We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.
Perhaps during this worrying last weekend (waiting anxiously in the hope Obama and Biden may win), some content about matters other than the election will find welcome.
I’ll begin by mentioning that the Wompo festival of women’s poetry starts tomorrow: Wompo Festival Site_. It goes on for all month: you can go and read about poetry or poetry itself or all sorts of comments by women on various issues, reviews of writing (I’ve contributed two, on a book on 18th century women’s poetry and one on a Renaissance woman poet), and good blogs (I’ve contributed one). And of course there are my 30 foremother poet postings, beginning with Castelloza, a troubadour woman poet.
I said in my last diary entry, I would write a separate blog first on David Nokes & Janet Barron’s, Suzanne Harrison & Mike Barker’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Mira Nair & Sooni Taraporevala’s Namesake:
Arthur (Rupert Graves) and Helen Huntingdon (Tara Fitzgerald) at table with friends, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1996
Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) & Ashimi (Tabu), returning with son and baby daughter to India after grandfather’s death, Namesake, 2007
I look at what is done to Bronte matter, how it’s expressed, in two recent costume movies. (I’ll refer only to screenplay writers’ or director’s names as responsible for this or that part of the films for efficiency’s sake.)
The edge of the world
I’ve not read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in a long time. As I recall that was when I was all alone here in Alexandria, no friends on the Net, and no job at all, no one to clue me in on which modern books to try and little means to find them beyond local bookstores. I might as well admit up front that even then I never read it properly in that I skipped the tedious didacticism and interspersed with story and character and adult theme matter.
Still from what I remember it seems to me Nokes & Barron made intelligent use of the story and characters. Some is over melodramatic & over determined, e.g., how Helen Graham (Tara Fitzgerald) came to love this ne-er-do-well, Arthur Huntingdon (Rupert Graves) is one of these stories where a young woman drinks down poison and is irresistibly led to chose misery, and ignore what is in front of her; that is, they don’t even get along with the man in casual conversation as he is a boor and coarse. I don’t say this is false, but that to make one believe it you have to go deeply into someone’s destructive impulses. And they haven’t done that, just assumed women are like this.
But the account of the marriage itself is believable and powerful. Quickly Arthur is bored and irritated; Helen has a different nature and really wants to live a quiet reasonable life; he wants sex from her no matter what her condition. She takes seriously nasty behavior in public and will not accept it for herself. She does like him, at least respects and wants him to respect himself as she understands it. The movement into alcoholism goes too fast and is not understood, it’s only a surface presentation. But Nokes & Barron aren’t interested in his alcoholism (while Anne Bronte was); nor very much in her life as an artist (but then neither is Bronte), except for showing landscape:
Helen Graham and Gilbert Markham (Toby Stephens) in meadow
Rather they are delving candidly the bonding of two people into a sexual relationship who are otherwise unfitted for one another.
On Trollope-l we had been reading and discussing the novels of Ellen Wood as reflections of womens’ issues and lives in the Victorian novel; and as my proposal to write a paper on David Nokes & Janet Barron & Robert Bierman’s film adaptation, Clarissa (1991), I was naturally watching this film with both perspectives in mind: how does the film reflect womens’ issues today and the lives of Victorian people; and does it connect to the mindset I find in the 1991 filmic Clarissa.
First, the Clarissa connection: As I’ve written on this blog, Nokes and Barron’s film presents the view that Lovelace is a cruel man whose point of view on human relationships derives from a culture which encouraged in him the worst of violence aggressive impulses, arrogance over his rank and place and his value (no matter what he does), and sheer domination and competitiveness as how to spend one’s hours. I think this is a reading of Clarissa which may be said to be more like what we find in Germaine de Stael’s depiction of male aristocrats in Delphine—and come to think of it is in line at least with Shadwell’s Libertine. By contrast, Gilbert Markham represents the decent ethical (if narrow) man:
Gilbert Markham (close up)
Well, the way Nokes and Barron presents Helen Graham Huntingdon’s case against Arthur Huntingdon, her alcoholic husband is to turn the stress in the novel on her upbringing of her child, her motherhood into an instance of the two of them struggling over how the boy will be brought up. In part 3 of this film adaptation he takes the child back and proceeds to teach him behaviors that are violent, cruel, ugly: to hunt ruthlessly, drink, be mocked and so he will mock others, especially if they show any emotional weakness. He has taken a governess to be his mistress openly, and we are led to understand his awful behavior as a result of precisely these values. In the first part of the film adaptation Helen was told by those she was surrounded by in the place she fled to, that she was bringing up her boy wrongly: she should let him follow his “manly” impulses (which meant in context killing birds, and “sinful” behaviors of wantonness of all sorts). Helen wants to bring him up to be kind, courteous, controlled, good, in short.
