American Pastoral and Arrival are two films released at the end of the same week in November 2016. I saw American Pastoral last showing on Friday 11th Armistice day and given the thoughtful and careful review by the British Institution of film critics Dr Mark Kermode who admitted he had not read the Philip Roth novel on which the film is rooted, I was surprised to find that I was the only person in the film theatre when I arrived, remaining so, enabling the use of the light of my phone to note down questions on the back of the printed e-ticket, having forgotten to return a slim notepad to the inside jacket pocket, used earlier in the day for shopping notes made on a visit to Gateshead to shop and park at Tesco’s and on to Newcastle to collect coffee and buy winkles in the Grainger Market.
Because the film covered subjects of significant personal interest I immediately ordered the novel which I have now read and confirm the appraisal of Mark Kermode that this is a good directorial debut by Ewen McGregor. I go further and say the film provides coherence to the story and a credibility of character that the book by Philip Roth does not and at which at one level is a well written rant, bravely attempting to communicate how at any moment our ideas and feelings contain all our previous and inherited experiences, but I failed to be convinced that the characters are more than the ideas, views and beliefs of the author although I accept I was confused by the narrative time framework and because of having experienced the film first.
The approach of Mr Roth has much in common with what I understand to be one of the two central themes of Arrival, a multi-dimensional sense of time and which also uses an alien visitation to explain the nature of language and communication in an engaging and entertaining way. Arrival end the first week as top box office and American Pastoral per the British Film Institute was only number 19.
I also understand that American Pastoral is one of several books by Roth in which he uses a character as his alter ego, (that is a second self, different from his normal or original personality). I do not know if this is true as I do not know Roth, but I will say that the starting point of his book is the proposition that many American men believed in the American Dream, that their nation was God’s special land and the greatest, and their values and standards of the highest order and where for many the 1960’s was a period of great awakening, when the Hollywood image of the second world war was shattered in Vietnam (and as I have recently presented when covering 25 years of Miss Saigon and the worldwide belief that an entry permit enabled automatic participation in the American Dream of equal opportunity to wealth and power and where the greater the belief, the greater the fall). The opening section of the 400-page novel is called Paradise Remembered, followed by the Fall and concludes with Paradise Lost.
I also have a very different but in some respects more important and lasting experience, a live relay from the Royal Opera House in London of the Offenbach opera Les Contes D’Hoffmann, the Tales of Hoffmann and this was followed by two films on Sky TV, Strangerland, a film set in a contemporary Australian small town on the edge of a desert and where there are important similarities with American Pastoral, as they are with American Beauty, followed by the delightful Spanish film with its English titled Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, aimed at the Oscars best film in a language other than English and which won the Goya in 2014 for that category and several others. To complete the cultural experience of the past week I went to see Fantastic Beasts in 3D on Friday November 18th. I also need to write up experiencing the stage musical The Glenn Miller Story with Tommy Steele for the second occasion, this time at the Sunderland Empire, previously, the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, and the films the Girl on the Train and Nocturnal Animals.
I also intend to make time to comment on a brilliant one off documentary about the Tyne Bridge, the moving series of canal trips by Timothy West and his partner Prunella Scales, the remarkable Planet Earth II naturalist the latest BBC four Saturday serial The Deep, Humans and Westworld cover artificial intelligence, the Missing and child abduction and abuse, the Young Pope -what is it about, the interesting Close to the Enemy and the yet to interest, My Mother and Other Strangers, Strictly Come Dancing, The X Factor and the never ending -The Blacklist.
