Blocked Up: Blocking Stevens Emotional Detachment in Ivory’s THE REMAINS OF THE DAY

•05/08/2012 • Leave a Comment

5 August 2012

A challenge when adapting literature to film is how to handle texts depending on what is written between the lines.  Not all stories are surface enough so dialogue and narration carry the narrative; several narratives end up being about the things never directly stated in the text, and in these more complicated pieces the cinematic adaptations much express ways for the film audience to discover what is embedded within just as literary readers connect the dots and read between he lines.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is the type of deft novel which makes a cinematic translation complex.  The frozen emotional state of the novel’s protagonist, James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), is the focal point of the novel, specifically how this emotional vacancy sabotages his ability to love the novel’s Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson).  Yet, within the Merchant and Ivory dream team is screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who adapted many of James Ivory’s most noteworthy films, and Prawer Jhabvala managed to skillfully translate The Remains of the Day through a collaborative process with Merchant and Ivory.  Between screenplay, production design, and direction, the three maintain the novel’s digression, using the actors, sets, and props to help convey the novel’s vast depth between the written lines; in short, how heartbreaking Mr. Steven’s severed feelings are, and the suffering his emotional inadequacy causes him and those who love him.

Merchant and Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) tells of Mr. Stevens, a diligent, hard-working butler at Darlington Hall, an estate in England.  Although Mr. Steven’s work ethic and devotion to exceptional service is admirable, he is an emotionally blocked man who does not allow love, in any form, into his life.  After two fellow servants elope, Mr. Stevens hires a new housekeeper in charge of Darlington Hall; her name is Ms. Kenton.  The new hire’s work ethic meets Mr. Stevens’ high expectations, but Ms. Kenton is a more intimate person than Mr. Stevens, which initially disturbs him.  Ms. Kenton desires connections with those around her to escape the loneliness she claims to feel, and this desire forces the unemotional Mr. Stevens to keep his distance from her.  However, Ms. Kenton falls for Mr. Stevens, and Mr. Stevens, too, develops his own type of caring for her, but, because of his emotional detachment, the relationship stalls.  Eventually, Ms. Kenton marries Mr. Ben and leaves Darlington Hall, paining the estate’s butler considerably, yet silently.  Several years pass and, once again, the estate is in need of a housekeeper.  Seemingly desperate to bring the now divorced Ms. Kenton back to Darlington Hall, Mr. Stevens goes to visit her.  Sadly, with all the time gone by, it is now Ms. Kenton who has emotionally detached herself from Mr. Stevens, and Mr. Steven’s is still unable to declare any sort of love for her directly.  The two part ways for the final time.

From Ms. Kenton’s arrival at Darlington Hall, toward the start of The Remains of the Day, it is obvious blocking is a pivotal conveyor of meaning in the film.  The blocking, specifically prop placement, positioning, and body language, expresses meanings which the screenplay’s dialogue never addresses directly.  For example, in the initial scenes between Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton, there is always a prop or set piece between the two characters.  First, when they are interviewing, it is a desk.  A bit later on, when Ms. Kenton returns to Ms. Steven’s private quarters to give him the first of many flower arrangements, Mr. Steven’s smokes a cigar and blows smoke between the two of them.  Quickly, he then moves behind his desk, a prop that repeatedly comes between the two characters.  Figuratively, both the desk and cigar smoke physicalize walls between the two, put up by Mr. Stevens.

Moreover, still toward the beginning of the film, Mr. Stevens occasionally watches Ms. Kenton through windows, keyholes, and even speaks to her in darkness.  First, during a flashback, Mr. Stevens thinks of Ms. Keaton walking down one of the estate’s corridors.  As he remembers this he peers in the corridor through a circular window in one of the estate’s swinging doors.  Shortly after, while up in his office, Mr. Stevens hears Ms. Kenton outside.  He walks over to the window and watches her.  Also, after a slight argument between Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton, Mr. Stevens sends Ms Kenton out of the room they are in and shuts the door behind her.  He then watches her through the door’s keyhole.  In a following scene, when Mr. Stevens’ father passes away, Ms. Kenton comes to tell Mr. Stevens and express her condolences.  Although much of the set is lit, the two characters are in darkness as they speak; unable to make out each other’s faces.  Thus, not only are there sly and discreet props positioned to suggest the blocking of any possible emotion or intimacy between the two, there is also a motif of Mr. Steven’s view of Ms. Kenton being obscured or altered.  Mr. Stevens develops a habit, at least in the early part of the film, of not looking at Ms. Keaton directly, instead seeing her glass, keyholes, or in darkness.  And, during a moment of even the smallest degree of emotion—such as during that slight argument—Mr. Stevens forces Ms. Keaton away and gazes at her indirectly, minimizing and distorting his view of her.  While the film is not suggesting Mr. Stevens consciously distorts his view of Ms. Kenton, but the film repeatedly captures this distorted view to communicate with audience members how disconnected Mr. Stevens is emotionally.

However, as the film progresses, Mr. Stevens slowly becomes more comfortable with Ms. Kenton, in his own way, and the props and set pieces stop coming between them.  Moreover, the actors are placed in closer proximity to each other within shots.  Their new found closeness leads up to one of the film’s major climaxes, after which the two begin to drift apart, symmetrically with how they drifted together, and the props reemerge as physicalized blockades between the two.

This quiet climax occurs when Ms. Kenton insists on seeing which book Mr. Stevens is reading in his private quarters.  The scene opens with Ms. Kenton bringing Mr. Stevens flowers, as usual, and she finds him asleep in an armchair, in the middle of his office, with a book in his hand.  Her footsteps awaken him and she becomes immediately interested in the book he clenches.  Mr. Stevens avoids showing Ms. Kenton the book, clearly trying to keep his reading selection a secret.   At first, Mr. Stevens scurries behind his desk, both literally and figuratively relying on the safety of an object to buffer any intimacy between the two.  Yet, their relationship is somewhat closer now than what it once was, at least from Ms. Kenton’s perspective, so she steps around the desk and joins him behind it.  This backs Mr. Stevens into a corner, with the book still firmly gripped in his hand.  The book is now the only prop between the two characters.  Remarkably, Ms. Kenton grabs hold of the book and carefully pulls it out of Mr. Stevens hand, revealing it is a romance novel.

