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Archive for November 15th, 2009

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Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichhorn) in landscape with gazebo, 1979 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Europeans

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Daisy (Cybill Shepherd) and Winterbourne (Barry Brown) watch a Punch and Judy show, 1974 Bogdanovich Daisy Miller

Dear Friends,

I’ve been thinking about a specific period of costume drama that is not done sufficient justice to, partly because it’s not recognized as a period or type within the history of costume drama movies. I’ve seen it mentioned as an entity only by Andrew Higson in his English Heritage, English Cinema. Higson suggests (as do other writers about early 20th century costume drama, e.g., Pam Cook, Fashioning the Nation and Gainsborough Films, and Sue Harper, Picturing the Past) that from the 1920s through 50s costume drama was a pop art: little attention was paid to historically accurate detail; it was in fact shunned lest it intimidate audiences. Higson talks as so many do (Claire Monk) of the explosion of costume drama in the 1990s, how these apparently erudite and elite high quality movies made themselves popular by addressing relevant issues today, using stars (especially sexy male controlled macho ones), and how since then there’s been partly a return to popular art so the latest costume dramas (post-2004) are mix historical accuracy, subtlety of psychology, literal faithfulness to a source with broader action-adventure, dance, sexualization, adventure (e.g., the Elizabeth movies with Cate Blanchett).

To sum up, previous to the later 1960s, or 1920-50, you have this pop costume drama/film adaptation where no attempt at historical accuracy is really made and ruthless changes in the original text: Two epitomizing examples of the 1930s through 50s pop types are the 1940 MGM P&P and 1945 Kitty. Afterwards, the 1990s, there’s a turn to opulence, faithfulness which still uses the stories and characters to address contemporary issues and an increase in naturalism/realism, plus computer techniques coming in. An epitomizing example is the 1995 Pride and Prejudice; this type is still being done only with less lavish budgets.

Well, what about this period from the 1960s through 80s? I’d say it’s characterized by boldness about art itself, not afraid to stylize strongly (which I’m especially drawn to), going for long shots (so Ang Lee was doing nothing new in the 1995 S&S by Emma Thompson), language close to or literally lifted from its textual source (really faithful transpositions or very carefully considered commentaries). I’ve written about two of these recently: the 1965 Tony Richardon’s Tom Jones and the 1974 Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

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Daisy and Mr Giovanelli admiring the art work in a cathedral in Rome

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Felix (Tim Woodward) and Gertrude dancing in his studio in a flood of sunlight

Tonight I’d like to single out two I’ve watched lately — as well as read the texts: Henry James’s Daisy Miller adapted by Peter Bogdanovich-Frederick Raphael-Frank Marshall and his The Europeans adapted by Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala. What fascinates me is they are both from subtly nostalgic texts which criticize radically how we deal with sexual experience against a backdrop of a historically understood era’s social and even religious mores. Now one finds this in the other art costume dramas of the era: think Brideshead Revisited (adpated from Evelyn Waugh) and Love for Lydia (adapted from H.E. Bates).

These Henry James novellas don’t compromise with popularity, are about sexuality and central familial-class issues, and also (by chance) about an opposition of values made picturesque by a contrast between an imagined innocent US and corrupt Europe. I could as well have discussed the 1970s through 80s Austen movies, the long mini-series (Pallisers, Poldark), Brideshead Revisited. All have a delicacy and complication of approach (different moods and phases in the mini-series), which I’ve just now observed for the first time in a long time in Sandy Welch’s remarkably humanly complex 2009 BBC Emma (she substitutes simplicity for stylization — so this could really be a party at an inn, neither too small nor too opulent and brimming with people as in the 1990s through recent TV mini-series).

I will cover James’s Daisy Miller and Bogdanovich’s movie more at length; I’ll be brief on James’s Europeans and concise on Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie. Basically I go over the second movie to show the same sorts of things we see in the first movie.

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First up, Daisy Miller: book and film. Here is a summary of the novella’s outline and basic information about Bogdanovich’s film adaptation

In the novel, our third-person consciousnes and point of view, Winterbourne, a 27 year old expatriate bachelor American who wants young (and to him) wild Daisy Miller to follow conventions for her own sake. Daisy Miller wants to live out and go beyond the options available to women. The odyssey of experience which Daisy, “the child of nature and of freedom” [“Preface,” Daisy Miller, 1909], undergoes reveals society’s desire to confine women within a narrow and rigidly defined sphere. While those women who accept their circumscribed existence pay varying prices of neurotic illness, ineffectuality, and hypocrisy, the woman who ignores social prescription is punished by ostracism and death.

Although the women characters uphold the system which restricts them, the chief arbiter of society for Daisy is a man, the aptly-named Winterbourne. As a definer and enforcer of the bourne or boundary of social propriety, whose verdict has the life-denying implications of winter, Winterbourne represents the artificial world which has ultimate control over the lives of women. Daisy is identified with natural world.

Winterbourne is strongly attached to Geneva, a city identified with Calvinism and its social reflection, a decorum which is both narrowly conventional and hypocritically relaxed. The innocent and natural association of young people is strictly controlled and even discouraged: “In Geneva, as he had been perfectly aware, a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions.” Such a view is sustained in Rome by Mrs. Walker, a lady who “had spent several winters at Geneva” and is thus linked to Winterbourne’s position both seasonally and geographically

With Winterbourne as observer and mediator, Daisy Miller develops as a series of confrontations (sometimes at second hand) between Daisy and those women who live under the sign of Geneva. She is pretty and he is attracted; by end of story he realizes he has lost out. Randolph, obstreperous brother, a parallel for Daisy only it’s girls who are controlled not boys. Mrs Miller, a hopeless hapless helpless sort of woman. Like Mrs. Costello’s headaches,

Daisy Miller MrsCos

Mrs. Miller’s dyspepsia is both a response to the paucity of meaningful activity in her life and a substitute for it. She becomes animated only when discussing her illness, an affliction which at least makes her important to one person–her doctor:

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Chloris Leachman as Mrs Miller to the side

A poignant significant utterance by Daisy or Annie Miller: “I should not think you would let them be so unkind!” she cries to Winterbourne. She never realizes the consternation she causes in Rome. “I don’t believe it,” she says to Winterbourne. “They are only pretending to be shocked.” Her blindness to the nature of the American colony is equalled by her blindness to Winterbourne and Giovanelli as individuals. While Winterbourne fails to “read” her “riddle” rightly, she fails to “read” his. She feels his disapproval in Rome, but she is not aware of his affection for her. Neither does she reveal any adequate perception of her impact on Giovanelli. To Daisy, going about with Mr. Giovanelli is very good fun. Giovanelli’s feelings, we learn at the end, have been much more seriously involved.

Basically, she is lonely, and she has never know much “society,” except that of gentlemen. There’s a curious mischievous resonance in her words which has the function of alerting us to how much she may be misunderstood here. It’s not a game as she thinks. She offers affection and Winterbourne doesn’t understand; she refuses to abide by conventions and knows she is refusing. She’s a sweet smart Lydia Bennet

As to the other characters: Mr Giovanelli who goes about with Daisy and is content to be her constant friend, is a (to the colony of upper class English and American types) a socially unaceptable Italian — he is also a kind man. There’s Mr Winterbourne’s hypocritical aunt, Mrs Costelloa cold narrow and shallow snob, cold; Mrs Walker, a seething kind of woman, incident in Pincian gardens caught beautifully in the movie. She sees Daisy as breaking some pact all women keep together: by phonily pretending not to be sexualized, they can (she thinks) better manipulate men. Eugenio, the courrier, an escort, he knows what they should or should not be doing.

What the movie and story share: Chapter 1 Winterbourne and Daisy meet in Vevey, Switzerland; Chapter 2 they go to the Castle of Chillon together (where prisoners were thrown to die); Chapter 3, they meet again in Rome where she is being escorted around by Mr Giovanelli; Chapter 4 she is snubbed and made a pariah and has only Mr Giovanelli to be with; she insists on going to the Coliseum where she catches malaria and dies.

This outline may be said to omit everything important and particularly the characters of Mrs Costello, Mr Winterbourne’s censorious elderly aunt, censorious not of bad behavior or sin (he lives with a woman in Geneva), but of allowing anyone in public to suspect you of flouting proprieties, much less doing anything unconventional (he pretends to be taking courses), Mrs Costello’s presence important in Chapter 2 (Daisy not a hypocrite; comes out with truths: “she doesn’t want to know me”; she does in the book have interesting reflections; in the film she is made something of a philistine, a little dense); and of Mrs Walker in Chapter 3 (enraged at Daisy’s snubbing her, failure to recognize Mrs Walker’s right to control).

(From the later 18th century through to the early 20th, among the middling classes, when a couple was engaged, it was understood they were really going to get married and it was okay to indulge in a certain amount of sex. When Daisy tells Winterbourne she is engaged, she is spiteful or enticing or asking for trouble — she is saying she may be having sex with Mr Giovannelli. When she assures him by message she was not engaged, she is saying they didn’t.)

To turn to the movie, where James uses contrasts of place in story; the movie contrasts social occasions — and puts before us contrasts of beautiful and haunted places. Geneva, capital of calvinism where people are suspicious and repressed; Vevey, lovely, summer, freedom; near is Chateau de Chillon, where the imagery of dungeons, columns, death and torture from religious fanaticisms remains are felt everywhere (and yet the feel is a gentle melancholy); Rome, dangerous settled society, with coliseum in background, beautiful melancholy imagery of death and dying In the story, p 62

Now I’ll look at the story as pictorial phases. The first phase is Vevey: Winterbourne meets Randolph, then Daisy;
we see his evening meeting with Aunt in Bath’s; later Mrs Miller and then Eugenio on terrace, then they visit Chillon, and we have one more brief scene with Mrs Costello. The movie uses all these.

The second phase includes the visit to Mrs Costello by Winterbourne; Mrs Walker’s at home, the walk in the Pincian gardens, where Mrs Walker’s carriage is refused; the evening party where Mrs Walker snubs Daisy; Winterbourne and Mrs Costello visit St Peter where they see Daisy and Giovanelli wandering; Winterbourne comes upon pair in palace of Caesars; then sees or hears Daisy and Giovanelli in Colosseum (wasteland) at night; Daisy’s illness and death presented through opera, corridor, Winterbourne’s two visits to hotel, and then funeral

Some differences: the movie opens with Randolph; book opens with Winterbourne; Punch and Judy show added; Winterbourne’s friend, Charles; also Mr Giovanelli’s singing. The movie dramatizes the scene at the grave fully and poignantly.

I suggest this film doesn’t present things differently but rather different things. We lose the subjective narration. Cybill Shepherd excellent as Daisy; so too Barry Brown (Winterbourne) who was a melancholy man; Chloris Leachman as Mrs Miller, James MacMurtry, Randolph, Mildred Natwick Mrs Costello, Eileen Brennan Mrs Walker, Duilio del Prete (Giovanelli) Screenplay Frederick Raphael. Directed and produced by Bogdanovich who was having an affair with Shepherd at the time.

I loved this evocative visit: as Prisoner of Chillon, Bonnivard, the Genevan freedom fighter, confined there solitarily for 6 years. The dialogue throughout in the film refers to the haunted nature of the place. The allusion is not really a parallel (Daisy is not that much a prisons), but it is suggestive. This and colossseum as place where great cruelty once happened is in the film. We see them at play in the dungeon, but its connection to death and the destruction of people by their society is felt; as they ride away they look contemplative.

The visit foreshadows the later visits of Daisy with Mr Giovannelli to the Colosseum. Now these are seen by them — as Mr Winterbourne overhears their laughter — as fun apparently. But we see them at a distance in this place and it could be they are having sex; at any rate, she sickens and dies. And the disjunction between the playful atmosphere of the first and realities of the place and melancholy close anticipates what we are to surmize about the colosseum visits.

Dress counts in the movie and is partly what makes people come: Cybill Shepherd is given just gorgeous outfits (so much flounce and furbelow); as Daisy she is in beautiful innocent light colors (white, pale pink, light blue, she seems to radiate light); Mrs Walkman is in dark green and red seems to draw light into herself; Mrs Costello in very severe clothes. Mrs Miller is very fussy and seen from a distance a shadowy widow figure fleeing attention, very nervous. Eugenio is very sombre and formal as he smokes away; Winterbourne is impeccably correct in dress; and Giovanelli is given many informal florid touches.

As Winterbourne attracted to Daisy, we are to feel she's attracted to him far more than we do in the book. By her sheer physical presence, she's more sexual. Cybil Shepherd was a beautiful woman. She speaks the lines rapidly and ephemerally conveying a sense of a brief heedless kind of life. Chattering, she is imperious, sit over there, do this and do that. Hurry up, Mr Winterbourne. She offers easy affection and he can't understand this.

Few long shots dwelling on the landscape – though what is there is effective. The film tends to give us long shots at end of an episode. to establish where we are, as filler, to end an episode.

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Daisy and Mr Giovanelli sing “Pop goes the weasel.”

Bogdanovich relies on close ups to get across strong drama. Comedy is the medium shot. As against non-story music of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart (the opera is Verdi), we have two light American songs: Pop goes the weasel an d”When you and I were young, Maggie. Funny and innocent; nostalgic and sweet. Haunting thematic significance when it’s played over grave of a girl who will now never have been anything but young. Here is Daisy in one of the last shots of her at the Colosseum, showing the grimness of her inner life towards the end.

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The movie was a commercial failure. Bogdanovich is not liked it’s said and it was not promoted by the studio. But it was moer than that. First, it failed to address itself clearly enough to contemporary topics; it means to, but it doesn't manage it. You might say it's problem is it's too faithful. In its 19th century era, this story was attacked in its time as shocking — it was understood James getting at these norms. It was seen as attack on American girl — exposing them as frivolous. It's a contrast of old world European and new "innocent" world American Most people don't care in the least about this any more; only those well-versed in 19th century American literature probably know about it.

What could Bogdanovich have done — anticipating the 1990s? he could have shown Winterbourne's life in Geneva. In the film Colosseum signifies cruelty (gladiators died there) just as Castle of Chillon does. You could have shown Geneva to be a hypocritical uptight sinful place.

Second, Barry Brown as Winterbourne is central and not given enough lines or things to do. The movie wants us to see that Winterbourne's complacency has been shattered or at least disrupted and the novella wants us to feel Winterbourne has not been deeply affected. The novel damns Winterbourne much more. But it is true Barry Brown comes across as stiff. He is given many of the point of view shots. We see a lot of the movie from his eyes, just about all of it. There are objective shots, but not many.

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I began to watch The Europeans for the sake of Robin Ellis. I had been watching him as Edward Ferrars in the 1971 S&S, and then read his effective lucidly written account, Making Poldark. His career and fortune were made by that mini-series. I had noticed he played the demur supposedly repressed young hero in other films; in Bel Ami, he played a character whose sexuality was ambiguous. In The Europeans he is Robert Acton who decides not to marry the demi-monde Countess Munster, once Eugenia Young (Lee Remnick).

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Note the strained faces looking forward

We have comic renditions of the same discomfort:

Threshold

For Henry James’s story, here is a thorough account.

What holds your attention in the movie and at the same time makes you yawn is the persistent holding to minutiae of detail. We have exquisitely photographed landscapes (as the one above) and carefully held shots of people repressed.

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Felix watching fish

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This has become a convention: the shot of the character at the window with bars

There are shots with the characters poised in parallel postures:

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Gertrude and Charlotte

In both Daisy Miller and The Europeans close attention has been paid to dress, corsets, how people walked, the line of the silhouette that runs from the top of the actor’s head to the tips of his or her toes.

Again the music is carefully chosen: apt is Clara Schumann’s Trio, Opus 17 — very slow, played by Eugenia when she is at home waiting for Robert Action to call. Against these we once again have the American ballads done straight, comically and nostalgically: “Shall we gather at the river” is in the background too.

The themes here include the self-deception of self-conscious virtue. Felix and Eugenia, ex-Americans who have become a Bohemian artist and woman separated from her German aristocratic husband. They come to the US seeking shelter. The relatives are Brahmin unitarians; only Gertrude shows herself restless at having to go to church to listen to Mr Brand. Mr Brand is paired off with Charlotte, the pious sister, Felix and Gertrude make an escape into one another’s arms. But the Countess seems to overplay her hand and loses Robert — much to their ambiguous relief and regret.

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This was not a big box office success, but it pulled in respectable-sized audiences and has not been forgotten — partly because it’s Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala productions and since Merchant’s death, Ivory and Robert Emmet Long have been producing books about their films, and on the DVDs, there are features which promote the films as important, explaining them and providing intriguing accounts of how they were made.

To return to the movie itself, much that is pleasurable in it would be precluded today. The very nature of the looser medium precludes the intense introspective kind of art in Europeans (as well as Daisy Miller). They have either complicated psychological scenes (as in the typical BBC mini-series of the era) or these mysterious carefully poised stills.

What would have been done in the later 1980s through 90s? The ambiguous sexuality of Robert Acton would have been brought out. He’s one of James’s many closet homosexual males. The Countess’s demi-monde world would have been shown somehow. The film-makers would have made some attempt to address the question of money, class, religion more directly and for our own era. More stars would have been hired, and in the 1990s just about all of them be conventionally beautiful types. Lavish budget, naturally.

In 2000 we’d see a retreat to minimalism, much less historical accuracy and change of costume to be more like the 21st century. Much less money, and more addressing of contemporary issues and more daring interpretations of the original book. We see this in the latest Austen Persuasion, 2007: our protagonists are abject, possessed by grief and despair, revenants.

But not until the later 1960s or after the later 1980s, do we get for its own sake just this kind of pictorial extravaganza in the sun (Daisy Miller) just for itself:

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Cyril Shepherd as Daisy looking up to where Mr Giovanelli is pointing

As well as this kind of extravaganza of fall leaves, golden, yellow with Lee Remnick as the isolated demi-monde who keeps herself out of the spotlight, to the side:

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This was an extraordinary moment in art costume drama, and it’s been brought back in Sandy Welch’s 2009 BBC/WBGH Emma where I hope by next week over on my Reveries under the Sign of Jane Austen to show simplicity has been made to substitute for too overt or heavy stylization, but a lot of the other techniques of this era have once more been brought into effective play.

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Garai as an assertive Emma, her upper arm sexy like that — in a quiet way.

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The camera swings round to show his intense grave face

Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller as Emma and Mr Knightly. For most of the dance at the Crown Inn, it’s matter of the rousing non-sexualized square-dance boisterous movement and gaiety; but for a few moments there is a dance in the traditional row style with the arms of the male and female intertwined, very dream like and erotic and yet grave. But today still contemporary issues are being addressed at the same time as more traditional interpretations of the original book brought back.

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After I wrote the above, I watch the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s Maurice which is among the first of the opulent, relevant later 1980s to 2000 or so type; I had seen the 1991 BBC Clarissa as a landmark of this type (said to be so in several books too), but this Maurice does what the Clarissa film does. I was so moved; I love this later era too. I had thought we were in a different one now: minimal, retreat from contemporary issues, abject women (films from 2001-8), but this new Emma and Heidi Thomas’s BBC commentary adaptation of Gaskell’s Cranford of last year signal a new phase once again. I wonder if this new phase has anything to do with the reality that so many more women are writing mini-series; both these are by women writers and have women producers. Hmmm.

Ellen

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