One interesting and challenging aspect of the book American Pastoral is its argument that we can make the right decision choice but this can have devastating life changing consequences. I will say more about the advice a parent gives his daughter, how he responds to an initiative from his daughter, followed by his reaction to meeting an emissary from his daughter and going into the kitchen before sitting down with friends for a meal and where despite the chronology set out in the film I am still unclear of the time frame when attempting to unravel cause and effect. I will also add the appearance of something, or someone is only one aspect of its reality
The main character of the book is not its author who in the form of Nathan Zuckerman, a successful published writer who tells the story of “the Swede”, (Seymour Levov) already a legend from being a great Athlete in American Football, basketball and baseball and a veteran of the second world war and who had attended the same Jewish High school years as the story teller. Nathan admits that he idolised the Swede the American Dream) when attending the same Jewish Newark, New Jersey High School with Jerry the younger of Levov’s two sons and who as a World War II veteran of the Marines took over his father’s quality glove making factory and who married a beauty queen with success graduating from city to state to the Miss America contest staged in Atlantic City, underlining the American Dream theme. The nickname Swede and ”The Swede” remained unclear until the book discloses his name is Seymour and Swede was a tall blond rock of a man compared to his short in stature wife and its only towards the end of the book is there reference to their discovery in private of passionate sexuality but which they kept within the bedroom and where sex is part of the shattering of his idealism and where how couples present themselves when being sociable with others is very different from the image they wish to present and have within the marriage.
It was only when reading the book that the thought occurred that that Roth had created the Swede as the American Dream to explain that he too had been an idealist who had set himself great standards to have these shattered by the realities of life. As a young man, I developed an interest in Fundamental Freudianism where everything is based to procreation desire and sex and on aggression, violence and death and on the guilt of having wishes desires which parents, family, the local community, a religion, a church and its leaders, those controlling the one’s country society has declared taboo. I have learned that Roth was brought up in the Jewish belief and cultural system which draws as strong between themselves and as Catholicism of my birth father who I never knew but became a senior priest, my birth mother and my childhood and which there are many in the Muslim world, some Protestant and other religious bodies who also attempt to divide themselves off from others in what is a spectrum of belief within and between religions and which impact on behaviour. The statement there is more which unites than divides is meaningless in this context.
At one level Seymour is presented as a conformist but in one significant passage he declares that the faith and culture of his childhood mean nothing yet it is his Catholic wife who stands up to the father in law over an inquisition about her gather and how the children will be brought up. In this film, this happens in its chronology of events, maturing and individual development, in the book it comes almost at the end. The film uses the unravelling of the story line to engage our attention in contrast to Roth who spits out the key aspects of the story and then attempts to explain leaving the reader to knit everything together and made sense as they wish from their experience.
Although Roth is a war veteran he joined too late to see the blood and guts of war and although in film (but less I thought) in the book uses the black v white rioting of Newark 1967 to bring out that he is a liberal democrat where the majority of workers at the family owned business are black, the blood and guts of the rioting is only alluded, and this is also true for the, Vietnam and the anti-war protests and it is the film that there is the more vivid impact of the bomb which destroys what we in England would called the village store with post office outlet. The American Dream is a device to cover those who disassociate themselves from the realities of life until it is brought home to them directly. A home break in a car accident or break down, a storm, an expected death all of which I have experienced added to which there are the floods, the earthquakes and most of all the wars and I have met no one who has experienced night after night bombings even as a very young child who not affected, in my instance it was the far of the adults as they prayed with their rosaries which communicated to me and I have still.
Roth is also not the conformist his younger brother accuses nor is he weak in giving in to pressure from parent or daughter although he respects both parents. So, he agrees to his future wife a Catholic being questioned by the parent, something I experienced when going out with a girl for the first time at the age of 17 and she was16 and in returning to her home from the pictures and invited in and faced an inquisition from mother father (a civil servant) with a bemused older sister who I knew from a cycling club who arranged the date after her sister and come to one of our Sunday outings. My humiliation was great because the dread question what does your father do I could only mumble dead because I did not know and did not believe the cover story given to me a couple of years before, was possibly given an opportunity some years late, but could not cope with at that time and then was told just before I was sixty that he had been a priest, and only to learn from subsequent efforts that he had had been number two to a Bishop and acting for the Bishop and awarded the O.B.E.
Seymour’s other defiance against parental pleading was to buy a large house in the country with 100 wondering cows and a romping free bull, the Count in a solid Republican community with a Klu Klux Klan history. Father warns about getting to and the farm to the nearest station in winter and getting to work at the business and Seymour explains about the good train services which goes on into New York with Parlour cars in the morning, the USA first class lounge dining car with bar but on two levels with a small cinema.
