Friday, January 11, 2019

An Uncharacteristically Topical Post on The Favourite


On Friday, December 14, I saw The Favourite at the Charles Theatre here in Baltimore.  As I noticed on my way to my seat that the screen on which I was about to see the film was but one of three devoted to it, and as I have subsequent to my viewing noticed that the film has not received a single negative review, I somehow feel impelled, partly as a student of the British eighteenth century and partly as a general moviegoer, to get my negative two cents—or perhaps, rather, negative 4.8 pence [2% of £1 or 240d.=4.8d.]—in on The Favourite now, before it becomes one of those Oscar-sweeping monstrosities à la The English Patient as represented on Seinfeld, and like Elaine Benes I am effectively debarred by peer (or, rather, and particularly in the context of this flick, commoner) pressure from expressing my view that it really, really sucked as anything other than a hypothetical alternative to its presupposed brilliance.  It is customary in such-meta cinematic hatchet jobs as this to begin by grudgingly itemizing the few things the flick in question got right, and I am not about to break with custom here, although in all candor and frankness I can’t say that I am entirely qualified to tender the required catalogue, for although I am, as already stated, a student of eighteenth-century Britain, I have always been chiefly interested in its literature and have therefore tended to be aware of other aspects of it only to the extent that they are manifested in the works and fortunes of its principal authors, none of whom figured as a regular, visible personage at the court of Queen Anne.   To be sure, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele were active Whigs and Jonathan Swift active Tories, but they were active as authorial friends of courtiers and politicians rather than as courtiers or politicians in their own right, such that I can only be grateful for Rachel Weisz’s Duchess of Marlborough’s passing mention of Swift as the potential author of a scurrilous pamphlet on Olivia Colman’s Anne’s lesbian liaison with Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill—grateful, that is, for the passing acknowledgment that writers at least indirectly exerted some political influence in the Annine microepoch.  As for the liaison itself, much as I yearn sternly to affirm with arms firmly akimbo that there is no evidence whatsoever that Queen Anne was genitally involved with any other woman, let alone with Abigail Hill, I cannot do so in good faith, inasmuch as I know next to nothing about Abigail Hill and indeed knew nothing whatsoever about her before seeing the film, such that at least for its first half I was much inclined to believe that she was one of those intrinsically objectionable fictional characters that the makers of historical novels and movies are unwarrantably allowed to insinuate into an otherwise literally historically referential dramaturgy by way of bringing home a sense of how the lives of so-called ordinary people contrasted with those of the supposedly only-supposedly high-and-mighty, the so-called bigwigs.  And speaking of bigwigs, from my passing knowledge of the portraiture of the period, I can in good faith affirm that the Annine microepoch was undoubtedly a microepoch in which men’s wigs were both extraordinarily long and especially refulgently curly; and the film most certainly cinches this aspect of the period, albeit to the seemingly deliberate detriment of its meta-political seriousness (q.v. below).  About the numerous flagrant anachronisms it is perhaps petulant to complain—but only perhaps inasmuch as one often has a hard time figuring out whether they have been deliberately inserted in a nudge-nudge wink-winkish spirit or are merely a manifestation of the screenwriters’ ignorance or laziness.  Nicholas Hoult’s Robert Harley’s No pressure is evidently knowingly anachronistic, as is Abigail Hill’s For fuck’s sake, but Hill’s use of fuck as a bare expletive might simply be an instance of the usual post-Hays-code-revocation-al tendency to make the old style-hat-and coat set talk dirty on the assumption that in uncensored everyday life people at all times and places have always used the naughtiest words in the general lexicon as often as possible.  One strikingly anachronistic episode did incontestably win the heart of my goat, albeit not on account of its most strikingly anachronistic feature.  This was—and is—the episode in which the Duchess of Marlborough is shown dancing with a handsome young buck to the obvious jealous consternation of the queen.  The choreography of this episode is chock-full of ludicrous dance moves that conjure up less vividly the ghost of 1970s disco-dancing as represented in Saturday Night Fever than the ghost of the parody of 1970s disco in Airplane.  This is all eminently bearable if by no means quite all well and good, but that such choreography should be dedicatedly lavished on a single dancing couple was and is abominable for the doubtless by-now-universally-unintelligible-but-for-all-that-utterly-unimpeachable reason that the eighteenth century was, inter multissima alia, the grand age of the assembly, the ball, the rout, etc.