Ms. Kenton’s intimacy, expressed through her physically proximity and touching, halts Mr. Stevens in statuesque silence, and this scene marks the beginning of Mr. Stevens regression, symbolized by the return of prop pieces and objects placed between Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton to obstruct emotion.  After this scene, Mr. Stevens is back to watching Ms. Kenton through the windows, and Ivory increases the space between the actors more and more, signaling the Mr. Stevens’ brief spark of interest in intimacy with Ms. Kenton has been extinguished and he has reverted to his cold, distant ways.

In the film’s conclusion, when Ms. Kenton and Mr. Stevens meet several years after their time together in Darlington Hall, the same old obstacles remain between them, however, in these later years, Ms. Kenton has become similar to Mr. Stevens.  Her once warm, friendly disposition is much colder.  As they enjoy tea, there is the table (much like the desk) between them.  Over tea, Ms. Kenton smokes a cigarette and the smoke bellows between them.  Earlier it was Mr. Stevens whose cigar created the haze between them, but now Ms. Kenton is doing the blocking.  Although the two walk side by side to catch Ms. Kenton’s streetcar, Ms. Kenton refuses Ms. Stevens’ offer to return to Darlington Hall.  As Ms. Kenton boards her streetcar and it pulls away, the closeness between the two, which had momentarily returned, is permanently shattered.  Ms. Kenton is driven away from Mr. Stevens farther than she has even been before; completely out of the shot and out of his sight forever.

Ironically, The Remains of the Day is a deeply emotional film about an emotionless man.  The clever ways the film communicates with its audience inspire an active, alert cinematic experience.  Perhaps the film is not as deft or complex as the novel it derives from, but it is, nevertheless, a skillful film.

Noting on Nothing: The Comedy of Branagh’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

•29/07/2012 • 1 Comment

29 July 2012

Of the two standard genres, tragedy (drama) and comedy, comedic works often find it harder to endure the test of time.  The themes of tragedy—death, grief, sickness, betrayal—have been tragic to people, all over the world, from the beginning of time.  The constantly (r)evolving themes of comedy, which are far more wide-ranging, have a harder time connecting with as vast an audience.  Put another way, tragic themes always have relevancy, but relevancy in comedic themes often lack permanence.

William Shakespeare wrote (debatably) 37 plays, and scholars often categorized those plays into three genres: history, tragedy, and comedy.  In the 21st century, Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories are his most popular, but Shakespeare wrote more comedies than either of the other two genres.  Even for masterful playwrights like the Bard, who wrote 400 years ago, comedic plays often struggle when translating to a modern audience.

Kenneth Branagh, who adapted, directed, and starred in a version of Much Ado About Nothing for the silver screen in 1993, faced the challenge of translating the play’s humor into a cinematic comedy that a 1990’s audience would find relevancy in, and, therefore, be entertained by.  Ultimately, Branagh found the adaptation’s humor must reside in slapstick, physical comedy, a dose of sarcasm, and clever irony for this adaptation to translate with as much humor to a modern-day film audience as Shakespeare’s play offered his late 16th century theatre audience.

To contextualize, Much Ado About Nothing is comedy which takes place at the Italian estate of Leonato (Richard Briers), a nobleman.  When Leonato’s friend, Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), returns from war, Don Pedro and his comrades, Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), visit Leonato’s estate.  Also with them is Don John (Keanu Reeves), a Prince and hero of the recent war.  Shortly after arriving, Claudio falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Kate Beckinsale), and the two plan to marry right way.  Moreover, Benedick, who has visited Leonato’s estate before, resumes a playful battle of wits with Leonato’s niece, Beatrice (Emma Thompson), who also lives on the estate with her father, Antonio (Brian Blessed).  The chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick is indisputable, and, with the help of others at the estate, they, too, fall madly in love.  However, Don John, who feels his great victory in war is overshadowed by all the love and celebration happening at the estate, decides to trick Claudio into thinking Hero has been unfaithful to him the night before their wedding.  Believing Don John’s trick, Claudio leaves Hero at the altar, vowing before everyone she is a shamed woman.  Knowing these allegations against Hero are untrue, the Friar (Jimmy Yuill) formulates a plan to hide Hero away and tell everyone she died of a broken heart when Claudio left her.  The plan works and Don John’s trickery comes into light.  In the end Hero and Claudio marry, Beatrice and Benedick confess their love for each other publicly, and Don John is punished for his malicious wrongdoing.

One 15 minute scene exemplifying not only Branagh’s approach but also his success in translating Much Ado’s humor to contemporary audiences is the scene in which Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio, Hero, and Ursula fool the bickering Benedick and Beatrice into thinking each has confessed his/her love for the other.  The first half of this scene begins with Benedick’s entrance into the courtyard of Leonato’s estate.  He walks in alone, carrying a folding chair and talking to himself about how foolish love makes people act.  This is the only scene in which Branagh speaks directly to the camera, and therefore the audience, during his character’s asides.  In this particular context, the personalized communication builds a relationship between spectator and spectacle, which heightens the audience’s investment in the character; the character is sharing private thoughts with the audience, and only the audience, involving viewers in the narrative’s playful secrecy and establishing a trust between viewers and Benedick.  Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio interrupt one of these asides when they enter the courtyard, knowing Benedick is there.  The three deliberately yell out that Beatrice has confessed her love for Benedick, hoping when Benedick overhears this news he, too, will confess his hidden love for Beatrice in return.  Benedick takes the bait and hides behind shrubbery, listening carefully to everything Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio divulge about Beatrice’s confessed love.