The more I age the more I appreciate that how others view as history or an art or entertainment experience set in costume and period, events which have understand from the perspective of having lived through the time, and sometimes with direct experience. Before starting to write I try and check my memory with the available facts. In this instance, I had not appreciated that Newark. the largest city still in New Jersey state, is a short commuter train ride from central New York about the same distance in travel time as my former five childhood and young adult homers in Wallington, Surrey from central London when I became an anti-war campaigner a few years before the daughter of the Swede, so the parallel comparison between the reactions of her close and extended family to mine are fresh as I have commenced to write again about my experience and its impact on the rest on my life, and my closed and extended family network.
In book with words, and film through pictures, we gain some knowledge off Newark post second world war when the town had a population of some 400000 but commenced to rapidly drop with the 1967 Race Rioting with up to 80% of the Whites leaving and the 2010 census putting the city total at about 275000. The African origin American population has also dropped from a high of 58% to 52% and with of Hispanic and Latino combining more recent populations from Portugal and Brazil to form the second largest grouping, leaving the Whites at under 25%. The Democratic candidate for president has won the state since 2000 and did so again this year by a significant majority of the votes casts with the Green Party gaining 1%.
There were 80000 Jews living in Newark at one point, the city where Philip Roth grew up with his parents and based several of his novels many of the successful business merchants, as the Levov’s had already moved away from the city centre concentration of cold water flats, before the 1967 rioting when most pulled out. It is normal hat when first arriving ethnic groups living together in area with privately renting housing is available, quickly establishing speciality food and services, together with junior and high schools.
This is a subject where I have some direct knowledge as seventy percent of the twenty thousand predominantly Catholic population of Gibraltar were required to leave their tiny almost island homeland at the southern tip of Spain as World War II commenced and were sent and lived in neighbourhoods to a number of countries, including one part of London if they did not already have an extended family living in other countries to taken in as happened to mine, coming to England and not to the USA, or North Africa where there were other close relatives. Although I went to a Catholic school the emphasis was on integration as there was no prospect of returning to the homeland when the war ended for my birth mother and six of her seven sisters.
Going to work in central and outer London, then becoming an activist and then going into adult education, I quickly became aware of the singularity of the Jewish world even when families lived in neighbourhoods of mixed ethnicity and this culminated in my sixth decade when undertaking an assessment for allocating funding to a business enterprise it was necessary to call at home of an applicant whose family was at one end of the Jewish belief and practice spectrum where contact was not allowed with others, and where it was evident the children came in and out of the room just to see what someone who was not one of them was like and because the applicant was a woman and could not be in the presence of a male without a chaperone, her partner was present but declined to communicate directly on religious grounds. This contrasted with a girlfriend of a short time where Jewishness was not central to her being and outlook and to the number who were members or supporters of communism, socialism and activists for against weapons of mass civilian destruction.
The core of the book and film is the relationship between Seymour and his one child at that time, a girl, Merry, who becomes a verbal and direct actionist extremist as a teenager against the Vietnam War, against the system, the everyday of family life and their apparent acceptance of the way everything is. Roth is good at using a sentence to communicate an era or the context opening the second chapter with reminding that after the second world war the USA governed 200 million other people in Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan. Back home in the States and in Britain. In the book, what remains uncertain in the film. What the book, and film does not attempt to do is to explain why Merry normal adolescent rebellion against parental, school and religious authority graduated from nonviolent to violent protesting, a subject with interests me especially as later or she becomes a convert to the extreme end of non-pacifism- Janis and which influenced Gandhi in his activist approach of Satyagraha
The film Strangerland has a very different setting and time but also uses disappearance of a 15-year-old daughter (and her young brother) who appear to have gone off into the Australian desert on Walkabout just as a sandstorm engulfs the area. Walkabout remain a seminal film starring Jenny Agutter who finds herself with her young brother in the desert after their father shoots himself and where they are rescued by an aborigine boy who is undertaking his solo rites into manhood. There is moment in Strangerland where I hoped an indigenous resident would come to the aid of the family and can find both children alive. It is after the two children go missing in that we learn the facts of why the family, he is a dispensing chemist, moved into the town and an extraordinary blunder like that which Seymour Levov makes. We also experience through both films the full extent of their culpability for what happens, in part because of parental denial and the inability of the parents to intervene in a constructive way. Both mothers end up walking into the local town centres naked which says something of their sexuality and guilt although the daughters take very different routes in expressing themselves, reacting to the unbalanced marital relationships and the cultural mind set in which the parents have themselves been raised and appears to them to have accepted without questioning.
