Thursday 31 December 2015

2015 film wrap-up

1/ The 10 best films I watched this year are:
Brief Encounter (1945): Voted to be the most romantic film of all time, this David Lean film goes against the usual motifs of romance films: the actor and actress are not glamorous, the love story is an affair between 2 married people, the affair begins with the man's help for a woman that has grit in her eye and ends with a shoulder squeeze and is unconsummated. Brief Encounter begins with the scene of the 2 characters at the tea shop, there's a sense of awkwardness, and a vague feeling in the air of something unsaid, but we don't yet know what's going on- it's only later when the narrative goes back to the beginning and all the incidents unfold before us and gradually lead to this scene again, that it becomes particularly beautiful and moving. I've written about it here and here.
12 Angry Men (1957): The best courtroom film, whose actions actually don't take place in a courtroom. Sidney Lumet demonstrates how he can make a film almost set in only 1 room, and make it work- except for the opening and a brief scene outside the courthouse in the end, the entire film takes place in the jury room. It's driven by characters and emotions- Sidney Lumet uses heat to create a sense of claustrophobia and worsen the tense, stressful, irritable atmosphere, as he has done in Dog Day Afternoon. Regarding plot, a man is convicted, 12 men who don't know him and don't know each other walk into a room to decide his fate; 11 men think "guilty", only 1 man, played by Henry Fonda, thinks "probably not", and slowly he breaks their arguments and convinces everyone else. 12 Angry Men is about law and the concept of reasonable doubt, about the job of jurors, about persuasion, about evidence and logic, about reason and prejudices, about justice, about conscience, about standing up for what you believe in even if everyone else in the room disagrees with you.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957): The best courtroom film if 12 Angry Men is excluded because strictly speaking it isn't set in a courtroom. Or the courtroom film with the best twist. Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton are wonderful, and if the film isn't as often mentioned as it should be, the simple reason is that it's made by the man who made the masterpieces Sunset Blvd and The Apartment, which naturally overshadow everything else. I briefly wrote about it once.
Le notti di Cabiria (1957): This is early Federico Fellini, before he created Felliniesque films and started being accused of being fanciful and self-indulgent, but it's unmistakably a film by Fellini: Nino Rota music, dancing, parties, magic shows, clowns, a female Charlie Chaplin, a scene of hypnotism, religion, smooth camera movements, people walking as though dancing to music. The film starts with an ordinary story and a stock character, a naive prostitute with a golden heart looking for love in vain, but Fellini works wonders. It is sad but not cynical, moving but not sentimental. A comparison with Sweet Charity shows how restraint, how controlled and unsentimental Le notti di Cabiria is, Fellini knows when it's enough, and refuses to make his Cabiria self-pitying. I've written about it here and here.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970): Billy Wilder is often cynical, this is when he's most humane. Roger Ebert thinks that after some interesting scenes at the beginning, the film tells an ordinary Sherlock Holmes adventure- even though he's my hero in film criticism, his assessment is mistaken. On the surface, it's just another adventure, but Wilder makes Holmes more human by letting him fail and giving us a glimpse of his vulnerabilities. Like Fellini and other great writers, Wilder doesn't exploit emotions, he knows when it's enough, he allows silence to suggest more and invites the audience to fill in. A melancholic film, partly thanks to the use of Tchaikovsky's music. I once wrote about it here.
Chinatown (1974): Roman Polanski at his best. I remember those days when my favourite film ever was The Pianist; then I was unimpressed with Rosemary's Baby, rather scared but underwhelmed by The Tenant, puzzled about Bitter Moon, critical of Repulsion, and was for some time indifferent to Polanski. Knife in the Water is great, in its subtleties, I just didn't have the same enthusiasm as a few years ago. Now Chinatown makes me think I have to watch again the films mentioned above (except Repulsion, because I've never seen Catherine Deneuve as a good actress, and she looks too classy for the role), and other films by Polanski. Jack Nicholson plays a Bogart character that looks tougher, more aggressive, but has a heart and a conscience and even some kind of idealism behind his cynicism, wit and sharp tongue.
The Godfather Part II (1974): Is part I better or part II better? It is unfair to say, when part I I've watched 3-4 or even 5 times, and watched part II for the 1st time this year. Francis Ford Coppola does several remarkable things here: he creates a sequel-prequel on a par with the 1st film, he gets from Al Pacino a performance almost as great and memorable as Marlon Brando's performance as the Godfather, and if part I sees the mafia from within and might make people like being part of the mafia, because of the power, principles, sense of a large family, and stress on honour and loyalty, part II portrays the mafia as a lot more violent and ruthless. One may say that Michael betrays his father's values and has no heart, thus isolating himself and making everyone enemies. On the other hand, it's not hard to understand his disillusionment, disappointment and distrust, when the people closest to his family and even his own brother betray him. At the same time, the plot of the young Vito lets us see that violence has always been there, since the beginning- it's just violence begetting violence.Part I is about a powerful man. Part II is about a lonely and self-destructive man.
Annie Hall (1977): I wrote about it a few days ago.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): I also wrote about it a few days ago (a novelistic approach). There are 2 plots, with counterparts and opposites (the Judah in the Misdemeanors plot is Lester, a successful but pompous, self-important, ridiculous film producer; the Ben in the Misdemeanors plot is Cliff). Woody Allen combines the 2 plots together by analogy, by film scenes Cliff watches with his niece that echo scenes in the Crimes plot, by the talk between Cliff and Judah at the end of the film, and by the the-evil-are-reward-the-innocent-are-punished conclusion. The 2 strongest performances are from Martin Landau and Alan Alda, who play the 2 douchebags.
Birdman (2014): If you break down Birdman to its basic plot, it's a story of a faded film star unable to come to terms with ageing and being forgotten or replaced, which would place it in the same basket as Sunset Blvd, All about Eve, The Artist or Clouds of Sils Maria, but it doesn't belong there, because of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's treatment of the basic story and handling of the material. In fact, Birdman doesn't belong to anything, any genre: it has been seen as "a black-humor film, a mental health film, a realism/surrealism/magical realism film, a dark-humor parody film, a film of psychological realism, a failed domestic reconciliation drama, or a film concerning theatrical realism and naturalism". Iñárritu puts much in it that sometimes the film feels a bit messy, but the approach is so creative, particularly in the use of the Birdman figure, with all the imagined flying scenes, that the experience is thrilling. 1 of the most brilliant films produced in recent years.

2/ I watched 18 films again. Some of them pale a bit when viewed again, like Match Point and Mother (South Korea). Anatomy of a Murder is still good but the 2nd time felt a bit slow. Scarface is no longer a favourite. Charlie's Angels now appears unbelievably silly, especially as this time I notice its so-called feminism. A Room with a View still puzzles. Some Like It Hot and Bringing Up Baby are still fresh and hilarious. Some films, no matter how many times I've watched them, are forever wonderful and captivating: The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. Psycho gets better the 2nd time.

3/ Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring is the most zen, poetic film about life. The 4 seasons are the 4 periods in a person's life. The film is full of symbols, many of which may be lost to people unfamiliar with Buddhism. What do they mean, the doors that close nothing out or in, for example? Roger Ebert thinks: "They are not symbols, I think, but lessons. They teach the inhabitants that it is important to follow custom and tradition, to go the same way that others have gone, to respect what has been left for them." Again here I differ from him: in my interpretation, the doors are only symbolic- barriers are in the mind, if you ignore right and wrong and decide to cross the barrier, as the young monk does in the film, no door can hinder your way. The doors close nothing because they can block nothing. However, even if we don't catch all the symbols and understand their meaning, we can still see it as a beautiful film about the different stages in life, and each episode/part is like a koan, about cruelty to animals, about sexual desire and desire for possession, about anger and jealousy and murder and then remorse and repentance and redemption, etc. There is little dialogue, but Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring says a lot, and each time, something new.
The only puzzlement is: how is it that such a beautiful, thought-provoking film could have been made by the same man who made those twisted films DreamSamaritan Girl, The Bow and, worst of all, Pietà?

