Where the Boys At?: Tipping the Gender Balance in CARRIE

•02/09/2012 • Leave a Comment


2 September 2012

If you have seen Carrie, more than likely you remember pig’s blood, a fiery prom, the bloody hand, and (of course) Piper’s Laurie’s unforgettable Mrs. Margaret White, Carrie’s Jesus-loving mother from hell.  In the supernatural horror flick, these are the horrifyingly memorable moments.  Yet, there is more to Carrie than these terrors; in fact, much of Carrie slides under the radar because most of the film pales in comparison to the aforementioned frights.  One rather obvious but easily missed fact about Carrie is the film is incredibly female heavy; there very few male characters leaving a tremendous disbalance in gender representation.  And, upon closer consideration, the few males in Carrie are only there to enhance the characterization of the film’s females and to act as pawns for these female characters.

Directed by Brian DePalma in 1976, and adapted from Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie tells the story of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a high school senior, in the days leading up to her senior prom.  Carrie has two big secrets: the first is her mother (Piper Laurie) puts religious fanaticism to shame, and the second is she is telekinetic (she can move objects with her mind).  As a result of her differences from the norm, Carrie is an outsider at Bates High School (yes, Bates, as in Psycho), and she is often the target of cruel and malicious bullying.  However, after one particular prank on Carrie goes too far, Sue (Amy Irving), one of the popular girls at Bates, has a change of heart and wants to rectify her poor treatment of Carrie.  Sue persuades her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt), to take the dateless Carrie to the upcoming prom.  Just as Carrie’s lucks seems to be turning around the unthinkable happens, and prom night ends up more gravely thrilling than anyone, including Carrie, was prepared for.

Aside from a few minor characters, which will be discussed shortly, there are only two significant male roles in Carrie: Tommy and Billy (John Travolta), Sue and Chris’ boyfriends, respectively.  Tommy Ross plays the larger role of the two, as he becomes Carrie’s date for the prom.  Yet, when his more sizable part is boiled down to its core, Tommy’s role is merely pawn, a pawn who actually strengthens Carrie and Sue’s characterizations.  First, Carrie is an outsider and has no boyfriend, so, of course, the popular girls (Sue) all have boyfriends (Tommy).  These boyfriends are primarily there representing something Carrie lacks.  (Well, that is a loaded statement but let us not digress.)  Moreover, Sue is the sole survivor of prom night thanks to her upstanding moral character.  That is, the audience accepts Sue’s survival in the film’s conclusion because she acknowledges and attempts to rectify her bad behavior toward Carrie.   Therefore, the people around Sue, namely (but not exclusively) Tommy, also have to be morally elite characters who support Sue’s character growth in the film from bully to heroine.  Sue dates the only boy at Bates who would take Carrie to prom, and Tommy’s honorable behavior reflects positively on Sue in the audience’s eyes.  Thinking back, all of Tommy’s actions are driven by Sue, and had she not wronged Carrie in the film’s opening Tommy’s character would be unnecessary; within the film’s narrative structure, Tommy is Sue’s pawn.

The other male character is Billy Nolan, Chris’ boyfriend.  Billy is the antithesis of Tommy, as Chris (Nancy Allen) is the antithesis of Sue.  And, just as Tommy made Sue a more admirable character, Billy makes Chris a more abominable, divisive character.  Billy, essentially, serves as Chris’ lackey; Billy does all of Chris’ dirty work: drives her around, kills the pig, and rigs the bucket.  If Chris were not the film’s villain, Billy would not have a place in the film; Billy is Chris’ pawn because his character is contingent on Chris’ in every way.

Aside from those two characters, there are only very minor male roles left.  One is the male English teacher, Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick). Keeping with the idea of males as pawns in Carrie, Mr. Fromm acts as a foil for Ms. Collins.  Ms. Collins is the involved, caring teacher who takes Carrie under her wing.  Conversely, Mr. Fromm is the teacher who mocks Carrie in front of her peers.  His purpose in the film is strictly to draw attention to what a kind, respectable teacher Ms. Collins is by comparison.  Like Tommy and Billy, Mr. Fromm’s character is present to strengthen a female’s characterization.

Even Freddy (Michael Talbott), the boy who helps Norma collect and distort the ballots for prom king and queen, is a pawn who serves Chris.  The day before prom, as he volunteers to collect ballots, Chris stands in the background watching him, commanding his actions.  Even in prom, he does not actually collect or submit the ballots himself; Freddy kisses Norma and drop the real ballots for her to kick out of sight; Norma both collects and submits the ballots.

