Thursday January 31, 2013

KEENE, N.H.

She-Wolves -- I recall how during the last century women aspired to positions higher than personal secretaries and were called "pushy" and "unwomanly." For men to claw their way up was, of course, "natural." Small surprise that the Middle Ages had the same mind frame concerning women who wanted to rule in their own right.

In "She-Wolves, England’s Early Queens," a three-part DVD on the Athena Learning label, writer and hostess Dr. Helen Castor, tells the story of "seven English queens who challenged male power" and had to face "the fierce and fiery reactions they provoked" (from the cover blurb).

The queens in question are Matilda, daughter of Henry I; Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, and best known from "A Lion in Winter"; Isabella, neglected wife of Edward II; Margaret of Anjou, wife to Henry VI, and best known as Shakespeare’s "she-wolf of France"; poor Queen Jane Dudley (who lasted 9 days); and finally the daughters of Henry VIII, Mary and her younger sister Elizabeth. Castor tells each story clearly but forever hammers home the idea that men had it all.

While the history itself is fascinating, the visuals are boring.


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Why do documentaries have to show the locations involved with modern footage, out-of-focus close ups of feet walking on a modern street, and above all the endless shots of the narrator walking to and fro while the voice-over narration goes on? Were there not enough portraits and engravings to show to better purpose? For me, all this was far too pointless for either entertainment or edification.

Each of the three episodes runs just over an hour and there are subtitles which helpfully give the spelling of the proper nouns. The usual Athena booklet is most helpful.

Testimony of Two Men -- Judging from Amazon.com reviews of Taylor Caldwell’s novel, "Testimony of Two Men" and the 1977 mini-series of the same name, many people had the highest praise for both. Not having read the book, I thought the series was predictable and therefore boring after 45 minutes into the first of three episodes. But I was determined to stick to it and wound up enjoying it on its level.

The story starts toward the end of the Civil War and ends early in the 20th century, taking in the lives of several families and their interrelationships. The only incidents of real interest are those in which Dr. Jonathan Ferrier (David Birney) fights for hygienic conditions in his hospital. The rest of the multiple plots are concerned with sex, crooked politics, sex, and (if one looks closely) the changes in American life. And sex.

It would be impossible to give a synopsis without spoiling things, but it all begins when Martin Eaton (Steve Forrest) returns from the war, only to find the love of his life Hilda (Barbara Perkins) engaged to Adrian Ferrier (William Shatner). Most of the 287 minutes of plot is the result of that.

The bad guys are purely bad -- Jonathan’s brother Harold (David Huffman), the crooked politician Kenton Campion (J.D. Cannon), the crooked factory owner Jonas Witherby (Ray Milland). None of the good lead characters are purely good. Even the hero has his temper and other not so nice points. In fact, only the Priest (Dan Daily) and the prostitutes are likable.

Others in this star-studded cast are Ralph Bellamy, Theodore Bikel, Tom Bosley and Margaret O’Brien.

Yes, it can be fun. Great drama it is not.

Chinese Experience -- Another entry into the Athena Learning series of DVDs featuring Bill Moyers is "Becoming American, The Chinese Experience." In three 87-minute episodes, to quote the blurb on the jacket, "Through personal narratives and interviews with historians, Moyers recounts the remarkable transformation of a bachelor society confined to America’s Chinatowns into the new ‘model minority’ and beyond ..."

"Gold Mountain Dreams" tells about the 1849 Gold Rush that drew many men from China. "Between Two Worlds" is about the "bachelor" husbands who sent money back to their families but could not afford to have them come over. "No Turning Back" follows the continuing prejudice against the Chinese through the civil rights movement, and their self-identification as Chinese Americans today.

There are further interviews in a bonus film, "Becoming American: Personal Journeys with Bill Moyers." The usual Athena booklet provides helpful historical and philosophical background information.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.