4/ The most important directors to me this year are Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and Alfred Hitchcock.
By Wilder, so far I've seen Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The 7 Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, Irma la Douce, The Fortune Cookie and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. 12 films. In terms of cinematography, techniques, he can't compare with, say, Kubrick, he started out as a screenwriter, his strengths are in plot, dialogue, details, characterisation and working with actors. When he's great, he does everything perfectly, as though effortlessly. When he's not so great, he's never really bad- his weaker films always have some "saving grace", like charming Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, sly Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie or energetic James Cagney in One, Two, Three.
Woody Allen is different from Billy Wilder and not as diverse, but there are a few similarities: both are cynical, both are extremely witty and can be funny, satirical as well as hysterical and absurd, both are not innovative in techniques. I've watched Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love and Blue Jasmine. 11 films in total, which is very little, considering how many films he has made. It means something though- I didn't care much for Woody Allen till recently, as I realise that in recent years he hasn't made anything really good that can be on a par with Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors, which means that I will search for his earlier films instead of watching Irrational Man. Think about it: how many people can write and direct and act and do all well? It is unfortunate that many people dismiss his works because of his personal life, or interpret them in its light.
If the films of Wilder and Allen show the primacy of writing, Fellini's art is about images. Fantasy, dreams, childhood memories. Some directors please the eyes with epic scenes and stunning visual effects but forget the brains, some directors create good films but forget that film is a different medium, using a different language and having different advantages, and Fellini makes wonderful use of cinematic language- he uses images where someone else, a weaker or less confident director, would use voice-over as a short cut. So far I've watched 7 films: I vitelloni, La strada, Le notti di Cabiria, La dolce vita, 8 1/2, Fellini Satyricon and Amarcord. With a bit of Fellini's Casanova. Even whilst personally preferring early Fellini to late Fellini, I don't see him as indulgent- in fact, I like Amarcord and see 8 1/2 as a masterpiece and intend to watch more of his works.
Last but not least, another director I love and consider important to me this year is Hitchcock. My knowledge of his long career is limited, only 10 films: Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie and Family Plot, with a bit of Rebecca and a bit of Strangers on a Train. I might have watched Foreign Correspondent. Not all of these films are well-done: Rope, also inspired by Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment like Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, goes well for most of the film and falls flat in the end, because James Stewart's character's sudden realisation is weak and unconvincing; Marnie is interesting, but there is a problem with the psychology (the incident can't explain Marnie's hatred of men and her mother's apparent dislike of her); The Man Who Knew Too Much has 2 main characters that are too slow, thoughtless and dim-witted. But they aren't that bad- perhaps I'm more critical of them than they deserve because I've seen Hitchcock at his best, like Vertigo and Psycho and The Birds, which show him as the undisputed master of suspense. The Trouble with Harry is another favourite, partly because it's so uncharacteristic of Hitchcock.

5/ This year I watched 7 films produced in 2015.
Furious 7 and Mission: Impossible- Rouge Nation are well-done and highly entertaining. Magic Mike XXL is entertaining, but in terms of plot is weaker than the 1st film. Spectre is visually pleasing and no more, it offers nothing new about James Bond and has 2 forgettable Bond girls and is almost as bad as Quantum of Solace (may I mention in passing that Lea Seydoux's light blue satin dress doesn't look good on her skin and doesn't go well at all with her dark lip colour?). Daniel Craig is very good as James Bond, better than Pierce Brosnan, but his best Bond film is still Casino Royale
A Most Violent Year is good but perhaps will soon be forgotten.
Far from the Madding Crowd seems a bit weak, even though I haven't read the book to compare. Carey Mulligan delivers a striking performance that runs the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B. As I understand, Bathsheba has 3 different kinds of feeling for the 3 men, and Carey Mulligan shows no distinction. However, it made me want to read the novel, that is probably good enough (I almost didn't read Mansfield Park because of the 1999 film, for example). 
Bridge of Spies is good. Tom Hanks in this film isn't very different from himself in Saving Mr Banks, but James B. Donovan is such a fascinating, admirable person that it doesn't matter. 

I feel less alone. I'm 1 of the people not wild about Tokyo Story. It is good, yes, but is it that good? It's the same way everyone else praises Boyhood to the sky and I alone dislike it.
So next year:
- I have to watch more Ozu. Even if I never warm to Ozu (we can't expect ourselves to like all directors), at least I'll know what I'm talking about.
- There are other directors I have to see or know better. Priorities: Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonio, Luis Bunuel, Roman Polanski.

So, there. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR, FOLKS. I wish you all peace, joy, luck, good health and success. 

Monday 28 December 2015

Crime and Punishment vs Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point