Curiously, Carrie does not have any developed male characters; Carrie seems to include its male characters as pawns to enhance female characterization. And while unbalanced and unequal gender roles, whichever way that pendulum may swing, may not be as thrilling as an emotionally disturbed telekinetic scorned, the silent ramifications can be just as scary.


Holmes May Be Watching, But the Audience is Listening: Internal Diegetic Sound in Gorris’ MRS. DALLOWAY

•26/08/2012 • Leave a Comment


26 August 2012

British modern literature is not the easiest literary genre to translate onto film, yet it may be the literary genre with the strongest connection to cinema.  Historically, cinema and modernism were born at nearly the same time.  Therefore, cinema has a modern quality, and there is a cinematic quality to modern literature.

However, even though cinema often adapts literature, there are only a handful of films adapted from British modern literature.  Generally speaking, modern literature’s refusal to conform to yesteryear’s Victorian literary standards makes it difficult for cinema to adapt modern writing.  Some of the great British modern writers, specifically Virginia Woolf, wrote in the experimental stream of consciousness narrative style, which explores the mind by tracing thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories, and fantasies fluidly as they occur.  That said, much of Woolf’s modern literature captures the internal workings of her character’s minds, and Woolf, like her contemporaries, shifts perspectives, from one character to another, frequently and with minimal to no explanation.  Therefore, reading modern literature becomes tricky, as active readers are required to follow a character’s rapidly flowing internal monologues, and then attempt to realize when these internal workings have switched from one character to the next.

One novel exemplifying the modern literary style is Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925.  In short, Mrs. Dalloway follows one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, and on this day she is giving a party.  Clarissa, a middle-aged woman, spends her day preparing for her party, but constantly flashes back to memories of her youth.  Her flashbacks include her carefree coming-of-age days with Sally Seaton and Peter Walsh, as well as her courtship with Richard Dalloway, her now-husband.  Separately, the novel also follows Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering with severe post-traumatic stress disorder; inevitably, he commits suicide.  Septimus and Clarissa are doppelgangers, kept apart, but each revealing details of the other.  Septimus and Clarissa’s stories only cross in the novel’s climax when one of Clarissa’s party guests, a doctor’s wife, regales other partygoers with the news that one of her husband’s patients (Septimus) committed suicide earlier that day.  This news triggers an emotional response from Clarissa, and, in the novel’s conclusion, she resolves her own struggles with her memories and feelings.

Under the direction of Marleen Gorris, and with the screenplay adapted by Eileen Atkins, the cinematic adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway follows Woolf’s narrative closely, and carefully explores what, if anything, cinema’s devices can contribute to a filmed version of Woolf’s work.  Without question, Gorris’ cinematic adaptation is narrower than Woolf’s text.  For instance, cinema emphasizes exteriors—characters, sets, and props—all filmed from specific angles and distances, with attention paid to lighting, colors, shapes, and sizes, not forgetting sounds.  While modern writing has cinematically visual descriptions, accentuating colors, sizes, and shapes through written descriptions, the core of modern literature is not the visual; the core may be what the visual ignites or elicits for the characters, and perhaps even the readers.  Nevertheless, Gorris does find many cinematic devices useful when capturing Woolf’s modern writing for the screen, and perhaps the most useful of these devices is internal diegetic sound.

Internal diegetic sound is sound one character, as well as the audience, can hear.  (Infrequently two of more characters can hear internal diegetic sound, but that is rarely the case because the effect is typically used to isolate the internal workings of one character for viewers.)  This internal sound can be anything, but most often it is voiceover work, revealing a character’s unspoken and inner most thoughts.  Internal diegetic sound is entirely subjective, immersing the audience into one character’s mindset.

Essentially, modern fiction, specifically Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, is internal monologue, therefore internal diegetic sound is necessary to capture the work for cinema.

Gorris’ Mrs. Dalloway introduces her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave), to the audience using internal diegetic sound.  As Clarissa looks at her reflection in a mirror, on the morning of her party, the audience hears her inner thoughts through voiceover.  Gazing upon her middle-aged, immaculately put together appearance, Clarissa thinks, “Those ruffians, the gods, shan’t have it all their own way…,” and shortly after, while making her way downstairs, she considers to herself just how “dangerous” it is to live even one day.  Immediately, only moments into the film, Mrs. Dalloway sets up the contrast between what the audience sees of Clarissa and what the audience comes to know of Clarissa from her inner thoughts.  On the outside Clarissa has it all together, is the epitome of style and sophistication; on the inside she is frustrated, moderately depressed, and lost in deep thought.  These inner thoughts are the crux of Woolf’s text, and Atkins’ inclusion of them through internal diegetic sound allows Gorris to translate Woolf’s work for cinema.

