Friday, August 01, 2008

The internet is shiny. Books are not.

Nicholas Carr for The Atlantic asks "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

It was difficult to focus long enough on the piece to find it insightful. Perhaps because it was on the internet?

This summer while I've worked at A Respected News Weekly, I've spent most of my days browsing news and political blogs, jumping, bouncing and skimming through sheaves of content.

Then I go home. And, despite being a 21st Century Internet Junkie, I sit myself down and try to read a few pages of my book (among other things, I'm partial to medieval history and classic fiction, not always known to be the most frenetic page-turners). Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I don't get very far. Sometimes the book ends up on my chest or the far corner of the bed and I stare at the ceiling following my own thoughts for a few hours. But I wouldn't say my attention span has been shortened by the internet; simply that, at the end of the day, I don't always have the self-discipline or mental energy to press through. I'm a Young Person, I grew up with the internet and have always been fairly obsessed with it, but I've also always had a deep abiding love of books.

The internet hasn't shortened my attention span, because I've kept myself in practice reading books.

Carr opens with a comparison to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a computer pleads with the human who is unplugging its circuits. Carr says he feels for the computer - but no one is holding him down and pulling out his circuits. And even a symbiotic relationship with the internet (writers and newsjunkies will understand) doesn't preclude making the time to sit down and read a book. Even if it's a bit of a struggle to shift gears and fall into the slower rhythm, it's hardly similar to being the passive, captive victim of manipulation. So Google wants us to read faster and click more. They aren't invading your home and making you do it, and anyone who stops to think can find ways to avoid infohighway hypnosis.

Studies show people skim, skip and juggle when searching sites such as the British Library's collection of online resources. Big surprise. When doing extensive research, your eyes become sore staring at a screen, and printed articles are much easier to read and annotate. Other people may be ratcheting up the numbers of hits simply because, for the first time in the centuries-long history of such an institution, readers can access these materials instantly and remotely, and indulge even a passing whim of curiosity. Why linger if half the reason you're there is simply because you can be?

Carr is concerned that, by making ourselves into slaves to the internet, we will become as emotionless and mechanical as the characters in 2001; that we will lose the quiet spaces of our minds. But he seems to arrive at that fear via the assumption that healthy minds are unable to resist the internet's more stultifying effects, claiming his concerns are more realistic than those of the historic critics of printing. While he makes a beautifully eloquent case for the place of books in our intellectual lives, he doesn't seem to give the reading population at large enough credit to recognize that value independently - hence the assumption that we will become internet morons. He notes he may be dismissed as a Luddite or a nostalgic. In the end, I think that if he can give up so easily on the resilience of the mind, he may be something worse.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Where to find forest? Am lost in trees.

Frank Kermode at The New Republic reviews a recent book on literature, a modern answer to E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel, James Wood's How Fiction Works. For Kermode, one example of Wood's clarity of insight regards the "indirect free discourse" represented in Henry James' What Maisie Knew:

Maisie meditates on the status of the dead girl, Clara Matilda, "who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green," a London cemetery, which she had visited with the dead girl's mother to see her "little huddled grave." "James's genius," we are told, "gathers in one word: 'embarrassingly,'" and Wood asks whose word it is.

He argues that it is Maisie's, embarrassed to witness adult grief, a little afraid of it; and he develops this theme with his usual resource. And yet the embarrassment surely arises less from the confusion that Wood identifies than from a much more obvious childish puzzle, of a sort that adults rather than children can find words for. ...Maisie's reaction arises from ambiguities in the cultural code that Wood inherits from Barthes. He rightly comments that "huddled" must be James's own word, but he thinks that Maisie might, by a stroke of Jamesian genius, have used the word "embarrassingly" to describe her own confusion. Yet it seems virtually impossible for it to be anything but an adult's way of describing a child's commonplace eschatological difficulty.

Now, it seems to me (from an admittedly ignorant standpoint: I'm working only from what was provided in the review) that "embarrassingly" could mean:

+ Maisie is embarrassed (confused, flustered) by the incongruity of what she is told to believe and what is physically presented to her, and by her own inability to reconcile the two;
+ Maisie assumes the adults should be embarrassed by their failure to reconcile that incongruity;
+ Maisie, as children are wont to do, projects feelings even upon inanimate things or dead creatures and people - assuming that the dead girl's situation is embarrassing for herself (or even that the dead girl is embarrassed) to be expected in heaven but found in the ground.

I'm willing believe that Henry James meant for the word to capture all those varying meanings, and that he may have crafted it through a combination of an instinctive sense for the words' rhythm as well as a preconceived logical notion that he wished to communicate.

Kermode's review is titled "The Art of Noticing." And it's a very rewarding, instructive, enriching art - the problem comes when the noticing is so minute that, in the end, it is only the critic noticing his own navel. Scrutiny on this level seems to override all the joys and potential of noticing - it leaps over the fine line between artful observation and wringing meaning from as few syllables as possible in order to say something unique. The "critic's critic" continues:

Yet Wood is right to say we should read "musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why a metaphor is successful and another is not."

But that seems to contradict Wood's hyperbolic claim James' genius "gathers" in the word "embarrassing," that perfect meeting of meaning and ambiguity - possibly just because Wood himself was clever enough to spot it. The details matter, and they're thrilling to discover and learn about, but taken individually they don't completely explain the allure of the whole.