To emphasize the scene’s humor, Branagh plays up the scene’s physical comedy, and adds sarcasm to his gestures and dialogue.  First, upon hearing Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio enter, Benedick, in an aside to the camera, tells the audience “Monsieur Love” is approaching in mocking, sarcastic tone.  As a comedic tool, sarcasm works just as well with a modern-day audience as it did with Shakespeare’s.  Furthermore, the witty name-calling and cynical face Branagh makes when delivering this line is also a rather timeless comedic approach.  Shortly after, when Benedick eavesdrops on Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio from behind a tree, he tries setting up the folding chair he has carried.  Unfortunately for Benedick, the chair fights him every step of the way, and just when he thinks he has mastered it, he sits upon it and the entire things folds up while he collapses to the ground.  The physical humor is just as timeless as the sarcasm and name-calling.  Benedick’s collapse in this preposterously constructed chair is equaled to a fall one might see on MTV’s Ridiculousness.  Psychical comedy is often exactly that, ridiculous, and that, in large part, is what makes it so funny.  Furthermore, modern-day audience, perhaps more so than Shakespeare’s audience, can relate to “do-it-yourself” furniture; nothing, no matter how seemingly simple, is ever easy to assemble, and watching Benedick struggle with the chair establishes comedic relevancy for contemporary viewers.

During the second half of the scene it is Emma Thompson’s turn, as Beatrice, to keep the humor high when Beatrice eavesdrops on Hero and Ursula (Phyllida Law) discussing Benedick’s love for her.  As Hero and Ursula walk around another area of the courtyard, Beatrice follows, hiding behind statues of female figures.  Not only are the statues smaller than Beatrice, which makes “hiding out of sight” completely absurd, but what is even funnier is not one of the statues has a head.  Not only is this another use of physical comedy, as Beatrice awkwardly and unsuccessfully attempts staying hidden in rather plain sight, but the headless statues add irony to the scene.  These women without heads represent Beatrice, a clever woman who has lost her head over her love for Benedick.  It is obvious Hero and Ursula are fooling Beatrice with here loud, unfiltered chatter regarding Benedick, and they obviously see her conspicuously lurking around each statute; however, Beatrice, like one of the statues without a head, actually thinks she is hiding from their sight.  These headless statues were an effective comedic touch in this scene.  Not only is it silly to see a grown woman hiding behind petite headless statues, but the irony of a headless woman makes the scene’s humor more than slapstick; the humor is clever.

In all, the attention paid the film’s humor was necessary for its success.  It is not that all the humor in Shakespeare’s play is lost on modern-day audiences, but today’s filmgoers have far different expectation than late 16th century theater-goers; therefore, to adapt the comedy for the screen meant that filmgoers’ comedic expectation must be met.  Emphasizing physical humor, sarcasm, irony made the comedy of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing relevant for modern-day film audiences, and that secured Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing’s success.

One’s End is Another’s Beginning: Closely Reading HOWARDS END

•22/07/2012 • Leave a Comment

22 July 2012

In 1992, the Merchant and Ivory team brought another E. M. Forster novel to the silver screen, Howards End.  And, in doing what they do best, Merchant and Ivory used their visual prowess and aesthetic brilliance to illustrate a film as subtly complex as the novel from which it derives.

To sum it up, there is no simple way to sum up Howards End.  The film, like the novel it was adapted from, is an intricate web of characters and secrets.  Nevertheless, at its core Howards End is the story of Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), later Mrs. Wilcox, and how she came to own the English country house called Howards End.  Toward the beginning of the film Margaret befriends Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), a well-to-do woman whose son, Paul (Joseph Bennett), Margaret’s sister, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), was once linked romantically to.  The failed romance caused a stalemate between Wilcoxs and Schlegels, yet Margaret ends all that in befriending Ruth.  The two become close and Ruth begins regaling Margaret with stories of Ruth’s childhood home, Howards End.  These stories come at a particularly poignant moment for Margaret, as the lease to her childhood home is about to expire and will not be renewed.  Ruth’s health is poor, and shortly after an operation she becomes gravely ill.  Just before dying, Ruth writes out that she wishes to leave Howards End to Margaret; however, after her death, Ruth’s family, specifically her husband, Henry (Anthony Hopkins), thinks Ruth was not in her right mind when she made her decision regarding Howards End.  Refusing to honor Ruth’s last wish, Henry conceals the information and, instead, helps Margaret look for new residence upon the expiration of her lease.  After spending time together, Margaret and Henry fall in love, and marry soon after.  Henry takes Margaret to Howards End, this being the first time she visits the home that, unbeknownst to her, is actually hers.  At Howards End, Margaret’s sister, Helen, reemerges with news that a Schlegel family friend, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), whom was thought to be working for Henry, is actually unemployed and struggling.  Leonard and his wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett), are poor and starving when Helen brings them to Margaret and Henry, forcing Henry to confront his wrongdoing in firing Bast from his post.  Margaret, who has evolved into the consummate peacemaker by this point, attempts to smooth everything over, and forgives her husband’s cruelty toward Bast.  Helen, who fights vehemently for Bast’s well-being, falls in love with Leonard.  Yet, because he is married and in love with his wife, Leonard and Helen part ways, and Helen flees England, leaving Margaret worried for her younger sister.  As months pass, Margaret’s worry for Helen builds and she devises a plan to lure Helen back to England, specifically to Howards End, so the two can reconcile.  Upon seeing Helen, Margaret realizes her sister has stayed away because she is pregnant with Bast’s child.  Bast, having no idea about the child, travels to Howards End, when he leans Helen is back in England; however, as he enters the home, Charles (James Wilby), Henry’s son with Ruth, attacks Leonard for his affair with Helen and kills him.  With Charles, Henry’s eldest son, put away in jail, Henry decides he will bestow Howards End on his new wife, Margaret, upon his death.  At the very end of the film Margaret overhears gossip that she has been the rightful owner of Howards End since the former Mrs. Wilcox’s passing.  She gently confronts Henry with this information, to which he replies, “My poor Ruth, during her last days, scribbled your name on a piece of paper.  Knowing her not to be herself, I set it aside.  I didn’t do wrong, did I?”  Margaret’s answer is never captured; the credits role.

