Something to Ponder: Joyce Carol Oates and Domesticated Cinema

I’ve just finished reading an Essay by Joyce Carol Oates about Todd Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I’m planning to assign to my
students this fall. While reading, one of Oates’s points caught hold of me, and I’ve spent the past few hours pondering what she means by it–and what
it might mean to me. Discussing the thrill of Dracula and the story’s enduring presence in our collective imagination, she argues that the cinematic experience
is “domesticated and diluted” at home as opposed to in the theater–a point with which any avid moviegoer would agree, hands down.

I certainly agree, but the objective portion of my brain–the one forced to play devil’s advocate with my students and find new and torturous ways of challenging
their interpretations of what they read–began thinking about what Oates means and wondering whether or not her idea is one exclusive to the experience
of watching horror films. I certainly think we can easily get caught up in the thrills and chills of the horror film in the close, semi-darkness of
the theater in a way that might be difficult to replicate in the warm, well-lit safety of our living-rooms. Even if you do enjoy watching films at home
with the lights turned off, you’re still arguably in a place wherein you feel protected from the ghools and goblins intended to frighten you. We might
be surrounded by friends in the theater as well as by strangers, but even when the movie is over–when the lights have come on again and the ilusion has
slunk back into the shadows from whense it came, we’ve still got to leave the theater and walk across the eerily-lit parking lot to our cars, and what
might be lurking out there? For all we know, the guy seated in the row across from us might be the Craigslist killer. Even if this is highly unlikely,
our recent cinematic experience has tightened our nerves and heightened our senses just enough to make us believe, temporarily, that we have cause to be
afraid–very afraid. It seems far more difficult to be taken in by the ilusion in the comfort of home–the place that exudes light, warmth, hope, laughter–those
talismans against terror. (On the other hand, if you live alone, and especially if you’re female, though I hesitate to succumb to the stereotype, it might
be a bit easier).

I wondered too if this idea only translates to the experience of the horror film. No matter what the genre, none of us can deny that there’s something
magical about watching our favorite actor or actress stride across the big screen that definitely tops watching them at home, unless you have a pretty
impressive home entertainment system at your disposal. Then too, nothing can cap the experience of sitting in a darkened theater with your date of choice,
hands bumping and slipping against one another in an extra buttery tub of popcorn, though more than likely your thoughts are occupied with other matters
than the action playing out on the screen. Even so, perhaps there’s something about the thrill of the theater that heightens the horror-viewing experience.

I definitely think it’s worth creating a journal prompt for my students based on this idea, and I’ll certainly be interested to see what the Netflix and
Torrent generation makes of it.

The End of an Era: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Ten years of being Spellbound by some of the most memorable characters in Contemporary Children’s Fiction came to a magical end two weeks ago with the
release of the second installment of the final Harry Potter film: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”. Having seen it twice, I think I can safely
say that this film, despite the pressure to tie up loose ends, seemed far easier to render on screen than the others, mostly because the book was so action-packed.
ON the other hand, J. K. Rowling’s descriptive language—the thing I’ve always loved most about her writing—painted such vivid pictures in the readers imagination
that to do them justice was no small feat. The scenes depicting the battle at Hogwarts were, I think, the strongest in the film, bringing the action on
the page to life precisely as I’d imagined—everything from the clanking of the suits of armor to the creeks and crashes of a magically-infused fortress
under siege.

***Spoiler warning***

The minor plot-changes toward the end were clever suspense tactics; Nevel killing the snake while Harry and Voldemort are battling rather than before Harry
reveals Voldemort’s botched attempt at killing him kept the audience guessing; what would happen if Harry attempted to destroy Voldemort with one horcrux
remaining? Even if this as primarily employed for the benefit of viewers who hadn’t read the series (in my opinion), it nevertheless kept everyone at the
edge of their seats.
There were a few minor details I thought they might have expanded on a bit more—Snape’s memories, for instance, and Dumbledore’s conversation with Harry
following Voldemort’s attempt to kill him. They didn’t do nearly as much with Harry’s relationship to Dumbledore as they might have in either the first
or second half of the film, and Harry’s struggle to maintain his trust of Dumbledore—his alternation between feelings of betrayal and loyalty—play a tremendous
role in his coming of age. On the one hand, to cling to Dumbledore is arguably the reflex of the child clinging to a security blanket; on the other, to
recognize that Dumbledore, with all of his power and wisdom, has moments of weakness, and to accept this and trust him with all his failings, is the mark
of a mature man. Harry’s insistent declaration that “I trusted the man I knew” is a powerfully-delivered line in the film—and indeed Daniel Radcliffe’s
final Potter performance was outstanding—but it reveals very little about the long, inner struggle Harry endures to reach that point.

