Jean's Take

A blog about words, women, & whimsy

Category: movies

Caroline Weldon alias Woman Walks Ahead

Woman Walks Ahead, 2018, 101 mins., is adapted from a novel by Eileen Pollack called Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Caroline Weldon and Sitting Bull.  It tells the story of Caroline Weldon, a well-to-do widow and portrait painter from Brooklyn, who, in the late 1890’s, packed her paints and her trunk and made the long, arduous trip west to paint Chief Sitting Bull. (Woman Walks Ahead is the name Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux gave her.) Our government attempted to send her back—these were tense times with the Indians—but she meets Sitting Bull and stays, well, I don’t know where she stays for many of the scenes of them together are in his tent, or walking the range, etc.  One time, he changes clothes in front of her and there is tense music but that’s about it.  Their relationship is the major focus of the film. But if this film is trying to make a case for a more intimate relationship between the two of them, it fails . . . , dismally. Research shows that there was mutual respect and she became his confidante and secretary, but lover? A real stretch—besides, he already had 2 wives.

Weldon is played by Jessica Chastain, a fine actress, but wasted here. She dresses in prim ruffled day-dresses and shoes designed for the drawing room; hence, one can easily spot her in a crowd. One time, the director sits her on a big white stallion in her eastern garb, moving through a crowd. The scene made me think of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in which he tucked his recently departed wife into the canvas. Her otherworldly figure enhances; Chastain just looks silly.

On the other hand, Sitting Bull played by Michael Greyeyes almost makes up for that.  I looked him up to find that he is a Canadian actor with a Master’s Degree in Theater from Kent State and an accomplished ballet dancer—a tall one at 6’2”.  When Caroline first meets this great Chief who brought down Custer, he’s wearing a beat-up floppy hat and old clothes and is on his knees digging up potatoes. This menial task along with his demeanor helped to quickly establish an aura of sadness and resignation combined with a dignity that he maintained throughout the film.

This is not a great film but it did send me into research mode. I needed to know more about Caroline Weldon. Alas, we were duped! No wonder Chastain was no more than a cardboard copy, she was mostly fiction. The real Caroline Weldon was born in Switzerland in 1844 and her name was Susanna Carolina Faesch. She moved with her mother to Brooklyn when she was a child. Her mother married a physician and when Caroline got older, she married a physician too. About 10 years into her marriage she ran away with a married man, had a son and when her lover returned to his wife—which happens more often than not, she had no choice but to move back with her mother. During this time, she got interested in the Indian Rights movement and when her mother died and left her a little inheritance, she changed her name to Caroline Weldon, took her son and went off to paint Chief Sitting Bull. Later, the two would have a falling out  and she would leave. She was on the Mississippi on her way to visit a cousin in Kansas City when he was killed—not, as we saw her in the film, being dragged away in tears. Sometime around this time, her son died and, in 1921, she would die alone in a small apartment in Brooklyn from candle wax burns. (I know, that does sound unlikely, but it was a hundred years ago.)

Hers is a sad story. We don’t know whether she ran away with a married man on impulse or if her marriage was so unhappy that she had to do something, but her actions, of course, would have destroyed her reputation. Even her son had to feel society’s rebuff—remember, it was the 1800’s. (Funny that men don’t seem to have that problem.} It is logical to assume that when she changed her name and started west with her son, she was hoping to start over, to leave that past behind. Her support of the Sioux and their plight is recorded. There just wasn’t anything left to do. The Senate had already passed the Dawes Act which gave the government the right to place the Indians on small reservations so they could send settlers to what would become North and South Dakota. She was too late, but she tried. She did what she could.

There’s a cemetery in Scotland on the North Sea with a grave tucked in near the wall that has the epitaph, ‘She did what she could’. Caroline Weldon made me think of it. She was brave; she was kind—even spending her meager fortune to help feed the Sioux, and she wanted to make a difference. She tried; she did what she could which is all we should expect from anyone.. She deserved better than this film.

I’m giving this film 2 carats, one for making us aware of Weldon. In fact, last year, after the film came out, Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn had a trolley tour in March during Women’s History Month called ‘Women who walked Ahead’ and featured Weldon’s grave. It likely wouldn’t have happened without the film.

The second carat is for making me think about Native Americans. . We don’t see much about them. Oh, there’s the Lone Ranger and Tonto but we have to think hard to come up with much else. They are our dirty linen. Did you know that our government even killed all the buffalo so the Sioux would lose their source of food and become dependent, easier to control?

By the way, Caroline Weldon painted 4 canvases of Sitting Bull. Two still exist – one is held by the North Dakota Historical Society in Bismarck, ND and the other at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, Ark.  Go see them.

Sam Rockwell plays a disgruntled soldier

Directed by Susanna White                       Screen writer: Steven Knight                               2 carats


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Far From the Madding Crowd, a Victorian Delight!

Far From the Madding Crowd, 2016, 110 mins., is a film adaptation of the novel by the same name written by the Victorian poet and writer, Thomas Hardy.  There are three earlier versions, the latest before this one was 1967 with Julie Christie. Hence, if you become a fan of this new one, you can veg-out on three or even four if they are available. Not having done that or, alas, read the novel, this film generated a few questions right off.

