Thursday, August 27, 2009

Incandescently: More Frequently

At the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice—in which he turns Jane Austen into Charlotte Brontë but nobody seems to mind—Lizzie tells her newly-wedded Darcy that he should call her “Mrs. Darcy” only when he is “completely and perfectly and incandescently happy”. Incandescently.

The word doesn’t appear in Austen’s text. This is easy to imagine, since incandescent only took on a secondary meaning of passionate or intense in the second half of the nineteenth century (according to the OED). Of course, the whole implicitly post-coital scene is absent from Austen’s novel. Not even the Brontës would stoop to such coarseness, never mind Our Jane!

Deborah Moggach, who wrote the screenplay, made a decent choice of words here.* Beneath its posh and old-fashioned sound, incandescently hints at the passion that hangs over so much of Wright’s physicalized retelling of the novel.

Still, incandescently is a weird word. And it seems to be cropping up in more and more places. In Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah’s Key, published two years before Wright’s adaptation, a character’s face is “beautiful, incandescent with joy and excitement.” De Rosnay is French but of English and Russian descent. Is it possible that incandescent is more commonly used in French? Or Russian? Somehow, I don’t think so (but I would like to know if any native French or Russian speakers feel differently).

Then recently, on the popular blog Jezebel, a critique of Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic article on infidelity finds that “Flanagan has some incandescently insulting things to say about [Rielle] Hunter.” I am happy to stay out of the argument over John Edwards, his sex life, and Helen Gurley Brown (yes, Flanagan weaves it all together). But I can’t help noticing that word again. It’s used just the way it was used in the second issue of the Edinburgh Review, in 1803: “More incandescently wrongheaded than any body else.” Maybe the Edinburgh Review editor was chastising some Scottish politician’s mistress?

What is it about incandescent that is making people (admittedly, only three people in four years) want to use it? Is it its length—the four syllables seeming to draw out and emphasize the passion or fury the word is intended to signify? Is it all those vowels? Or is it just me?

*Emma Thompson is listed as an uncredited writer of some of the dialogue. Perhaps we owe incandescent to her? And if so, are we inclined to like the choice better—because she can do no wrong?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Waiting for Lefors

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid possesses the mixed blessing of the iconic film. We know and admire it as a series of greatest-hits moments, but we’ve lost the feel for the entire movie. Stumbling across it on cable, we might watch a moment or two, savor a beloved line, and then move on. It’s an old movie, after all, and we already know all the best parts: “who are those guys?”, the jump from the cliff, Katharine Ross riding on Paul Newman’s handlebars, the goofy Bacharach music.

But watching the 1969 film again in its entirety is a revelation. It begins slowly, sadly, with an extended faux vintage newsreel. It goes on with long stretches in which virtually nothing is said. Minutes pass in which we have only the sound of hooves and tackle and feet scrambling over dry ground. The generally languorous pace of this film fails to hide that it is nothing more than one long pursuit with a grim outcome.

Yes, William Goldman’s dialogue is witty throughout, and Newman and Redford bring true élan to their portrayal of the two bandits. But what emerges from a re-viewing of the film is its underlying melancholy, signaled right from the beginning by the mournful pianola sound that accompanies the sepia shots of robbers and trains.

While George Roy Hill made a name for himself as the director who played with the camera—using peephole and window-frame effects both here and in 1973’s The Sting—it’s his static, wide-angle frames that lend Butch Cassidy its unique look and give it its serious undertone. Time and time again, Conrad Hall’s cinematography contain two elements, one near, one far, their distance collapsed by a flat depth of field. Hall’s camerawork provides a visual correspondence for the theme of the film: connection and entrapment, and always the effort to get away.

George Roy Hill plays with the dualism of the western—here, the bad guy (who is actually a good guy, a lawman) wears a white hat. He turns the classic opposition into a partnership, and not just between Butch and Sundance but also between the two of them and the authorities who pursue them. As we watch frame after frame of the two bandits in the foreground with their pursuers a dust-cloud in the background, we come to see the two sides not so much as opposed but linked. It’s a stranglehold that none of the parties involved can escape.

Watching the whole film for the first time in many years, I was struck by the inexorability of this pursuit. No longer the starry-eyed adolescent who first came across the film on television or in some secondary release, I could see the worry, the fatigue in—especially—Newman’s eyes.

This time, the famous line “Who are those guys?”, repeated as the white-hatted Joe Lefors tracks Butch and Sundance to a dead-end cliff, seemed to me to echo the desperation of another well-known iteration: “Let’s go.” “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot.” Yes, Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon famously stay in one place, waiting for a mysterious figure who never arrives. Yes, Butch and Sundance are always on the move. They’re neither hoping nor waiting for the man they know is coming to kill them. But they are expecting him. And in that, they’re not so different from Didi and Gogo.

Aren’t all four men waiting for death and trying to stave off death at the same time? Aren’t they all bantering their time away, slipping occasionally into the despair that underlies their situation? “Who are those guys?” is, in a way, saying the same thing that Didi and Gogo say when they simultaneously propose departure and quash all hopes of it.