The reaction to Jerry Levov’s revelations about his brother is for Nathan to start to revisit the location of the homes, the business of the Swede and to look at press records in the local library. He meets someone he once took on a hayride who as a teenager had refused to let him undo her bra him undo her bra, not because she was sexually shy as such but because if he had become her boyfriend that he would have discovered the nature of the family set up which she did not want others to know. This quickly leads to one of the key passages in the film and which McGregor includes although in a modified version, and centres of the Freudian understanding of the sexual development of girls in relation to the attachments they have with their father seeking genuinely at times to replace their mothers as where it is also not uncommon for a son to also say to his mother that he will marry her when grows up without understanding the implications of what he is saying. Roth has the father responding to this situation as most fathers would at that time but also with understanding the potential impact of the rejection on the daughter and moreover also imbuing the daughter with an insight into her general behaviour of pushing things over normal limits with the consequential reactions of those involved. The problem is that pushing to the limits allowed is normal behaviour and that this another aspect where both sets of parents are found wanting.
In Strangerland, the teenage girl is seduced by a teacher at the school with whom she had developed an emotional attachment, the crush which teenage girls and boys will develop for teachers who are themselves flattered by the attention, if they are not predators on the lookout for such a situation. Freud and several generations of Freudian enthusiasts accepted his argument that the wish of the child for the death of a parent, the death of a parent or sibling or having an embryonic sexual relationship, depending on their knowledge of marital relationships at the time can have just as strong and devastating impact on their behaviour because of guilt than had the situation developed into one of physical reality.
The different between those who think and feel and those who also act, or respond in destructive and often self-destructive ways is my main issue of interest because of my own experiences and have been undertaking research in preparation for rewriting experience in relation to opposition towards weapons of mass civilian extermination.
The first quarter and first section of the books ends with the daughter as a rebellious 16 year old, staying out over night with her radical friends, at constant war with her mother who sees the behaviour as adolescent rebellion against everything, using language most foul in order to bring about a desired reaction, the stutter as a weapon, reminding of my own confrontations although I was able to insist on freedom to as well as freedom from, earning an income and with a monthly train season ticket which enabled to me to travel to London at weekends or stay on after work and where I cannot remember eating much if anything. However, it is the father, in desperation, fearing his daughter is becoming more and more involved with the activities of the extremists in New York, poses the challenge to her to try and influence the local community and bringing the protesting locally, unaware of how this will be interpreted by the daughter and her friends with disastrous consequence for everyone- the law of the unintended consequence with paves the way to hell with good intentions.
Both book and film focusses on the visit of a young look University student seeking information in the glove making industry and where the Levov family business is known to provide the best handmade gloves in the country. This open the second section of the book headed The Fall. The book quickly reveals the student is an agent for the disappeared daughter whereas in the film only later is the truth self-revealed. I wondered why it was necessary for the history and nature of glove making industry to present in such detail until author explain through Seymour his opposition the approach of profit before everything and cutting corners, using the expression stealing time. The younger brother Jerry accuses his older of only knowing the business of making specialist gloves and when the market drops because of changing custom and overseas production it provides another reason for the world of Seymour to collapse further. It is only after Seymour has taken the young woman through the process of making her a pair of bespoke gloves that she reveals she is an emissary for his daughter with requests that items are brought to a secret location. Rita, the young woman, refuses to disclose where his daughter is, declares that Merry hates him and would like to see him shot.
