July 30th, 2009

Harriet Vane

Criticism of the 1995 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility; precursor "sister" films by Lee

Dear Friends,

I am up to the part of Chapter 2 on Sense and Sensibility movies in my projected book, The Austen Films. It's intended to be about the 1995 Ang Lee/Emma Miramax Sense and Sensibility movie. There has been so much commentary and criticism, I thought the only way to get a handle on this was to read it through taking notes.  Towards the end since I was also reading two books on Ang Lee's movies, I watched his and James Schamus's The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, and Ride with the Devil -- all superb movies.

Courting properly, even in a dugout, Ride with the Devil

Tonight since I can't read and it's too early to go to sleep I've decided I'll share summaries of this criticism with anyone who's interested.  I don't include all articles since I have discussed some earlier, and I include only the useful ones. Then I'll give some account of four movies by Ang Lee and James Schamus (who ofrten produces and/or writes or rewrites Lee's scripts).

To begin with, Lee/Thompson's film adaptation of Austen's S&S:

1)  Fuller, Graham, "Sense and Sensibility, Cautionary Tale,", Film/Literature/Heritage/Sight and Sound Reader, ed. Gineete Vincendeau (London: BFI, 2001):77-81.  Emma Thompson seen as shaping vision. Television then and now a writer's medium (Weldon did 79 P&P, Davies 95 P&P, Stillman's Fitzgeraldian Metropolitan; origin in Doran asking Thompson after she saw two BBC epsidoes (disgruntled Maid Marion), economy of language, fond yet ironic appreciation of heritage culture staples; Emma identified (a close sister, father dies when they are young). Sees parallel with Margaret sensible sister of Howard's End; its auteur, breaking out against secondary role in Branagh's films, thisis personal psychodrama. He says book JA's sourest look at oppression of women through marriage, property and family. Instead of lowering 1995 persuasion ,theme conveyed through self-deprecating irony and brio; she harnesses comic business to story's themes; period evocation rather than exacting verisimilitude. In film choice between Marianne and Elinor is about female survival

Elinor's agon over Marianne's encounter with grave illness, S&S

Doesn't deny Lee there: didn't read the book, but Pushing hand is uneasy coexistence of elderly Chinese man and American daughter-in-law, about claustrophobia (like Dashwood women vis-a-vis Fanny and John Dashwood), Wedding Banquet a study in concealment and represssion, Eat Drink Man Women widower's struggles to stay close to 3 daughters. Lee filmed Austenland obsessively; many frames, drawing straight lines around emotionally distraught, sexually hungry and therefore potentially ruinous women characters. Fetishistically achieved -- elaborate meals in Eat Drink Man Woman.  Array of framed picrues on stairwell, Vermeer interiors, outdoors framed like Gainsborough. Quotes Paglia on mechanistic controlling of men over pictures and women (chthonian female swamp) Looks out windows, written by Thompson as moments against confinement. Lee turns them into windows within windows. Viewers are invited to identify with usually passive characters (including Brandon, Elinor Edward). Gynaecenric universe with yawning doorways and portals, male virility seen by how vigourously he enters a room. Masculinity made pathetic and comic. Gothic sequences of female abandonment on Edenic hillside and tempest rain. Men on horseback. Lee's classical masterpiece, Thompson's romantic triumph.

2)  Stilwell, Robyn J. "Sense and Sensibility: Form, Genre, and Function in the Film Score," Acta Musicologica, 72:2 (2000:219-40.  Brilliant essay by a musicologist analyzing exquisitely controlled interaction of music, picture, dialogue and theme in the Thompson/Lee film against an analysis of the book as analogously using form and content. 

Edward approaches as Elinor listens to Marianne play, music within music

IN particular the scene where Edward approaches Elinor as she listens to Marianne playing "my father's favorite tune," and sequence of walking into landsca.Also use of motifs across the film as they play in an out of central travelling music and the music which is anti-empathetic during the ball (where Marianne is snubbed.