One of the most interesting characters in Howards End is Mrs. Wilcox.  The reason Mrs. Wilcox is so fascinating is because she encompasses two people: Ruth and Margaret.  During the first sequence in the film, as the opening credits role, the camera follows a woman in a beautiful teal dress walking amid high grass outside a country house.  There is no way to know who the woman is, but certain qualities are clear.  First, the woman is a groundskeeper of this home, symbolically.  She walks around it alone, at night, peers in and looks about, watching the home, its surroundings, and its occupants.  The audience witnesses her as a loving protector of this place.  Next, the woman is elegant.  Not only is she well-dressed, but she carries herself with poise and sophistication.  Lastly, this woman is an outsider.  Literally she is outside the house and away from the people within; she is removed from the family unit.  Her position as guardian forces her into the outcasted role of loner.  Even before any words are spoken, the film communicates visually who this woman is and how connected this woman is with this country home.

Eventually, the audience learns this loving groundskeeper is Mrs. Wilcox.  What the audience also learns is there is not much more to Mrs. Wilcox than what was interpreted from the film’s introduction: elegant family protector and loner.  Mrs. Wilcox lives for her family; they are her world, but as they are frequently off on business or travel she is often alone.  It is during these outcasted hours in which Margaret meets Mrs. Wilcox and the two become friends.  When Mrs. Wilcox talks to Margaret about her life and her deep connection to her childhood home, Howards End, the audience finally learns something of Ruth, the woman who became Mrs. Wilcox.  Ruth is fascinating, but her stories subtly reveal the life in her years occurred prior to becoming Mrs. Wilcox.  As Mrs. Wilcox, Ruth fades away; literally, Ruth dies, but Mrs. Wilcox lives on.

The audience meets Margaret prior to becoming Mrs. Wilcox, and during that time the film calls attention to Margaret’s boisterous personality and individuality.  For example, the first time Mr. Leonard Bast calls upon the Schlegel household Margaret and Helen nearly talk him to death in a scene of comic relief.  Margaret is social, enthusiastic, talkative, and vibrant.  In fact, Margaret’s lively disposition is what inspired her to call upon Mrs. Wilcox in the first place and begin a friendship.  Yet, Margaret’s effervescence fades throughout the film, after she becomes Mrs. Wilcox, and Ivory uses parallel shots and motifs to visually represent the loss of Margaret as she devolves into Mrs. Wilcox.

Just after Margaret and Henry announce their engagement they travel to Howards End to host a wedding.  Before the festivities begin, the camera follows Margaret walking around the grounds of Howards End.  Parallel to the opening sequence, the camera trails a well dresses woman, who is all alone, sauntering around in the grass, noting everything is in its place.  Capturing Margaret in the same distinct shot as Mrs. Wilcox in the opening sequence, Ivory uses visual parallelism, solidifying Margaret is now becoming Mrs. Wilcox, the loving, protective loner.

From this point on Margaret’s identity subtly slips away.  By the ending there is nothing of Margaret left, made clear by the film’s final scenes.  After forgiving Henry’s arrogance and ignorance for putting her pregnant sister Helen out of Howards End, and after Charles is sent to prison for Leonard’s death, Margaret sits in on a Wilcox family meeting.  As Henry tells his family he will leave Howards End to Margaret upon his death, Margaret sits in silence, crocheting a doily.  First, this new Mrs. Wilcox has no voice.  The once animated, occasionally loquacious matriarch of the Schlegel family is now a silenced fixture in the corner of the Wilcox family.  Moreover, the doily she crochets is symbolic because during the first, and most informative, of Margaret’s conversations with Ruth, an unmissable doily rested on Ruth’s chair.  The doily is connected to Mrs. Wilcox, and therefore this doily in the latter Mrs. Wilcox’s hand is a motif suggesting her transformation is complete.

Additionally, the film does not capture Mrs. Wilcox’s response to Henry’s final question in the film’s closing shot, “I didn’t do wrong, did I?”  After inquiring about whom Howards End actually belonged to upon the death of the first Mrs. Wilcox, Henry admits disregarding his wife’s dying wish.  The film does not need to show the second Mrs. Wilcox’s response to his question because the audience knows Mrs. Wilcox will forgive Henry.  Mrs. Wilcox will not be upset or alarmed at Henry’s obvious self-motivated manipulation.  Margaret would have been upset by his callous actions, but in not showing the audience the response the film silently assures viewers Margaret is gone and only Mrs. Wilcox remains.

Margaret transformation into Mrs. Wilcox is only one of many themes James Ivory explores in his adaptation of Forster’s Howards End.  The subtle ways Ivory, in partnership with Ismail Merchant, uses visual parallels and motifs to highlight this transformation are quite clever, and clearly accent the Merchant and Ivory reputation for stunning, refined, and intellectual visual spectacles in their collaborated films.

What’s in a Passage?: David Lean’s Interpretation of E. M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA

•15/07/2012 • Leave a Comment

15 July 2012

It is fascinating when a film adapts a piece of complex, dexterous literature. Even though film adaptations of literature are now (and always have been) a dime a dozen, the adaptation of a narrative from one medium to another is an interesting translation to ponder. How will the plot change to serve the needs of film viewers, as opposed to a literary audience? Will the director attempt to uphold textual ambiguities, or will he/she assert a distinct interpretation(s)? Will anything be added to the film that was not in the text? Will anything be removed? How can the film communicate the same thematic and emotional qualities with its own cinematic devices? Will the film be well received?

In 1984, David Lean adapted E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, originally published by the novelist in 1924. This particular adaptation is interesting for many reasons, among them being Lean’s interpretation of Forster’s text. As the credits role at the start of the film, the first tile reads, “David Lean’s film of” and the second reads “A Passage to India by E. M. Foster” (size adjusted intentionally), noting this film is not Forster’s Passage; this cinematic Passage, for which Lean wrote the screenplay, is all Lean’s.