He defends against inaccurate references to the upbringing of his daughter and she counters his attempt to challenge the accusation that his child murder by referring to the number of civilian deaths which occur because of the bombings by the USSAF and ground forces. He knew he should have reported the contact to the authorities but his wife persuaded him to continue with their only link providing her with a briefcase full of ten thousand dollars in bills. They meet for this in a hotel room where she offers herself crudely and which is also featured in the film. I had a similar experience when aged 21 or 22 with an 18/19-year-old subsequently murdered, which I rejected and which Seymour also rejects, bolts from the room and report to the FBI as I was to do to police after the death. In the book, we move on five years and accounts of all the bombings and not coming to terms that the daughter has killed three people. Roth reflects on the course of the war and on the trial of a Black Communist Sympathetic Professor at ULCA, Angela Davis’ about the same age as Rita the girl Seymour is confronted by. Later it is Rita who writes telling him where Merry is claiming she had been under the power of Merry and acting as she had directed to the extent she pretends Seymour had used her sexually for Merry to accepted the cash and her continuing involvement.
The book looks back to how the community responded to the allegations with the highlight the disbelief that such a multi-talented school girl who never challenged authority was responsible for such deadly acts. Someone her school mention she talked a lot about the Vietnam War, lashing out in one instance because of view expressed strongly opposed her own and one of the teachers was said by the FBI to have provided valuable information. There was incomprehension that this has happened to such a family
On the 1st September 1973 Seymour received the letter from Rita in which she says but she cannot cope anymore and his daughter needs urgent medical help. She provides the assumed name and location in Newark advising him to wait outside until she appears. His wife had twice been in hospital because of suicidal depression and she blamed him for marrying her, for having their child when all she wanted to be was a teacher, when being pressured to become a beauty queen but where she did not reach the final ten at Miss America contest in Atlantic City. We learn that in 1969, two years after her daughter disappeared she was back in hospital coinciding with an invitation to the 20th anniversary of leaving High School. He funded a trip to Geneva for facial surgery but this was not for him or her it is later revealed. The farm and grand house are sold and something smaller in a different area acquired, and his where several new versions of what are given, we are also taken further back in book and in film to events immediately after the bombing when he had gone to see the owners of the store and post office concession and the widow of the man killed who understood that the impact would be worse on the parents as they had a supportive family and community to help her and her child to cope.
He waits outside the Cat and Dog hospital dilapidated building where his daughter has been said to work in what had become a grim part of the city. She come unrecognisable in terms of clothing body project and her covered face but it is her. She has become an adherent of the ancient Indian religions which I had also considered but came to quickly understand aspects were not for me. Jainism is a total way of life based on passive inaction and a belief that all living things are beings with souls and with those who fully embrace accept poverty, chastity, truth and honesty without exception and the level of renunciation and noninvolvement which most find impossible to achieve or maintain. It is not only the opposite of what she had but what for a short while she has become. He found her condition distressing, especially her acceptance of squalor and deprivation. She had been there, close by for six months.
She tells the story of what happened after she admitted carrying out the bombing. She had spent three days at the home of the speech therapist who had arranged for her to enter an underground of places and people, some fifteen aliases in two months. She details how she became Mary Stoltz working for a year in the kitchen of an old person’s home. A minister who had befriended advised her to immediately sending to a commune in another part of the country but arriving in Chicago on her way to Oregon, she was raped, held captive and robbed. The film does not detail more, or if it does I do not remember.
She gets a casual job, was raped in another situation. She made her destination Oregon and became involved with two further bombings. She killed three people. She fell in love with a woman at the commune. The woman was married and a situation developed where she to leave. She worked in a potato field and commenced to learn Spanish planning to travel to Cuba, believing a revolution would never take place in the USA, she made her way to Florida. She had become parotid about the FBI on the lookout for her and came across an old woman begging who taught her trade and with whom she moved in until the woman died. She had commenced to learn about religions at the public library.