—in a word, an age in which people of the middle and upper social ranks habitually danced in large choreographic formations.  That not every social gathering of these ranks then centered on dancing is undeniable; that at some such non-dance-centered gathering an isolated couple took it upon themselves to cut a rug on their own is highly probable. But this (or these) is (or are) quite beside the point, inasmuch as any representation of a given milieu has an obligation to show us not merely what probably or occasionally but also what typically happened therein.  If Mr. Lanthimos &co. were simply uninterested in dancing as a diversion at the court of Queen Anne, they should have gratified that lack of interest by forbearing from including any representation of court-centered diversion in the film, for then they would not have given the inescapable false impression that by and large that court’s denizens frittered away their entire balance of free social time on boozing, gourmandizing, and thoroughly outrageous pastimes like throwing oranges at naked men (!).  As it very probably was, Mr. Lanthimos &co., were very interested in dancing indeed and simply had neither the time nor the financial resources to hire a sufficiently historically informed choreographer and a sufficient number of professional dancers accustomed to being instructed to dance in period-specific ways, and so opted to have a pair of non-dancers dance in the way that comes most naturally to all non-dancers required to dance on the spur of the moment nowadays--i.e, à la John Travolta as parodied in Airplane.  I say as it very probably was on the evidence of the film’s puny $15,000,000 budget, whose shoe-stringiness is likewise evident in the overall mise-en- scène and montage.  The majority of the action takes place in a large period-appropriate house and its surrounding grounds.  Until about three-fifths of the way through the film, I assumed the house was standing in for Windsor Castle, the principal country residence of the pre-Victorian British monarchs, partly because it more closely resembles that structure than their London residence, St. James’s Palace, but mostly because nothing that is shown on screen gives the viewer any reason to gather that the house is supposed to be sited in the middle of a substantial metropolis.  Round about two-fifths of the way through, there was a representation of something that I readily inferred was a session of the House of Commons, because it centered on two bunches of dudes sitting on a pair of terraced bench-rows separated by a wide aisle (and, no, Mr. Lanthimos &co., I didn’t need you to color-code their outfits like football-squad kits to make me realize that the two bunches corresponded to two mutually opposed political factions), and I assumed that this session was taking place in London because I had never heard of either house of Parliament’s convening elsewhere during this period, but I continued to assume that the main action was taking place in the country, that there were various scenes of people shuttling from Windsor to London and back that we were not being made privy to for reasons of dramaturgical expediency.  It was only at the abovementioned three-fifths-of-the-way-through point, in the second scene set in an inn-cum-brothel in which the Duchess of Marlborough wakes up after having been dragged unconscious through apparent miles of not only parkland but woodland (i.e., a form of flora immediately evocative of the forest adjoining Windsor Castle), that I began to suspect that London was the supposed setting of the entire action of the film, thanks to the Duchess’s order to have herself bailed out of confinement in the inn via a message sent to a man walking a duck in Hyde Park, a man who turned out to be her closest non-spousal male ally, the Earl of Godolphin.  While it was not inconceivable that the Duchess would have been in the country and the Earl in town at that moment, Ockham’s razor suggested to me that they were then both in London, for otherwise she presumably would have been seeking help from somebody closer to hand.  Why could not the proximity of London to the palace and the inn have been indicated at some earlier point in the film, and by explicitly cinematic means?  These means need not have been costly—a few painted urban matte shots of the kind Eric Rohmer skillfully employed in his comparably budgeted 2001 Paris-set French-Revolutionary period drama L’Anglaise et le duc would have been more than serviceable.  But of course, my accredited cinephile detractors will argue that all such pointers would have been effectively superfluous inasmuch as virtually every present-day cinemagoer simply assumes by default that any drama centered on the British royal family of any period takes place in London; and that in any case, the larger-scale setting of the film’s dramaturgy is fundamentally irrelevant, inasmuch as its avowed intention is to investigate and illuminate the love-hate triangle of Anne, Sarah, and Abigail, a triangle whose sole site of triangulation was after all the monarch’s court.  