First, that his heroine is named Bathsheba made my antennae go up. Had he modeled his Bathsheba after that grand Jewish Matriarch from the Bible, I asked myself? Having conjured her up and written her memoir for my book ‘Daughters of Eve: a Herstory Book’ (Available on Amazon), I do consider myself something of an authority on her nature and I was eager to see what he had produced. I decided he simply fancied the name.

My second question is one I direct at most films or books in which the author is a man and the central figure in his story is a woman. Virginia Woolf wrote in her brilliant essay “A Room of One’s Own” that she was asked to speak at Oxford on women. She wasn’t quite sure what they wanted—Women in History, Women Writers, etc.—so she went to the library, looked up ‘women’ and found that most everything about women was written by men. Do they get us right? Take Shakespeare, for example. Would Desdemona have really allowed Othello to kill her for something she didn’t do, at least, without a fight? All right, I know there’s more to it than that, that for Shakespeare ‘the play’s the thing’ but it always bothered me that she just took it while I’m sitting there, gritting my teeth and thinking ‘kick him where it hurts and get out of there!’

For Hardy, the story is also the thing and the perfect thing for a Victorian writer where strong characters might lead to emotions that a Victorian audience would think unseemly. Bathsheba, delightfully played by Carey Mulligan, starts out strong. She inherits her uncle’s farm—a large tenant farm—and is determined to make it the best farm around. She also attracts three very different suitors: a sheep farmer, Gabriel Fox played by maddingly handsome Matthias Schoenaerts; a landed gentry and proper Victorian William Boldwood played by Michael Sheen, whose land borders hers; and a soldier scoundrel, Frank Troy, played by Tom Sturbridge.  She receives proper marriage proposals from the first two and still plans to go it alone but then the soldier shows up, kisses her several times—and I do mean just several times–and she rushes off to town to marry him. A totally irrational and impetuous act, but remember, the story’s the thing.

I won’t tell you anymore because you should see it. The cinematography in the English Countryside—Dorset, I understand—is well-done and quite lovely and the whole production is charming. I recommend it—but then, I love Victorian.

PS: Our Women’s Film Club saw it in February. It was well-received.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg                               Written by Dave Nicholls

4 carats

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*Everybody’s Fine, 2009, and Robert DeNiro

Everybody’s Fine’, starring Robert DeNiro is a fine film for Father’s Day. I must warn you, however, that I have a friend who won’t watch DeNiro in anything because of his ‘trash talking’ of President Trump. I wasn’t too surprised by it. I’ve watched him in the past on Letterman and he has trouble with conversation. Don’t you think that sometimes people who have trouble putting words together are very good with four-letter ones–and gestures? And let’s face it, in his craft he works with a script. But, should we judge artists by their private lives and actions–or their lack of ability to express themselves properly? That’s a real ponder . . . . .

Since Ring Cycle season is coming up at the Met, Richard Wagner comes to mind. By all reports, he was a nasty, unkind man with few scruples. He absconded with his best friend’s wife, rubbed shoulders with the Nazis and belched when he ate, but he wrote some of the most wondrous music ever written and is a towering figure in his art. I don’t approve of what he was but I could never cut him from my life.

On the other hand, Robert DeNiro is little more than a ‘Raging Bull’. I could easily join my friend and give DeNiro up–he’s done little that I fancy–but if I had, I would have missed his fine performance in Everybody’s Fine. DeNiro plays Frank, a recent widower and recent retired factory worker (he coated power wires with PVC tubing) who is expecting his four children home for a little reunion. When they begin to cancel at the last minute, he packs a bag and, against doctor’s advice, goes on a road trip to visit them. He winds up learning a lot about his children but even more about himself.

And my question? Well, I’m still pondering . . . . . . .  How about you?

Favorite moment: With Frank in the art store when he is shown his son’s painting of telephone poles.

*Written and Directed by Kirk Jones who adapted it from an Italian film, supporting cast includes Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale

Rating: 3 carats 

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How to Make an American Quilt, 1995, 117 mins. . . .

Winona Ryder stars as Finn, a graduate student at Berkeley attempting to finish her thesis.  She’s changed the topic four times and has the same trouble committing to her live-in boyfriend, Dermot Mulroney.  Finn decides to spend a month with her grandmother, Ellen Burstyn, who lives with her sister, Anne Bancroft, in a big old house by an orange orchard. Finn arrives into a Quilting Bee which includes five other women, Jean Simmons, Lois Smith, Kate Nelligan, Maya Angelou, and Alfre Woodard. As they stitch squares for a quilt themed ‘where love resides’ they attempt to help Finn with stories (shown in flashbacks) of their own marriages.

Favorite moment: The women tell her the quilt is for her.
Fun Fact:
taken from a novel by Whitney Otto that started out as her Master’s thesis.
Screenplay written by Jane Anderson; directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse 
Critic Corner: Caryn James of the New York Times wrote ‘we are not watching movie women but real women with shaky judgment and lifetimes of reasons to resent and forgive one another as well as all the men in their lives.’



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