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).

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.

This is jump-start v2.0 of The Naked Filmmaker, a blog on books, movies, and filmmaking that I hope might be interesting, useful or entertaining to at least one other person than myself.

Here's the backstory: once upon a time I read and wrote fan fiction, which, among other things, is frequently a copyright violation, an affront to the original creator's intent, and an enormously silly and addictive way for fangirls to live vicariously through the characters of their favorite stories. It's also where I started to learn how to write fiction, to establish a voice, to communicate my ideas lucidly in writing, and to observe carefully and analyze the things I read and watched. Sometimes, in middle school and even high school, I'd learn more about these skills by having my fan fiction critiqued by readers online (and offering those services in return) than I learned in English class or poetry club. Plus, the humming hive of fan information exchange often provided me with articles on the authors of my favorite books, or the directors of my favorite movies; the latter inspired me in many ways to become a filmmaker myself, and I'm currently studying the art and technique.

Well, I moved from email listserv fic-sharing groups to LiveJournal, that bastion of teen indulgence, following my fandoms to greener pastures of verb tense disagreement, the incorrect use of homonyms, and gaping chasms in canon continuity. I met a lot of great people there, many of whom stuck with me through much of the nearly three years I've been journaling and ficcing there. However, a lot of people came to my LJ to read fan fiction, and instead found irregular binges on fic regulated by typical teen angst and confusion and, once in a while, a book or movie review. Review is a pretty loose term - I've only ever written one Review, and that was for my current university's newspaper - what I actually put up in my LJ were responses and thoughts, sometimes a critical evaluation, sometimes a personal reaction, sometimes a light rave or rant.

For a while now, I've felt like I've grown out of fan fiction. I'll probably feel that way until my next huge obsession hits. In the meantime, I thought I'd pursue seriously one of my original goals in keeping a journal, aside from gaining fan fiction publicity - I wanted a place to collect those responses that weren't quite Reviews, and I wanted to do it publicly because I crave discussion and, yes, I think I'm very smart. I'd love to become even smarter by listening to the input of other readers and viewers on the intarwebs. Finally, I also want to encourage (in myself and others) the habit of briefly responding to every book you read and movie you see. It's a good way to grow your powers of observation and comprehension, and - in my own case - to combat the tendency to forget every last detail of a work as soon as you turn the last page (or hit stop on PowerDVD and wonder why it's made your computer freeze again).

So, just as I did when I took the leap from listserv to LJ, I'm moving to where I see the action - I could be wrong, I sometimes am, but I'm willing to give this a shot. I also wanted to start anew, with a blog dedicated purely to book and movie responses; a separate space from where I ramble about my Real Life entanglements or frolic in fan fiction fantasies. I'll also write here about my education in filmmaking and the projects I work on, in original writing, legitimate adaptation, and film production. In the next post, I'll copy from my recent LJ entry about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, and after that, I'll continue the blog with material unposted elsewhere unless otherwise noted. But I want to finish this introduction with the first paragraph from another book by Anne, Agnes Grey:

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut. Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge; I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others, but the world may judge for itself...

I'm not as shy as Agnes, and this post hasn't been as sentimentally revealing a history as hers, but I do hope it has entertained - enough to keep you around for more.