The larger argument is that music is not absolute and abstract and carries cultural coding, and it is not just legitimate to use music this way, one cannot but use it this way. Atonal music has been rejected by the larger public because it really projects fear and anxiety and the public wants to experience more than that. She also historicizes this and suggests it was in the 1780s to 1830s that the new idea that music which was abstract was superior to music which laid claim to certain kinds of content and this moving away from content to concentrate on form as carrying meaning in itself is part of the love of balance and symmetry of the Enlightement period and may be found in the arrangement and disposition of chapters and structures of Austen's finished novels (S&S, P&P, MP, Emma).Brilliant essays analyzing exquisitely controlled interaction of music, picture, dialogue and theme in the Thompson/Lee film against an analysis of the book as analogously using form and content.   Also use of motifs across the film as they play in an out of central travelling music and the music which is anti-empathetic during the ball (where Marianne is snubbed.

3) Penny Gay:  S&S in a postfeminst world:  sisterhood is still powerful", Jane Austen on Screen, edd. Gina and Andrew F. MacDonald, 91-110.  Movie must not stray too far and must speak to viewers of their own concerns; this is late 20th century feminism informing the film.  Begins with parallels with Howards End; Thompson and Lee film a reworking into a different form material supplied by Jane Austen. Each bring their sensibility and cultural baggage. Interrelationship of Lee (his family films mentioned). Mentions how in real life Winslet went on to play Ophelia: Bonham Carter was mistress to Branagh; Thompson and Wise partners.Thompson's background, education, about two sisters' relationship, not sitting around waiting for men.

Early on Marianne tells Elinor that Fanny Dashwood has been checking out silver

Gay uses Pidduck about how space gendered with men out of doors moving about, women inside. Lee said he wanted the camera to watch the room; how when man & sex enter, change registered.  We are to feel they are in prison cells and feel deceptive illusions of escape to outside.  We learn out dangerous outside is. 

She goes over  mise-en-scene in rooms (guns for men, use of colors, gray with sunshine) Costume distances us. How they dressed Rickman to be experienced, dependable, manly in fetching way. Marianne's story inscribed on her body.   Erotic treatment of hair cutting with Elinor watching.  Powerful cinematic sequence in Cleveland. Bronte sequence marked on Brandon's body.  She's very good on long night sequence, camera work, lights, feel, sacrifical connotations. 

Elinor is novel and film's protagonist.  Gay says this movie is a creation of S&S as if it were written after creating emotional vulnerability of Persuasion.  Gay traces images of Elinor alone; Lucy as clinging maliciously, locked to torturer, finally Edward comes and Elinor along at opening and close.  Her final outbursts are justified. Bravura performances. Shift of intense emotionality of Elinor and Willoughby scene to last of Elinor and Edward before leaving for Cleveland. Most physical passionate scene is Elinor sobbing for Marianne rubbing her body. Have nothing but one another. Austen more complex in presentation of Elinor's drawing to Willoughby and then moral moving away; instead we have the attractive Brandon (Valmont on stage and lover in Madly Truly Deeply).  It will be difficult for readers to return to Austen's Brandon and read him in the unsexualized way Austen conceives him, p 106 because of Rickman's performance.


Rickman as solitary disillusioned man

Michael Coulter cinematographer of 95 S&S and 99 MP.  95 S&S, Clueless, and 99 MP all by women and two directed by women.  Cannot read book or see films in vaccuum; history and experience of cultural evolution in the way. Film make must find visual language and reading of original that allow story to speak to new audience.

Hedges in S&S like neolithic stones

4) Hopkins, Lisa.  "Putting the Gothic in, " Screening the Gothic (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005): 36-48. Opens with idea film much acclaimed. She looks at how the film amkers deal with dual focus, how to present and says instead of Austen's schema you have Gothicized riven psychology at heart of rational seeming human.  A fine sounding moral.  Camera works to make us see scenes as observed by Elinor and with Marianne as object of them, not observer. That's right. All novels have pairs of women, here used with insistent force.  Sisters everywhere in Austen, and other females linked in too.  Without seeing 08 film she sometimes describes 95 one in terms of 08:  "Barton Cottge is near a bay and natural world in general painted as threatening by lowering and lurid skies we see. Ang Lee's film structural pairings are lost, but then we have addition of Margaret. New alliances set up: Edward (handsome now) and Margaret, so too Brandon.  Like Firth, Rickman brings a history, in his case sardonic sexy types; she also remembers Obadiah Slope (figure of great intensity), and how much attention is now directed Brandon.  She feels this is part of relative marginalization of Marianne in film. I agree we are to sympathize with Elinor and admire her if not revel in her pain.  They want less schematization and also want us to see Marianne's story as potential or near tragedy.

