’s title stresses how little his anti-heroine identifies with her married name of Hedda Tesman.
The solitary Peter Walsh haunted by his love for Clarissa 
"She broke my heart. And you can't love like that twice."

In terms of character, Clarissa and Hedda are not at all alike, yet both struggle with depression and feelings of isolated powerlessness within their marriages. Victims of their aristocratic upbringings, the women may chafe at the constraints of their social class, but both are, in their hearts, snobs who place great stock in their position and how they are perceived. The latter concern, in particular, leaving them paralyzed when it comes to taking action towards achieving the liberation they crave. The one area of true defiance they share is in refusing to allow themselves to fall under the power of another; a theme both works...leads to an act of suicide as an act of self-possession.

"Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life...."

The filmed Mrs. Dalloway never replicates the "busy mind" sensation I got from reading the book, but in its place, via the elegant soulfulness of so many of the performances, I found a stronger emotional empathy with its characters. Simply gorgeous how the film reflects on the pain of repressing one's sexuality, the fluidity of love, and the fleeting elusiveness of happiness. 

When I think of Mrs. Dalloway, what lingers in my mind are Vanessa Redgrave’s sad, haunted eyes; Natascha McElhone’s heartbreaking youthful exuberance; and the rawness of Michael Kitchen’s wounded romantic spirit. Superb performances abound, but Vanessa Redgrave's Clarissa touches my heart and Natascha McElhone is incandescent. Together, their performances bring Clarissa Dalloway to vivid life and bring a tender cohesion to the spirit of the novel’s theme of a life lived in one day.
“I remember thinking: ‘She’s abandoned me.’ And then, all of a sudden, she was there with her hand stretched out…looking utterly beautiful, saying: ‘Come on, come on. They’re all waiting.’”

Like Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf; Mrs. Dalloway is a work I don’t think I could have appreciated, let alone understood, had I come across it in my youth. A person needs a few years on them to recognize that it is far too easy in life to take joy for granted, and one needs a lifetime’s worth of losses and regrets to appreciate the truth that pursuing happiness is never a superficial goal or waste of time. What trivializes it is when it's used as a numbing retreat from life's struggles, or as a means of blotting out the sound of life’s silences.
Mrs. Dalloway's Party

Dame Eileen Atkins in The Hours
Mrs. Dalloway marks the screenwriting debut of actress Dame Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park) and what a remarkable first effort it proves to be.  Atkins appeared as the flower shop merchant in the Mrs. Dalloway-linked film The Hours (2002), and in 1991 she starred Off-Broadway as Virginia Woolf in the one-woman show A Room of One's Own.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun. Nor the furious winter's rages.
Cymbeline - William Shakespeare

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2019

Friday, July 12, 2019


When the lesbian proprietress of a seedy, by-the-hour hotel in Harlem says to a character: “If anybody can raise the dead and make ‘em pay their rent, it’s you,” you don't doubt it for a minute.
Not when the character in question is Imabelle, a voluptuous gangster’s moll from Mississippi with brains, resilience, and a gift for self-preservation. She's also the possessor of $200,000 in stolen gold ore stashed in a trunk at the train station, and, as embodied (accent on body) by the luminous Robin Givens, we know from first sight that Imabelle is a woman who, with very little effort, could and would re-resurrect Jesus for the sole purpose of paying her hotel tab.
Forest Whitaker as Jackson
Robin Givens as Imabelle
Gregory Hines as Goldy /Sherman
Danny Glover as Easy Money
A Rage in Harlem is a Black film noir set in the 1950s. A smolderingly romantic, double-cross crime caper of mortuary-black comedy rich in period detail, vividly-realized off-beat characters, colorful dialogue, and an unnerving propensity to erupt into swift and sudden outbursts of violence. Although I was a bit late in happening upon this gem (a radiant rough diamond) and missed out during its original release, it has become a lasting favorite of mine and is a film I rank as one of the most stylishly entertaining unsung greats of ‘90s cinema.
"If Christ knew what kind of Christians he had up here in Harlem, he'd climb back up on the cross and start over."
Helen Martin as Mrs. Canfield

The feature film directing debut of actor Bill Duke (Car Wash, American Gigolo), A Rage in Harlem is a pitch-perfect, very loose adaptation of the gritty 1957 novel by African-American author Chester Himes. Originally and more aptly titled For Love of Imabelle, A Rage in Harlem is Himes’ first entry in his nine-volume “Harlem Detective” series highlighting the blood-soaked exploits of detectives “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones. Of the three Chester Himes "Harlem Cycle" books adapted to the screen, A Rage in Harlem is the only one to retain the novel’s late-‘50s period setting. In their first screen incarnations, Himes’ hardboiled and consistently brutal detectives were updated as tough-talking defenders of Harlem justice during the Black Power ‘70s in the films Cotton Comes to Harlem - 1970 and Come Back Charleston Blue – 1972, both starring Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge.
Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson and Godfrey Cambridge as Grave Digger Jones
in Cotton Comes to Harlem 
Stack Pierce as Coffin Ed Johnson and George Wallace as Grave Digger Jones
in A Rage in Harlem

A Rage in Harlem, which could easily be subtitled Gold Comes to Harlem, is set in 1956 and begins in a dilapidated shack in Natchez, Mississippi where a ragtag band of swindlers has pulled off the formidable feat of robbing a gold mine and netting some $200,000 in gold ore…at the cost of a few dead bodies. That the robbers are all Black (Slim, Imabelle, Jodie and Tony) and the victims were white is of no small consequence in the nasty way things play out when a local redneck and his goons decide to renege on their deal to fence the goods for their market value.