But in thus arguing, these detractors will merely be exposing the film’s incapacity to realize that very intention.  To be sure, Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, is one of the most criminally underrepresented figures in historical drama, cinematic or otherwise, and a cinematic treatment of her life is long overdue to the admittedly debatable extent that any dramatic treatment (cinematic or otherwise) of the life of any historical figure is due at all, and her relations with Queen Anne, along, presumably with Abigail Masham, née Hill (remember: the present writer’s knowledge of the life-history of Abigail Masham is as yet very scant indeed), constitute an important part of the Duchess’s biography.  But the Duchess’s energies, ambitions, and accomplishments were by no means exhausted by her personal relations with these two women, and even these relations are largely unintelligible in the absence of at least a schematic understanding of the political lie of the land of late-Stuart Britain—this because despite their longstanding mutual personal intimacy the Queen and the Duchess stood firmly on opposite sides of the kingdom’s most significant political divide, the divide between the Tories and the Whigs.  The Queen was a Tory—a person who in Samuel Johnson’s definition of the word in his Dictionary of two reigns and nearly fifty years later, “adhere[d] to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England,” in other words, a believer in making the political system as close as possible to that in place before the revolution of the 1640s that ended in the execution of the king and a de facto temporary abolition of the monarchy; in keeping both the monarch and the church strong and limiting opportunities for political and religious dissent.  Less philosophically centrally, Tories also tended to be hostile towards commerce and fairly conciliatory towards Britain’s principal enemy, France.   The Whigs believed in retaining as many of the liberties that Britons unaffiliated with the church or the crown had acquired thanks to the abovementioned revolution (along with the later, less bloody one of 1688 that brought Anne’s elder sister Mary to the throne as co-monarch with William III)—principal among these being a strong Parliament and freedom of worship for most non-Anglicans—at least most Protestant non-Anglicans, for by and large Whigs loathed and dreaded Roman Catholics, and loathed and dreaded France as the most powerful Roman Catholic nation. 
This moment in British history, the moment of the induration of the Whig-Tory schism, is especially significant for two reasons.  First, it established the bipartisan model of official political life that has been in place (yes, despite the efforts of umpteen-hundred third parties to disrupt it) throughout the English-speaking world ever since, as well as the dichotomy that has every since defined the difference between any two principal parties in any Anglosopheric polity—the dichotomy between a desire for a strong national government with a strong head of State and a weak legislature, and a desire for a weak national government with a weak head of State and a strong legislature.  Second, it marked the end of the last era in Britain in which religion as such—perhaps theology is a better word here—was a political mainspring, in which a significant proportion of Britons chose a political side principally on the basis of their own religious beliefs and their opposition to the religious beliefs of others.  Whether this religion-driven form of politics was actually doomed to die out and be replaced by the secularly orientated form that succeeded it, as received bienpensant opinion now holds, or whether it might not actually have lasted much longer in the absence of certain intrinsically non-inevitable contingencies, as I suspect, is quite beside the point in the present context: what matters here is that the Whigs and Tories hated each other not merely because they were envious of each other’s political influence but also because each party believed that the members of the other one tended to entertain erroneous opinions about such things as the nature of God and Jesus Christ, the correct manner of religious observance, and the means of attaining eternal salvation—opinions so erroneous, indeed, that they could land their entertainer in Hell for all time.  Any dramatic representation of the court of Queen Anne that strives to be faithful even in spirit to the historical record must take the religious aspect of that court’s politics into consideration because in the absence of such consideration the machinations of its monarch, courtiers, and parliamentarians simply do not make any sense.  These people were not merely jockeying for power, not merely striving for nationwide political hegemony as an end in itself; they were also striving to realize what they believed to be God’s plan for Britain and for themselves as individual Christians.