Marianne circling wildly; a speck in the gothic landscape

Elinor watches anxiously from window
We don't watch Marianne looking at other people, she is oblivious of Elinor's suffering, we watch Elinor watch Marianne's suffering and we watch Elinor suffer herself.  Elinor's perspective is the camera's during Cleveland sequence. We look with Elinor at Marianne. Marianne is more narrow: eyes only for Willoughby or her own concerns. Camera does not look at what Marianne seeing when Marianne looks away.  She is an object. Elinor rightly asks: "what do you know of anything but your own suffering?"
She sees signficant improvements at the same time as modification of things in Austen's novels we regret losing.


Second, Lee's Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Wedding Banquet, Ice Storm, and Ride with the Devil

My take on these films:

1) Eat, Drink, Man, Woman -- if by a man, it's a woman's film, and Lee's commentary with it shows that some of his discomfort in the audiocommentaries of S&S were a cover-up to hide his understanding that he makes feminine movies.  The move is misnamed: perhaps it should be called The Three Sisters and Mrs Liang are fooled by Mr Chu, father gloriosus, and cook extraordinaire. 

Father and daughters, Sunday dinner

At the end of the film we see we have been misunderstanding the father all along: I won't give away the concluding scene, but it's one which is not about the man as making an unusual decision, but how male sexuality and appetite triumphs every time, and women give in for security and kindness.  The stories of the three sisters are done with real insight and open quest for showing vulnerability; in particular one sister whose line is (famously in Austen studies) precisely that of Elinor as written in Thompson's script taken from Austen (what do you know of my heart?) is an Elinor type. She begins as a big-time executive, but by the end of the film (I suppose we have a post-feminist message here) has been so hurt and exploited (lost her money in trying to buy an apartment because the offer was a scam, has been ruthlessly betrayed by a young man who Edward Ferrars-style has another girlfriend, but this guy marries her and offers to make our heroine his mistress) that she turns away from her high-corporation job and herself takes on the function of Sunday cook for just herself and her father.

The middle sister stays; they grieve for the death of an uncle

The other two sisters marry, partly desperately. 

There's a fourth young woman going through a divorce, and Mrs Liang who is angling for Mr Chu to marry her. This is the one sour stereotype. Mrs Liang is played by an older actress and in the script is presented as a "horror" (phony, hypocritical, naturally selfish and not caring about her daughter, against being a mother -- !shocking just shocking!) and in the end of the picture when she gets her comeuppance we are to laugh. It reminded me of the laughter at Harriet Walters as Fanny Dashwood at one of the climaxes of the 95 S&S film. Men do not like older women; they should apparently not exist, and if they have the bad taste to carry on, they should at least be silent and stay in the corner.

Yet Eat Drink Man Woman is a feminine (watch the use of costume, hairdo and so son) as well as woman's film

2) The Wedding Banquet has the extraordinary story of two gay young men who try to fool the Chinese parents of one into thinking one of them, their son, is in love with and marrying a Chinese girl.

The pair we begin with

It's moving but also conventional, done in a screwball romantic comedy genre vein, complete with warm fuzzy happy ending.

The trio at the close

Before we get there though there has been a sort of satire on weddings and some hard issues raised.  Schamus says in the commentary until he emphasized the role of the American actor, they couldn't sell it to American movie moghuls, and until he turned it into comedy, it would not have lasted one weekend at a theatre. It has had a fantastically successful sale as a DVD since it came out that way.

As I watched it (and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) I have to admit throughts that lie too deep for tears came to the fore.  I think the movies, with all their pandering (finally the family relents, finally they are for your happiness) did bring to the fore real painful issues most people experience in family life, at least I have, insoluable ones. 

The five at the end, having managed to stay together for several months

3) You get more from The Ice Storm if you read the book by Rick Moody (very bitter indeed), but it's a rare hard look at the realities of what happens in the afternoon among teenagers as well as the common phenomena of the deteriorating marriage and despair in middle age among upper middle class Americans. 