Briefly, A Passage to India follows English-born Adela Quested (Judy Davis) in India, where she traveled with the elderly Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), whose son, Ronny (Nigel Havers), Adela hopes to marry. However, once in India, Adela’s marital hopes dwindle as Ronny, who is a British magistrate, is constantly consumed with work and seems rather disinterested in her. Desperate to see “the real” India, Adela and Mrs. Moore arrange an outing with Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), a local Indian physician, to the Marabar Caves. Even though it’s controversial for an Indian man to lead two British women on a sightseeing tour, Dr. Aziz’s kind spirit and upstanding reputation suggests he is a trustworthy leader. While on this expedition, the heat becomes too much for the elderly Mrs. Moore, so Adela and Dr. Aziz continue exploring the caves alone. Trouble arises when Aziz and Adela separate and Adela finds herself alone in one of the caves. As Aziz searches for her, Adela’s built up sexual repression erupts into a sexual awakening, which terrifies her. She dashes out of the cave and down the steep slope of the mountainside, and Aziz, confused, catches sight of the fleeing Adela jump into a passing car and drive off. When everyone returns from the expedition, Aziz is arrested for attempted rape. Because Adela is a well-to-do British woman, and Aziz a local Indian in British infested India, Aziz’s trial is treated less than fairly, until Adela takes the stand and must decide whether to tell the truth about what happened in the Marabar Caves or have Aziz imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

Sexual awakening is a major theme in Forster’s novel, explored primarily through the character of Adela; however, it is not discussed explicitly because of strict publication policy during the early 1900s. Nevertheless, Lean was not bound to the same strict policy in the early 1980s. Therefore, one of the things Lean added to ”David Lean’s film of A Passage to India” is a five-minute sequence highlighting Adela’s brewing sexual awakening prior to her visit to the Marabar Caves.

Venturing off all alone, Lean films Adela on a bike ride shortly after arriving in India. During her excursion she encounters a deserted crossroads sign, in the shape of a cross, on a dirt road. Adela heads away from this sign, leaving the cross behind her as she enters the ruins of a temple. Peddling through high grass, Adela comes upon statute after statue, until she reaches the temple itself. At the temple the statues depict sexual encounters between men and women, which fascinate Adela. Interrupting her gaze, a group of wild monkeys residing atop the temple spot Adela and chase her from the temple’s ruins. She peddles feverishly back to her home, promoting Ronny to ask if she is alright. Disheveled and shaken, Adela tells Ronny she made a mistake in thinking she and he shouldn’t be married. Obviously aroused by the temple ruins, she grabs hold of Ronny and tells him she wants to marry him after all, regardless of his evident disinterest in her.

Lean’s decision to include this scene heightens the sexual stirring present in Adela prior to her visit to the cave. This scene foreshadows, and, in turn, makes the film’s conflict more powerful. Additionally, the scene helps Adela’s character development. The cross symbol (crossroads sign) represents Adela’s English upbringing. Her decision to peddle away from that cross signifies her strong curiosity and widening distance from that upbringing. The scene makes it very clear to the audience that Adela is sexually inexperienced, confused, and fearful, yet intrigued. Also, this scene helps Lean build tension, and, retrospectively, makes Adela’s experience in the Marabar Cave more understandable to viewers.

Adding this sequence is, by far, not the only change Lean made in his film version of A Passage to India. Lean also excluded a good amount of Forster’s narrative for the film. The most interesting of Lean’s exclusions revolve around Aziz. The novel’s Aziz is less wholesome and perfected than the film’s version. For example, in the novel, when Aziz cannot find Adela at the Marabar Caves, he punches an Indian guide who is with the party. Evident by this outburst, the novel’s Aziz has a violent streak and is prone to bouts of anger. Lean excludes this altercation in the film.

Moreover, at an earlier point in the novel, when Aziz happens upon Mrs. Moore sitting in a sacred mosque, he yells at her furiously for what he assumes is her ignorance to his culture by entering a sacred mosque with her shoes on. Aziz does not realize Mrs. Moore is well-versed in the culture and has removed her shoes before entering. In the film, Aziz never yells at Mrs. Moore, and their exchange in the mosque is romanticized through soft lighting.

Lastly, the novel explores Aziz’s hypocrisy, which the film almost entirely removes. In the novel, Aziz strongly resents the British intrusion in India. He feels he is a stranger in his own land who is treated like a second-rate citizen. However, the novel also discusses Aziz’s relationship with his deceased wife. Aziz felt superior to his wife because she was a woman, and treated her like second-rate. Aziz is angered by the intrusion of the British into his culture because he and his culture are not treated as equal to the British and their culture, but cannot recognize how his own culture does not treat all people equally, namely its women. The film avoids Aziz’s hypocrisy by showing other Indian men’s irritation with the British, but downplaying Aziz’s greatly. Also, when Aziz does mention his wife, there is not a trace of misogyny.

Even though the novel’s Aziz is a flawed character, he is still likeable. In fact, his flaws make him dynamic, which makes him relatable to the audience. Lean’s Aziz is static. He is too perfect a character; he does everything right and is consistently the victim of circumstances far beyond his control. When Lean ventured away from the novel to include the scene of Adela’s bike ride it worked in his favor, but simplifying characters, such as Aziz, to make them fit stock “good” and “bad” characters works against him.

Static characters are Lean’s A Passage to India’s biggest flaw. It is not just Aziz; Fielding (James Fox), Mrs. Moore, Ronny, and Professor Narayan Godbole are all static. Yet, A Passage to India is not a poor film. Clearly, Lean worked diligently on the adaptation, and used his keen eye and attention to detail in creating a rich visual spectacle conveying meaning that aligns with the thematics of Forster’s novel.

A Film with a View: Atmospheric Cinematography and Subtext in A ROOM WITH A VIEW

•08/07/2012 • 3 Comments

8 July 2012

When James Ivory made his 1985 film A Room with a View, adapted from E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, his challenge was to find a distinct cinematic voice for the narrative.  That is, Forster had successfully found a voice for the narrative with written language, so, if Ivory wanted an equally successful film, he had to figure out how to communicate the narrative with cinematics, cinema’s language.  But where to start when assembling the devices of cinema for such a narrative?  If you are James Ivory, you may start with cinema’s foundation, cinematography, and Ivory depends heavily on atmospheric cinematography in A Room with a View.