Scarcely any trace of the Whig-Tory let schism, let alone any of its peri-political substrates, finds its way into the dramaturgy of The Favourite.  At the very beginning of the film, we see the Duchess’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gaitiss), heading out to fight a war in France, but we are not told why he is fighting it, nor do we hear subsequently hear much of anything about that war except as a succession of personal triumphs and setbacks for the Duke and Duchess.  Once in the midst of a session of her favo(u)rite sport, non-clay pigeon shooting, the Duchess is guilelessly asked by Abigail why it is necessary to go to war with France and savagely rejoins something to the effect of, “Because if we don’t, the bastards will eat each and every one of us alive,” but she does not explain why she believes the French have developed such a keen appetite for human British flesh, and in the absence of such an explanation she simply comes across (doubtless in complete conformity with Mr. Lanthimos &co.’s intentions) as an anachronistic Guardian-esque caricature of a Blimpish Brexiteer.  The parliamentary heads of the Tories and Whigs, Harley and Godolphin, are shown fairly often and given a fair amount of dialogue, but this dialogue contains nothing of any genuinely political import and is prevailingly devoted to snarky if uniformly witless repartee about the speaker’s adversaries’ personal shortcomings.  The religious aspect of the political divide is, I believe, not even so much as hinted at in scripting, setting, or costuming: as near as I can recall, there is not a single moment in which a character performs a religious act, a single scene set in a church (even if the room standing in for the session chamber of the House of Commons does incongruously look exactly like the interior of one [presumably it was the chapel of the main manor house, lazily misappropriated]), or a single actor attired as any sort of clergyman.

If The Favourite were a very different sort of period film, a sort of live-action kinetic Watteau painting in which the wills of the principal characters were at most of secondary consideration, a film in which the desires and ambitions of those characters served merely as a background to the exhibition of their manners and idiosyncrasies, its utter disregard of politics with a capital P would not necessarily be fatal to a decent and intelligent viewer’s admiration or enjoyment of it.  If it were that sort of film, this disregard would still render its plot nonsensical, but a decent and intelligent viewer would not much care because he or she would realize that that plot was not actuated by or aiming towards anything of supposed metaphysical heft.  But because The Favourite is to the contrary a film in which the wills of the principal characters, Anne, Sarah, and Abigail, are always very much in the foreground, a film in which not a single scene does not show one or more of the three of them trying to get what she or they want(s), the absence of a broader political scheme or canvas for these wills’ exercise cannot help conferring on them a grotesquely nominalistic, monomaniacal quality that is not merely savage but downright bestial.  Anne’s will is actuated wholly by a desire for love, a desire that effectively boils down to a craving for a competent practitioner of cunnilingus; Sarah’s by a desire for power as reduced to brute physical control over man, woman, and beast—the power to twist an arm or throttle a throat, to knee a crotch, to kill a bird; and Abigail’s by a desire for status, in its most humdrum escutcheal form: as a kinswoman of the Duchess, she believes she is owed a title, which she eventually obtains when she marries the Baron Masham.  Accordingly, while the principal men in these women’s orbit—Harley, Godolphin, and Masham—are unquestionably their tools (at least in the sense that a hammer is a tool for opening a wine bottle), they are by no means their pawns, because a pawn can only be used in a game with a strategy, which in turn entails a complex system of interrelated aims, and each of these women has merely a single, simple aim.  