Later in the film, Septimus (Rupert Graves) sits in the park and hears bombs bursting and guns firing all around him, the sounds of war.  These sounds are not occurring in the film’s reality (the park); instead, the sounds occur only in Septimus’ mind, as part of his grave struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.  Once again, this subjective sound allows the audience to experience Septimus’ struggle along with him; internal diegetic sound puts the audience in the character’s mind.

The use of this device never falters, and is perhaps most strongly used in the film’s conclusion, the party.  As Clarissa greets her guests the audience is privy to the judgments she makes on each one, the fears that cross her mind about the party’s fate, and the ideas occurring to her as people circulate around her.  Interestingly, in a scene full of so many characters talking and laughing, the audience, like Clarissa, remains isolated in Clarissa’s mind.  When Clarissa overhears of Septimus’ suicide, she escapes the party, fleeing to the balcony outside her bedroom.  Even when alone, Clarissa never utters a sound; the audience continues to hear voiceover of Clarissa’s abstract and unspeakable inner thoughts and feelings.

In part, Woolf’s text suggests a significant part of the human experience in inexpressible and isolating, and Atkins and Gorris support that discovery by keeping Woolf’s narrative style in Mrs. Dalloway internal in the film.  The use of internal diegetic sound in Gorris’ Mrs. Dalloway was, perhaps, the only way the text could (and did) translate to film successfully.


The Play is (Still) the Thing: Branagh, Ambiguity, and HAMLET

•19/08/2012 • 1 Comment

19 August 2012

Fact: In the late 1500s and early 1600s, Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be watched, not read.  Yet, as the centuries have gone by, is the same true?  In today’s world, one of the main reasons people revere Shakespeare’s work is his use of language, its ambiguity and dexterity; things more easily appreciated during reading, not watching.

Yet, even though Shakespeare’s work may be more popular today with readers (scholars, students, etc), the Bard and his work is still celebrated in the traditional performative way.  But, in some ways, the extensive attention paid to Shakespeare’s use of language has made it harder to create successful performances of Shakespeare’s work.  Tricky thing is, in a performance, be it theatre or film, some of Shakespeare’s revered ambiguity is lost.  That is, the director, screenwriter, and actor(s) make certain claims and decisions about the plot and characters which clarify the uncertainty.   On one hand, these choices breathe new life into the piece, giving it a distinct tone or establishing a core theme that may reinvent or reinvigorate the work.  But, on the other hand, removing any of the coveted ambiguity eliminates (or, at least, reduces) one of the key elements that earned Shakespeare his staying power over the last 400+ years.

In 1996, Kenneth Branagh, British actor, screenwriter, and director often associated with Shakespearean adaptations, took aim at one of the Bard’s most popular tragedies, Hamlet.  A complex web of characters, secrecy, and madness, when boiled down to a one-line (biased) summary, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, essentially, the story of a boy and his mother.  Thus, the play’s elaborate intricacies, subplots, and details gave Branagh a lot of space for exploration and discovery when adapting the tragedy, and Branagh’s Hamlet is a bit more than a film about a boy and his mother.  Even though Branagh kept nearly every word of Shakespeare’s language in the film, he removed a considerable amount of the play’s ambiguity by making clear, conscious decisions regarding blocking, characterization, and setting.  Moreover, other cinematic elements, such as the film’s musical score, work in supporting Branagh’s elaborate vision and lead the audience through his dramatic vision of Hamlet.

Many of Branagh’s directorial decisions in Hamlet work well, in that the film is both captivating and clever.  The setting, which Branagh modernizes slightly to the 19th century, allows a more grandiose set and costume design, appealing to the audience’s aesthetic eyes.  However, when digging deeper into these directorial decisions, one eventually bumps into the choices Branagh makes regard the play’s ambiguity.  For example, in a notorious confrontation between Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) and Ophelia (Kate Winslet), Branagh makes clear claims about the characters motivations and intentions through blocking and acting decisions.  To contextualize the confrontation, Hamlet bumps into Ophelia shortly after he breaks off his courtship with her, and Ophelia’s father, Polonius (Richard Briers), and Hamlet’s uncle (now King), Claudius (Derek Jacobi), are eavesdropping the two estranged lovers because they believe Hamlet is mad and they would like to know just how far gone he is.  Shakespeare’s ambiguity lies in the audience not knowing if Hamlet realizes he is being spied on.