Match Point and (1 of the 2 plots of) Crimes and Misdemeanors have a similar story: a man has an affair and, when threatened with exposure, chooses to keep his life of privilege and comfort by murdering his mistress and then gets away with it. It is as though in the last scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah Rosenthal indirectly confesses his murder by telling a murder story to the film director Clifford Stern and Cliff takes the idea to create Match Point. The themes are also the same: both start from the premise "What if there is no God?"; if there is no God, anything is possible and there is not always punishment for bad deeds.
If we compare the 2 films, C&M has 2 plots, MP has 1; C&M has philosophical debates and insight into the psychology of the murderer, MP tells the story in a straightforward manner and is hardly more than a crime thriller; C&M is more like a Woody Allen work, MP not only lacks a Woody Allen character but also lacks humour, witty dialogue and one-liners and is set in London. In both films, the man, Judah Rosenthal and Chris Wilton respectively, is married, but if Judah has a happy 25-year marriage with Miriam, Chris doesn't really love Chloe. In both films, there is a mistress, but Nola in MP is a lot younger and more sexually attractive than Dolores Paley in C&M. In both films, Judah and Chris choose murder because they place their own interests above all else and have to cover up the affair, but if the former doesn't want to lose everything after a long life of success and respect, Chris doesn't want to lose the life of privilege that has just begun for him. In both films, they don't say anything to their wives, but in MP, Chris tries once and fails. In both films, they get away with murder and have some remorse though they don't turn themselves in, but if Judah moves on and lives normally 4 months later, Chris seems to be haunted still 9 months afterwards, though there's an impression that he might have a few bad moments but goes unpunished too.
A question now arises: which death is more necessary? Dolores? Because she threatens to expose Judah as a cheating husband and an embezzler? Because she wants to destroy his 25-year marriage and long career and reputation? Because she's hysterical and irrational, expecting him to choose a 2-year affair over everything else? Or Nola? Because she is pregnant and the pressure is strong? Because Chris knows well that he doesn't have talent and only leans on his father-in-law, and to lose that is to lose everything? Of course the answer is neither. The danger of these 2 films is that we may root for Judah and Chris- seeing the women act hysterically and irrationally, we may, for a brief moment perhaps, think a small affair isn't worth it and shout in our heads "Kill her!" like it's the answer, like there is no other choice. Of course they have a choice, we all do, they don't see it simply because they aren't willing to give up anything, because they are basically selfish, because they want always to gain and never to lose, because they don't want to face the consequences of their own decisions and actions. Chris even has greater freedom, because the marriage hasn't been long, Chloe has difficulty getting pregnant, he doesn't fear trouble with the law as Judah does on account of his embezzlements and, considering how diffident, foolish and subservient Chloe is, she's more likely to accept his infidelity than Miriam to deal with Judah's affair.
That leads to another question: between the 2 men, who is worse? Is it Chris, because we follow the whole affair from the start and see him actively pursue and seduce Nola, who is reluctant at 1st, (at some point he tells Nola "Maybe I will [leave Chloe]") and he must pay for his own actions? Or is it Judah, because 4 months after the murder, he happily moves on and comfortably talks about his crime whereas Chris doesn't seem to have got over it after 9 months? Or is it Chris, because Judah doesn't do the killing himself and it becomes an abstraction, whereas Chris makes an elaborate plan, cold-heartedly looks at Nola in the face when killing her, and not only so, kills an unborn baby and an old woman, and right afterwards goes to a musical? In a sense, Judah's killing is defensive- he wants the trouble to go away and everything to stay the way it is, Chris's is offensive- he's a social climber that does everything to get what he wants, and gets rid of anything that is in the way. Or is the worse one after all Judah, who might not be so cold-hearted but who is more hypocritical? Dolores's instability and unreasonableness, as well as Judah's talks, may fool us into thinking that he's pushed into evil, unlike Chris, but before he has embezzled simply because he can't go down after "a long life of hard work" and now does it again. He's just hypocritical. His speech is full of self-justifications ("I was flattered, vulnerable") and self-defences ("I promised nothing", "I prevented nothing", "Moving funds is not stealing"); he asks what choice he has and asks if what Dolores does to him is just, thinking of nothing but himself; he contacts Jack, knowing well what kind of person his brother is, but pretends to say "I don't know" and feigns shock at Jack's suggestion of getting rid of the lover; he only thinks that by getting Dolores killed, he can sleep again, without thinking that he's talking about a human being; he wants her dead but doesn't do it himself since, as Jack says, he doesn't want to get his own hands dirty; he says "I'm shocked" after the act is done and shows some bad conscience but retains enough clear-headedness to go back to her place and get everything that may lead to him; he later thinks of confessing to the police just because he has trouble sleeping and again thinks of himself; and in the end, loses nothing and puts it all behind him. Even worse, he has been brought up a religious boy. The what-should-I-do conversations in the 2 films also mark an important difference: Chris's friend says he can get another job at another firm but at the same time remarks that he doesn't love the other woman enough to give up everything for her, whilst Judah talks to a rabbi and hears about God, moral choice, ethics, forgiveness and love, and yet still goes on with his actions.
Compared to C&M, MP doesn't have the same philosophical depth: the discussions are fewer and shorter, the story is told in a more straightforward manner, the film doesn't dig as deep into the mind of the man. Yet both films are Woody Allen's debate with Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment: for C&M, the allusion is right in the title, for MP, Chris is seen as reading Dostoyevsky and said to have an interesting conversation about the Russian author with Chloe's father. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky expands on his arguments earlier expressed in Notes from Underground- Western ideas in general and utilitarianism in particular are not only unrealistic and inapplicable because human beings are irrational and want to act on free will, they are also dangerous. Raskolnikov, embodying these ideas, shows us the dangers. To Dostoyevsky, the answer, the better alternative, is religion, God. Woody Allen plays with these ideas and responds to them by asking: well what if there is no God? Some people say the endings, especially that of MP, mean that Woody Allen sides with the privileged and the immoral, makes us root for them, and lets them win. Some people go further, connecting the films with the director's personal life, they say he's a nihilist, and whilst it doesn't mean he necessarily commits immoral actions, it means he lacks a compelling reason not to do so. To think that way is to misunderstand the films. What Woody Allen does is to have a debate with Dostoyevsky: both C&M and MP can have the subtitle "Crime and No Punishment". That's how life is: not all crimes are solved, not all criminals are caught, not everyone who does wrong has to pay for their actions. A person may be bothered by bad conscience, but not everyone has a conscience. If a man isn't found out, if he's not punished by the law, nor by some higher power, nor by his own sense of right and wrong, doesn't that mean he's free and can happily live his life? He may have to face judgement after death, but what if there is nothing after death? Woody Allen draws attention to 1 point in Dostoyevsky's ideas: right, that's very well, but what if there is no God? Or what if there is a God that doesn't care? To raise these questions is not to say murder is OK; he just provokes thoughts, and that shows his cynical outlook on life- that there are in fact such people who do terrible things and go unpunished, that life isn't fair, that "Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly. Human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation".
Recycling his own material, Woody Allen develops the same story in a different direction. C&M focuses on moral choice and God's indifference: God turns the blind eye on evil. The eye is the motif of C&M: Judah is an ophthalmologist, "The eyes of God are on us always", Dolores talks about eyes as windows to the soul, Judah sees her corpse and looks into her open eyes and sees nothing there, Ben the rabbi goes blind in the end... The later film focuses on greed and lust and luck. The role of luck is stressed right from the beginning: the scene is of a tennis ball flying towards the net, with the voice-over of Chris talking of that moment in a game when the ball, if you are lucky, flies over the net, or it doesn't. A mirror of the scene appears near the end of the film with the wedding ring replacing the tennis ball and the railing replacing the tennis net. There is a talk about luck, in which Chris says it is important, whereas Chloe and her brother Tom, not realising that being born to wealth is a kind of luck, say they don't believe in it, only in hard work. This is where MP is inferior to C&M- because the concept of luck dominates and drives the film, there are too many instances of Chris's good luck that might be seen as contrived and unconvincing: Chloe doesn't open the tennis bag with the gun inside; of all things, it's the ring with inscriptions that knocks against the railing and falls back on the pavement to be found; of all people, it's a drug addict that finds the ring and then is killed, which fits perfectly with the scene of a staged drug-related robbery; the detectives find the diary and suspect Chris because he has motive but still dismiss the case and don't bother to check if Chris has a shotgun; the drug addict that has the ring is killed before 1 of the detectives officially sees Chris as a suspect. It seems contrived, even though it's not impossible in real life.
Strangely enough, even though in the end Judah returns to his normal life and Chris turns his back on others with a faintly haunted look on his face, I somehow see MP as a bleaker film. 1, MP, as Roger Ebert puts it, "is a thriller not about good versus evil, but about various species of evil engaged in a struggle for survival of the fittest- or, as the movie makes clear, the luckiest". Tom is egoistic- he just leaves Nola at home and goes to the cinema when she has a headache, for example, and later we're told that he earlier tells her to get an abortion. Nola gets into a relationship with Tom though she doesn't really love him- she's "overwhelmed with attention". Sweet Chloe basically has her dad buy Chris for her. C&M has a balance of selfish, cold-hearted people and good, honest people. 2, C&M ends with professor Levy: "... Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more." That's a positive note at the end of the film. One may say that if there is no God, life has no meaning, but we and our capacity to love give meaning to life. On the 1 hand, we see that "[t]he evil are rewarded, the blameless are punished, and the rabbi goes blind." On the other hand, there is a sense that even if there is no God, even if life isn't always fair, even if it's foolish, life goes on and people keep trying and can find joy in the little things in life. The fact that the professor commits suicide doesn't necessarily turn that quote into an irony. MP has nothing that saves it from bleakness and cynicism. C&M isn't like that. We give meaning to life.