But after the smoke clears from the ensuing bloody melee, Imabelle and the gold are nowhere to be found. Managing to escape without learning the fate of her fellow gang members—and not losing any sleep over it—Imabelle hightails it to New York in search of Easy Money. Easy Money being the Harlem crime boss (Danny Glover) capable of turning her trunkful of difficult-to-transport gold into infinitely more cartable cash.
Three Cons and a Pro
Slim (Badja Djola), Imabelle (Givens), Jodie (John Toles-Bey), and Tony (Ron Taylor)

When circumstances beyond her control (namely, Easy Money’s arrest) oblige Imabelle to stick around Harlem longer than anticipated, the penniless purloiner seizes on a plan to nab herself an easy mark who’ll put her up while awaiting Easy Money’s release. Luckily for Imabelle, nowhere in all of Harlem is there to be found a mark easier than Jackson (Forest Whittaker); a roly-poly, devoutly religious mortuary employee so sincere and unsophisticated, he even gets heckled by little old ladies. Imabelle's seduction of the guileless Jackson confirms her as the story's irresistible force (she puts the moves on him at the Annual Undertaker’s Ball while Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performs--appropriately enough--his 1956 hit “I Put a Spell on You”). But it’s Jackson’s unwavering decency and gentle heart that proves to be the immovable object that ultimately comes to melt Imabelle’s implacable heart, if not necessarily her larcenous soul. Something’s gotta give. 
Pious Jackson takes the worldly Imabelle to Church 
And give it does. Almost immediately. Imabelle is haunted by the fear that her former partners in crime are still alive and out for revenge; Easy Money is intent on procuring for himself both the gold and the girl; and the naïve Jackson is stung in a get-rich-quick swindle whose outcome has him resorting to theft and having to secure the assistance of his estranged stepbrother Goldy (Gregory Hines), a Harlem numbers runner and petty con man whose best friend is a street-savvy transgender bordello madam named Big Kathy (Zakes Mokae).
Goldy and Big Kathy watch as Jackson proceeds to make a shambles of their well-plotted sting

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that throughout, Imabelle’s motives and loyalties remain exasperatingly abstruse, or that the law enforcement efforts of detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger have a tendency of making already bad situations much, much worse. This combustible mixture of head-over-heels romance crossed with the passionate impulses inspired by gold, greed, and guns may seem like the traditional stuff of noir and crime fiction; but in a place like Harlem and in the form of a felonious femme fatale like Imabelle, bad has never looked so good.
Devil in a Blue Dress

I’m a big fan of film noir, but my fondness for crime fiction and sagas about hardboiled detectives hasn’t exactly extended to the printed page. I’ve read very few detective novels in my time, so I’m certain there are exceptions, but my personal experience of these books has been that while I admire the writing, I tend to be less enthusiastic about the genre-mandated machismo, sadism, and misogyny. Sure, these same elements are present in the film noirs I love, but their severity is softened considerably by Hays Code interference, expressionism, and Linda Darnell. 
Beatrice Winde as the Hotel Clerk 

My aversion to the kind of unfiltered, in-your-face kind of violence I associate with crime novels is why—save for a childhood memory of thumbing through my father’s paperback copy of “Blind Man With a Pistol” to see if there were any dirty parts (published 1969, it’s the last complete book in Himes’ Harlem Detective series)—the sole Chester Himes novel I’ve read to date is “A Rage in Harlem.”  I got a copy of Himes’ book back sometime in the mid-‘90s not long after seeing A Rage in Harlem for the first time on cable TV. Then my mind was still reeling from the film’s snazzy, humorously stylized vision of mid-century Harlem and its Runyonesque denizens, and my curiosity high to find out if the novel pleasures could any way live up to the delights I found in the film. 
Rock and Roll Legend Screamin' Jay Hawkins

What first struck me while reading “A Rage in Harlem” is that it would be difficult to overstate Chester Himes’ brilliance as an author and a storyteller. Even as I found myself dreading turning the page for fear of some graphically-described act of brutality catching me off guard, there was no mistaking that Himes’ characters and way with words (his descriptive dialogue, much of it laugh-out-loud funny, fairly leaps out at you) makes NOT turning the page a complete impossibility.
The second was discovering to what degree the movie adaptation had expanded upon and deviated from the source novel. I was surprised to find that Imabelle doesn’t figure nearly as much in the book as she does in the film. She’s discussed, fetishized, and obsessed about to the point that her presence is felt throughout, but she’s barely a main player in a narrative largely set into motion by her actions. 
Then there was the surprising discovery that the entirety of the novel’s storyline only accounts for about a third of the plot of the film... the middle of it, yet! First-time screenwriters John Toles-Bey & Bobby Crawford (the former appearing in the film as the pocketknife-wielding Jodie) do a seamless job of concocting a more elaborate network of schemes and double-crosses for the film version, embellishing the novel’s plotline to accommodate additional opportunities for action, and (happily) granting Imabelle more agency and prominence in her own story. 