In Branagh’s adaptation Hamlet enters a great room of his castle finding Ophelia alone; Polonius and Claudius are behind a mirrored door listening and watching to each sound and movement.  It is clear from Hamlet’s interaction with Ophelia that he does not know Polonius and Claudius are present; however, after his confrontation with Ophelia escalates, and an unfamiliar noise comes from behind one of the mirrored doors, Hamlet realizes he and Ophelia are being spied on; his behavior changes drastically after this realization.  A simple directorial decision like this makes a claim about the play and adapts the scene in accordance with that claim.


However, Branagh goes one step further in his adaptation of Hamlet.  Beyond making similar directorial decisions that offer meaning about his adaptation of Hamlet through blocking and acting, Branagh also includes montages of character’s thoughts and memories throughout the play.  These continual visualizations make even stronger claims about Hamlet; claims Branagh took a risk in including within his adaptation.

For example, toward the start of the film, when Hamlet follows the Ghost into the woods and the Ghost reveals the details of his death to Hamlet, one of these visualized thought montages appears.  The Ghost chronicles his death in the garden, at the hands of Claudius, and as the Ghost’s story is told a montage of the events plays before the audience’s eyes.  This montage gives the audience a clear visual of the Ghost’s story as Hamlet is thinking or seeing it in his own mind.

Later in the film, during multiple scenes involving Hamlet and Ophelia, both together and respectively, these visualized thoughts return, this time as memories.  Both Hamlet and Ophelia frequently relive some of their more loving and intimate moments.  This is a very interesting decision on Branagh’s part because it speaks to the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia; clearly, based on these memories the two hold, their relationship was passionate and devoted.  That said, the fact that Hamlet casts her aside for revenge makes his character less tolerable; seemingly callous, but more certainly mad.

Branagh’s decision to include visual montages to match character’s thoughts and memories is a risk because it removes even more of the play’s ambiguity and makes even stronger claims about the characters and their actions.  Yet, in some ways this risk pays off; the montages expand the characterization and help contemporary audiences grapple with the difficult language and its dexterous ideas through visual associations.  However, these montages also fail because they are unreliable.  Sure, the audience learns more of Ophelia from her memories of Hamlet, but where is the visual montage when Gertrude (Julie Christie) tells of Ophelia’s death. If Branagh chooses to show the audience some events that happen “off stage,” some even prior to the play’s exposition, why not show us everything?  Hamlet is full of characters explaining/discussing events for the audience to see, so why is Branagh particular about which he visualizes?  Gertrude’s story about Ophelia’s accidental drowning is curious; how would she know the details of how Ophelia’s dress floated on the surface of the water before saturating and slowly dragging her body underwater if she, Gertrude, was not present when Ophelia died?  And, if she was present, why didn’t she save her?  There is considerably ambiguity in this monologue, but Branagh avoids it all together; his Gertrude remains rather unexplored.  While some characters are overexposed others are barely tapped at all.

In all, Branagh’s Hamlet, like all Shakespeare performed adaptations, reduces the play’s ambiguity, but does so in clever and considerate ways.  Yet, beyond figuring out where to block actors, how to perform scenes, and where to set said scenes, Branagh attempts to add more to his adaptation by creating this visualized thoughts and memories, and that is the weakest part of the film.  The audience cannot be privy to the characters minds one scene and complete excluded the next; it is not credible.  Ultimately, there is no rhyme or reason to which thoughts and remembrances are visualized, and that inconsistency feels incomplete.  While the film is well constructed and entertaining, Branagh’s Hamlet falls short.  There is no question…the play is the thing, not the film.

Portrait of Another Artist: Channeling Carrington in Hampton’s CARRINGTON

•12/08/2012 • Leave a Comment

12 August 2012

Dora Carrington, an English painter of the early 20th century, lived a rather unusual lifestyle; however, in fairness, amid the group of people she mingled with (most notably the Bloomsbury group), her actions and ideals were oddly normal (or odd yet accepted as normal).  Yet, to a film audience watching a movie about the painter’s life, Carrington’s eccentricities make her an atypical protagonist; repressed sexuality and complicated sexual experiences, androgynous appearance, devotion to Lytton Strachey are all parts of what makes Carrington an anti-hero from a contemporary vantage point.  Nevertheless, filmmaker Christopher Hampton, who wrote the screenplay and directed Carrington in 1995, took on the challenge of translating a significant portion of this artist’s life into a major motion picture.