I think though, that the strongest performance in this film was Alan Rickman’s; his characterization of Snape has always been intriguing and enigmatic;
I’ve found it far more difficult to detest him on screen than in the books. Snape has very little screen time in the second half of the film of course,
but what presence he has is powerfully allocated; the shot of him staring out of one of the castle windows at Hogwarts conveys all of the emotion that
we don’t get when we see Snape’s memories in the book. If a lot of the film is condensed, it does a phenomenal job packing some very powerful punches
with one-liners and swift screenshots. It might certainly have been interesting to see more of Snape’s relationship with Lily played out in the pensive,
but the script more than makes up for that with Snape’s final words to Harry: “You have your mother’s eyes.”

The film certainly did do its best to strike a fine balance between action and dialogue, and for the most part, it succeeded. All in all, a highly enjoyable
and authentic adaptation.

The King’s English Doesn’t Cut the Mustard in America

This week, The Harvey Weinstein Company, distributor of “The King’s Speech,” announced the theater-release of a PG-13 version of the film, out on April 1. According to an official statement by TWC’s president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment, Eric Lomis, “The action enables those to whom it speaks most directly – young people who are troubled by stuttering, bullying and similar trials – to see it.”

The 2011 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture–starring Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue–was tagged as R-rated due primarily to the number of times the ‘F’-word is repeated. While I think that re-marketing it as a “family film” will certainly reach a much broader audience and increase revenue for a film that operated on a moderate $15 million production budget, I have two practical (in my opinion) objections to it.

1: The cursing in the film is not merely profanity for profanity’s sake–it isn’t in the script for shock-value, though it does certainly provide comic relief, a point to which I’ll return momentarily. The cursing actually serves a legitimate clinical, therapeutic function; when Bertie curses, he doesn’t stammer, and Logue incorporates the curse-words into their exercises both to draw Bertie out of his shell and to train him to speak normally–the two of which are interrelated. (Not to mention, if we don’t think today’s youth are using far more colorful expressions than Bertie and Logue make use of, then we’re fooling ourselves; I hardly think their wayward wordplay is in danger of corrupting virgin ears).

2: Anyone who has seen the film in its original splendor will agree that the cursing scenes are some of, if not the most humorous scenes. Colin Firth’s execution of the mechanics of the stammer is so masterful that there were moments throughout the film, at least for me, that were intensely draining (though absolutely remarkable) to witness; he allows the audience to experience the physical and emotional discomfort of coping with a crippling speech disorder to such an extent that the comic relief is a vital part of the viewing experience. Are there other ways of conveying humor than profanity? Certainly, but I can’t help feeling that this is an action that tampers with the integrity of the art form.

Nevertheless, I can’t deny the logic of the marketing tactic, and it will be interesting to see whether or not it proves effective.

The King’s Speech: De-Colinizing Mr. Darcy

For a little less than a year, I’ve been following a Jane Austen e-mail list run by McGill University. Not surprisingly, several posts have recently appeared commenting upon the on-screen Pride and Prejudice reunion in the Oscar-nominated film “The King’s Speech”–namely the brief exchange between Colin Firth (Bertie/King George VI) and Jennifer Ehle (the wife of speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush). Firth and Ehle were famously paired as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC/A and E adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1995, and their off-screen romantic liaison has been commented upon exhaustively and, perhaps, rather whistfully, by Austenites and Firth fans alike. As both an Austenite and Colin Firth fan, I admit to indulging in a moment of fangirlish, stomach-swooping delight at seeing them reconnecting on-screen, if only briefly.

The general consensus seems to be that Firth has at last given up the ghost of Mr. Darcy that has haunted him for the past decade and a half. While we cannot deny the career Debt Mr. Firth owes Mr. Darcy, nor should we cease to acknowledge Firth’s contribution to the Jane Austen film phenomenon, this characterization casts the rest of his career in shadow. there seems to have developed an irritating trend on the part of certain Austenites to claim Firth’s achievement at finally transcending the Darcy tag and then immediately proceed to compare the meeting between the couple in each film. Several fans have even expressed an intention to watch “The King’s Speech” and “Pride and Prejudice” alongside one another to compare the encounter between Bertie and Logue’s wife to those between Mr. Darcy and Lizzie; presumably one would turn to the (in)famous wet shirt scene. While an interesting exercise in analyzing the dynamic between the actors, it seems, I would argue, merely to recast Firth (and Ehle by association) within the very shadow from under which fans claim he has at last emerged.

One fan even goes so far as to speculate whether, in his predicted Oscar acceptance speech,Firth will “give the devil his due and bring Darcy into the mix as a kind of verbal epitaph.” If he does–and I don’t believe he will–it would only perpetuate the “Darcy discourse”. I can envision the headlines on Monday: “Mr. Darcy Get’s his Due: Colin Firth scoops up his first Academy Award.” Firth has, of course, learned over the years to accept the tag with characteristic Colinesque humor, so while gesturing in Darcy’s direction would seem to be taking one step forward and two steps back, it is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility. Still, I think it would potentially deflect attention from the role for which he (will hopefully) be receiving such a well-deserved honor.