Even music experts don't listen to music with an ear to parse every single note - the beauty of music is in the course and pulse of the intangible whole. I know music students who rave about this beautiful interval or that stunning modal change - but these are incidents that contribute to the flow; the example of those few notes doesn't describe the whole, nor do my musical friends believe those few notes alone summarize the entire genius of the composer, they're simply signs of the genius that dwells in the whole. In similar terms, it seems inane to claim that James' genius can be described in that clever use of "embarrassingly," even if it was meant to be propounded as an example rather than a culmination of his cleverness. It misses the point of the context, the acts of noticing that James himself compiled before even setting pen to paper.

Take this example. Assign a creative writing class to draft a story that incorporates a sentence that uses a word in a similar manner to James' "embarrassingly" - something ambiguous, with shades of meaning that apply to all possible points of view. The sentence cannot be the turning point or conclusion of the story; it simply must be incorporated naturally into the rhythm of description.

Now take that sentence out of each story, and the result will probably be a heap of insipid stories. Because a writer who focuses all his cleverness on little literary zingers like that will tend to indulge his love of words (not a bad trait at all) but at the cost of his love of noticing. And it shows, in the hollowness of the piece as a whole, even if it's strewn with what my mom once called "Oooh, here comes my MFA!" moments.

This isn't to say that close reading is inappropriate. I simply mean that close reading is not really the best material for a satisfying survey of "how fiction works" - and like Barthes, it sounds like Woods can't see the forest for the tropes.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

There'll be time enough for rockin' when we're old

Long time no see, TNF. Attendance call – show of hands, who’s still reading?

I had a craving for Brokeback Revisited. It was on Bravo tonight; it was the first time I’d seen it since watching it in theaters shortly after it was released. I remember going with a group of ebullient girls and shuffling out with my heart somewhere in my feet.

I remember the buzz leading up to it too – what stands out in my mind are all the girls who caught wind of two pretty boys kissing and said, “So that’s what guys love about lesbians!” And Jake Gyllenhaal saying “It’s just kissing another person.” And the praise for the courage of both stars, young heartthrobs, for taking on such “daring” roles. And tonight I was reminded again of all the promise Heath Ledger had, without having to line up for The Dark Knight to join in post-mortem fascination.

I can’t remember if I read the original story before or after seeing the movie; but what I do remember was the impression that the movie was far more compassionate toward the wives. It struck me again, tonight – even when the emotional tension was shattered by the regular and jarringly loud ads for Million Dollar Listing and Shear Genius. Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Gyllenhaal) are neither of them perfect husbands – if they’d been more caring or wise, in the modern sense, they would have never gotten married at all – but in the end, as much as I feel pity and grief for Jack, his quashed dreams and his violent and undeserved end, it’s Ennis’ struggle I feel more poignantly. Where Jack runs - or tries to run - Ennis stays despite overwhelming pain.

When Ennis is divorced from his wife, Jack assumes they’ll run off together and work a ranch, like he’d always wanted. But Ennis – whose daughter is waiting in his truck during their exchange – reminds Jack that while he’s no longer married, he still has a life and responsibilities in Wyoming (of course, in his own particular idiom of speech, which sounds kind of like Jack’s car as it growls away). He’s broke, but Jack could support him – instead he stays for his daughters. It may have been a mistake to create that family in the first place, without love for his wife or the possibility of love, but he won’t stamp that wrong onto his daughters’ lives as well, and he genuinely adores them in his silent way.

And his daughter stays by him. In the last scene, she visits him to tell him about her engagement and invite him to the wedding. And he does what he couldn’t do for Jack so many times later in their long and agonizing affair – he quits his job to make the time to drive down and be there. She leaves, forgetting her sweater, and he folds it lovingly, putting it away in the closet where he keeps Jack’s old shirt, and he murmurs, “Jack, I swear.”

Jack, I swear. I actually teared up; despite the commercial breaks, the grainy TV, the truncated credits. Brokeback Mountain isn’t about being gay. It’s about love. Many kinds.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Poetry, Film, Adaptation

Thought I'd come back with a fresh batch of mind-fodder. I’ve dropped off the face of this blog in the last couple of months; school is like a full-time job, only you have to pay to work there…and for that you need another job. The final report:

14 hours shooting film
20 minutes of exposed footage
36 hours of editing

resulting in...

a 3-minute final film.

Good-bye Intermediate Film Production! We had good times.

Anyway, the point of this post (oh yes, there is a point somewhere) is to talk about some ideas in screenwriting, filmmaking and adaptation. I was thinking about poetry...

(Thinking. Poetry. Dangerous combination.)

So, my film professor is making a series of short films illustrating a series of poetry portraits by Rilke. The interesting thing about these short films is that they aren't recreations of the poem; a narrator recites the poem while the film progresses, but sometimes the illustration occurs through contrast rather than straight-up recreation. For example, in his short film of The Orphan, you see a woman setting a table in a nice, pretty dining room - you think she's having guests over, but a twist at the end reveals her real loneliness. This is what resonates with the poem itself, even though the images may at first seem at odds with the poetry's language.

Another experimental filmmaker who visited a guest-lecture class last year was working on a similar project, only her subject was a series of poems by Neruda. We watched the one that represented his Ode to a Bar of Soap. Like my professor's film, this one involved a narrator reading the poem while the filmic illustration unfolded. Unlike my professor's film, this one was a recreation of the imagery of the poem; through a series of beautifully composed, graceful and sometimes playful shots, you watch a man bathe with a bar of soap.