Helen (close up)
Second, Victorian lives and womens’ issues. The mini-series Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is but 3 episodes for a big thick book, and time was taken out for Helen to debate with the mother, Mrs Markham (Pam Ferris) of Gilbert Markham (whom Helen ends up marrying) how to bring up a son or daughter. Mrs Markham insisted that the son should be allowed to be rambunctious and get hurt and not be protected, while a girl must be sheltered from all experience; Helen said both should be sheltered and was against teaching a boy to drink or be amoral (which is what they were really urging her to do). In an article I read about Ellen Wood’s novels and The Tenant, Elizabeth Gruner quotes at length a long conversation between the two women rivals, Mrs Hale and Isabel (according to Gruner, the only long one they have) which is about how to bring up children, and what is said is by the “good” conventional Mrs Carlyle is that a woman should give over the daily discipline of her chlidren to her governess so she is there to cater to her husband or he’ll tire and leave her. Isabel is the governess and so she’s doing this—the drudgery. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall also treats Helen’s new husband, Gilber Markham in terms of his relationship with his domineering mother.
Arthur teaching his son to be “a man” (drink, womanize, show off)
I had just gotten my Virginia Woolf miscellany for this season and
began to read, and found myself reading about her Three Guineas where she argues that we must change our education in schools and life to produce “the kind of society, the kind of people who will prevent war … ” and “not teach the arts of dominating other people, not the arts of ruling, of illing, of acquiring” things as the aim of our existence and “capital” for more. Subjects should be those which can be taught and practiced by poor people, medicine, math, music, painting, reading, and “the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds … the way in which the mnd and body can be made to co-operate.”
This what Nokes and Barron are on about in both film adaptations. In the first, Clarissa, the negative results of bad education, in the second, The Tenant, the education itself shown to produce an Arthur Huntington (beats his wife too, spends his life drinking, laughs at learning to play music, at drawing, at reading). I’ve not gone further in Nokes’s biography of Gay but I know his biography of Austen has this perspective on her family and can see it coming out in the depiction of Gay’s world.
This costume drama, like Clarissa, makes astute use of stills.
Here’s the child backwards, an allusion to The Shining; he feels menacing:
Helen finding a home and a reflection of her psychological mood in the landscape:
It’s a case of admitting that the fetish over the original book should be put aside and show appreciation of a modernization which makes the matter relevant to people’s relationships today. What I love about costume drama is the costumes allow for a serious consideration of issues which when people are in contemporary costume the film-makers hesitate to do.
Yesterday someone explained to me some references I’ve seen
repeatedly in the US campaign: it seems that Sarah Palin made a joke on her acceptance speech; what’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pitful. Answer: Lipstick. Har har. This makes a joke of violence. As a mother she is teaching her sons violence; as a person she likens herslf to a pitbull with lipstick (a sexualized vicious dog). Sickening. And this is put before US citizens to vote for.
Well I think to myself these costume dramas have an important
function of countering this war-mad society of greed mongering people (in the US $700 million to banks with no strings attached, and no health fcare for millions, no help against foreclosures). Alas the Woolf Miscellany reports that most young people in colleges have only heard of Virginia Woolf because of Albee’s play which exploits prejudice against her as a learned bluestocking :( Three Guineas should be assigned as required reading and film adaptations of classics not just shown but explained for real.
I know I have discussed Mira Nair’s The Namesake before, as well as the novel just after I read it, but I never discussed the film with the knowledge of the book in mind, and if nothing else, watching the film after having at long last ingested this wonderful novel, showed to me how important it is to know the source text in order to understand the movie by comparing them.
The film was beautifully done and seemed to focus on the Ashoke (the young man who in an arranged marriage weds a young woman in India & takes her with him to the US, Massachusetts, played by (Irrfan Khan) and very secondarily Gogol (Kal Penn); the novel as it opens and into it, on the other hand is told mostly from the point of view of Ashimi (Tabu), the young woman and then mother. It’s touching and is about the Indian diaspora which I’ve read is central to Indian cinema. Lahiri records shima’s wrench in leaving a culture one knows and all the people she’d een surrounded by. We see how lonely is Ashimi in the circumstances of a wife at home with little money.
Ashimi and Ashoke in a touching photo (taken within the film)
The book is not great (not original in the way of Alice Munro’s fiction to take a close parallel type contemporary fiction) but it is good and is literary—has genuine style and thought. It reminds me of too of the types in Diana Philips’s book on women’s fiction since WW2, perhaps the Aga saga. Philips argued the much respected books by women fall into the same categories or types that the thinner shallower ones do. As I enjoyed reading Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin as an intelligent self-conscious repeat of the unpoliced erotic texts by women I’d read then, so this Lahiri seems a book-of-the-month club type that I liked very much too: the dowdy book.