Roger Ebert's reviews:

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Season's greetings; best books of the year; reading ideas for 2016

The best fiction books I've read this year are:
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Despair by Vladimir Nabokov
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Lev Tolstoy- Penguin, especially "The Death of Ivan Ilyich", "The Forged Coupon" and "Polikushka" 
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
(in the order in which I read them)
You might have noticed that among the ones left out are Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, but I'm glad that I have read them. 
As I usually don't talk about books read in the year, it's hard to say if it's a good year or not. Well, bad in the sense that once, a long time ago, I thought of a Norwegian literature challenge (in which nobody participated) and have failed completely. Because you all ignored me, that's why. Okay I just kept postponing and procrastinating till I realised, in the last 3 months, that it was too late and so I just abandoned it altogether. Isn't that a shame? But it's also a good year as I read Middlemarch, universally acknowledged as George Eliot's greatest novel and recently ranked as the greatest British novel according to the rest of the world; discovered Henry James (= read another bad marriage novel); read The Moonstone, the 1st detective story in English, and read people's thoughts on Jane Austen's Emma, undetectable detective fiction; and read 3 classics everyone has heard of but very few have read- Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker's Dracula, only to discover that they were rather distorted by popular culture. 
Jazz was an interesting read, I hadn't read Toni Morrison for quite a long time, but its significance is the fact that it's linked to jazz music, which I started loving just before summer. 
Corregidora by Gayl Jones, read in March, is now in the list of 5 novels by female writers that I hate or dislike the most. The other 4 are The Twilight saga by Stephanie Meyer, The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and Kitchen or Asleep or both by Banana Yoshimoto. This adds to another shame of mine- a post I intended to write, with explanations and such, after reading Jennifer Weiner's excellent, persuasive, well-argued article about gender and literary criticism, to show how hopelessly brainwashed I am by the patriarchy (or perhaps to prove that I'm actually not female). Now I'm too lazy to write an elaboration on my hatred (though if you ask, I'll answer). 
Reading ideas for 2016:
1/ Still prioritise reading deeply over reading broadly: Tolstoy (The Cossacks, Hadji Murat), Dostoyevsky (at least another novel), Gogol, Turgenev, Nabokov... And perhaps reread Madame Bovary
2/ Read more Dickens. Top priority: Bleak House.
3/ Read more 19th century American literature. Read more of Henry James. Probably read Hawthorne and Wharton. Top priority: Moby-Dick
4/ Get acquainted with the French writers of the 19th century, especially Zola and Stendhal. 
5/ Read Norwegian literature. I won't start another challenge (I mean, what if I fail a 2nd time?), but I'll try. Not Knausgård, however. 
6/ Read ****: The Anatomy of Melancholy by Matthew Selwyn- I've been impolite enough to the guy (sorry Matthew). 
7/ Read more of Faulker, Woolf and Nabokov, perhaps early James Joyce- build up for Ulysses
No, I must stop myself here. To continue I would write so much that I may not even fulfil in 10 years. 
So that's it. What are the best books you've read this year and what are your plans for next year?

A present for you all: as these days I've been listening to Patti Smith, here is a Christmas song performed by her.

Thank you all for all the lovely comments and interesting discussions here. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, folks! <3 

Tuesday 22 December 2015

"To love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer..."

Lately I've been watching Woody Allen films, and now just watched Love and Death. Go see it if you haven't. Who wouldn't love this film? It's hilarious, it's absolutely hysterical and absurd, and it's a spoof of Russian novels.
Here are 4 of my favourite scenes from the film:

Monday 21 December 2015

Another Emma

Whilst many people are reading Emma together (2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Emma; and 5 days ago was Jane Austen's 240th birthday), I've just read another Emma by Jane Austen. 
It's called The Watsons.
The question is: so many great books out there to read, why do we read unfinished novels? To satisfy our hunger for anything by a writer we love who wrote so little? To see a work in a progress and therefore gain insight into the author's process? To better understand the other, finished works?
All of those reasons, I guess. And another: to speculate why the writer abandoned it.
Here is the plot: the Watsons have 6 children- 2 sons Robert and Sam, 4 daughters Elizabeth, Emma, Penelope and Margaret (I'm not quite sure of the order). Emma has been singled out to live with and be brought up by her aunt and uncle, like Fanny Price, but at the beginning of the story she returns to her family, without a cent and adding to the burden, after her aunt remarries to an Irishman and loses everything because of the husband's will, which, by the way, sounds like Middlemarch. Robert Watson is a money-obsessed philistine, like the brother in Sense and Sensibility. Penelope and Margaret are husband hunters, or to put it more elegantly, they are very "bent on marriage" in order to escape poverty, which sounds like some supporting characters in Jane Austen's 1st 3 novels. Emma Watson has the sharp eye of Fanny Price and Anne Elliot and the sharp tongue and confidence of Elizabeth Bennet, who likely would have turned out to be a distinct character if Jane Austen had stayed with her, considering how different the 7 heroines are (I count Marianne Dashwood as well). And as usual, we have a good guy that looks boring, like Edward Ferras, Darcy, Edmund Bertram..., and a dashing and charming guy that is a scoundrel and hypocrite, like Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, William Elliot... The former is Mr Howard and the latter is Tom Musgrave, at this point I don't quite know how to categorise Lord Osborne.
Do I wish Jane Austen had completed it? In a way, yes. Look at what Virginia Woolf has to say:
"... To begin with, the stiffness and the bareness of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere. How it would have been done we cannot say — by what suppressions and insertions and artful devices. But the miracle would have been accomplished; the dull history of fourteen years of family life would have been converted into another of those exquisite and apparently effortless introductions; and we should never have guessed what pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through..."
We don't know how it might have turned out- if curious, I'm curious because of my faith in Jane Austen.
To quote Woolf again:
"... But of what is it all composed? Of a ball in a country town; a few couples meeting and taking hands in an assembly room; a little eating and drinking; and for catastrophe, a boy being snubbed by one young lady and kindly treated by another. There is no tragedy and no heroism. Yet for some reason the little scene is moving out of all proportion to its surface solemnity. We have been made to see that if Emma acted so in the ball-room, how considerate, how tender, inspired by what sincerity of feeling she would have shown herself in those graver crises of life which, as we watch her, come inevitably before our eyes. Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character."
The scene, which Jane Austen reuses for Emma with Harriet Smith as "the boy" and George Knightley now "the kind young lady", makes me wonder and want to follow Emma Watson.
However, does this fragment have potential? I'm not so sure. Lady Susan, for all of its weaknesses of form and characterisation, gives me the feeling that if it had been rewritten so as to get rid of the epistolary form, and heavily revised, it might have become an interesting novel because of Susan Vernon alone. Jane Austen never comes that close to such a character- selfish, manipulative, scheming, cold-hearted and ruthless. Similar women can be found in the later works, but they are only in the background and seen from without whereas Susan is seen from within. Generally, the fault of The Watsons is similar to that of Lady Susan- in its early stage, the characters seem rather black and white. Worse, The Watsons appears quite simplistic, there is such a straight path- at the beginning of the story Elizabeth already tells Emma everything she needs to know about other family members and people in the neighbourhood and tells the truth, Emma already has good perception and correct impressions, the person she ignores she would eventually turn down, the person she dislikes in spite of his popularity is a jerk, the person she likes from the 1st she would eventually marry, in the fragment Emma Watson has perfect manners and kindness plus perceptiveness and doesn't seem to need any change or growth that many Jane Austen heroines experience. Of course one can argue that not all of them go through the same process, which would be repetitive, predictable and boring; Fanny Price and Anne Elliot don't, their stories are not of growth, but if we leave out Persuasion, which shows Jane Austen going in another direction at that point, the conflict of Mansfield Park is that the heroine is intellectually attracted to but morally repelled by and distrustful of a man. The conflict is enough for many readers to wonder whether she will choose Henry or Edmund eventually. It isn't a straight path, so to speak. If anything, it's Elizabeth Watson that has my interest- her declarations of indifference to Tom Musgrave, juxtaposed with all the little signs of interest and her incredulity at Emma's attitude, make clear that she's only denying.
No, I should stop there. It isn't fair to judge The Watsons, I don't know the whole plot, all I have is some opening chapters and a general idea about the ending. Who knows, Jane Austen might have done something magical if she had stayed with it. 
My thoughts now take another turn. If you put Jane Austen's novels in the same order as I do (NA=> S&S=> P&P=> MP=> E=> P), The Watsons is between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, which somehow looks like a cross between the 2. Here is a young woman, independent, assured, fearlessly frank, artless and not at all superficial and mercenary like her sisters, and she goes to a ball, which is a marriage market, and meets some men. Doesn't that sound like Elizabeth Bennet? Instead of being prejudiced and mistaken, however, Emma Watson sees through everything and everyone and becomes the only person not to be infatuated with Tom Musgrave. But that's no fun. Jane Austen senses something wrong there, so what she does is bestow those attributes- sensitivity, perceptiveness and insight- on a character that seems like an opposite of Elizabeth Bennet- the quiet, timid, diffident Fanny Price. It is more interesting because, being more or less an outsider and being expected to be grateful, Fanny has no right to be obstinate and "irrational", and as she has been quiet all her life, the 1 time she refuses to comply, it becomes shocking, especially because others don't understand why she's not charmed with a man everyone else adores. In other words, The Watsons is not just a cross between the 2 works, it's a bridge.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Annie Hall and Manhattan