I started to wonder - is this a deceptively simple statement about the imagery of the poem, or is it really just window-dressing for the poem itself? What I liked so much about my professor's film was the interaction between the poetry and the film - my professor wasn't trying to speak for Rilke, but he was speaking through him, and in this way imparted a second message to the poem. The other example didn't add meaning, and the most interaction that I found between the filmic illustration and the poem were the sound effects; hearing bubbles splash and the creak of the floor under the groaning tub added something to your experience of the poem, but the images, while very beautiful, didn't alter your understanding of it. This adaptation would have been just as effective had it been a reading on the radio.

Does beauty need to be justified by emotional effectiveness or thematic complexity? I don’t think that question comes with an answer, but it’s an interesting contrast to observe between the two poetry adaptations.

Poetry sometimes makes another kind of appearance in narrative films that carry a strong flavor of experimental influence, like Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, where some scenes incorporate the scrolling text of poems into the imagery of the film. It’s a technique used by Haynes’ former professor (who also visited our guest lecture class last year) in several of her experimental films. The text, appearing with no temporal or physical logic, adds to the visual and aural themes of collage, collection, reference, research and memory. Velvet Goldmine didn’t add much to my understanding of those poems, but the poems added a lot to the entire conglomeration of art and experience that is contained in Velvet Goldmine.

I’m trying to combine all three of these approaches in a short video I’m working on – a visual adaptation of a poem by E. E. Cummings. Because Cummings’ poetry is already highly visual, I decided that a narrating voice wouldn’t capture the full power of seeing the words. So, I’m assembling a stop-motion animation, in which the poem writes itself on forgotten objects, seemingly disassociated from the poem’s figurative setting, sometimes a more direct illustration of its imagery, but overall an attempt to capture its character: “i am a beggar always.”

This might be a very long way of saying that Naked Filmmaker posts will once again be scarce, due to more, uh, Naked Filmmaking (that sounds like the kind of video that YouTube would delete for terms-of-use violation…oh wait, they only do that to episodes of Buffy…porn is fine, as long as it doesn’t belong to Fox).

I am, however, holding onto my Netflix subscription, where the Toby Stephens stalking was temporarily delayed by school – but nothing can really stop the stalk. Right now, in my hot little hands, I have the first disc of Stephen Poliakoff’s Perfect Strangers (aka Almost Strangers in the USA). This is the same guy who made that statuette magnet, Gideon’s Daughter. I haven’t seen the more recent film (no Toby Stephens = discouraging; presence of Emily Blunt, however = very cool) so it’s going on my list. Anyway, there could be thoughts to come on Perfect Strangers, if I only had a brain.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Onegin (1999)

Oh man. This is embarrassing. I’m Netflix-stalking Toby Stephens. Such are the depths of my fannish depravity. And first in my queue was Onegin, also known as the Fiennes Family Spectacular – starring (and executive produced by) Ralph, directed by Martha, with music composed by Magnus. Apparently they wanted to save on a reunion that year, so they made a gloomy Russian lit pic instead. You don’t have to splurge on action sequences or big explosions because NOTHING EVER HAPPENS, and just when you think things are getting boring…nothing happens again.

Okay, let’s backpedal a bit. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, a lot of it was very good – or rather, was very close to being very good – which just made it painful when things fell short of the mark. Ralph’s acting as the title character was superb, and the photography was frequently mind-blowingly beautiful. The music definitely had me at hello, too – from the first wild, untuned gypsy violin riff that said “this is a Russian lit pic in which everyone has British accents.”

But the standards set by Onegin’s sullen but mesmerizing voice-over, the lush design and languorous camera movement, and the passionately harsh music, are like a row of dominoes trembling to be knocked down by the first attempt at story development or character interaction. In an introductory scene of privileged and dissipated St. Petersburg, intercut with Onegin’s subsequent departure for the country, it is already evident that there’s only one fully fledged character in this movie. Onegin is pictured lounging with his dandy friends, whose painfully affected speech and gravity-defying hair make them quite literally unreal. Like these nameless dandies, most other characters are props for Ralph, who seems to be the only thesp allowed to act unfettered by awkward writing or paltry screen time.

I didn’t know it was possible for a film that exists largely without voice-over to nonetheless rely more on telling than showing, but this one has pulled it off. There are a wealth of promising characters – romantic and naïve Tanya, pragmatic but faithless Olga, idealistic and un-self-conscious Vladimir. (Incidentally, these are the only given names that exist in Russian literature.) However, because all scenes of interaction are burned through to get to the sweeping landscape shots or solitary close-ups, most important conversations are spent by characters talking about who they are, instead of acting the part.

Vladimir (Toby Stephens) makes a striking first impression – Onegin comes upon him singing Schumann off-key in a forest – but there are only very few brief moments in which that initial character shines out, cushioned by several awkward conversations in which he describes his own nature and history to Onegin. These conversations are awkward because it is evident that this kind of discourse isn’t really in Vladimir’s character – wouldn’t he rather be talking about poetry, or the tragic lives of composers, or even taking more of those innocently humorous jabs at Onegin’s posh lifestyle?

So, Toby – like most of the other actors in the film, including Ralph Fiennes – shines most when he doesn’t have to talk at all. This is partially because of his excellent instincts for non-verbal acting, and partially because most of the movie’s dialogue forces him into an unnatural characterization. Now, I know there’s a whole rest of the cast to address, but I’m going to stick with Toby’s scenes because, alright, he’s the reason I watched the movie – and also because he’s the best example of the movie’s various faults and successes.

Let’s look at the duel. Of course there’s a duel. Duels are awesome, man.