Yet I was somewhat disappointed when I finally saw the movie after reading (hearing) the book. While I was moved by the end of it (as the story is moving and the actors were all superb), it seemed pedestrian. It was (I think) of the apparently faithful type, except of course it naturally had to compress, and the result was, particularly towards the end, the story of the young man, Gogal grown up, his first affair with a rich modern Amerian girlfriend, Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and then his Bengali-Frenchified young wife, Moushumi Mazumdar (Zuleikha Robinson) was superficially presented.
Gogal (Kal Penn) and Maxime (Jacinda Barrett) meeting Ashimi
Gogol and Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) delighted to discover one another
The depth was given to Ashoke and Ashimi’s story; theirs was made the center of the film & developed meaningfully; but as it’s only one half of the book, and the decision to be faithful and not leave out any major characters or hinge points was made, the last part hurried along to include over 1/3 of the novel. The time would have been better spent developing the Ashoke and Ashimi story more deeply by filmic techniques, dramatic scenes and so on.
The film thus taught me how like Wuthering Heights this book is. Lahiri’s book is about generations and evolution over time of people within a family. Films of WH sometimes fail because they don’t want to present the next generation as fully as Emily Bronte meant them too (the 1992 film with Binoche and Fiennes does and it’s part of its superiority).
There was also a reluctance or chariness really to present in full graphic feeling the difficulty of assimilation as well as Ashimi’s return to Indian ways for 50% of the year. It skipped over the meaningless of Moushumi’s affair itself (an important point in the book) but substituted nothing else; the class conflicts of the last part where Gogol is unable quite to enter the upper middle class of whites was lost, partly because there wasn’t enough time, but also it didn’t interest Nair. She wanted to give us a short travelogue of India (family goes visiting famous places) and Ashoke’s traditional funeral.
At the Taj Mahal
They rearranged the scene where the father explains to the son why he named him Gogol; it does not come from a spontaneous crisis and was put at the point of the film where a central climactic scene usually occurs. But since the depth of the film was the story of Ashimi and Ashoke (Tabu stole the show as did Khan), it was flat.
The real knot of the film was Ashoke’s death and a new interpretation was given there. We were to feel he died because his wife wouldn’t go with him. In the book Gogol is the one blamed for not seeing his father off at the airport; not that that would have saved him, but that would have made Gogol feel better and his father less alone for that time. In the book Ashimi has become partly assimilated (she has a small job in a library; she has a few friends; she has her house and routine and comforts); he is doing research and there’s nothing for her to do in Ohio. So we admire and understand. In the film he wants her to go with him, and urges and nods, and she refuses, and the whole feel is he died because she wasn’t with him. Bad decision, foolish woman gets her punishment.
The film didn’t add anything except of course (a big except) it showed different things than a book and so we have visual representations of our characters, of the Nothern US. There was a funny moment when after their marriage Moushumi and Gogal half-dance in the Bollywood way; it’s a light mockery. Perhaps the most original moment filmically of the film.
Ah well. I still enjoyed it for the many reasons we all enjoy movies. I had people with me in front of me and experience visually places (NYC too) but it was not what it could have been. It’s an example of why apparently faithful films can be disappointments. Nair needed to be bolder and follow through on her own interests and also see what her presentation of the wife’s decision was figuring forth.
And why discuss these together? I would define The Namesake as a semi-costume drama. The female characters were in Indian costume all the time, and the man at important liminal turns of their existences. this film had the types of women’s fiction and other women’s films seriously presented with compassion and intelligence.
What I am wondering is this: why do people not write about costume dramas more seriously in large books. The only book I know of is Pam Cook’s Fashioning the Nation, which is just a beginning explanation and defense, and the occasional essay in an anthology. Reams of books on “classic” (i.e., older) pop movies from cinema, mostly masculinist in perspective and more recent ones. I will be told well they are seen as women’s films, they embarrass because of their open use of emotionalism and luxury, they are on TV. But among intelligent critics (there are some) there is something beyond this.
It is the costume probably, people are such concrete pragmatic
creatures and wars are fought over costumes in religion. It allows
for open explorations not seen elsewhere (kind, non-predatory, sensitive men) but sometimes I think what I really would like to do is a book on costume drama. Too big I know. Better to have the Austen focus and work through that. And that’s what I’ll try in little next time.
The past put behind us in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
P.S. I received a correction which I can’t make a separate comment for (as commenting is closed). I include it as Nota Bene:
While reading your thought-provoking diary entry regarding this novel and adaptation, I happened to notice that the seventh picture including is captioned as “Arthur teaching his son to be “a man” (drink, womanize, show off)”. The picture is really of James Purefoy as Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s brother, who is holding little Arthur on his lap at the Markham’s party.
Janelle Vandervort Dvorak”
Posted by: Ellen
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