At the risk of seeming to give short shrift to the uniformly superb performances given by each and every member of A Rage in Harlem’s distinguished, absolutely flawless ensemble cast, my mania for tough women in tight clothes require I rave a bit about Robin Givens. In this her film debut, Robin Givens is both a force of nature and a force to be reckoned with. Giving an assured and witty performance that really should have made her bigger star, Givens makes the most out of every moment she’s onscreen, imbuing her Imabelle (a non-tragic Carmen Jones by way of Lena Horne’s Georgia Brown from Cabin in the Sky) with all the danger and radiance of a bonafide film noir siren.
The City Slicker is the Rube / The Country Bumpkin is the Smoothie
If Robin Givens is the main reason why I watch A Rage in Harlem,
Forest Whitaker is the main reason A Rage in Harlem works at all.

One of the subtly amusing things about Imabelle is her self-possessed, exaggerated sexiness. I say self-possessed because while she is keenly aware of the effect she has on men, she’s mostly aware that she has that effect on EVERYBODY. She dresses in clothes so tight and confining, they should inhibit her, but she looks so comfortable and relaxed in them, they become a kind of snakeskin armor. Like in that old episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle in which Pottsylvanian villainess Natasha Fatale complains of discomfort and aching feet after briefly having to endure loose clothing and comfortable shoes, Imabelle and her impossibly tight clothes are one and the same. You can’t imagine her wearing anything else.
The versatile Gregory Hines gives a winning comic performance that flows effortlessly into affecting drama

As their roles function in the narrative, Robin Givens is the heat and Forest Whitaker is the heart. His Jackson is almost childishly naive, but Whitaker never plays him as dumb. Jackson's Baby Huey innocence contrasts appealingly with Imabelle's worldliness in a way that recalls the pairing of Stanwyck and Cooper in Ball of Fire (1941). Whitaker's scenes with Givens are dynamic and disarmingly moving. Whitaker somehow is able to convey the depth of Jackson's devotion to Imabelle. It's as though when he looks at her, he's not simply thunderstruck (as we are) by her physical beauty, he sees the dormant goodness in her heart.

In a world that uses the spectacle of Black suffering—via news, social media, and motion pictures—for the dual purpose of tacitly reinforcing a toxic power myth while simultaneously providing Anglo viewers with the most accessible, least authentic means of countering the broader culture of Black dehumanization (pity requires less effort than respect); the depiction of Black death in action and crime films presents a unique dilemma.
American film history gives us an onslaught of images of Black pain that have yet to be offset and counterbalanced by an equal representation of Black joy and triumph (or survival, for that matter). Every violent death of a Black character onscreen, whether it's the filmmaker's intent or not, carries with it a historical, socio-political weight which extends far beyond the film’s aspect ratio.

All racism is violence, and the world Chester Himes depicts in A Rage in Harlem is reflective of and responsive to the harsh, Jim Crow world he inhabited. A world, not all that different from today, where police brutality was the norm and authorities didn’t even consider the killing of a Black man to be murder. When the film version of A Rage in Harlem was released, it received criticism for what was perceived by some to be the softening of the raw intensity of the violence in Himes’ book.

Perhaps this is true (plenty brutal enough for my tastes, the film extracts tension more from the ever-present threat of violence than showing us the real thing), but to take issue with it is to ignore something I’m glad Duke and his artistic collaborators appear to understand very well: that images of Black brutality are far more familiar to Black movie audiences than images of Black romance, humanity, and lovingly-recreated nostalgia for a place that was a home and cultural mecca of art, music, and literature.
Descriptive passages devoted to the destruction of Black lives are powerful enough in a book, but it feels like it would be irresponsible (or require an uncommonly deft hand) to have those violent actions depicted faithfully in the hyperrealist medium of film. Especially in a movie that is essentially comedic in tone.
I love film noir, but classic examples of the genre only offered invisibility for people who looked like me…that, or the opportunity to portray maids, porters, and piano players.
Black life is at the forefront of A Rage in Harlem, with all its absurdity, danger, and spiritedness. It features just enough violence and action to justify its qualification as a crime thriller, but it likes its characters too much to make their suffering just another exhibit added to the ongoing spectacle of Black suffering and death by which so many would have us defined.

Rage: An intense feeling of anger.
To seethe with desire or appetite.
To blow off steam.

A Rage in Harlem
The credit sequence illustrations are attributed to Joe Bachelor.

Copyright © Ken Anderson