". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, February 21, 2015


I love David Suchet's ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989 - 2013), though it takes a turn around 2008 which is darker and uglier, less a luxe entertainment of justice served and order restored, though not necessarily more realistic. Poirot begins to feel the stress of his years of being the instrument of bringing justice to murder's victims, while his solitude begins to weigh on him. His large eyes -- like those of an owl -- that see in so many directions at once, also well with tears, more than once. In Murder on the Orient Express (2010), which pointedly is located in 1938, though he solves the crime, he cannot force himself be the agent of justice. Even his mustache points, point if not down, straight, not curved upwards in Poirot's signature second smile.

No little provocation for that love is embodied by the design and score of the title sequence. These are a seamless blend of the Poirot period elements (end of WWI, to nearly the outbreak of WWII) signaling sophistication, elegance and glamour. The opening title sequence deconstructs the decorative arts of the historical era that is being recreated. Art Deco and modernist, i.e. both revolutionary while harking back to certain more traditional decorative arts, such as the Asian and Egyptian. All this, plus at the end, a soupcon of occult suggestion. that further plays up the announcement that this program will deliver nothing of the ordinary.

See for instance, the 1993, series 5 episode. “Dead Man’s Mirror” (which is specifically named at the auction as Art Deco) where all these elements of Deco, Egyptian, Modernist etc. roll together seamlessly. The era's class considerations, roll together equally as seamlessly -- which is where Poirot differs so much in treatment from American attempts at these entertainments.

This floats with a buoyancy one would not expect of a series drama centering murder, in the decades that include the Depression and the lead-up to WWII. So we are further promised that we're about to escape into a English world that is as much a fairy tale in a never-never-land -- though without the delicious frou frou -- as are the American Astaire-Rogers madcap song and dance romance extravaganza films, the sets for which also frequently employ extensively Art Deco set design.

The title sequence literally pulls us into the series's escape by centering travel, which, for the elite and privileged who could afford it, had finally become authentically comfortable and easy.  (To learn what travel was like, prior to the age of steam and the innovation of passenger ships, even for the privileged, read the accounts by John Quincy Adams's first voyage to Europe, with his father, John Adams.)

In Poirot's opening sequence, comes first a plane (presented by a rendering influenced by period, industrial design, small enough to be a private plane).* Air travel was just beginning to be common -- again for those who could afford it, the most up-to-date glamorous mode of travel.  The plane pulls along the older form of travel, a train which has first class cars. For only an instant we see "Liner" printed upon the side of something racing along in these transportation scenes, which could mean either the train or that even older luxe form of travel, the first class passenger ship liner.

The 1920's and 30's are the interim between the old world of rigid class definition, in which almost everyone was either a servant or had a servant -- or very many servants -- and the world of reliable factory work, modern housing developments and modern conveniences that made servants too expensive and difficult for nearly everyone. Among many other elements this series is presenting, made from murder mysteries written in those decades, is a milieu that reassures the class elite's anxieties about a changing world, no matter how many of them are murdered by their relatives and lovers. (That supposedly is the attraction of murder mysteries: a bloody destruction of how things are, then, with the revelation of the killer, traditional social order is redeemed and returned.)

This wasn't going to last much longer, babies, and one might guess that Ms. Christie was rather more aware of this than many of her contemporaries.

ITV's Poirot shows up the Downton Abbey crew as fusty and musty as it is. They may pretend they're in the 1920's, but they're still lurching along in the 18th century. The comedy perhaps comes out of knowing that the audience identifies itself primarily as Lady or Countess so-and-so when, in the reality of those days, we'd be the skivvy -- who doesn't even rate her own name, as even ladies' maids in those days were called by their Lady's name.

If I have a criticism to proffer about this long-running series, is that characters who are supposed to be Americans just don't talk like Americans. But then, this is said about Americans who are supposed to be playing Brits on American television too. But it can be grating that British television actors on a British television program, when playing an American default to something that evidently is supposed to be either Southern or Western, and never is either one.

The mouse that runs all through Hickory Dickory Dock is not cute and endearing, particularly as it not quite tracks through a victim's blood.
Quite a few episodes of Poirot I'd not previously seen became available via streaming on netflix, including the brilliant 1995 series 6 episode "Hickory Dickory Dock."  For starters, the episode is seen extensively from the point of view of a mouse, including the opening, as the mouse runs down the clock. One of the suspects is played by a very young Damian Lewis, now Henry VIII in the BBC's Wolf Hall.  It seems too, that Rowling / Galbraith borrowed some of the elements from it -- or from the book? I've never read any Poirot novels, never seen a one around here, and am reliably informed that the book Poirot is very different from the Suchet Poirot. In Galbraith's The Silkworm, a meeting takes place in the venerable Cheddar Cheese pub-bar between protagonist private detective, Cormoran Strike, and Nina Lascelles – a junior editor, whose body language and appearance are perceived by Strike as those of a mouse. The locations of Hickory Station, etc. are also in The Silkworm.

Poirot, the Greatest Detective in the World and the Most Famous, flanked by his friends, decomissioned Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. 

Miss Lemon, Poirot's faithful and extremely competent assistant.
Agatha Christie's Poiret may be perhaps one of the greatest television series ever made, particularly if one's criteria include the design and cinematography. The writing and acting are top-of-the-line, with a fine ensemble cast that one greets joyfully in each episode -- just as their characters do with each when having been separated for long periods by circumstance -- sometimes they've been separated for entire seasons. --, and often not pleasant circumstances. As many of the episodes show, even as Poirot and Company travel comfortably to stay in the most luxe of hotels, to the most ancient of places in Mesopotamia, Rhodes, Egypt, among those unhappy circumstances is time itself. Time just keeps going, with murder and all the other darkness of humanity flowing along its currents from the furthest past into futures that we can barely see, so darkly does the future loom for Poirot's world.


*  See the first Astaire-Rogers movie pairing, before they became the feature marquee attraction, Flying Down to Rio (1933).  In fact, their last film pairing was the 1939 biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, in which Vernon dies tragically in a training  accident preparing to be a war pilot for the Royal Flying Corps in WWI.  Among others, there is Dorothy Sayers's second Lord Peter Wimsey (1926) Clouds of Witness, adapted for BBC television in 1972.

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