It’s easy to see Butch and Sundance as a sixties counter-culture movie only thinly disguised as a western (and that is how its trailers pitched it back then). Coming out just two months after Woodstock, the film has us rooting for the outlaws—and against the authorities—from the very outset. At times, with their sideburns and boots and corduroy, Newman and Redford seem to have wandered in from San Francisco or Harvard Square. But the movie is richer than that, more complicated, like the Sixties themselves, I suppose. Beneath the charm and the devil-may-care attitudes of its good-looking heroes is the sad fact that they are set on a course that will kill them.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Summer Reading

In today’s New York Times, commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg raises the essential question every avid reader faces, for some inexplicable reason, the moment school ends and blockbusters fill the multiplexes: what to read. He answers it in characteristic Klinkenborg fashion—thoughtfully, without sure conclusion, but with insights that are as true as they seem familiar. Here is what he says about choosing the last book of the summer.
The book I want is a vortex. When I lower my eyes to it, I’m sucked deep into a place more plausible than the one that surrounds me. When I look up, I want the actual life around me to look strange and original, like a brand new page in a pop-up world.

This is asking an awful lot of a book, I know. Or it would be, if readers weren’t such willing collaborators, if we weren’t so susceptible to the power of suggestion. And yet there’s a practical, skeptical vein in most of us, too — even when seeking an August escape. There’s no such thing, for instance, as a placebo book. All the recommendations of friends and critics will carry us only so far. Ultimately, a book has to meet the test of our own experience, which is a reminder of just how much we live books out as we read them.

Nothing “about” a book can tell you whether this will be true love. Only the book itself can say. For the first few pages, my reading feels provisional, probing, just as it always does. But soon that feeling dissipates. The traces of uncertainty vanish. So, somehow, does the ink on the page, and I realize that I’m looking through the book as if it were translucent. This remains, after a lifetime of reading, a mystery and a joy.

“How much we live books out as we read them.” Indeed. This is why the choice of what to read during this slowed-down time of summer is so important—because we’ll remember those books long after we’ll remember a book we read, say, in October. We’ll remember those books in a different way, too. Not just as stories we liked or were disappointed by, but as lives that became woven in with our own—events that colored our thinking in the way that a dream can affect our moods long after we wake up.

One summer, my studies required me to read the collected works of Charles Dickens and a handful of other Victorian writers. I began with Dickens in June, certain I would hate him and determined to get the worst over with. The Brontës would be my reward in August. Something tells me I began not with The Pickwick Papers (because if I had, I would have been tempted not to continue), but with Oliver Twist, next in the chronology. I read every evening after work and virtually all day on Saturdays and Sundays, managing to finish a 900-page Penguin Classic each week (I was then, and remain, a slow reader), going through the familiar Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby; gagging on the maudlin Old Curiosity Shop; thankful for Sairey Gamp who showed up to brighten the otherwise dry Martin Chuzzlewit; and marveling at the four great novels that came almost in straight succession: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend. A more sustained reverie on the darkness of human nature—and the comedy that survives it—doesn’t exist, in my opinion, in English literature. Decades later, that reading of Dickens remains my most treasured reading experience. The fact that it occurred in summer is, I think, no coincidence.

By the time I reached The Mystery of Edwin Drood, sometime at the end of July, I was distraught. The world I had lived in for ten or so weeks was shutting down, closing its doors, and leaving me on the wrong side. I remember that time in my life vividly—the rattan chair I sat in for all my reading, the gypsy moths outside chomping the leaves that year, my absent-mindedness as I went to work after a night of Sairey Gamp putting drinks on her “manklepidge” or Flora Casby mincing about her drawing room or Bradley Headstone and his spontaneous nose-bleed. What happened then, and what happens with some regularity with most books I read, is what Klinkenborg describes as the disappearance of the ink on the page. He’s absolutely right: it’s that experience of “looking through the book as if it were translucent”. It is, as he says, a mystery and a joy.

My Bleak House, however, and my Little Dorrit are now a little less translucent than they used to be. So are my Atonement and my Sense and Sensibility, thanks to their film or television adaptations. Dorrit was slimmer before I saw Matthew McFayden; I always saw Jo’s street crossing from the other side of the street. Even in cases where the casting gets the character’s looks right—as is the case, I think, with Gillian Anderson’s Lady Dedlock who looks just like George Cruikshank’s Victorian illustrations—the movie image is just too overpowering, too vivid.

I suppose I could have refused to watch when these novels turned up on the screen, or on PBS via the BBC. But like many of us, I couldn’t resist another chance to inhabit the world I knew so well. It’s a small-scale Faustian bargain, though: hand the man your ticket, but the place you’re going to will never be the same. Or, more accurately, it’s Eurydice and Orpheus: look back one more time, and you lose the ability to inhabit that world without reservation or limit.