But not for Vladimir, who challenges Onegin for the sake of his fiancée’s honor, and then quite realistically freaks out. Not the screaming, crying, wringing-hands freaking out that’s predictable and possibly even romanticized (check out Horatio Hornblower) – no, this is sheer terror, not simply of death but of the entire situation, the fact of shooting at a friend, of being shot at, at being required by obviously imaginary codes of “honor” and “courage” not to run away, and not to rescind the challenge and accept an apology. Toby manages this with stunning control – he’s not over the top, but his emotions are clear and powerful enough to send shivers down your spine. And all of this is wrapped up in a matter of seconds, with only two lines – “No reconciliation” uttered twice.

Here’s where the first huge mistake of the scene occurs. Onegin – with remarkable cool – commits to the duel and turns away. In a fraction of a second, Vladimir’s expression eases into something truly remarkable – partially relief, partially despair, partially - dammit. The camera cuts away. Cutting away from a look like that is like trimming the sound when a character is in the middle of a sentence – it just doesn’t make sense. And this is just one instance of a recurring mistake – the camera is always cutting before actions or expressions are complete, often when the changes are minute or slow, as if the editor didn’t have the patience to let it play out. The end result, however, is actually even more boring, because without those emotionally resonant moments, the viewer has no reason to care about the rest of the footage that she does get to see.

The remainder of the scene conveniently collects samples of the other major flaws of the film. There’s a jerky montage of independently meaningless close-ups that would be brilliant in a different film, but feels out of place wedged between the stunning, lingering long shots and crystalline facial close-ups that compose most of this one. Then there are long shots when you just want a good look at someone’s face, and wheezy incidental music when diegetic sound alone would have heightened tension. There are camera tricks like slo-mo or a starkly shallow depth of field when all you want is to see what’s going on clearly and in real time, and enough spinny shots to give me a dizzy flashback to 32 Short Films About Glen Gould. Finally, there are precious minutes of redundant filler that stand in for suspense. And the worst part is that many of these elements are exquisitely executed – they’re just all horribly misplaced.

I’d probably watch Onegin again, with only moderate use of the fast forward, simply to absorb the photography – but in order to satisfy my craving for character and coherence, I’ll have to track down the original poem by Pushkin to see what all the fuss is about. And for those who are motivated purely by Toby Stephens, you’re in luck – someone’s posted bits of most of his major scenes on YouTube, including his musical introduction and the first half of the duel scene. So, knock yourselves out, and then head back to Jane Eyre - he has better hair in that one, anyway.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Charlotte Bronte - The Professor

Here’s proof if there ever was any that I can’t turn my film head off, even when I’m studying liht-ra-chure. I just finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s first “adult” work, The Professor, on my computer – oh, Project Gutenberg! how you expand my brain, and incinerate my retinas – and suddenly I was wondering what a Hollywood producer would do to the story. Okay, most people cringe and scream about how destructive Hollywood is to classic, subtle stories – but I think an industry attitude toward plot development would improve this work a lot.

See, the problem with The Professor is the same problem that so many of us in screenwriting seminar share when we make our first pitches to the class – a lot of new writers have creative, interesting, compelling ideas, but most of them are situations and not stories. There’s absolutely no way for a beginner and an unknown to move an “idea” in Hollywood – you move stories, or you move out of town. Most reasonable writers, by a certain point, are able to capture a sum of feeling and tension in their pitches…but the hardest part of learning to write is turning those feelings and tension into very physical plot development.

I was disappointed with The Professor because the situation promised so much; after all, look at her tales of Angria before, and Jane Eyre after – she knows how to write juicy. Here’s her log line:

Disowned and broke, William Crimsworth flies to Brussels and scrapes together a living by teaching English – until his romantic entanglements with the headmistress and an enchanting student threaten to destroy his livelihood and his heart.

Okay, so the producer says, “Corner – that’s your name, right? Currer. Whatever. Tell me more.”

Crimsworth severs the last tie he has to family when he resigns his position as a clerk in his tyrannical brother’s factory mill. Impoverished and aided only by the sardonic socialist Yorke Hunsden, Crimsworth finds work as a professor of English in a privileged boys’ day school in Brussels. Events seem to have taken a fortuitous turn when Crimsworth is offered the chance to augment his salary by giving additional lessons at a neighboring ladies’ school. However, the outlook becomes grim when Crimsworth is trapped by the seductive manipulation of the ladies’ headmistress, who is engaged to Crimsworth’s employer at the boys’ school. Crimsworth overcomes her influence and finds love and fulfillment with his most promising and imaginative student, Frances.

Here’s the producer: “So, who does he bang to get the job at the ladies’ school?”

And our Charlotte: “He’s offered it because he has worked hard and proved himself trustworthy and morally upright.”

“So he gets the job because he won’t bang anyone? What about the seductive headmistress?”

“He resists all her advances after he learns she’s engaged to his employer.”

“Right. And this socialist guy. What’s he doing?”

“He’s absent for most of the story.”

“And Crimswart gets kicked out of the ladies’ school for having an affair with a student?”

“Actually, he waits until they’ve both escaped the restrictive influence of the school before they become engaged.”

“But they have a fiery, tear-streaked make-out in a classroom, right?”

“He corrects her papers. Er, suggestively.”

“Listen, Carson…”


“Curry. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

And you can learn the rest of the story from Woody Allen: “Hollywood is worse than dog eat dog – it’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls.”

So, what actually happens in The Professor? Like a damp bottle rocket with a long fuse, it’s a lot of build-up and no bang. Crimsworth arrives at his situation and spends a couple hundred pages resolutely resisting any development into a story. And don’t forget that even in liht-ra-chure, physical activity is important – reading about someone sitting on a log slowly rearranging his worldview is not quite as exciting as reading about that person changing his worldview while stroking the lips of the student he shouldn’t be in love with.

It doesn’t even have to be sex. The important thing to remember is that the endless internal monologue only really means something if it’s attached to action – otherwise, the reader isn’t necessarily believing the narrator, she’s simply accepting what she’s being told. You need something a little stronger than that to inspire sympathetic passion, longing, and despair, on the level that a work like Jane Eyre does: “He made me love him without looking at me” vibrates with intensity because Rochester’s very glance is super-magnified into a physically commanding motion – whether he awards it or withholds it, his body isn’t far from following with passion or violence. Crimsworth, on the other hand, seems to do nothing but look - and what he’s looking at isn’t doing much, either.

So, let’s assume the Fates farted and the Hollywood producer calls Charlotte back.

“Right, Curby, we’re going to buy that Professor property.”

“I’d like to maintain script approval –”

“Ohnoyoudon’t. Here’s $50k, go buy yourself a nice cup of coffee.”

So the producer hires Script Doctor Bob to fix it up a little. Script Doctor Bob comes back with this pitch:

Young, friendless and broke, William Crimsworth settles for a teacher’s life to make ends meet. Things are not all calm and propriety when he unwittingly becomes ensnared in a love triangle between his seductive, manipulative headmistress at a ladies’ school and her fiancée, his headmaster and landlord at a neighboring boys’ school. Just when Crimsworth thinks he’s free from the destructive influence of his employers’ affairs, jealousy and convention threaten to destroy his forbidden chance at happiness with a lonely and enchanting student.

So the producer asks Bob, “Does Crimstwat do anything he’ll regret with this headmistress before – or after – he discovers she’s already engaged?”

And Bob goes, “Hell yes.”

“And how does the happy couple get tossed out of the school?”

Bob gets excited because this is his favorite part. “They share one stolen kiss, which the headmistress spies. Headmistress frames the student in a rendezvous with another man, making it appear to Crimsworth that she’s double-timing him, and to all else that she’s dissolute. Headmistress then takes Crimsworth down with jealousy and disappointment, and nearly seduces him once more until he learns that the “other man” was in fact a relative of the student’s visiting platonically, and the headmistress’ plot is revealed. Finally, Crimsworth defies scandal and poverty to reunite with the woman he loves, and gets in a duel (why not?) with the drunken headmaster, who was just dumped by the headmistress. The student gets gravely injured by a misfired bullet during the ordeal, and is saved only by the charity of a parent whose child Crimsworth had saved from drowning once – the wealthy family orders a skilled doctor after Crimsworth’s urgent and blood-stained appeal, and the student recovers. Just as poverty threatens them again, their friend Hunsden offers them teaching positions in his school across the channel, and they live happily ever after in Jolly Olde.”

And that – as cheesy and overblown as it is – is something I’d pay money to see.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

I just watched Jean Epstein’s 1928 silent, The Fall of the House of Usher, on my film professor’s recommendation, to observe a couple of shots that he thought would help me after he heard the treatment for my semester project. (A treatment is a summary of shots and visual style for a potential project.)

The modern enhancements of the film are what struck me at first – especially the ones that add sound. In this edition (All Day Entertainment’s Collectors’ DVD) the intertitles are translated by a speaking voice instead of being rewritten in English. It seems like it would be a better idea to rewrite – make a font based on the original intertitles and appropriately age the new titles so they don’t stick out too much in the film. With the spoken translation, the viewer doesn’t get the chance to reread or absorb something – and, in this particular DVD, the translator has a thick French accent, which means I was concentrating more on puzzling out his exact words than processing their meaning to the film. ("Say you love crepes?", that can't be right...) Finally, what struck me the most was the way the voice jarringly interrupted the tone of the film, even though the translator did well with emoting the words.

See, in a silent film, I think often the intertitles provide a kind of resting period for the viewer, as well as providing important information – and a well-edited silent film times the intertitles carefully, instead of just sticking them in whenever it becomes convenient to the story alone. Especially in Epstein’s rhythmic, mesmerizing film, it feels like the intertitles are moments of rest between feverish dreams – the perfect approach to Poe’s gothic, hysterical mood. But the spoken voice cracks that hypnosis – in a similar way, sound effects introduced by the modern soundtrack detract from the viewer’s entrancement by the visual storytelling.

Obviously, in that period, the lack of synched sound was a necessity, not an artistic choice. However, artistic choices were made to accommodate the lack of sound, and even exploit it – adding the whirr of wind to a modern soundtrack of a silent film is redundant, because you’re seeing the whirr in shots of blowing curtains, or shots of the characters leaning forward inquisitively to listen to the eerie sound. Adding sound effects to a silent movie is kind of like a bad colorization of a black and white film – the original was constructed so that it wouldn’t need color, just like the original silent films didn’t need sound.

In a similar fashion, I tend to enjoy modern soundtracks for silent films most when they’re melodic instead of incidental. I loved Rolande de Cande’s score for this DVD – it was haunting and minimal, except when it tried to replace the sound effects. Like most modern scores I’ve heard for Buster Keaton films, this one dragged the film down once it devolved to a jingle-jangling chaos, like a substitute for foley (sound effects recorded after production).

My idea is that non-synch sound should only be used in a silent project to reveal something that will not be reiterated visually with the same meaning. That rules out most modern sound effects added to existing silent films because to add new meaning via sound would be to interfere with the original filmmakers’ intent; the exception being when sound is added after consulting the notes of the director and discovering that he would have added those effects if it were possible - I think Vertov left such notes for The Man with the Movie Camera, but I could be misremembering that class.

In modern “silent” films, like the projects our class will make this semester, non-synch sound seems most interesting and striking when it’s used to convey something that only sound could achieve in that case. This isn’t an overarching artistic principle – it’s just my personal taste. For me, any element of a film is enhanced by necessity – I love creative flourishes, but even the most beautiful and touching of artistic embellishments gets on my nerves (at least a little bit) if it distracts from the tight interlocking workings of the film elements illustrating the theme and story. Things seem even more beautiful when they work together and inextricably.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Jane Eyre (2006)

To look at the IMDb’s search results for Jane Eyre, one would think that a director who wants to add to the pile of 17+ attempts is the kind of person who grabs his whip when he hears there’s a dead horse in town. It would be a shame if our current decade concluded without a representative contribution, but fortunately we’ve been saved by Susanna White, Sandy Welch, and a small army of producers marching for the BBC, the organization that might or might not have made the best JE adaptations, but certainly ranks high for making the most. This time, they’ve shelled out something a little different – sometimes confectionary, sometimes modern, but consistently absorbing and convincing. Book purists won’t fall over themselves to praise the adaptation’s liberties, but fans of entertaining and intelligent filmmaking are in for a treat from the BAFTA Award-winning director and crew, not to mention the smokin’ hot (did I say smokin’ hot? I meant very talented) cast.

Director Susanna White and screenwriter Sandy Welch overleap the greatest narrative hurdles of the story – the first-person point of view and the decades-long story time – with startling success. A refreshing achievement of the script is its freedom from voice-over narration. Sandy Welch’s stripped-down adaptation allows actress Ruth Wilson to meaningfully fill four hours with every glimmer or frown in Jane’s eye, non-verbally expressing the emotional upheavals of the story clearly enough. And Susanna White’s direction makes it distinct that, even though she’s not narrating it in voice, this story belongs to Jane.

White marries cinematic technique with photography designed for the small screen, always with an eye for what makes historical drama click: intimacy, escapism, intensity, and sympathy. And neither is she afraid of shaking things up a bit – literally. White introduces some modern techniques of camera movement without breaking the historical mood. Occasionally a Steadycam will directly represent Jane’s point of view, ogling the architecture of Thornfield Hall from a walking perspective as Jane enters it for the first time, or roaming inquisitively over the contents of Mr. Rochester’s library. Other times, small adjustments place the viewer in Jane’s position: after running in from the storm that follows Rochester’s proposal to Jane, the two kiss, Jane draws away to return to her room, and Rochester pulls her back for one more kiss. As she starts to leave the first time, the camera follows her slightly, panning to the right, and when Rochester pulls her back, it’s a surprise to the camera as well, which jerks back to the left somewhat, imperfectly framing Rochester.

Another prominent (and modern) feature is the sparing use of unpopulated establishing shots. In fact, the few static, entirely unpopulated establishing shots often highlight the more ungainly transitions of the series, like the rushed segment encapsulating Jane’s childhood, which plays like an after-school special: “How to Rise Above Abuse In Ten Minutes!” The viewer is rewarded for surviving this awkward and cramped overview by the succeeding intimacy with adult Jane; establishing shots are rarely unpopulated because Jane occupies nearly every one. Her presence makes every moment of the four-hour miniseries feel engaging and relevant without slavish dedication to plot development alone.

This closeness with the camera means that even in the case of a huge transition, all that is needed to ground the camera in space and time is a glimpse of Jane in her environment. When a scene is added to reveal affairs at Thornfield while Jane attends Mrs. Reed, a few seconds of an establishing shot on the exterior of the manor are needed to adjust the viewer to the change in setting. However, when the story transitions back to Jane’s activities, no architectural establishing shot is used, even though the leap is just as great. There is a simple cut from Rochester in the Thornfield scene to Jane, drawing Rochester on her pad. The transition is seamless.

Long, elegant establishing shots in the visualization of Rochester’s stories to Jane (his entanglement with Celine Varens, his account of the West Indies) are the opposite of the awkward transitions in her childhood or in fabricated scenes. Instead of removing her to represent Rochester’s story action, these shots contain Jane, even though she is physically absent – the camera is acting the part of her imagination, exploring the world that Rochester describes. Story-time is also gracefully elided, with some of my favorite transitions in the series: the date on Adele’s schoolroom blackboard is adjusted by three months by the hand of the student herself, and Jane literally turns the page from childhood to responsibility in the leaves of her drawing pad. Other arresting transitions incorporate fade-to-white, a visually interesting technique to heighten awareness and suspense. Because fade-to-white is so unusual (compared with fade-to-black), the viewer is unsure of what to expect in the materialization of the following scene; however, discriminating use of the motif staves off confusion or disorientation.

Of course, the filmmaking isn’t completely flawless, as I’ve alluded to earlier. Sometimes, attempts at capturing the story’s more elusive moments of coincidence and the borderline supernatural fall so magnificently flat that they leave an impact crater in the series’ credibility.

In one such instance, shots of Jane perceiving Rochester’s supernatural call across the moors are intercut with close-up shots of a gushing brook. The series’ brilliant sound mix has culminated in this moment to make the disembodied voice seem real and powerful, with just the right combination of reverb and proximal volume – but surprisingly, it’s the visual presentation that makes the scene a joke. I’m sure the rushing waters were supposed to connote some connection with natural forces and inevitability, but after the second or third recurrence of the image, I could only wonder, “Is Rochester melting?” Or maybe it’s just trouble at the ole mill – more likely than a premonition of glacial thawing.

Another unfortunate accident is the editing of Rochester’s first approach in the series. When Jane and Rochester finally meet, the acting, editing and direction are lucid and engrossing, as usual. But the shots of approach, as the two unknowingly grow closer on the narrow lane, play out like the opening scene of Jaws. Innocent, quiet music accompanies Jane, and I half expect her to start skipping and picking flowers. Meanwhile, intercut shots of thundering hooves are highlighted with brief clips of booming, menacing music. I’m a little disappointed that Rochester hasn’t sprouted a dorsal fin to slice through the fog – then poor Jane would have seen what was coming.

I’m still trying to decide whether the re-envisioning of Jane and Rochester’s famous parting scene was a blunder or a blessing. Exclusively concentrating on Rochester's appeal to physical desire deflates much of the original material’s dramatic dynamic; but on the other hand, Toby (ahem) the new scene is mighty easy to look upon. It isn’t exactly Governesses Gone Wild, but our little Jane doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere fast, either. And who can blame her? But a word in defense of Toby Stephens as Rochester: the poor kid might be cursed with good looks, but at least he has the acting chops to make up for them. There’s been some contention about the selection of a handsome Rochester – whether he has the requisite eyebrow thickness or if he’s thwarted enough around the nose – but please remember that one goal of this adaptation is to ensnare viewers unfamiliar with the original novel. If a handsome, talented young man is what it takes to inspire a new audience to read this beloved classic, I say BRING IT ON.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Vigorous Endnoting?

Here's a semi-literary thought:

I started reading Shirley tonight, and it's the second Penguin Classics edition of a Charlotte Bronte book I've bought; the first was Villette for a Lit class last semester. I was startled by the number of notes added to Villette, sometimes up to 40 notes in an 8-page chapter, but I assumed it was just this editor in particular, Helen Cooper - who also wrote the introduction to that edition. The endnotes were so numerous, in fact, that when I couldn't finish the book in time for our last class discussion of it, I read the endnotes of the chapters I hadn't gotten to, and felt I had enough information to join class discussion. Brontephiles will probably want to shoot me for this.

At any rate, the first two pages alone of Shirley have proven to me that it wasn't Helen Cooper in particular who seems to think that Bronte's work can't stand up to a modern audience without a minute dissection of period detail and context. I'm on the second page of the novel, and the seventh endnote. The first two notes were actually on: 1) the heading, "CHAPTER ONE," and 2) the title of the chapter, "LEVITICAL."

As in Villette, when the chapter heading is annotated it's for a general note on the entire segment to follow, such as historical editorial response to that portion of text. When the chapter title is annotated, it usually involves an explanation of the roots of the word or phrase used as the chapter title, and its bearing on the themes of the book. These all - to my mind - consist of commentary that belongs in the introduction or a biographical sketch and not in interjections to the text itself.

I admit I've become an endnote-hound since I came to university; it helps a lot to understand the subtle little details, and it's fun to learn about them, too. However, endnotes should be reserved for information that leads to an immediate illumination of an archaic word, phrase, or custom, or the translation of passages in a different language. I don't understand why certain modern editors think it's necessary to continually interrupt the text with contextual or biographical information that only really adds meaning after the first complete reading, when the reader is familiar with the novel as a whole. It's almost as if editors think these novels would be otherwise meaningless to the uninformed modern reader, which is an insult to the work and the reader. One of the reasons these are great works of literature is that they can stand up, centuries after their first conception, and make an impact on anyone who understands what it's like having human feelings.

I don't know if this is a regular trait in Penguin Classics editions, or a general feature of trendy modern editions - and I do know that it's not an earth-shattering issue, either - no one's putting a gun to my head and forcing me to read every annotation. It just disturbs me a little; talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees. If proving a novel is autobiographical or politically motivated becomes more important that appreciating its artistic worth undisturbed, what does that mean for literary criticism in general? Or does it mean anything at all? I'm probably overreacting.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Anne Bronte - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As promised, a lightly edited copy of my original LJ post about the evolution of Bronte obsession, and a response to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I think it will be useful to learn The E Dots in html before too many posts about the Brontes go down looking sadly misspelled.


I just used the gift card my boss gave me for the holidays to buy a biography of Jane Austen, Juliet Barker's comprehensive biography of the Bronte family, Shirley by Charlotte, and Agnes Grey by Anne.

The weird thing is, I was never very interested in the Brontes before this most recent semester at university. The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was way too young to understand it, so even though I liked it, it was a Task, and I mostly remember that reading as one of confusion, not enjoyment. And then, in high school, I avoided reading Wuthering Heights entirely because our AP English class was unintentionally designed such that a relatively crafty student could, with the aid of SparkNotes, breeze through collecting straight "A"s and a 5 (of 5) on the standardized exam after having read absolutely NONE of the required texts. I'm living proof.

I finally read Wuthering Heights for the 19th Century Lit class I took last semester, and as some of you might recall the initial response was not favorable. Against my better judgment, however, I realized as I finished reading it that I liked it - liked it so much that I reread a lot of it during the chaotic final weeks of the semester so I could write my final paper on it. I really, genuinely enjoyed taking a preliminary dive into Emily's world, and I also enjoyed analyzing it against the context of Charlotte's editorial note and other materials our professor encouraged the class to utilize. It was like a little playground. Okay, a lot of this happened under the influence of extreme caffeine consumption and loud complaining about page limits, but it was a great learning experience, too, the kind that I really crave.