Hiss reaction to her story was deny she his daughter because his daughter could not have done the terrible things she had admitted. He could not bear her as she was and pleaded with her to go with him whereas she pleaded to be left alone as she was. The book and the film then covers the impact of the riots on his factory, the neighbourhood he community. Seymour also tells his brother he has found his daughter and what she had done, the brother confronts Seymour with the reality of having become some the product of his father, the country and its system without having a separate identity with his daughter challenging in every way that she can, forcing him to accept the reality of who he is. What Roth appears to be demonstrating is that one brother has been passive, accepting what happens, until challenged in some fundamental way while the other has always been aggressive, accept my as I am or not at all with the implication that our basic inherited nature will only change when challenged by something out of the ordinary or by someone. Whether Roth had knowledge about how new humans are created, their gene structures, the neurology of the brain which I have only now commenced to learn the language to be able to understand, is a good question
But as fundamental to this, that there are significant differences to the platitude there is more that unites than divides is what seems to me the message of this book is that education and parental upbringing should be about enabling each human being to develop a sense of individual identity and thought process which does not accept what they given, including by parents and teachers without questioning and challenge and this today applies most of all to politicians and mainstream media, and to experts who pretend objectivity, and I also include the pure scientist in this who pontificates on subjects broader than their area of study. The phone exchange between the two brothers ends when Jerry reminds that Seymour had been an instructor in the Marines but still could not cope with the brutality of what could be human behaviour, his daughter had become a murderer and the reasons were only secondary in determining how society should treat her once guilt has been proved or in this instance admitted.
The third section of the book is headed Paradise Lost back at the time of the Watergate hearings which they would listen to and reflect on at the end of day to when they and the cows and then farm was being sold more ruminating on has been and which is also where I argue that one of the simplistic message of Arrival is a major feature of this important work of fiction because Roth repeatedly makes the point that when thinking and reacting to the present we drawn what has happened before not as a chronology but in terms of relevance to our mood, our feeling, the person we have been, are and still hope to become.
But another aspect of the he books which is again explored is hate, the hate of things not understood, threatened, changing, he same kind of hate which his daughter and her associate had expressed. I now turn to two of the events mentioned in book which centre on our sexual awareness as children, of our sexuality as adults in relationships, to sex as a means for procreation, as giving and submitting to power as well of personal enjoyment plus the sense of betrayal leading to violence which can also result. I was unsure at first of why Roth included the situation where after Seymour and the daughter spends time together on a camping expedition on advice of a talking therapist she acts out the Freudian urge to replace her mother as his wife and he understandably is horrified and his responses crushes her although she has the insight and ability to communicate to admit that she tends to go too far. It his failure to understand and protect which appears to affect him more when learns she has been raped on two separate occasions.
In Strangerland, the daughter becomes the town anybody’s who takes an interest which leads father to acts of continued aggression against the teacher who seduced her and those he finds have used in her the town. Just as it fathers who tells the daughter to protest within the community, the father in Strangerland admits at the end of the film to his wife that he had watched her go off at night with the younger brother who tends to go night walking and decided not to intervene to teach her a lesson, hence the great panic when the dust storm arrives, the son is fund barely alive the daughter is not. In American Pastoral, we know the daughter survives as she attended the funeral of her dad dead from prostate cancer aged 67 whereas in Strangerland we are left with the assumption she has perished from lack of water and sub alone in the desert. The audience reaction to both films, I assume American Pastoral for as mentioned I saw it alone, is to sit and working through their emotional reactions when the credits roll. By contrast in Living is Easy with the eyes shut both the adolescent school boy who runs of from his dictatorial father and a young pregnant girl are known by the audience to be safe with prospects for a potentially good life when the film ends.In American Pastoral Seymour walks into the kitchen as they prepare to sit down for a meal with friends to find that the man from one of the couples is taking his wife and from her comments this is not first instance. Later he learns she had the expensive facelift in Switzerland to please this man who she runs off and marries. He backs off then but not when he finds that the talking therapist at the same meal with her husband had looked after his daughter for three days immediately after the bombing. She explains that because of the professional relationship she was bound by secrecy even when she knew from the TV what the girl was alleged to have done. What hurt Seymour most is that she did not tell him, the woman with whom Seymour had an extra marital affair, he later remarried with two sons. His back and white father could not understand his children in this respect, especially Jerry who has divorced three times with four wives all nurses and with an increasing gap in their age difference. What children always find difficult to accept from their parents is the reality of life compared the fairy stories of childhood until he children themselves grow and have children of their own, and then sometimes too light they begin to see that their parents were always doing their best but the best is too often not good enough .I was struck by this thought to day when reading an article in Times by Melanie Phillips headed Royal sense of duty may die with the Queen with the sub text that our present head of state could be the last to believe in a higher cause than family or personal desires. I think not given the vast numbers of everyone everywhere try and balance their duty to themselves and their families with concern and action in relation to others.