The trick to atmospheric cinematography is it must enhance the meaning of the shots or scenes, but not overwhelm the audience into distraction.  Through atmospheric cinematography Ivory and this team infuse A Room with a View with emotion and poignancy, as well as incorporate Forster’s complicated subtext.

Briefly, A Room with a View follows Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), a young British woman.  The film opens with Lucy’s chaperoned trip to Italy, with her uptight, traditional cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). While on this trip Lucy meets George Emerson (Julian Sands) and soon finds herself smitten with him.  However, things move quickly between Lucy and George, and Charlotte urges Lucy back to England to avoid scandal.  Shortly after this return, Lucy attempts forgetting about George by accepting a marriage proposal from the emotionless Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis); however, George and his father emerge in England and rent one of Cecil’s empty cottages.  Lucy’s feelings for George, which she has tried desperately to smother, reignite and she breaks off her marriage proposal with Cecil.  Still afraid to succumb to these feelings and confess her love to George, Lucy plans on traveling to Greece with family friends, but on her way out-of-town she runs into George’s father (Denholm Elliott).  As a result of this encounter with Mr. Emerson, Lucy confesses her true feelings, and the film ends with Lucy and George, back in Italy, on honeymoon in their room at the “pensione” with a picturesque view.

What’s significant about Forster’s A Room with a View, which Ivory paid close attention to, is the subtext.  Much of Forster’s meaning occurs between the lines, where it waits for clever readers to discover.  Without Forster’s complex subtext the narrative is significantly less dynamic and less impressive.  Therefore, the film adaptation of A Room with a View had to include the meaning Forster placed between the lines.  For Ivory, this meant communicating the narrative’s subtext on-screen as discreetly as Forster did in the novel.  With Tony Pierce-Roberts, A Room with a View’s cinematographer, much of the subtext of Forster’s novel is brought to the screen for visual readers (a.k.a. moviegoers) to discover for themselves.  Ivory creates dexterous, dense atmosphere consistently in A Room with a View so the camera captures colors, shapes, lines, and clutter, which visually express the understated themes foundational to Forster’s narrative.

Sexual frustration and repressed sexuality are critical themes in A Room with a View, yet these themes are somewhat muted, hiding in the subtext.  Ivory includes this subtext through atmospheric cinematography, specifically the phallic shapes appearing frequently in the film.  For example, at the start to the film, when Lucy is in Italy with her chaperone, Charlotte, the room she eventually secures in the “pensione”—the room with the view—has a few tall standing buildings outside the window, specifically a clock tower to the right.  Shortly after Lucy gazes excitedly from her window’s view, she and George walk through Italy.  They stop to talk between two columns on either side of a large arch.  Framed in the background of the arch is the same clock tower, which is a short distance behind them.  In the shot, as Lucy and George stand talking, the distant structure towers between the two; the clock tower is “the elephant in the room,” representing the longing Lucy and George have for each other.  The placement of this obviously phallic symbol in the shot allows Ivory to create cinematic subtext aligned with Forster’s.

This clock tower reemerges in the film’s conclusion.  While on their honeymoon, Lucy and George sit in front of the window in the same room at the “pensione,” and the clock tower stands tall between them once more.  However, as Lucy finishes reading a letter, George leans over and kisses her, and his move obstructs the view of the clock tower.  This blocking removes the most obvious phallic object in the shot, which suggests the sexual frustration and repression is removed.  Figuratively, without the looming clock tower in sight, Lucy and George are no longer oppressed by the sexual restrictions that bound them previously.  Once again, Ivory uses atmospheric cinematography to create meaning in A Room with a View.

Other major themes of Forster’s novel are coming of age and rebellion against tradition. Ivory uses atmospheric cinematography to draw in these themes with greatly ornamented and decorated sets.  Most of the interior sets in the film feel cluttered, which is historically accurate for turn of the century Europe, but always feel a bit suffocating.  Moreover, overly decorated space leaves most of the interior sets darkened, almost always lacking natural light.  This smothered, dim atmosphere enhances the struggle Lucy feels as a young woman trying to understand herself and others.  Also, the atmosphere Ivory captures equates tradition with antiquity.  Most of the elders in Lucy’s life relish in the decorations and ornaments in these sets; however, Lucy seems frustrated with the relic décor.  Lucy (and George too) are often filmed outdoors.  These exterior shots juxtapose strongly with the interior shots and highlight how much more space and freedom is available out of doors.  Through Ivory’s atmospheric cinematography, the interior sets and all their trimmings represent the end of childhood and out-datedness of tradition, significant, yet understated, concepts from Forster’s narrative.

In conclusion, if it seems easy to use atmospheric cinematography to enhance a film’s meaning, think again.  Emphasizing the narrative’s atmosphere too much will distract viewers away from the narrative.  To prevent this from happening, Ivory commands the audience’s attention with an iron fist.  Yes, the film is full of phallic objects in the background (and sometimes forefront), cluttered interior sets, and strong juxtapositions between interior and exterior scenes; however, Ivory always focuses the audience’s attention with medium and close-up shots.  Even though he pays considerable attention to the atmosphere by capturing sets and surroundings, he restricts the audience’s vantage point dramatically during conversations and the delivery of dialogue.  Ivory creates his atmosphere with a refined hand, knowing when to include a color, shape, or object and when to use simpler, uncomplicated shots so the audience can focus on characterization and plot development.  Like Forster’s literary prowess, A Room with a View’s atmospheric cinematography is conscious and discreet when offering the suggestion of meanings the audience may discover within the film.

A Star is Born…in Boston: Vanessa Redgrave in THE BOSTONIANS

•01/07/2012 • Leave a Comment

1 July 2012

James Ivory’s The Bostonians (1984), adapted from the novel by Henry James, captures the love triangle between Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave), Verena Tarrant Madeleine Potter), and Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve).  Set in 19th century America, Verena is a young, attractive activist in the women’s liberation movement.  Upon hearing one of Verena’s speeches, Olive, an older woman also involved in the women’s liberation movement, begins falling in love with Verena.  Basil, Olive’s cousin who is visiting from Mississippi, also hears Verena speak, and he, too, begins to fall for the young woman.  In an effort to stay close to Verena, Olive convinces Verena’s parents that the two women should live together, so Verena can become Olive’s protégée.  As Olive and Verena grow close, Verena and Basil also begin spending a considerable amount of time together.  Eventually Verena must decide between the two, and Verena’s choice inadvertently pushes Olive to take a bold stand in the women’s liberation movement.