Am I making too much of this? Of course. It’s not life and death, after all. But it’s narrative, and that is a very powerful thing. The good news is that we have it better than Eurydice. We can pull the book down from the shelf and—as long as it doesn’t have the movie-tie-in cover—sink back into the fictional world as we first and then again and again imagined it. Our pictures of the books we read don’t stay the same, after all. They change with us, from one reading, one summer, to the next.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie and Julia: Bittersweet

When people stay in their seats to watch the credits of a movie, they generally do so in silence, feeling slightly embarrassed about their need to know which stately home stood in for the heroine’s abode, or who sang that vaguely familiar song at the end. And when the relevant information is relayed on screen, these determined credit-watchers nod to themselves, murmur something thoughtful, and shuffle out, barely avoiding the teenaged boy who has come to sweep out the empty popcorn bags.

With Julie and Julia, this is not the case—at least it was not the case in the Greater Boston theater where I viewed the film on its opening day. With Julie and Julia, nearly the entire audience remained in their seats while the credits rolled. But they weren’t paying attention to the credits. Instead, they were all in animated conversation, torsos twisted towards each other in little clusters, talking about cooking, about the movie, and about memories of the movie’s protagonist Julia Child. The thought of leaving the convivial space of the movie theater was far from everyone’s mind until the hiss of the white screen forced people to leave.

Like a good meal shared with good friends, Julie and Julia makes people happy. It is not a complicated entertainment. In fact, it’s more of a Perfect Omelet of a movie than a Duck en Croûte sort of film. It doesn’t aspire to challenge its viewers with too much contemplation, but it succeeds utterly in the very straightforward mission it sets out for itself: to regale us with the life of a beloved icon, and, through the character of blogger Julie Powell, to make us feel better about ourselves for having known or learned about her.

How could Julie and Julia not succeed? It has Nora Ephron’s hilarious dialogue; it has Meryl Streep adding Child-ese to her quiver of accents; it has the lovely pairing of Streep and Stanley Tucci who were so well-matched in The Devil Wears Prada; it has Jane Lynch in a role that finally makes the most of her forceful physical presence; and it has Amy Adams doing a nice job in a role that sadly doesn’t require very much of her at all. This last is not Adams’ fault, of course, but rather has to do with the one flaw in the film—about which more later. Most of all, Julie and Julia is the antacid to Nora Ephron’s much earlier film about food and marriage, Heartburn. Never mind that montage of all four protagonists popping Tums. In Julie and Julia, the two marriages are happy and loving. Paul and Julia Child’s especially is joyful and robust (though we do wonder at times whether the filmmakers brought in Peter Jackson to work some Frodo/Gandalf magic with Tucci’s and Streep’s heights.) And though Powell’s marriage undergoes a slight hitch when food and cooking seem to push the husband (Chris Messina) out of the way, the problem is resolved quickly and without trauma. The night (or two or three?) that Eric Powell spends living in his office handily serves as the obstacle to be overcome in the film’s modified romance structure.

There is no question that part of what led my Greater-Boston audience to linger in the theatre was the movie’s depiction of two success stories. Julia Child gets her twice-rejected manuscript published as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Julie Powell gets her blog made into a book, made into a movie (which the film cleverly jokes about in the credits). Both women’s husbands share in their successes without visible envy or bitterness. But here is where the film presents a problem. For what it seems to say quite clearly, if you look past the supposed evenness of its structure, is that we live in a fallen world. And by “we” I mean those of us cooking and eating in twenty-first century America.

The film’s title is rendered Julie & Julia but it might as well be Julie < Julia. The soufflé in Powell’s kitchen stays up, but everything else about her world is a fallen copy of that better world inhabited by Julia Child. Compare the two women’s lives: Child has French doors, French windows, France. Powell has a cluttered Queens apartment above a pizza joint. Child has markets where she can buy gleaming fish and glistening produce. Powell has Gristede’s. Julia and Paul Child enjoy their meals with good manners. Powell’s husband can’t stop talking with his mouth full. And most of all, Julie Powell aspires to Julia Child’s life. Julia Child lives it.

What does it say about twenty-first century existence that it can be considered a triumph to follow someone else’s life? Obviously, we live in a virtual time. But do we live in a derivative time, too? Child’s road to success was to follow something she loved passionately and to push and push until she was able to pursue it. Powell’s road to success was to imitate. When we watch the film, we have a choice, I suppose, to consider Powell as Child’s equal partner: they are two women who find themselves through cooking—and, in so doing, rescue the endeavor from its “little lady at the stove” image. But to choose this interpretation is to ignore the film’s underlying message. Powell is our equal, not Child’s. Like us, she comes home weary to cramped and imperfect real estate; she takes on more than she can always manage; she multi-tasks. Like Powell, no matter how skilled we are with our skillets, the vast majority of us will never have Child’s impact on a culture.

Ephron is a master of hiding sadness in the center of an otherwise lighthearted movie (Heatburn, or even When Harry Met Sally). She has done the same here. Her movie lets us keep our icon on her pedestal and tells us all the while that we don’t have to aspire to anything particularly grand in order for our lives to have meaning. It’s a consoling vision—and a bitter one.