All speculation will, of course, be at an end in just four more days; and who knows? Perhaps one final word from Firth will at last silence us on this subject forever.

P.S. the blog post to which I refer above can be found here

Over Dickon’s Dead Body? Virility/Masculinity in The Secret Garden

Like countless lovers of literature, I couldn’t tell you just how many times I’ve read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but this semester I get to experience the joy of teaching it for the first time, and as always, the greatest pleasure I get from teaching old favorites is rediscovering them along with students who are reading them for the first time.

I’m teaching the novel in a course on 20th Century British Literature, subtitled British Literature and the Body, and yesterday, a seemingly predictable discussion of nature symbolism as metonymic  of the female womb/female genitalia took a rather unexpected turn when one of my students–a male, not surprisingly–pointed out that the garden might be Mary’s, and the land–Misselthwaite Manor and its grounds–might be Colin’s, but Dickon is the first to really plant anything in the garden; he is the one who knows the land intimately and how best to cultivate it; he is the one who sows the seeds. This comment invited an investigation of the contrast between Dickon and Colin and the notion that Dickon is the more masculine of the two; he is, of course, an obvious rival for Mary’s affection–as indicated by Colin’s fierce jealousy–but Burnett scholars have quite exhaustively commented upon the fact that the final third of the novel focuses almost entirely on Colin’s transformation from effeminate invalid to healthy boy-man (see for instance Danielle E. Price, “Cultivating Mary: the Victorian Secret Garden” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26, no.1  (2001); Anna Krugovoy Silver, “Domesticating Bronte’s Moors: Motherhood in The Secret Garden,” The Lion and the Unicorn 21, no.2 (1997).

Two of the novel’s adaptations–the 1993 Warner Adaptation and the 1987 Hallmark adaptation–clearly recognize Dickon’s threat to Colin’s burgeoning masculinity; in the Warner adaptation, Dickon, in knight-in-shining-armor fashion, appears in a scene at Colin’s window on horseback, calling to Mary to come outside, which Mary does; compared with the weak, whining Colin, confined to his couch, Dickon is the embodiment of ideal victorian masculinity.

The Hallmark adaptation ends following World War I; Colin has received a shrapnel wound in the leg and appears leaning on a cane; Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff reveals, has been killed. Colin’s limp and his cane naturally suggest impotence–underscored by the frustration in his tone when he questions Mary about her refusal to respond to not one, but two proposals of marriage.

I’ve always read this scene as a revision of the text that responds to the argument that the novel’s conclusion, by marginalizing Mary and making Colin the narrative focus, problematizes a feminist interpretation of the narrative. The focus in this final scene is largely on Mary and Mary’s agency. This reading, of course, conveniently overlooks Dickon because he is (physically) absent, though like Mrs. Craven, his spirit is allocated a pervasive presence.

Both Colin and Dickon are heros; Colin’s symbolic impotence might also be interpreted as a necessary rite of passage to legitimate his manhood; no longer a poor, pitiful, wining creature, he is a brave defender of the empire. When Mary expresses concern about his release from the hospital, he replies gallantly, “Do you think I’d let a little shrapnel stop me?”, wearing his battle wound as a badge of courage.
Dickon, on the other hand, has died; Colin might be wounded, but Dickon’s entire body–his life–is the ultimate sacrifice and call to heroism. Is Dickon then the braver, stronger, and ultimately more masculine man? Had he lived, would Mary have  chosen him? She gives every indication that she loves Colin and wants to Mary him, but she speaks so tenderly of Dickon and his memory that one can’t help wondering if she had secretly prefered him at some time.

Yet we don’t know how Dickon dies, precisely, nor how Colin is wounded, but the fact that Dickon’s death occurs in a forest–a place with “green, growing things” in Mary’s words–suggests a place of peace far-removed from the bloodstained battlefield where Colin is presumably shot. Limp notwithstanding, Colin still cuts a rather striking pose in this final scene; his battle has been one of personhood as well as patriotism. He has faught not just for his country, but for his manhood, and he has won both. In the end, Colin, not Dickon, gets the girl. Despite the textual evidence–however minimal–Dickon is only a perceived, not an actual threat to Colin simply because he has no design on Mary. Mary is arguably marginalized in the novel, but if she is, so is Dickon. Neither of them receive any credit in the final hour for restoring Colin to health and longevity, but Dickon most certainly doesn’t expect it. He simply fades into the foliage from which he emerged, leaving in his wake a  trail of roses and the lingering love that is his gift.

Writer and Teacher

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