Then, we had to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Which I still haven't finished - I cheated and read the Penguin editorial notes to find out the ending so I could discuss it in class - but I do want to return to it. My mom (whose favorite book is Jane Eyre - she's even penned a retelling of it) can't stand Villette and I can see why - Lucy Snowe is priggish and obnoxious, the plot is meandering and dull, and the insights into Charlotte's own very strong prejudices (virulently anti-Catholic, and sneeringly anti-French) leave a bad taste in the mouth of a modern reader. I would never, ever claim it's my favorite book (as my professor does) and I'm doubtful it's a landmark female work superior to Jane Eyre (as Virginia Woolf implies) but I do want to finish it, mostly out of a fascination with Charlotte's style. I guess I'm willing to be convinced.

Anyway, I came home for the holidays to read Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. At first, I was disappointed, and all I could think was, "I can see why her sisters are more famous." But the more I think about the book, the more I realize her talent is comparatively undervalued - and if only she had lived longer, I'm sure her works would have become as critically acclaimed as her sisters' in literary canon. I'm also sure I'm not the first person to claim that - and speculation on the possible quality of unwritten works doesn't exonerate her existing work.

However, I think she suffers by comparison with her sisters, in part because she was writing about a radically different take on life in general - there are only echoes of the consuming passions and wild regrets employed in her sisters' works, replaced by a relatively down-to-earth understanding of how relationships evolve, and a patient, long-suffering attitude toward change and the pangs of memory. Gilbert Markham, the hero and narrator of most of the book, is no Rochester or Heathcliff - he's an ordinary guy, very very ordinary, and Anne humorously reveals that trait in Gilbert's narrative when he displays run-of-the-mill male vanity (simultaneously preening and depreciating himself) as well as a sometimes nearly comical misunderstanding of the opposite sex. He pursues the heroine, Mrs Graham, not with an earth-shattering passion, but with a mild curiosity that sharpens to affection, appreciation, and finally companionable romantic love and longing.

There are a few huge problems - one of which is that, halfway through the novel, the POV switches to Mrs Graham's diary (which Gilbert is reading) for maybe roughly a third of the novel's length (it's hard for me to judge because I was reading it on my computer with no page numbers). This diary constitutes one huge flashback to recap the events of her life from seven years ago to the present, ending just before her first encounter with Gilbert. Obviously, Gilbert is absent during this large segment - and the setting is completely different too, because it concerns the period of Mrs Graham's life before she took up residence in Wildfell Hall. So, gone is the narrator that has, for the first half of the book, nurtured the reader's trust and fascination, and gone is the location that has inspired the reader's primary mental image of the story. I've never read a book where such a huge and prolonged shift in POV has occurred without severing the reader's sympathy and interest.

Mrs Graham's diary is somewhat interesting even when her character is not; her biggest draw in the first half of the book was the mystery surrounding her arrival and the motives for her behavior. Her steely willpower and sharp-edged personality are intriguing, but would be more so if her actions followed through on her bitterness and anger. Instead, she's apparently all bark and limited bite, escaping an unsuitable situation only when it is at the extreme of outrageousness, and then, instead of seeking retribution, actually returning to the aid of those who have tormented her. But then again, that's consistent both with the social and legal limitations on women in that era. I can't criticize Anne for portraying what was, in fact, reality, even if I wish her heroine had had a little more sense earlier in life.

I think Mrs Graham's history is most interesting in the way she conveys the realistic evolution (and extinction) of conflicting emotions in a woman who once loved the wrong guy. It's like a reverse of her sister's work, Jane Eyre - in Charlotte's novel, the innocent young girl witnesses (and, in many ways, sets into motion) the transformation of a philandering, proud, restless and manipulative man into a devoted husband. In Anne's novel, the heroine struggles for nearly a decade to do the same, only proving conclusively that marrying a man will not change his nature. In Charlotte's world, love (especially passionate love) soars above personal flaws, waiting for God exact justice for one's sins, after which (say, a massive fire and some new physical impairments) love can finally settle upon the couple and grant them the ecstasy of peace. In Anne's world, if you love a rotten guy, you should follow the words of Cher in Moonstruck: "SNAP OUT OF IT".

I also found large chunks of dialog were...flat. Perhaps because they contrasted with the emotionally honest tone of the prose. I skipped a couple of paragraphs when Gilbert and Mrs Graham talk about their souls meeting in heaven, because it felt so jarringly out of place as to be ridiculous - it reminded me of Airplane, the part that parodies a WWII train parting scene, only from the take-off of a jet; the girlfriend's running along, screaming good-bye as the jet taxis out, and the young serviceman is tossing her his pocket-watch as a memento, and the whole joke is that YOU CAN'T DO THAT ON A RUNWAY. Well, Anne's story is on a jet runway but her characters are trying to share a train good-bye - it doesn't quite mesh, so instead it feels a little like a joke.

That's about all I have to say on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I did just see the most recent BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre and I have a lot to say about that, too, in a later post. I'm tickled that Toby Stephens - who plays Rochester - also played Gilbert Markham in the 1996 adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I'm really impressed by him, and I can definitely get behind him as the new Thinking Woman's Hunk (inventive and useful phrase mined from The Times by the entertaining folks on BronteBlog).