In summation, Carrington follows the artist’s life beginning from the time she fell in love with homosexual writer Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce).  After a rocky start to their star-crossed relationship, Carrington (Emma Thompson) and Strachey began a life-long companionship, one that was never sexual, but did have an unmistakable romance to it.  As Carrington explores her own sexuality with the other men in her life, Strachey remains the only man she shows unyielding devotion toward, going so far as to abort another man’s child, claiming if she were ever to have a child it must be Strachey’s.  Carrington’s love for Strachey continually jeopardizes her relationships with the other men in her life, and when Strachey dies at Ham Spray (the home they shared in England), Carrington commits suicide.

Sure, because Carrington is a commercially released film, Carrington’s love-life is a bit steamier than she may remember it, and the gruesome realities of her suicide are cleverly edited out, but there are a few moments in the film when Carrington’s essence comes through; unsurprisingly, many of those moments are dialogue-free, ambiguous shots and sequences which ask viewers to look closely at what is presented to them and, in true modernist fashion, arrange the pieces of a the Carrington puzzle together to create their own understanding of this woman.  For example, there are several silent moments in the film when Carrington observes people through windows, a significant motif in the film.  Carrington watches Strachey with his new lover, Roger, through a window; seeing Roger wipe something from Strachey beard entrances Carrington and witnessing this causally intimate moment between the two clearly touches her.  This moment is expanded upon in a later scene which may be a crux of Hampton’s film.

In a dialogue-free scene toward the film’s conclusion, Hampton allows Carrington’s essence through to contemporary film audiences.  The scene opens up with Carrington and Strachey standing outside Ham Spray one night.  Strachey retires inside and Carrington, wrapped in a blanket, stays outside the house and seats herself atop a tree stump.  She begins to peer through the first floor of the house, which is all aglow with light; she sees Strachey and his young lover, as well as Ralph (Steven Waddington) and Frances (Alex Kingston), and her current lover, Beacus (Jeremy Northam).  Slowly but surely, all these tenants turn off the lights in their respective rooms and head upstairs for bed.  For a moment the house is dark, until the tenants start reaching the second floor and the lights emerge once more.  Strachey and Roger go to their bedroom, turn on their light, and share a kiss in front of the window.  Ralph and Frances talk and exchange smiles while changing into their bedclothes and pull their window’s curtain.  Beacus goes to his bedroom window and stares out, perhaps at Carrington, before finally retreating to bed.  The camera, which has been tracking across the house to show all inside and periodically cutting to close-ups of Carrington, slowly zooms out to show Carrington sitting on the tree stump watching the house’s lovers.  All the lights in the rooms remain on and the shot fades to black.

This scene is, perhaps, the closest the filmmaker gets to revealing, even channeling, Carrington for his audience.  First, Carrington is an outsider, and this scene captures that.  Literally, she is outside the house and has removed herself from the others.  But, metaphorically, Carrington is not like other people; she does not see the world the way others do, so she distances herself from society, from people, and functions primarily on her own.  Adding to that, Carrington is the artist and the people and places around her are her art.  Eventually these people and places become her work, so she naturally steps back from them and observes their beauty, takes it in, and captures it in her own way.  These sentiments are easily found in this scene.

This scene also attempts to discover Carrington’s complicated emotional language and her resistance to physicality.  There is not much sullen or depressed in her demeanor during this scene, even though this is a somber moment.  Carrington watches, stares even, at each person, seeing how much love is present between the two couples inside.  Outside, alone in the night, Carrington sits, wrapped up tightly in a warm blanket, watching love—entirely un-voyeuristic—from one end of the house to the other.  Seeing those she loves in love appears to satisfy her in a way physical love does not. Yet, seeing this also comes with somewhat of a sting, as love, to the lovers surrounding Carrington, is directly connected to the physical.  Love for Carrington is not physical; Carrington is not a physical individual.  As Beacus, her current lover, looks out the window, perhaps at her, Carrington avoids his gaze, not wanting to come into the house herself and be physical.

Moreover, the film’s original score, arranged by Michael Nyman, gets highlighted in this scene.  During this two-and-a-half minute scene the score is its most dramatic.  Pulling of the strong emotions Carrington is obviously feeling in this scene, the score heightens the moment’s significance.

In all, Carrington is a complicated woman and translating her complexities to a contemporary film audience is a challenge.  She is so different than from the norm, which is fascinating, but also, at times, undecipherable.  These silent moments and scenes, most notable Carrington’s midnight observation of the Ham Spray, are what work best in Hampton’s film because they give audiences the chance to make sense of Carrington for themselves.  And with a woman this unusual, dialogue and narration do not seem to be adequate conveyors of her essence.

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.


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