Accordingly, further, the gazillion pseudo-feminist panegyrics to The Favourite’s supposedly compelling representation of so-called strong women (not that I have read any of these panegyrics, but I am as certain of their existence as I am certain that I am over five feet tall, as David Hume [b. 1711] says somewhere) are deplorably misplaced: a strong woman in the strong sense—as the Duchess of Marlborough undoubtedly was, Baroness Masham may very well have been, and Queen Anne very probably was not—does not merely insistently obtrude her will on a single object like a one-fingered lady pianist; rather, like her male counterpart, whom the idiomatic tradition of our language regrettably prohibits me from terming the strong man, she thinks big and acts small; she starts out by conceiving a grand scheme and subsequently exerts her will only in the manner in which, and to the extent to which, such exertion seems necessary to make the constituents of the scheme fit together adequately.  When pseudo-feminists praise the likes of The Favourite for supposedly finally (i.e., actually for the umpteen-thousandth time) presenting a female version of a male character that we have always admired by default, they are merely betraying their incorrigible amnesiac loutishness, inasmuch as only an incorrigible amnesiac lout could ever regard the sort of male character who has dominated Anglophone cinema of the past two-fifths of a century (i.e., more or less since the first Godfather movie) with anything more charitable than pesticidal contempt.

But of course in anticipation of my railing against The Favourite’s bestial dramaturgy-cum-ethics these louts will doubtless have had what they regard as a t**p card up their shirtysleeve, and they will doubtless point out to my supposed cluelessness that the greatest satirist of the age of Queen Anne, Jonathan Swift, was likewise intent on drawing attention to the bestiality of human nature, such that despite his abovementioned near-total absence from the film, The Favourite bears all the earmarks—or hallmarks or what have you—of being a Swiftian take on the late-Stuart court, indeed on being the satire that JS himself would doubtless have produced had he had access to [specification here preempted by farting noises signifying contempt for virtually the entire technical side of the history of cinema].  But these louts will have forgotten—or, more likely, failed ever to notice—that even in Swift’s satire, which is admittedly the most vituperatively misanthropic satire the world has yet seen, the bestial is never presented as normative, is never presented as either an acceptable point of view or an acceptable state of affairs.  However ruthlessly Swift pillories the incorrigibly bestial quality of the present human system of life, he always makes it clear that there at least ought to be a better human system of life, that this bestial quality is something to be ashamed of.  Thus, for example, in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s representation of Britain’s political institutions as incorrigibly corrupt is counterpoised by the wise and benevolent king of Brobdingnag’s critique of those institutions, the perverse applied hyperpedantry of the Laputans by the prudential applied rationality of Lord Munodi, and the revolting sensuality of the Yahoos by the edifying spirituality of the Houyhnhnms.  To be sure, Gulliver’s attempt to put into everyday British practice what he has learned from the norms and ideals he has encountered in his globe-spanning sea-voyages ultimately drives him to despair and madness; and these fictional norms and ideals cannot inspire us after the manner of a so-called true story because they are after all utterly fictional, but the aspirational impulse contained in them is by no means thereby invalidated.  In even the bitterest and most despairing genuine satire, there must be a sense that there is a genuinely good fight to be fought, even if the fighters of that fight are seen to be irretrievably doomed to lose it.  In what is termed, and merely termed, satire nowadays, the could-be would-be good are absolutely invariably represented as unregenerate chumps, sissies, or hypocrites—as people who are simply too stupid, cowardly, or sanctimonious (or all three, as in the case of The Favourite’s Queen Anne) to comport themselves with bestially monomaniacal ruthlessness, now itself become the sole norm and ideal.  The utter disappearance of genuine, good fight-centered satire from the present cinematic landscape is brought home most forcefully and repellently in The Favourite by the scene of Abigail and Baron Masham’s wedding night, wherein in lieu of coiting with her new husband the new Baroness absent-mindedly jacks him off while furiously ruminating aloud about the Duchess’s whereabouts and intentions.  