Is it wrong to find Manhattan a beautiful film? Many people think so, and it's understandable that they are uneasy with the film, with the relationship between the 42-year-old protagonist played by Woody Allen and a 17-year-old girl, especially after Soon-Yi and Dylan Farrow.
And yet, if we can separate the man from his works, which I think we should, Manhattan is a beautiful film. Place it next to Annie Hall. Manhattan seems to be in dialogue with Woody Allen's earlier work: both are about NY, both are about uncertain, insecure, neurotic people, who don't quite understand their own feelings, messing up relationships. Both are not about love in the present, but love in the past. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer has the love of his life, and loses it, and tries going out with other women but it's apparently when he tries to recreate the lobster moment with another woman who only stares at him, asking if he's joking, that he realises how much Annie means for him and how much fun they had together, but it's too late. Annie has made up her mind. Their relationship doesn't work out, and it cannot. Both are neurotic and unstable and have to see an analyst, Annie is so tense that she has to rely on grass and she has self-esteem issues, Alvy is too cynical, judgemental, domineering and paranoid (incidentally, Isaac's remark to Mary sort of fits Alvy "You rely too much on the brain. The brain is the most overrated organ."). In the end, they don't get back together, but there is a sense of consolation- it is over, but it's enough that it happened.
In Manhattan, Woody Allen does something different, something sadder. The film is also about love in the past, but as Roger Ebert puts it, it's about "the wistful pain when we realize we had a beautiful thing, and screwed it up". Like the Alvy Singer- Annie Hall relationship, that between Isaac Davis and Mary Wilke doesn't work out, and cannot, but the consolation isn't there, the feeling that in spite of everything they were in some ways perfect for each other isn't there. Though they do like each other, Isaac remains to Mary what he has always been from the start- a substitute, that somebody to call when Yale isn't around and she has no one else to call, whilst Isaac is mistaken about his own feelings for Mary because he doesn't realise the depth and seriousness of his relationship with the much younger Tracy. His relationship with Tracy, to many people, is nothing but creepy and disturbing. But it has a point. Like Alvy of Annie Hall, Isaac is negative and neurotic and seems quite unequipped for a relationship, but his immaturity and instability is stressed more strongly as it is contrasted with Tracy's maturity, benevolent acceptance and serenity, which is ironic. She is similar to Annie Hall in that she's more flexible and open to changes than the man she's with and that she notices and now and then remarks on Isaac's condescension the way Annie sometimes asks if Alvy doesn't think her smart enough, but compared to Annie, she is calmer, more serene, more stable. A simple, artless, direct performance, Mariel Hemingway portrays Tracy the way she should, without exaggeration or sentimentalisation. The irony in the relationship is that although Tracy's the one that goes to school and does homework, in a sense she watches over Isaac, who hasn't really grown up, who quits his job before knowing where to go and jumps from 1 relationship to another only to realise the truth 2 minutes before it's too late (that is, if we assume their love remains the same after 6 months; if Tracy meets someone else in London, he has lost her then).
In Manhattan, it is only when Mary has left Yale, Yale has turned Mary to Isaac and Isaac has hurt Tracy that each of them realises they had a beautiful thing and screwed it up and now want it back. It is irrational and crazy and absurd, as Alvy says about relationships at the end of Annie Hall, but they are people, as Yale says in Manhattan. Will it work? We can't say- Tracy still goes to London and Isaac, thinking 6 months is a long time, is afraid, whereas Mary is not even sure that her relationship with Yale, now resumed, may last 4 weeks. It may work out, it may not, they have to try and figure out, stumbling along the way, sometimes they make mistakes and try to fix them, perhaps everything would come to an end, but it doesn't matter, the journey may still be worth it. The beauty of the film lies in the loss and the pain, and in the openness, the uncertainty of the ending.
Regarding techniques, Manhattan doesn't have much that can be called remarkable. Annie Hall has characters talking to the audience, split screens in which the characters address each other, schoolroom and family dinner scenes that are reminiscent of Amarcord, flashbacks in which the children that are now adults speak to us of their future careers, characters standing by as observers in each other's memories, subtitles revealing the characters' real thoughts, a sex scene in which Annie's mind detaches from the body, etc. Woody Allen hardly does anything like that in Manhattan. One may say that Annie Hall, with those postmodern devices, seems to focus on the present or point to the future, whereas Manhattan, shot in black and white, seems to point back to the past, with Gershwin's music adding to the melancholic, nostalgic tone of the film. In the former, the relationship is over, but Alvy has come to accept it, and he is glad that he has known Annie. The latter is more about loss and pain and the attempt to retrieve the past and the uncertainty of it all. Manhattan is technically simpler, "ordinary", less comic, albeit also being full of one-liners and references to films, cinema and psychoanalysis, and another disadvantage is that it has less screen time for Diane Keaton, who is wonderful and charmingly quirky in Annie Hall, but the film is sadder, more subtle and complex.
But why compare. Both are brilliant, witty, charming and well-done films that should be watched over and over again. And both will prove Woody Allen's self-assessment "None of my films will be remembered" wrong. 

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Sex in 19th century British and French literature and the impact of novels on (young female) readers

Starting with Winslow Homer's painting The New Novel, in chapter 16 Michael Gorra talks about Victorians' views on the influence of novels on people, especially young ladies*, and the debates at the time, with Podsnap in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, Charles Edward Mudie (the owner of Mudie's, the largest commercial lending library in London), Margaret Oliphant.... on 1 side, James Fitzjames Stephen (brother of Leslie Stephen, uncle of Virginia Woolf), Henry James... on the other. Then he goes on to contrast British writers' reticence with the frankness of the French:
"... Flaubert gives us the endlessly rocking carriage in which Emma and Léon bounce around Rouen and winkingly invites us to imagine what's going on inside. George Eliot, in contrast, doesn't show us what happens when the girl [Hetty Sorrel] meets the boy [Arthur Donnithorne], not merely because of English silence but because she's more interested in the consequences of that meeting than she is in the moment itself. There is no event in English novel but that leads to something, and in Victorian fiction it seems that no unmarried heroine can lose her virginity without getting pregnant. Usually the very 1st time- a biological law that doesn't operate in France."

*: Coincidentally, o at Behold The Stars has just written about this subject:

Saturday 28 November 2015

Ellipses in The Portrait of a Lady- is James "evading the personally impossible" and "disguising a deficiency"?

Speaking of the ellipses in the narrative of The Portrait of a Lady, Michael Gorra believes that Henry James simply avoids what he can't well describe.
"... A novelist's 'individual technique', in Graham Greene's words, 'is more than anything else a means of evading the personally impossible, of disguising a deficiency'. Lesser writers never recognize their limitations. Many great ones stumble over something a hack might do with ease..."
James isn't interested in courtship, but he needs to marry off his heroine not at the end of the book, but now, he "needs to cover that territory, and will do so without entirely meeting its difficulties".
"... Some of his best early stories- tales like "Madame de Mauves" or "The Last of the Valerii"- depict the drama within marriage, the drama of those who are already locked together. James was also known for his reluctance to end his books with a wedding, and his imagination is persistently drawn to the moment of refusal, to events that don't happen. In his later work he would write about passion with a depth and precision that he could not as a young novelist command, but he would never be comfortable in showing the drama of acceptance. Tolstoy could do that, and Trollope. Not James..."
Earlier, Gorra has written about James's homosexuality, choice of bachelorhood, and relations with certain men.
He's very likely to be right. He's the James expert- who am I to contradict him? So far I have only read The Portrait of a Lady and a collection of 4 stories. 
What I think is that, even though Gorra can be right, whilst reading the novel I didn't think that James was staying out of an unknown, unfamiliar territory. He makes a choice, and it works. Of course, other writers tackle it differently- we have seen George Eliot do it; we can imagine how Tolstoy would do it. But James makes his choice, and I feel it's the way things should be done. Its effects become its justifications (without making one feel there have to be justifications). 

Thursday 26 November 2015

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Isabel Archer

In Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra examines the sources of inspiration for Isabel Archer. 
1 is George Eliot, of course, specifically her heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. The Portrait of a Lady is Henry James being inspired by but resisting and reacting to Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
Another is James's cousin Minny Temple. Intelligent, natural, playful, free-spirited, "modern", vivacious, audacious, mischievously irreverent, frank, reckless... Look at this passage I found in James's Notes of a Son and Brother
"She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder; and I think it is because one was to see her launched on that adventure in such bedimmed, such almost tragically compromised conditions that one is caught by her title to the heroic and pathetic mark. It is always difficult for us after the fact not to see young things who were soon to be lost to us as already distinguished by their fate; this particular victim of it at all events might well have made the near witness ask within himself how her restlessness of spirit, her finest reckless impatience, was to be assuaged or 'met' by the common lot..." 
That sounds like Isabel, and at the same time reminds one of another character by James: Daisy Miller. 
More interestingly, Gorra argues how Isabel can be seen in terms of Emerson, in the sense that Isabel's insistence on independence and the freedom to choose, even to choose wrongly, seems to echo Emerson's ideas of self-reliance. She isn't as free as she imagines herself to be, and she isn't free because she's a woman, because she inherits a fortune, which is both a blessing and a curse, because she is theoretical and fancies herself heroic, because she knows what she doesn't want but not what she wants, because she doesn't know enough about the world. Her idea of her own freedom is abstract. 
Here I have Henry James's Selected Literary Criticism. Look at this passage from his essay "Emerson": 
"The plain, God-fearing, practical society which surrounded him was not fertile in variations: it had great intelligence and energy, but it moved altogether in the straightforward direction. On 3 occasions later- 3 journeys to Europe- he was introduced to a more complicated world; but his spirit, his moral taste, as it were, abode always within the undecorated wall of his youth. There he could dwell with that ripe unconsciousness of evil which is 1 of the most beautiful signs by which we know him. [...] He knows the nature of man and the long tradition of its dangers; but we feel that whereas he can put his finger on the remedies, lying for the most part, as they do, in the deep recesses of virtue, of the spirit, he has only a kind of hearsay, uninformed acquaintance with the disorders..." 
Later in the same essay, writing of Emerson's insensibility to the works of great novelists, James says: 
"... Hawthorne's vision was all for the evil and sin of the world; a side of life as to which Emerson's eyes were thickly bandaged. There were points as to which the latter's conception of right could be violated, but he had no great sense of wrong- a strangely limited one, indeed, for a moralist- no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected. One asks one's self whether that is why he did not care for Dante and Shelley and Aristophanes and Dickens, their works containing a considerable reflection of human perversity..." 
I can see how Isabel Archer, who shows the problems with self-reliance, can be read as James's response to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Through You, a short animated film

Through You from il Luster on Vimeo.

Sunday 22 November 2015

"Music to Watch Girls By"- Andy Williams

The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by
Eye to eye, they solemnly convene to make the scene
Which is the name of the game, watch a guy watch a dame on any street in town
Up and down and over and across, romance is boss

Guys talk "girl talk", it happens everywhere
Eyes watch girls walk with tender lovin' care

It's keepin' track of the pack watching them watching back
That makes the world go 'round
"What's that sound?" each time you hear a loud collective sigh
They're making music to watch girls by

Guys talk "girl talk", it happens everywhere
Eyes watch girls walk with tender lovin' care

It's keepin' track of the pack watching them watching back
That makes the world go 'round
"What's that sound?" each time you hear a loud collective sigh
They're making music to watch girls by

The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by
Eye to eye, they solemnly convene to make the scene

La, la, la, la

Thursday 19 November 2015

Stevenson: No art can successfully compete with life

From "A Humble Remonstrance" (a response to Henry James's "The Art of Fiction") in R. L. Stevenson on Fiction
"... No art — to use the daring phrase of Mr. James — can successfully “compete with life”; and the art that seeks to do so is condemned to perish Montibus Aviis. Life goes before us, infinite in complication; attended by the most various and surprising meteors; appealing at once to the eye, to the ear, to the mind — the seat of wonder, to the touch — so thrillingly delicate, and to the belly — so imperious when starved. It combines and employs in its manifestation the method and material, not of one art only, but of all the arts, Music is but an arbitrary trifling with a few of life’s majestic chords; painting is but a shadow of its pageantry of light and colour; literature does but drily indicate that wealth of incident, of moral obligation, of virtue, vice, action, rapture and agony, with which it teems. To “compete with life,” whose sun we cannot look upon, whose passions and diseases waste and slay us — to compete with the flavour of wine, the beauty of the dawn, the scorching of fire, the bitterness of death and separation — here is, indeed, a projected escalade of heaven; here are, indeed, labours for a Hercules in a dress coat, armed with a pen and a dictionary to depict the passions, armed with a tube of superior flake-white to paint the portrait of the insufferable sun. No art is true in this sense: none can “compete with life”: not even history, built indeed of indisputable facts, but these facts robbed of their vivacity and sting; so that even when we read of the sack of a city or the fall of an empire, we are surprised, and justly commend the author’s talent, if our pulse be quickened. And mark, for a last differentia, that this quickening of the pulse is, in almost every case, purely agreeable; that these phantom reproductions of experience, even at their most acute, convey decided pleasure; while experience itself, in the cockpit of life, can torture and slay.
What, then, is the object, what the method, of an art, and what the source of its power? The whole secret is that no art does “compete with life.” Man’s one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality. The arts, like arithmetic and geometry, turn away their eyes from the gross, coloured and mobile nature at our feet, and regard instead a certain figmentary abstraction. Geometry will tell us of a circle, a thing never seen in nature; asked about a green circle or an iron circle, it lays its hand upon its mouth. So with the arts. Painting, ruefully comparing sunshine and flake-white, gives up truth of colour, as it had already given up relief and movement; and instead of vying with nature, arranges a scheme of harmonious tints. Literature, above all in its most typical mood, the mood of narrative, similarly flees the direct challenge and pursues instead an independent and creative aim. So far as it imitates at all, it imitates not life but speech: not the facts of human destiny, but the emphasis and the suppressions with which the human actor tells of them. The real art that dealt with life directly was that of the first men who told their stories round the savage camp-fire. Our art is occupied, and bound to be occupied, not so much in making stories true as in making them typical; not so much in capturing the lineaments of each fact, as in marshalling all of them towards a common end. For the welter of impressions, all forcible but all discreet, which life presents, it substitutes a certain artificial series of impressions, all indeed most feebly represented, but all aiming at the same effect, all eloquent of the same idea, all chiming together like consonant notes in music or like the graduated tints in a good picture. From all its chapters, from all its pages, from all its sentences, the well-written novel echoes and re-echoes its one creative and controlling thought; to this must every incident and character contribute; the style must have been pitched in unison with this; and if there is anywhere a word that looks another way, the book would be stronger, clearer, and (I had almost said) fuller without it. Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician. A proposition of geometry does not compete with life; and a proposition of geometry is a fair and luminous parallel for a work of art. Both are reasonable, both untrue to the crude fact; both inhere in nature, neither represents it. The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material, as a shoe must still consist of leather, but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work..."

Saturday 14 November 2015

Jane Campion's take on Henry James

Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady is a film adaptation that I don't recommend to those who haven't read the novel, who may be confused about what's going on; nor to those who have read and not enjoyed it, who aren't likely to appreciate Henry James better; and perhaps not to those who have read and loved the novel either, who may be bothered by the omissions and the miscasting.
Adapting James is difficult- much of his greatness is in dealing with nuances of feeling, with words unspoken and feelings unexpressed. Much is lost when brought to the screen. 1 of the best parts of the book, Isabel's dilemma regarding Warburton and Pansy, is simplified, whilst many of the characters, already impressionistic in James's book, are flattened. Worse than that, too much is left out, glossed over- of course omissions there must be when a novel's turned into a film, but in this case they make it hard to understand for people unfamiliar with the story.
The good thing about this film is that it's not a lazily faithful adaptation. Jane Campion doesn't merely turn words into images, she takes James's material and does something interesting with it- her film is an interpretation. It is bold from the start, as we hear the voice of some girl describing the feeling of the moment just before being kissed, which isn't in the book, and as the names start to appear, we see several young women, young modern women around Isabel's age, dancing, swaying, looking at the camera. Then there's a close-up of Nicole Kidman's face as Isabel Archer. The scene is of Warburton proposing to her, which means that Campion cuts everything before that moment including character introductions. That juxtaposition heightens the comparison/ contrast she wants to make between Isabel and modern young women of the same age.
Another bold move is that Campion sexes up the story, mostly through 2 fantasy sequences. The 1st one is when Goodwood touches Isabel's face, and she fantasises about her suitors. What does it mean? That she fears the erotic? Or that she does want Goodwood and/or Warburton but, at that point, still chooses her freedom and independence? The 2nd fantasy is about Osmond. This is an interpretation of the original book- Isabel is sexually attracted to him. Campion also makes other changes regarding the villain- there's a scene in which he holds Pansy in his arms and caresses her in a way that seems to suggest incest and molestation; he becomes more malevolent, and violent, as he physically attacks Isabel whilst still talking in his soft, icy cold voice. Sadly, this is where the problem lies- for the role of Gilbert Osmond, Campion casts John Malkovich. He plays well a villain, a psycho of sorts, with good manners, and his voice is perfect- soft, thin, low, languid, drawly, simultaneously soothing and menacing. But his looks are wrong, and it is hard to see how Isabel rejects 2 men but accepts him. Though I admittedly can't see John Malkovich without seeing Lennie Small, Mitch Leary or Marvin Boggs and didn't even believe in his Vicomte de Valmont (Dangerous Liaisons), looking through several reviews makes me feel less alone- many critics are also unconvinced. Why Isabel chooses Osmond in the novel can be interpreted in multiple ways, it's a combination of factors rather than a single reason. By sexing up the story, Campion offers an explanation, a simplified one, and to make it worse, the simple answer is not convincing.
The choice of Barbara Hershey for the role of Madame Merle is, too, problematic. There is a hardness on her face that causes distrust right from the start, and even though Campion lets us identify the villains and their relations before Isabel does, it's not easy to see how Isabel's charmed with and drawn to Madame Merle. That I say as someone that has read James's novel. A person who hasn't can't see Isabel's adoration of and confidence in Madame Merle, which later reduces the effect of the revelation that in the book shocks and shatters Isabel (it is this shocking news that acts as a catalyst for her defiance). On the other hand, Campion and Hershey make her more of a tragic figure, more manipulated than manipulative. That's an interesting change. As Madame Merle becomes more tragic, Osmond becomes a bigger villain.
In short, this is an unsuccessful adaptation, but an interesting one. Perhaps that is a good enough reason for one to watch it. 

Paris terror attacks

My heart goes out to the people of France and everyone affected by this terrible tragedy. 

Thursday 12 November 2015

The 2 Portraits

Others have moved on, I'm still writing about The Portrait of a Lady. As my loan expired, I returned my copy of the novel and got hold of another one, a Norton edition. The preface begins with:
"Although there is only 1 novel by Henry James called The Portrait of a Lady, we have what amounts to 2 separate Portraits. The 1st appeared in 1880- 81 and the other, with extensive retouching, was unveiled over a quarter century later in 1908."
This version includes in its appendix all the textual variants plus 3 essays discussing the 2 Portraits. Here are the key points:
1/ "The Painter's Sponge and Varnish Bottle" (F. O. Matthiessen):
- The 2 words "picturesque" and "romantic", used freely and loosely in the 1881 version, are struck out and replaced with others in the 1908 version.
- The word "vulgar" appears more often.
- More concrete. James endows "his dramatis personae with more characterising images".
- "From his initial description of her in the house at Albany, he wanted to emphasise that she was less mistress of her fate than she fondly believed". Changes "young girl" to "creature of conditions".
- The 1908 Isabel is "far less concerned about happiness than about enlightenment and freedom".
- Heightens Osmond's "thoroughly studied effect" and interrelates his character with his surroundings.
- Stresses Osmond's "utter dependence on art rather than on nature".
- Madame Merle's surface becomes less transparent to Isabel.
- Madame Merle's no longer endowed with "a certain nobleness" but with "a certain courage", not with "geniality" but with "grace". In 1881, she plays Beethoven; in 1908, she plays Schubert.
- The interplay between Isabel and Warburton, when he comes back after her marriage, is made more subtle.
- In 1908, suggests Pansy's trapped state from the outset. "Instead of saying that Pansy entertained Isabel 'like a little lady', James wrote that she 'rose to the occasion as the small, winged fairy in the pantomime soars by the aid of the dissimulated wire'."
- In the scene of Ralph's death, James deepens the emotional tones.
- The Countess becomes a more lively mixture, with the bird-motif.
- Nearly all the lines in which she tells Isabel of the liaison are rewritten. James also builds up the contrast between the 2.
- In the 1881 version, Countess Gemini also says that Madame Merle grows more ambitious (to explain why she doesn't marry Osmond). In 1908, she goes on "she had never had, what you might call any illusions of intelligence", meaning that Isabel has. "That gives the final twist to the knife".
- James sharpens Goodwood's "indomitable energy". 1 way is through the recurrent images of armour. He rewrites the final scene between Goodwood and Isabel, and makes us feel "her overpowering sensation of his physical presence".
"That conveys James' awareness of how Isabel, in spite of her marriage, has remained essentially virginal, and of how her resistance and her flight from Caspar are partly fear of sexual possession."
- The last scene is changed, but it doesn't mean James changes his mind. He only clarifies his meaning.
- "Isabel's link with humanity, if not through sin- unless her wilful spirit counts as such- is through her acceptance of suffering. The inevitability of her lot is made more binding in the revision."
- "Through Isabel Archer [James] gave 1 of his fullest and freshest expressions of inner reliance in the face of adversity".

2/ "The New Isabel" (Anthony J. Mazzella):
- "The Isabel Archer who faces her destiny is not the same young woman in both versions, nor is the quality of her destiny the same. She may travel the same road in each case, and meet people with the same names; but the road has different landmarks and the people are different travellers- more keenly felt, more sharply felt, more fully realised- and other than what they were." 
- "A major element in the refinement into another character is an emphasis on her freedom and vulnerability". James uses the images of the bird and the greyhound. 
[I have written that Countess Gemini and Madame Merle are birds. So is Isabel.
Caspar thinks about her: "He had never supposed she hadn't wings and the need of beautiful free movements..." 
Ralph says "Spread your wings; rise above the ground." 
Mrs Touchett says "Now, of course, you're completely your own mistress and are as free as the bird on the bough..."] 
- James stresses more strongly Isabel's fear of limitation.
- Stresses more strongly the freedom money can bring. "... Warburton remarks that Touchett should not chide him for being rich because, in the 1st version, 'you are so ridiculously wealthy', and in the revision, because 'you have- haven't you?- such unlimited means'." 
- A heightened sense of danger Isabel faces in the future. 
- "When Warburton proposes, the later Isabel, unlike the earlier one, has a sense of being trapped". Her relationship with each of her suitors in the 1908 version reinforces her sense of the danger surrounding marriage. Violent images. A sense of being trapped is also more emphatic in the later Isabel when she meets Osmond. 
1881: "There was something rather severe about the place; it looked somehow as if, once you were in in, it would not be easy to get out." 
1908: "There was something grave and strong in the place; it looked somehow as if, once you were in, you would need an act of energy to get out." 
- "The later Isabel is shown as being afraid of the erotic...". There is "a disturbing erotic ambience which pervades the revised novel"; the sexual connotation is reinforced. 
- In the 1881 version, when Isabel objects to Warburton's advances, he vows to remain silent. In the 1908 version, he says "I'll keep it down. I'll keep it down always." Sexual innuendo. 
- Many revisions show that Isabel's afraid of Warburton's masculinity. Goodwood also "represents a threat to her sense of freedom". 
"... the hidden basis of her concern: for the early Isabel it is a dislike of personal aggression; for the later Isabel it is a fear that her freedom will be lost through erotic possession. The later Isabel fears a limitation of her freedom in yielding to Goodwood because, as the revisions reveal, she feels that she would yield to him fully as she would to no one else." 
- The kissing scene is rewritten.
- "James suggests that, at heart, what Isabel fears is a loss through the erotic of a special freedom- the freedom of the mind to function unimpeded. [...] She is not afraid merely of the erotic experience itself but rather its tendency to diminish the life of the mind. [...] She exists supremely on the level of pure mind, and the erotic would destroy that existence." 
- The 1908 Isabel "experiences life through a significantly expanded consciousness". Also, "she is aware of nuances, she responds more fully, her mind is more striking, her range of interest more broad". Osmond "sets more chords of consciousness vibrating in the 2nd Isabel than in the 1st". 
- The response of the 2nd Isabel to Madame Merle is more finely intellectual, whilst her response to money becomes strangely sensuous.
- Isabel's love for Osmond is revised. "Thus, entering into the 2nd Isabel's consciousness is the awareness of being helpless when possessed by another and of losing one's freedom of mind when 'charmed' or bewitched." 

3/ "Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady" (Nina Baym): 
- The writing becomes more complex, mannered and metaphorical. 
- James gives the 1908 Isabel acute, subtle consciousness and a rich mental life but "effaces the original main quality of her character, emotional responsiveness", makes her life intensely in the mind rather than her feelings and thereby "deprives her of some of the appealing spontaneity, vivacity and activity in the 1881 character". 
- "Early Isabel is trapped by her simplicity; late Isabel must be the dupe of her subtlety". She is exalted, less a fool than a saint. 
- 1908 Isabel: more observant, less active, more intellectual, less emotional. 
- As Isabel is made more acute and subtle, "Madame Merle and Osmond lose such good qualities as they possess in the original, and are turned into wholly devious and shallow people". Their characters are blackened. They become more complete performers. The revisions "deprive them of substance and transform them into empty shells". The 1908 Isabel is "a worse judge of people", at the same time, "she is more stiff and self-righteous in her mistake". 
- Ralph isn't played down, but other characters are flattened. 
- Grotesque exaggerations destroy Countess Gemini's humanity. 
Before she tells Isabel about the liaison: 
1881: Isabel thinks she's going to say something "important". 
1908: Isabel thinks, for the 1st time, she's going to say something "really human". 
- Henrietta: sillier, harsher, more unpleasant, more vulgar, more stupid. 
- "The point of the 1881 description is to demonstrate that Henrietta is not a stereotyped female journalist, unsexed and unkempt. She is pretty, decorous, and ladylike. The later images stress her modernity and brashness, turning her into a different cliché- the tough, efficient career girl. Removing the element of softness and personal understatement of Henrietta's character, James makes her loud, overbearing, and obnoxious." Cheapens the character. 
- "Since both Warburton and Goodwood are highly eligible as husbands, the reader may feel that Isabel's solution would have been a different marriage rather than none at all. Critics have mostly believed that Isabel ought to have married and take her severely to task for failing to fall in love with 1 or the other, dividing into camps according to whom they favour. But the formula proposes love as invariably saving by making young women invariably love wisely, and this is 1 falsehood James is exposing. [...] Many of the critics have just the attitude that disturbs Isabel in her suitors: the presumption that because an offer has been made, she is obligated to accept it or to have an excellent reason for turning it down. Neither Warburton nor Goodwood can accept the idea that she refuses them because she is unwilling to accept any mode of existence that is not self-expressive." 
- "It does not matter that the forms of Goodwood's and Warburton's lives are good, and that a woman might live happily and usefully within them. They require the woman to be a satellite in someone else's solar system, and Isabel claims the right to be her own sun". 
However, "brought up female, she has no idea what she might 'do' to be independent. The word does not translate into action." Protected and insulated background, lack of training and discipline, romantic temperament encouraged by circumstances. 
- Isabel thinks Osmond more free because he's "less obviously a product of environment than Goodwood and Warburton". 
- "Since Isabel did not freely choose him but was manipulated into the marriage, she is absolved from the moral obligation to suffer the results of her own decision." She "increasingly realises the groundlessness of all the reasons she can advance to stay with him". 
- The loss of the child is plotted to give her free reins to leave Osmond. 
- Henrietta is evidence that "James does not want to say that independence is metaphysically incompatible with love and marriage [...] Isabel's disappointment in her friend for showing such weakness is only an extension of her own disillusionment. James's idea, however, seems almost to be that the real possibilities of love and marriage are to be experienced only by those who do not depend on them to give life meaning." 
- "James sympathises with Isabel's ideals, deplores the external obstacles that thwart them, and still objectively shows how much the obstacles are internal, in Isabel's inadequate preparation for and understanding of the life she thinks she has chosen". 
- "The matrix of values which radiates out from 'independence' in 1881 centres in 'awareness' in 1908, with attendant dislocations of emphasis. Awareness in 1881 is a means towards the end of an independent life; in 1908 the independent life is attained only in awareness- the 2 things are almost identical. The only possible independence is the independence of perfect enlightenment. Consequently, Isabel is no longer perceived as having failed, and, not having failed, she has no limitations or shortcomings of thematic consequence."