July 1st, 2009

Harriet Vane

A Sense and Sensibility summer: critics; in French; audio-commentaries for the 95 and 08 films

Dear Friends,

I meant this to be an Austen summer on Women Writer through the Ages, and hope for others on the list, they are reading more than one Austen novel, trying the criticism or biographies, and for those who want to, reading a translation of their favorite Austen novel.  That's what I partly meant to do myself.  What is happening though is it's taking me unconscionable amounts of time genuinely to write a chapter of a book, and as I determined not to begin with Chapter 1 (a survey of types of adaptations which I have tried to write several times now and ended up with over-detailed analyses getting nowhere) but Chapter 2, and that that would be the movies adapted from Austen's first published novel, well, voila, I'm having a Sense and Sensibility summer.  As I wrote on WWTTA, I know that the truly virtuoso performances by Austen are her Mansfield Park (and a deeply profound book to boot) and Emma (endlessly intriguing with her full entry into the consciousness of a woman who is an utter egoist, through whom she nonetheless allows us to glimpse numbers of other presences, there fully in their own right, with their own only partly uncovered stories), so think I'm a little nuts.

I'm also worried the chapter I'm writing is stiff and boring as I find I must write in a mandarin style and follow good scholarly methodology or I wouldn't dare send it out.  So I'm deep in a quandary and at night asking myself why I am doing this. During the day I don't as the task absorbs me sufficiently and entertains me (Austen's books stand up to endless scrutiny and I just love all the Austen movies it seems) and keeps the black presence of depression, anger and all the concomittant feelings of panic, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, nervousness at bay, not to omit genuine worrying over our lack of money to do what we want to do for ourselves and Isabel. But at night when I'm too tired for my mind to work intently, Doubt comes flooding back.

Sigh.  Then some idea comes into my mind from the project and I am happy again, as when I gaze at this still from the 71 S&S, Marianne is characterized as innocent and unworldly; after her great illness and the way she's been treated, she thinks only to read more poetry, does not appear to understand the forces that have done her in:

Ah the Cowper she (Ciarhan Maddan) will read; and the mother (Isabel Dean), who knows better than she why what's been done to her has occurred, is shown as rightly fond

Tonight I thought I'd follow up two earlier reverie-meditations which include material on the Cinematic Austen and criticism of the S&S movies (their deep patterns).  Here I've put together some comments I've written on criticism of Austen's S&S, a translation I've begun reading, the audio-commentaries I listened to for the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, and my discovery that another angle of typology has led people to group films as Heritage films and discuss the Austen films as part of these.

Elinor (Emma Thompson) at long last angrily telling Marianne what she has been enduring for four months (95 S&S)

First, criticism:   I've rereading the chapter in Claudia Johnson's book on Austen on S&S and Eva Sedwick's notorious article on the novel as about masturbation.  Johnson's Women, Politics and the Novel remains as felicitious, insightful and informative as ever. She reads the book in a feminist and woman-centered tradition.  If you've never read this before, it's a kind of sina qua non I think.  Rereading it is useful too :) Sedgwick is misrepresented and misunderstood. She loves the book, is not attacking it, and brings out a layer in it that is important. It's an important insightful article. It and another brilliant one (where for the record I disagree as I love Diderot's Suzanne, and she assumes we dislike such characters, she'd be a Fanny Price hater as well as someone who dislikes Clarissa) on Diderot's Nun are found in her Tendencies.  Her understanding of what is put before us in the book gives a real sense why the novel (so germinal of a type of woman's novel) used to and still is sometimes dismissed as juvenile or crude work: it embarrasses.

Three others, also with an attempt at concision:  Margaret Cohen's Sentimental Education of the Novel. Its title does not give away its unusual rich content: it compares in detail French novels (mostly by women) of the later 18th and early 19th century with English ones, and moves up to George Sand by way of Austen.  The perspective brings out strong similarities among these books and how we have lost a world of interaction and misunderstand the full context of what we are reading. Plus of course you learn a lot about books you may not have read. It reinforces Moretti's Atlas of the novel; i.e., it's a product of 18th to 19th century French and English commercial and technological advances and culture.

Another one which is more detailed and informative for a French and translation perspective:  Joan Hinde Stewart's Gynographs, analyses and details about French novels of Austen's period (many of which she and Burney would have read).