The scene is vividly evocative of one from a much earlier movie, Network (1976), perhaps the last great genuine cinematic satire, the scene wherein Faye Dunaway as an ambitious young television executive embiggens her big plans for her network’s programming schedule while riding herself to orgasm atop the membrum virile of a disillusioned old-school quinquagenarian TV newsman played by William Holden.  The gaping difference in tone and significance between these two scenes is owing entirely to the presence of a credible representation of the good fight elsewhere in the earlier film and the utter absence of such a representation anywhere else in the later one.  In Network, Dunaway’s character’s monomaniacal yearning and striving for higher ratings even in coito unequivocally stamps her as a force of evil.  But they stamp her thus only in the context of Holden’s character’s de facto embodiment of an ethos that values higher goods than higher ratings, very much not only notwithstanding but even by dint of the fact that he has sorely compromised this embodiment by committing both professional and matrimonial adultery, by supporting Dunaway’s dumbing-down and sensationalizing of the network’s content and deserting his loyal longstanding fellow-fiftysomething wife for this younger woman who is a dedicated champion of everything he despises.  To be sure, we know for certain that Dunaway’s banausic ethos triumphs in the end, inasmuch as the film concludes with the assassination of a television presenter for lousy ratings, but thanks to Holden’s repudiation of her just before this assassination, a repudiation that firmly reestablishes his commitment to his original loftier ethos, we know for equally certain that this banausic ethos shouldn’t have triumphed.  By flagrant contrast, the off-jacking scene of The Favourite cannot but be read as a wholehearted endorsement of Abigail’s yearning and striving to steal on the Duchess each and every march up the staircase of status, inasmuch as the other party in the scene, Lord Mascham, has never stood for or been involved in anything more redeeming than this staircase-ascent: he has never been anything but a booby lordling who wants a certain bit of tail and is willing to go along with any move that allows him to continue hoping to obtain that selfsame CBoT.

While as a student of the British eighteenth century I cannot but be especially dismayed by the universal popularity of such a pseudo-satirical shitslinging-fest as The Favourite on account of its historical setting, as a charter resident of the early twenty-first century Anglosphere, I cannot pretend that The Favourite instantiates anything groundbreakingly abominable, inasmuch as I am aware that such pseudo-satirical shitslinging fests have been regarded as the ne plus ultra of high cinematic-cum-televisual art since at least as far back as the first season of Mad Men, and that since only slightly more recently—namely, since the antepenultimate season of Breaking Bad or the first season of Dexter—they have reached an ethical nadir or rock bottom from which it is more than figuratively impossible to descend any lower; namely, a nadir or rock bottom whereupon a person who simply voids the ethical field by treating other human beings as pure, dedicated means is posited as a hero.  As to the reason why such P-SSFs have become so wildly popular since the dawn of the millennium, I am afraid it is no less prosaic than appalling–viz., that in a scenario chillingly reminiscent of that mid-twentieth century cinematic non-satire Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the comparatively virtuous antemillennials have to a man, woman, and child (sic on the anachronistic mere trio of human types), been replaced by creatures as abhorrent and reprehensible as the creatures presented as mere caricatures of humanity in the genuine satires of yore—creatures for whom shit-slinging is a mere matter of course, a de facto means of engaging with other creatures still (albeit factitiously and with any luck transiently) styled human beings.  The present writer is unembarrassed to confess that he is heartily ashamed of sharing air with such creatures, such Yahoos (how sad, incidentally, it is that a certain company’s by-now-too-ancient-to-be-notorious piss-poor showing in the war of proprietary names has entirely stripped Yahoo of its polemical force!), and his shame is compounded by his bitter realization that unlike Gulliver he cannot seek consolation in the company of horses, inasmuch as he is far too impecunious to purchase, let alone feed and stable, the cheapest Lilliputian Shetland pony.

THE END

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