Ben and Elena waiting for son, Paul, to come home, safetly they hope

4) Lee and Schamus's Ride to the Devil is also very worth watching: it's an unusual take on the civil war; they do not take sides, do not glorify or glamorize in a mythic blurred way, but (reminding me of the 1930s All Quiet on the Western Front), manage to convey how war is about ruthless murdering of people face-to-face remorselessly;

Jake to the new homcidal manaic:  now when were you fxing to do this mean thing (kill) to me?

It's a paradoxically intimate look at the US civil war as it played out in Missouri.  The issue of freedom. Very important in Ang Lee's films, in Ride with the Devil -- it's about freeing onself and how hard that is, but trying to do so with integrity at the same time, respecting bonds that are respected by others and matter for real therefore. It's a wonderful unusual film about the US civil war. 

Traditional walking through the town pair are outsiders: Jake, German, Holt, black

It was "dumped" by the studios and so an utter flop financially.


Then a summary of two critical books on Ang Lee's movies:

1) Critical books:  Dilley, Witney Crothers, The Cinema of Ang Lee (London: Wallflower Press, 2007).

A few notes on Dilley on Ang Lee as a film-maker:  she dwells on shifting identities, lack of security, purposeless of unknown future, lack of direction, alienation, anonymity and decadence in his films (he comes from Taiwaiin, is clearly living a life he was not intended to live, apart from original family). Early trilogy challenges patriarchy:  the father figure in a position of weakness, younger people contemporary living relevant lives; by end of film father has won sympathy, reverence and respect, redeems himself; he reinstates patriarhcy in a post-modern hybridised way: S&S father removed; Ice Storm ends on Ben's remorse. Lee deals sympathetically with repressed women operating in strict confines, trying to fulfill herself and duty. His films known for being female-centered; we find an exploration of sisterly bonds (S&S and Eat Drink), dissection of female sexuality (S&S, Ice Storm). How men's choices affect women's lives. Find outsiders (gay man, broke woman w/o green card, westernized daughters, Jake as German, Holt the slave. Wealth of personal experience himself in cultural displacement. From generational conflicts to teenagers to younger generation (Ride with Devil). He uses long take and framing to tell the story from a distance: actors' bodies, gestures, postures; also they have to find their own movement quotidianly; slows pace of film, and it becomes measured, deliberate.

Edward tenderly fixing Elinor's shawl, S&S

Father and Simon confiding at the close of Wedding Banquet

Dillay says that as a person, Lee sees himself as Chinese film-maker; he likes to use the same actors. Shows early love of romantic film:  The love Etere was influential: astonishing mythic story of young man dying and she passing by his grave after acceding to arranged marriage, and then a storm pounds site, she runs over and is reunited ahd they are buried together, after which we see them sail upward to clouds of paradise. He has kept in touch with childhood sensibilities:  repressed emotion and sacrificing love important themes. He says the great Chinese theme is you must hide your feelings; the repressed emotional wish is the hidden dragon; he sees climax of film when the two sisters fully connect in love and understanding.

dilley of course shows Schamus terrifically important too:  writing and rewriting screenplays, producing, introducing him; brings a New York and US sensibility and understanding, Eurocentric himself. Schamus suggested key plot points for Eat Drink Man Woman.

On Ang Lee: Shooting script for Ice Storm, revealing:  imagery really for Lee figures forth internal psychological realities before us; 

Many ice landscapes, this one deadly; Lee said he has cubism in mind for Ice Storm.

In S&S Lee used landscape to capture soft peaceful world young women retreat to at end; oneiric lakes everywhere; soft blues, silver-greys here are comforting.

Dilley finds that (as in S&S I'd add) Schamus cuts social satire and not wanting unsettling comedy in the midst of melodrama.   Schamus's remarks on the development and scripts for Eat Drink Man Woman and the Wedding Banquet revealing for understanding attitude towards marriage, romance, comedy.  Thorough effective analyses of Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman.

On S&S:  Austen's book discussed from post-colonialist perspective; zeroing in it's about family ritual and social duty; Dilley thinks Austen shows it's as important to behave in a socially acceptable duty bound manner as to follow one's feelings; again assertion it's stylistically similar to Eat Drink Man Woman.  Then Dilley moves to find colonialist remarks in the book, and finally to the film: the atlas (!), Margaret planning to become a pirate. Plight of women underscored in this film. A yearning to go places in Margaret.  Extraordinary versality and variety of elements used in the different adaptations of the 1990s. Dilley appears to think Thompson's screenplay better than Austen's novel and has little interest in Austen's own aims.  Compares Lee's to Clueless which she likes, and then McGrath's Emma which she doesn't (excessive romance), no growth in central character. Saying very little about this film.  We are told story of how Lee was hired once again. He felt he faced enormous odds: out of kilter with this material, there is a expected tone and style. Thompson "introduced the whole deal to me;" it took a long time.

Cultural shock in ways of working.  He was interested in the flow of energy in the film, the camera watching the room, the house an important a character as the women. Lee loves "unspoken currents everywhere," especially scenes with no dialogue.. Austen and Lee consummate at presenting family rituals, underneath strange getups is a life-enhancing empahsis on harmony and achieving a careful balance of opposites. Dilley sees Austen as deeply conservative (God, monarchy, doing right, duty, lack of archness) are things Lee had portrayed in one part of his dialectic. Lee: they learn from one another, finds quality alerady in herself, find proper balance." Lee: Austen describes "sad feeling of growing up ... we must struggle through "so much hurt to learn about true love and integrity"

Dilley on Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil:   Ice Storm: spiritual and moral emptiness; deconstruction of the family; landcape mirrors sexual detachment (winter) and alienation, masterpiece of irony and bitterness; teenage stories are the central ones. Presents sexual material more obliquely. His use of visual metaphor as described in introduction to screenplay.  Used visual metaphor to tell his story independent of dialogue (so too in S&S).  Lee says he experimented with cinema since Eat Drink and was thinking mostly of cubism, trying to develop one incident or character and look at it from all sides. Of interest: he says he couldn't wait to develop idea after Eat Drink but apparently he could not in S&S; that's because he had to fit his movie into previous ones.

Lee said of his work. "I did a woman's movie and I'm not a woman ... I learned from the crew [about the US]." He couldn't relate to children not obeying and had to understand this was so, and parents so absorbed in themselves, children left to take responsibility for their own upbringing.  She feels dialogue outstanding.  It reminds me how Lee had to accept Thompson's script and would be more in tune with Schamus who would be willing to change it to suit Lee.

The pivotal role of the father in Lee's films: cheating spouse, poor role model, anti-hero, movies ending suggest family stays together when in book they don't. Lee says tone of his movie is softer, less angry, he did not grow up there, wasn't pissed off. Distance helped him make it art. Dithey says film about dissolution of a family and its breakup, common theme in Lee's work. Ride with the Devil: about achieving freedom and yet remaining responsible, with integrity.  Ang Lee's territory;  heartrending beauty in the midst of cold pain. First American film goes to heart of culture wars and the second the heart of history, in civil war.

Dilley on Annie Proulx and Brokeback Mountain:  her story is one where we must accept severe emotional wounding, where things cannot work out; films characterized by silence which emphasizes emotional repression with spare and severe beauty, they have a lyrical meandering beauty, he likes to let a story unfold, language of films is visual (including faces, bodies). Chinese films have greater tolerance for unresolved sadness and pain

2) Ellen Cheshire's book:  same outlook at Dilley; she emphasizes how much he can convey by small detail; characters who can't get what they want, they "often find something that was there all the time but they could not see it."  Social obligations in conflict with personal freedom.  Emphasis on the long shot makes films gentle, actor has to act with whole body. She says S&S is very much an Ang Lee film. Use of framing; basically says what others say. Ice Storm, darkest film, desperately sad characters.  Ride with the Devil: the circular structure, even though it's a western. Still an intimate family drama. Wealthy male characters killed on their mission to protect their cultural identity; the marginalized survive and begin a liberated or freer life to create on their own.

Final scene of Ride with Devil: three friends, Jake now married to Sue Ellen, Holt to side, watch the murderers ride off