While Ivory’s adaptation of James’ novel is aesthetically exquisite, the narrative is slow-moving, even in literary form, and even less climactic as a film.  Therefore, in addition to a visually stunning production design, the film depends on strong performances from its actors to grab the audience’s attention, getting viewers to invest in The Bostonians’ characters.  Several of the performances are sufficient; however one is truly remarkable.  From start to finish, Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Olive Chancellor is cinematic perfection.   As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and what distinguishes Redgrave’s performance from her fellow actors in The Bostonians is the precision of her delivery.

One scene that clearly demonstrates Redgrave’s prowess takes place when Mrs. Burrage (Nancy Marchand) discusses Verena’s future with Olive.  The scene is actually broken into a few parts (through cross-cutting), and in the first part Olive sits, in her typical statuesque pose, with an understated hat atop her head, tied tightly with a dark ribbon underneath her chin.  Mrs. Burrage proposes to Olive that her son, Henry, be matched with Verena because he, too, supports women’s liberation and their family has the financial means to better the movement.  Ivory films this scene in alternating static, mid-shots.  Thus, there is no complex camerawork; primarily, the actors’ performances create the scene’s intensity.

Redgrave slowly and methodically pushes crumbs around on the plate in front of her, keeping her eyes down and refusing to make eye contact with the Marchand’s rambling Mrs. Burrage, except, of course, for those few dramatic seconds when her piercing stare darts aggressively upon Marchand’s unsuspecting face.  Olive has little to say during this “conversation,” and Redgrave uses the opportunity to take a small, slow bite of the food she has managed to push on her fork.  The gesture is as courteous as it is insulting to Mrs. Burrage; Olive is polite in eating the tea-time treat she was given, and is demonstrating some degree of reverence for her hostess by allowing Mrs. Burrage to discuss her proposal uninterrupted, yet Redgrave’s gesture reveals a stubbornness and secrecy in Olive.  Redgrave pushes the food around on her plate, and then nibbles lethargically at a minuscule bite, just as Olive listens disinterestedly to Mrs. Burrages’s proposal, but knows full-well she will not seriously consider the offer.

In a later part of this scene—after cross cutting reveals a date between Verena and Basil—the tables turn on Olive and, instead of discussing Verena’s possible future as Henry’s wife, Mrs. Burrage indirectly probes Olive about the curiously close relationship between she and Verena.  This change of topic makes Olive uncomfortable, and Redgrave immediately stops playing with the food on the plate in front of her.  The camera positioning switches and Ivory captures both Redgrave and Marchand in one wide, static shot.  Still seated at the table, Redgrave draws her right arm behind her back and seems to put all her upper body weight on that arm for support.  This positioning is the physicalization of Olive’s insecurity; Olive is terrified of outside gossip and intrusion into her love affair with Verena.

After a moment, Olive attempts to regain her composure and grabs her teacup, another significant gesture.  Because she was uncomfortable with the words coming out of Mrs. Burrage’s mouth, Olive, instinctively, drowns her own words with an overzealous sip of tea, which causes her to choke.  Redgrave cleverly and subtly uses gestures to fill the audience in on Olive’s thought process and emotional state.  The audience reads Redgrave’s Olive, getting to know her better and better with every move; therefore investing in her situation more and more with each passing moment.

A later scene, one that has no dialogue but captures an intimate moment between Verena and Olive, also highlights Redgrave’s skillful performance.  After Verena returns home late from a date with Basil, Olive, who has been out searching for Verena, finds the young woman seated on a couch.  Up until this point in the film, Redgrave’s Olive stands tall, stoic and straight-laced, only ever relenting on her physical rigidness for Verena, however this is the moment when Olive’s valiant demeanor breaks.  Having finally found Verena, Olive falls on the couch beside her and lies across Verena’s lap, her back arched and her arms and head hang.  When interrupted by a housemaid, Olive abruptly swings her arms wildly at the girl to shoo her away.  This is an unrefined, overcome, unpretentious Olive Chancellor, and although no words are spoken Redgrave signals everything viewers need to know about Olive’s mindset and emotional state through clever, contrasting body language and gesturing.

Lastly, even in the final scene of the film, Olive’s entrance onto the stage continues to reveal Redgrave’s remarkable work in The Bostonians.  Ivory captures Olive’s entrance with a long shot, allowing the audience to see the chaos in the theatre during Olive’s entrance, as all the patron are disappointedly exiting the crowded venue.  Because Olive was not prepared to speak at the event, and she just lost the person she loves, Olive is dazed and upset when walking on the stage.  Redgrave once again takes advantage of a small moment to communicate Olive’s nerves to the audience by having Olive stumble as she crosses center stage.  Olive’s trip is minor, but easily noticeable, and immediately draws the audience’s attention to Redgrave’s character.  Even the slightest gesture, like this stumble, demonstrates Redgrave’s ability to discreetly communicate to the audience, as well as command a scene.

Of course these are only small moments in The Bostonians, and by no means the only moments Redgrave’s skills are displayed.  Throughout the entire film, Redgrave delivers a resolutely strong performance, which significantly improves the overall quality of the film.  The details she contributes, frequently through gestures, create a dynamic character audience members invest in.  And, while this is certainly not her first or last astounding performance, The Bostonians is an impressive performance on Redgrave’s impressive filmography.

A Fabulously Frightening Cinematic Spell: THE WITCHES as an Accomplished Children’s Horror Film

•24/06/2012 • Leave a Comment

24 June 2012

Children’s horror is not a popular genre of film.  When it comes to children’s films, animation/live-action, fantasy, and adventure are the leading sub-genres, and horror films are reserved for more mature audiences.  True, children are not ready for blood and guts, or a number of other things that make up the average horror film, but what’s so wrong with scaring our youth at the movies? If you ask Nicolas Roeg, who directed The Witches, the answer would probably be…absolutely nothing.  The Witches is a children’s horror film.  And, importantly, it is not simply a horror film because the story it captures is scary; The Withes is a horror film because of the way Roeg captures the narrative, using calculated cinematic techniques.