Then I read Patricia Meyer Spacks's afterward to S&S in the Bantam edition of S&S and it's still one of the best essays on the book I've read anywhere.  She utters this kind of thought and develops it: by the time we are into the book and throughout it: "the reader [comes] to understand the intricate ways in which money affects feeilng, how the realities of the outside world impinge on the interior realm."  On the inner life of the author and her characters:  they "intensify our own; and her sustained reminder that psychic truths emerge most vividly in individual responses to social demands chastens the naivete of those who believe themselves independent of circumstance ..."  She shows us "bleak economic realities ..." She brings in Austen's letters. I was reading Emma Thompson's diary while filming S&S and she's reading Austen's letters. Aaargh! I should be reading them too. I wish I had 48 hours a day of alertness.

One of the best single studies of S&S is Moreland Perkins's Reshaping the Sexes in S&S (add it to my recommendation of Isobel Armstrong and Gene Ruoff's S&Ss.  I find Ididn't do half enough justice to it in my review. Perkins alone defends Edward as a fully realized antimacho humane portrait of a real man, a reconstruction of masculinity. 

                                                       Dan Steevens has just such an open face, full of love (08 SS)

Early on Robin Ellis expresses real anger at his sister, her values, her bullying:

And Bosco Hogan despair and shame and understanding a position (from Brandon) would be the saving of him, a rare kind of admission today too:

All beautiful.  As you'll see below Lee and Schamus, Davies and even Thompson and Doran miss what's in Edward.  Thompson says in one draft she wrote Edward and Elinor's story in as a backstory and began with Willoughby as according to someone that is where the novel begins. What misunderstanding wrenching of a woman's story si there.

For my part I've decided that much of Hugh Grant's portrayal is overrated: he's fine in the crucial moving scene with Elinor (so open and full of honest tender love), picking her shawl, and other silent moments, but he is very uncomfortable, absurdly stiff in some of the comic embarrassment scenes early on.  Finally Dan Steevens is better, more humane, more real.

Janet Todd's Jane Austen: New Perspectives is much worth getting too. I've summarized other of its essays, especially one which retells Emma mockingly, ironically so that we see how neurotic and twisted, she really is, how tyrannical the father (Avrom Fleishman). It has many thoughtful, unusual and perceptive points of view, and differently informed essays. Well, one by Angela Leighton, editor of one of the two volumes of Victorian poetry by womenI have, is on "Sense and Silences." She knows she is rewriting the book or turning it about to change the title: she wants to go into the silences of Marianne and what is going on in her on the other side. It's one of these fine pieces where someone writes about what's implied yet not there.

I just love how Leighton does validate Marianne's full experience and does not regard her as "self-indulgent" and so on -- a response one sees in those who grasp that the book is Elinor's so much more.  Leighton argues Marianne's sensibiltity is "her prison and her weapon," she "defies the conventions of social intercourse because she is victimized by them. At first Austen harshly caricatures her, but then as "Marianne's fellings lose their fictionality and become true, Austen censors their expression by understating them, transferring them into mere physical ilness, and finally by seeming to leave them altogether out of account."

And she is better on Elinor than most.  I can't stand how Tave admires Elinor for all her exertions and applauds her repressions. Elinor's silences are on the other side of emotional pain too. She too is repressing a scream -- as for example she listens to her brother, John Dashwood. "Elinor could only smile" is one of my favorite lines in the book. It is the silent of integrity.

Elinor does not always pick up the burden of endlessly telling lies.

Parallel scene: Elinor (Hattie Morahan) facing Marianne tells of her humiliation and grief (08 S&S)

Elinor-Sowmyra (Tabu) can't speak her trouble to Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai) ( (00 I Have Found It)

Then the translation:  Le coeur et la raison, Joubert's translation of Austen's S&S.  In a close translation (paraphrase Dryden called these), it's in the nuances the changes occur and one has to read other books by the translator before a different perspective emerges. I began such a project once for Madame Chastenay's translation of Radcliffe's Udolpho into French. Maybe someday I'll get back to that. Happily Chastenay left a three volume memoir of her life so it's possible.

I do like this translation.  One of its merits is to convey irony and I find myself grinning:  for example, Ch 3, when Mme Dashwood begins to realize Elinor is in love with Edward, she too begins to see his merits, and the narrator tells us "Elle ne tarda guere a percevoir toute l'etendue de ses merites.  D'etre persuadee de son inclination pour Elinor aida peut-etre a sa perspicacite."  I think its tone is stronger in each case; that is to say, when Elinor reveals her love with her insistence on how Edward would have been a great artist had he applied himself, Austen's language is slightly more muted.  Repeatedly Joubert has a slightly greater emphasis. I do like the passages where a character has positive decent emotion and this is presented more precisely somehow, fully, with an emphatic sense of integrity running through the tone in such passages.

Translation of a book I've read many times makes me see new passages I had not paid attention to before. It works like movies in this sense. It slows me down and I see more.  Listening to a book read effectively aloud (books on tape or CD type of thing) functions the same.  But the foreign language adds the piquant fun of living in the other language and seeing the choice of phrase and how the language (as it were) objectively functions or produces itself somehow.  This is Chomskyite stuff I don't understand all that well so will stop here.

Connecting to the global Austen (in translation), I read a very good essay (recommended) by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenberg in the same online volume of Persuasions where they suggest and try to demonstrate through clips that  insistently modern free adaptations overturn Austen's anti-social stances and erase her saturnine and ironical depictions of antagonisms, and adversarial behavior in family life (to make the famly the haven one runs to), and also give the heroine aggression and a career. And so some of what I love best about Austen (her truthfulness about social life) is erased. This is found across the globe. For my part my objection is this is done to most commercial popular films too. Those which depart don't succeed at the box office, or never get there.

Again Elinor denies she is unhappy

Third topic   I listened for the first time to the audio-commentaries which accompany the 95 S&S movie, and was startled by the gendered nature of the talk and what was said. One set of commentators were Emma Thompson and Lindsay Doran and they talked of the love story, were both familiar with the novel and talked of how it related to the book; they showed no embarrassment in talking of the story, the characters' personalities, or their feelings; it was an continually illuminating discussion ranging far and wide from who was picked for what role when and so on.

For the first half of the film, the talk between Ang Lee and James Schamus showed two men embarrassed to reveal anything about themselves in relationship to what was gonig on in the sceen except some startling sexist talk. Above all Ang Lee's continual reaction to the younger women in his cast as attractive or not and how he can't shut up about it. It was not he who chose Thompson (in fact he was the second director chosen, but we are never told who was first or why he was really chosen) and he avoided closeups so much it was only here once he says the audience can "get used to" Thompson does he shoot her close up.  Our explanation for what Emma Thompson says is in the past quarter century or so the continual choice of women 20 years younger than men and presenting them as close in age comes. 

Edward is a "nerd" whose scenes "bother" these men.  No wonder movies are so sexist. Men are in control.  It reminded me of the poorness of poetry about movies:  shameless reactions on a primitive level that is ugly.  Also even women's criticism like Parrill's continual distaste for Sylvestre le Tousel like she was being asked to go to bed with her.  Neither man showed any knowledge of Austen's book, though Schamus knows about 18th century culture and history.  It is tedious too (the flattery, the self- and film-promotion takes up listening time), but is startlingly revealing. I will begin to listen to more of this stuff.

The dismaying remarks by Ang Lee and James Schamus have a lot to teach us about men making movies.  The difference in what they say as overvoice to what Emma Thompson and Lindsay Doran say is enough to make me nearly believe in silly books like Men are from Mars and Women from Venus.

In 81 S&S when Elinor awakens after Marianne snubbed at the ball, Elinor photographed to bring out Irene Richards's beauty

The women really discuss the movie in front of them, continually; they are interested in its themes, discuss archetypes (thus Lindsay Doran calls Brandon in the film a male Cinderella) and compare to Austen as well as historicize.  It's clear that Ang Lee lives in dread of being thought the least bit effeminate and will not say anything that could be construed this way.  When he confronts an emotional scene, he will say he longed to make a movie about war while he was filming this scene. James Schamus tries to get him to acknowledge something of the pain in the film, but no.  Schamus himself reveals how little he cares about the accuracy of the costumes. He says he loathes the empire style dress (his term) as it makes the dresses "balloon" out and makes the women look bad.  We can't see their limbs and they look "so full." (Perhaps the preference for the frail Keira Knightley peeps out here.)  Apparently he so disliked two of Jenny Bevan's creations, he forbid them on the set and raged when one turned up as intended for the concluding scene between Edward and Elinor.

As I listen, I begin to wonder about who can be said to have made a movie.  The director did direct these scenes of intense emotionality, and yet he avers his distance from them.  Why he was hired still puzzles me except maybe it was that he came cheap.  It was his first studio film; they all know that there is an anomaly here and all four continually say how paradoxically perfect he was for the film.  Right.  I know he made films about family life before and one had a dialogue in it anticipating S&S, but his idea of family life is utterly different from Austen's. His one comement about families is that see how they have lost their father and Elinor needs and is looking for another father; later he pronounces Edward "too nerdy."  No wonder the film is strong on the male view of women.  All this wholly relates to what we found in women's films that seemed so skewed.  Oh the men lived in dread of a G rating. Why? What adult male would come to this?  That's what they say

Another perspective on this pair of conversations: perhaps it's wholly chance when a film puts it together for a masterpiece for as a work of art this film is.  Somehow they all gell, and someone does it, but it is not always the director. Here it was a combination of these two pairs cooperating in spite of themselves because they wanted a hit.

Trip to Devonshire (95 S&S)

In the second half of the film Lee and Schamus's commentary suddenly improves immeasurably in the second part of the film.  When we get to the ball where Willoughby snubs Marianne, the aftermath of the cruel letter, the trip to Cleveland, and Marianne's near death experience, and the talk afterwards, and then Edward's return to Elinor, in all these cases Lee suddenly does reveal a deeply engaged response to what he was doing.  He makes revealing commments about how he directed the actors, set up the scenes, valued the landscape and his deep identification with the romantic-destructive side of the movie experience as enacted by Marianne. He admits to deep emotions too, interestingly almost unwillingly and intensely with Brandon (he says things like "many many thoughts" to suggest Rickman's presence and performance).

Schamus is yet more frank in some ways, and he shows more knowledge of the book at the end of the film. Both of them clearly preferred the second half of Thompson's script to the first; while they praise comedy, what they really go for is tragedy.

Emma Thompson says more than once that the movie is deeply melancholy and she's startled how Lee manages this so subtly.  Partly it's the music, which I have now listened to.

And Thompson and Doran's commentary has its limitations. They stroke one another a lot, or I should say Doran flatters Thompson to the hilt. They both go in for this "happy" talk that is so much a part of features: all these people continually say how X was just perfect for the part and everyone knew it from the word go (see Every Little Step to disabuse yourself of that, and imagine it) and how well all got along, how happy everyone was, &c&c.  No one would offend anyone because another job is needed, and it's a cottage industry.  But Doran goes in for rather more praise of the other woman, while Thompson does not praise back. Thompson does speak her mind and when Doran doesn't agree you have to get it by listening to her silence. Doran is very afraid to make any remark that might be construed as feminist (matching Lee's behavior in the first half of the audio-commentary).

I wonder if they got paid and if so how much. Or was it the sort of back-scratching favor to the studios which they might hope would turn up another part or place in a film to come?  At any rate, it is very worth going through though it can take a long time (more than 3 days for me) if you mean to listen carefully and remember and take notes.

To Cleveland, Somerset, accompanied by haunting melancholy refrain by Patrick Doyle that Lee said was his favorite music of the 95 film

I also listened to an interview of Andrew Davies and Anne Pivcevic on the DVD of the 2008 BBC/WBGH mini-series S&S. This was more controlled and just as revealing but about more conventional thins:  her view of S&S is that it's a romance of reconciliation; both were unaware (seemingly) this is a book where the crises are about wmoen in relationship to one another and talked of how proud they were of substituting romance (indeed moving ones) scenes. Davies shows himself to be an astute psychologist who sees ethically in modern terms which refocus but keep the original meaning of the text; by contrast Thompson interpreted Marianne and Elinor consciously in old-fashioned terms, like see how bad mannered is Marianne. She shows the repression of her background.

Passing Stonehenge (glimpsed on the right) on the way to Devonshire, no trafffic jam that day (in 08 film)

I find it's getting late and I've gone on long enough. So last but not least I'll briefly mention the good book I'm reading which has a huge number of brief and longer essays on film adaptations of novels, and heritage films in general:  Film/Literature/Heritage: A Sight and Sound Reader, ed. Ginette Vincendeau.  The pieces are all written with pizzazz and so make me worry what I am writing will be seen as so academic.  Craig and Monk show that the films delve sexuality in fascinating ways; Liz Lochhead reveals she is seduced by Rob Roy all the while knowing how atavisticially retrograde (a male wet-dream fantasy about women) it is.  There are rich sections on the 1995 Little Women movie, on Scorcese's Age of Innocence, Campion's Portrait of a Lady, and that's just first 70 pages of a 300 page book.

In such films no one would ever take a train or truck to travel as they do in the Tamil I Have Found It:

On their way to Chennai (Madras)

Yes the project is pleasure-filled and fun. And writing this helped keep me calm and relatively tranquill if only because it made me so busy finding stills :).