May 24th, 2009

Harriet Vane

The Cinematic Austen: life as study, reading, writing

As I remarked to Judy, this autobiographical blog might not seem so different from the impersonal or essay one (Ellen and Jim have a blog, Two).  Why?  Because what I like to do best is read and study and take notes; also after an initial deeply pleasurable watch (or not so great but interesting enough and in my area), watch movies carefully and take down the transcripts and make notes (capturing stills as I go).  Jim said on our holiday in Vermont last year, "Ellen is doing what she likes to do best," and there was a picture of me reading away.

So on these beautiful early summer days I am going out to walk with Jim (lovely last night in old Town), movies with Izzy, gym, and occasionally playing with cats (sleeping with them nightly and they keep me company in my dawn reading) and Jim and I and sometimes Izzy eating and drinking and talking.  I actually ironed one of Izzy's blouses, and then shopped with her and we got the first things we saw at Macy's for her: elegant silk black suit and soft turquoise blouse; for me it took a little longer, but not much: a nightgown and light robe for me.  Two concerts with Jim, one with Izzy and Jim.  We all worked over the four weeks and succeeded in a slow motion fixing of our porch in several stages.  But what does not change and goes on for hours each day is staying in my room between two fans and reading books on Austen and right now her S&S and then skimming and rereading film studies of Austen films, a few general but most of them about the Sense and Sensibility films.  This is a report of what I've come up with in the last three days or so.

One of many beloved stills of Hattie Morahan as Elinor, 08 S&S

First, The cinematic Austen by Monaghan, Wiltshire and Hudelet. This is the book I read carefully before skimming through all the essays I have on the S&S films.

I recommend it as a film study as well as for what it reveals about Austen and the films under discussion. In brief, the aim in all but two is to move from screen to page, not page to screen. They study the movies to see what they teach us about the texts, and we learn a good deal.  They also look to see the interlationships between movies and successfully (this is hard) the interrelationship of a novel with the movie adaptations.  The latter is achieved by creating some precise definitions of what we mean by cinematic and some precise definitions of what is done in a verbal text and then comparing and seeing what we can learn about both.

Wiltshire shows us how recent movies made a use of old light (candles, early versions of gas lamps) and says this has become a trait shared by Austen films, a mark of them.  I qualify this by saying it's found as early as 1981 and intermittently in the 72 BBC Emma and 79 BBC P&P.  He suggests when film brilliant it reflects back on pastness of past, uncovers hidden sources of her art -- in light, overhearing use of light and darkness, mise-en-scene in Austen brought out (how her descriptions are pointed at objects and heavily psychologized) -- including its subjectivity instead of visuality.

Hudelet shows how Austen has micro-intensity, enhancement of details and nuance, close up reactions in her scenes. She tells us what the soundtrack of the best movies teaches us about Austen.  She also is alive to how the treatment of space in films has changed recently. We've gone well beyond no longer treating space as a stage.

Yes, I'd say the visions are themselves continually on movement and re-angled. She's not articulate enough here but she's right.  Izzy and I saw Is Anybody There? this weekend and it shows this new use of space frequently. A good start in the Austen movies is Wright's 2005 S&S and then watch his 2007 Atonement.

Like the Indian critic whose book on Indian films included a long section on the use of mirror, Hudelet is good on mirrors in these films.  (See )

By the way there is but one scene in all Austen which has mirrors -- if Diana reads this I would be grateful for correction -- it's in Persuasion where Admiral Crofts tells Anne he is embarrassed to be surrounded by so many mirrors. Hudelet's arguing Austen's specific kinds of themes and unfolding of characters lend themselves to sophisticated filmic techniques:  flashbacks within flashbacks, epistolarity, mirrors, optical games. She argues that the movies don't impose a truth on an Austen text but rather convey the evolution of the text, the variabilities of readings, of imaginary visions produced by the novel.

Monaghan's conservative politically and persists in writing fidelity criticism; he begins with Austen's text and evaluates movies in accordance with how close they come. He does it rigorously and you learn a lot about the books as he sees them and the movies more objectively (paradox here).  Tellingly and quite unconsciously he reveals the rigidity of literary schemes when he comes to discuss Persuasion, his Anne Elliot becoming a sort of rigid conception he can beat liberal literary critics of the film and book with; he can also one-up Rozema by taking her at her word and showing the ending of the original book does not fit the film she made and that we can see cowardice and a need for a wide audience prevented her from changing the ending to one more appropriate.

Jumping to Wiltshire at the end, it's a superb essay (he is so smart) but like so many critics, he has decided the three recent films of 2007 (90 minutes) are available for bashing and faults the 2007 Persuasion for changing the ending of the film as it's not like the book's inner structure, but the film provides a different set of themes and emotions (he admits all films do to some extent) which makes its choice of ending appropriate for it. He's not having that and in this essay he returns to an insistence on fidelity as partly an evaulative standard.  Much food for thought here too (and nothing of the rigidity of Monaghan): he says you must look at all the films in terms of source book because simply that's its source, but also one another.  Good comments: points out how there is reversal of Austen's project in 95, 00, 08, Perkins says she means to feminize men and make women at the center

The penultimate essay is by Hudelet and concentrates on the free adaptations, Indian, I have found it, and modern California, The Jane Austen Book Club, to make some superb points about adaptation as such. For example, that it's ubiquitous (think of operas, theme parks, radio plays, stage plays) and commits "the heresy of showing that form can indeed be separated from content.  At the opening of the book Monaghan takes an older argument first found in Jonathan Miller that shows that adaptations in films are not distinct species which we can't compare to texts:  at the heart of our understanding of both are conceptions and emotions and understandings in our minds and it's that that we write out of.  This is repeated in a book by Kamilla Elliot -- better known than Miller's Subsequent Performance which seems only to be quoted for his (out of character with the rest f the book) bashing of TV adaptations :)  She shows why and how Austen's texts have come to be available for so many cultures, how they function to be applied to diverse cultures and their needs.

Unfortunately Frances Cuka's performance as the fiercely angry malevolent and yet poignantly desperate Lucy (gratingly insistence to Joanna David as Elinor) is not well known, nor Patricia Routledge as Mrs Jennings in comic anguish, messenger telling (reliving) scene where Edward is ejected from home by mother and sister:

both from the71 S&S by Denis Constanduros

A less positive aspect of this was brought up by Diana in her excellent blog (The Selling of Jane Austen) where I contributed a reply that paraphrases and coins phrases from Barthes which Hudelet takes over:  "Jane Austen" becomes a vague sort of sacralized myth which is made up of books (which perceivers align with Austen), films, box office stars, paraphernalia; this site or imaginary exists to be appropriated.  And of course unscrupulously sold. And that's what you can see in meetings (& editions) increasingly.


Older volume JA goes to Hollywood edited by Troost and Greenberg has a number of the essays very good in the sense the films are carefully studied and understood, but they can go no further than criticizing the films for not being like the book on the grounds of their interpretations of Austen (which are not always correct) and their ideas about what these interpretations mean culturally. Forever left without bringing film in to play with novel filmically and that's what Cinematic Austen tries to do.

The best I found in the older volumes in general and just on S&S:   Devoney Looser in Troost and Greenberg on the real feminism of the films; Tom Hoberg in 19th century women's novels on film, ed B. Lupack for his genuine generous insights into the 1981 and 1995 S&S; he shows flaws but also the strengths of both movies.

Diana Fairfax as Mrs Dashwood given a number of her own scenes in 81 S&S, strong presence, made intelligent and reasonable and emotional, supportive of Edward, memorable

An intriguing new book:  Judith Mayne's Private Hotels, Public Films. She says she is going to analyze film adaptations from the point of view of how one is meant for a private experience and dwells on the private a lot, and the other experienced as a social experience and directed to uphold social life. I can see she also treats of interiority in these forms.  I was drawn to it because I noticed a discussion of the 1991 Clarissa (which I had missed) as well as several of the Austen movies.

Joss March on Dickens and Edzard's Little Dorrit:  what matters most is the emotional tone of the work; if that is lost, if novelist's viewpoint not absorbed into emotional life of film, work is lost.  A scene a writer never wrote gives us visual and aural equivalents of words author did write; apparent distance can conceal extraordinary sensitivity to text. So despite it's being a comic drawing room play, Constanduros gives us the long trips and a deeply musing sensitive Marianne whose Cassandra act in the drawing room defending Elinor is one of the great climaxes of the 71 film:

Ciaran Maddan as Marianne in carriage driving away from Norland

A.A. Milne in his preface to his play, Elizabeth Bennet, how important and justified it is for an adaptor to draw out the implications and flesh out characters in the original text.


On Austen's Sense and Sensibility:  Gene Ruoff's book:  the whole of Ruoff's book on S&S seems to me absolutely accurate -- and important for a comparative study of the film;  in particular the comment:  Austen has not yet managed to free the representation of women's lives from the hegemony of men's stories, p 109.  He brings out how memory is so central to Austen's MP, and how many times Fanny appears compared to Elizabeth Bennet in P&P:  Stuart Tave's analysis dwells on memory; well, the 1983 BBC MP is drenched in memory filmic techniques and Fanny as voice over narrator; deep past of Anne Elliot suggested in traumatized diary representations of Wentworth and Anne in 2007 Persuasion.

Emma Thompson as Elinor captures Susan Morgan's idea about  Austen's S&S best:  perplexed, thinking, doing right insofar as she can.  Lonely too but controlled and therefore not dependent on contingencies of the moment until a real crisis occurs.

And finally an intriguing way of justifying intertextual studies galore in films and novels too by Jocelyn Harris in Jane Austen on Screen, edd. MacDonalds. her idea is films and novels are so disparate there's no use analysizng for fidelity in effect; the film is an imitation of the book in another media.  18th century idea of imitation as articulated by Dryden begins her analyses and then what she does is meditate the work (film or book) out of what her own richly stocked mind can draw from intertextuality.  It makes me want to reread Forster's Howards End and then rewatch the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala film for Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel/Elinor Dashwood the way I watched Mira Nair's Namesake for Tabu as Ashima/Elinor Dashwood.

Tabu as Ashima at job at Digital Software when she spies Mano (Edward character) walking across the lobby.

Perhaps I'll come back later today to say add comments (details from Looser's essay).  Harriet Margolis in the MacDonald Jane Austen on Screen volume suggests that we who write on the Net about Austen are all recreating her as validly in our way as any academic scholar, money-making film- or sequel-maker.  She denies the debate over how to talk about Austen is a question of commercializing but one about power and control.

Miss Drake -- who we all recall (Gaudy Night anyone?) took decades over her dissertation :)