Adapted from the Ronald Dahl novel of the same title, The Witches tells the story of a boy named Luke’s (Jasen Fisher) terrifying encounter with the witches of England.  Luke’s grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), opens the film by telling Luke of her own childhood encounter with witches.  According to Luke’s grandmother, witches hate children, and make it their mission torture and kill all boys and girls. Shortly after learning about the witches, Luke’s parents are killed in an automobile accident and he moves in with Helga.  Because Luke’s grandmother is a diabetic, she and Luke take a holiday at the Hotel Excelsior, a coastal resort in England, so Helga can recuperate from a spell of bad health.  Helga and Luke’s stay at Hotel Excelsior coincides with a massive women’s league convention for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  This women’s league is, of course, a (witty) front for the witches of England, and the “convention” is actually their yearly gathering, lead by the Grand High Witch, Eva (Angelica Huston).  As the witches hatch their plan to turn all the children of England into mice with a magical potion Eva concocted, Helga and Luke realize the witches are up to no good and devise their own plan to stop them once and for all.

There is no doubt Dahl’s story is terrifying, especially for children, his target audience.  And, in adapting this novel for the screen, capturing a visual representation of Dahl’s descriptive narrative brings the fear to life.  Whether it is the witches bald, toeless, deformed shape or the countless mice scurrying all over the Hotel Excelsior’s dining room, the visual images Roeg brings to life from Dahl’s novel are revolting, frightening, and disturbing.  However, it’s not enough that the images be disgusting and horrifying; after all, the images are disgusting and horrifying to readers as they are reading, so what would be the point of adapting the novel for cinema if the film didn’t take Dahl’s terrifying tale to a new level.  To create a successful film adaptation of The Witches, Roeg had to match Dahl’s ability to create fear with the written word with his own ability to create fear with a camera.  Luckily for audiences, Roeg did just that.  What makes The Witches a truly terrifying children’s horror film is not the images presented; The Witches is a terrifying horror film because of how the images are presented: Roeg’s exaggerated use of shaky camera, point of view shots, and Dutch tilts (angles).  These cinematic techniques brew together to create relentless instability, disorder, and chaos.

The first of these techniques, shaky camera, is also known as the hand-held camera technique.  Typically, this technique is known for enhancing realism, in part because the camera moves with a freer range of motion.  Additionally, if used frequently, shaky camera can also make the audience feel a bit nauseous, as the camera generally, well, shakes without any stability.  In The Witches this technique is effective.  While Roeg does use shaky camera a lot, he interrupts his use of this technique with standard, stabilized camerawork.  Because the audience does not view the film through a shaky camera for too long a period of time, Roeg does not risk giving his audience motion sickness, but does manage to disorient viewers.  Roeg’s use of shaky camera also emphasizes realism in the film.  Because Luke often finds himself on the run from the witches, the shaky camera technique creates the feelings of confusion and panic for viewers, which align with the feelings Luke experiences in the narrative; this pulls the audience deeper into the film.

In addition to shaky camera, Roeg uses point of view shots to continue increasing the realism and unease he attempts to create in The Witches.  With a point of view shot, the audience takes on the perspective of a character in the film, and this, too, is a classic way for a filmmaker to up a film’s realism.  If viewers take on a character’s perspective, the audience, essentially, becomes a character in the film.  Point of view shots break the fourth wall, meaning the characters interact with the audience, by staring straight at them and talking directly to them; therefore, the audience does not have the luxury of omnisciently gazing upon the characters and their actions.  With the fourth wall broken, audiences will naturally feel more invested in the film.  And, with a horror film, like The Witches, the audience’s fear will be heightened because they, in taking on the perspective of a character, are exposed to the same violence and chaos that character is subject to.

Lastly, Roeg frequently uses Dutch tilts (angles) in the film.  Most often, Dutch tilts—which are intentional tilts of the camera to capture images on a diagonal—represent disorder.  When filming from a tilted angle, a filmmaker is often attempting to convey instability, or express that something is out of sorts.  Often times these shots are static, meaning the camera does not track or pan while filming from this tilted angle.  While Roeg’s use of shaky camera and point of view shots increase The Witches realism, the Dutch tilt is a contrastingly unrealistic shot.  Thus, the audience is constantly being pulled into the film, and then thrown out.  Theoretically, the audience is on a rollercoaster ride in The Witches, and Nicholas Roeg, the ride’s operator, is jerking the audience around through his presentation of images.  In this context, the Dutch tilt opposes Roeg’s use of shaky camera and point of view shots; however, the contrast creates even more havoc within the film, which clearly works for The Witches.    

Not only is Roeg controlling what the audience sees and how viewers see it, he is also controlling the speed at which the audience must bear witness to these images. During climactic moments, Roeg cuts rapidly, and, in doing so, shifts just as rapidly between Dutch tilts, point of view shots, and shaky camera.  Each of these techniques creates a frightening and chaotic feeling for the audience when they are used respectively, but when Roeg uses the techniques in rapid succession The Witches floods with anxiety and terror.

In all, The Witches is a successful cinematic adaptation of Dahl’s novel.  This has nothing to do with the film’s adherence (or lack thereof) to Dahl’s narrative, but is entirely based on Roeg’s effort as filmmaker to create the fear in his movie-going audience, using cinematic techniques, that Dahl created in his literary audience, using language.  Because The Witches is a children’s film, Roeg gets away with such a large amount of shaky camera, point of view shots, and Dutch tilts.  If this film had been targeted for adults Roeg may have been criticized for recklessly overusing these techniques; however, children’s film are typically more exaggerated in style and content to satisfy the demands of younger viewers.  And, without question, The Witches satisfies the desires of the youngest horror movies seekers.

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 296 other followers

%d bloggers like this: