Friday, September 28, 2007

Emma (22-25)--A Scene without Emma in It

Chapter Five of Volume I is the first (and to my current recollection only) major passage in the book in which Emma does not appear. The narrator will occasionally fill in back story or events about people outside of Emma's range of sight, but this is usually done within the framework of telling about some event about which Emma is participating. This chapter's rather singular nature, then, makes me think it either very important or a mistake.

What might be some reasons for including a scene that Emma does not participate in? Knightley may be acting as an author surrogate here. The views he has reinforce the narrator's claims and description from Chapter One, so one thing that is accomplished through this chapter is an aligning of Knightley's views with the narrator's. Compare the narrator's "The real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little to well of herself" (1), with Knightley's "Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family...And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all" (23). This alignment of views means that subsequently, when Knightley speaks, we are more prone to think he speaks for Austen (or at least for the narrator).

The absence of Emma in this exchange also allows for the delicious irony, normally only caught on a second or third reading of Knightley saying: "It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object. I should like to see Emma in love and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good" (25). I'm prone to read this exchange primarily as a sort of M. Night Shyamalan-like joke on the audience, and I think it works that way, but I'm not sure that having this joke is a sufficient reason for an author of Austen's caliber to include a gratuitous scene. I return then to the question of what does this scene provide us that we couldn't or don't get elsewhere in the novel?

One possible answer is that it gives us some insight into Knightley--insight that helps round his character. Really, in order to keep the union a surprise for so long from Emma and the reader's, Knightley's mind, if not his person, must be kept at a distance from the action. Later in the novel Knightley will tell Emma that he has loved her tenderly since she was thirteen. We can then read the statements made in this chapter as those of a man in love and through them get some insight into what he (and through the alignment, the narrator) thinks about the natures of love and their respective values.

The first statement that jumps out is his claim that John (his brother and Emma's brother-in-law) "loves Emma with a reasonable and therefore not a blind affection" (24). Reason (and its corollary "sense") are gendered throughout the novel. Characters associated with "sense" are Knightley, of course, and Robert Martin. Emma, we are told, lacks sense (she is "clever"), although at one point Knightley concedes she has some sense but misuses it. What exactly is a "reasonable" affection? Are "blind" and "reasonable" truly opposites when referring to types of affection, and is "reasonable" really the superior of the two? Is "reasonable" the way you want your lover to describe his affection for you? Knightley's love is hidden in part because he fails to use the taxonomy of love we expect from lovers. Some of this (maybe all of it) may be due to his judiciousness. It's worth contemplating, though, whether or not the nature of Knightley's love undergoes changes throughout the novel or whether it is constant, making Emma the one who changes to meet him.

On first reading Knightley's desire that Emma experience love of which she is unsure of the return reads as a paternalistic desire for her maturity. Again, though, it is worth asking, why would someone in love want this for the object of his/her love? Is this jealousy or a desire that she experience what he has experienced? Even if it is a desire for her maturity, there is a sense in both these two statements that he is frustrated at himself for loving her in spite of her flaws. Isn't that the essence of love, though? It is almost as though he is disappointed in himself for not being able to resist.

In another passage where Knightley is projecting (this time onto Isabella), he says: "There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her" (25). Certainly that "anxiety" may be another in-joke between Austen and the repeat reader. Our man of sense is flummoxed and, despite his air of reasonable non-chalance, not as tightly in control of his emotions nor as confident as he lets on.

The word "curiosity" here is interesting. It doesn't say there is a curiosity "about" what one feels for Emma but "in" it. This may simply be a way of saying there is something "odd" about his feelings, or anyone's, for Emma. That it is odd the sorts of responses she elicits. But it could mean, literally, there is an element of curiosity in one's feelings for Emma, that part of what is endearing about her is the performance aspect of the relationship. One is curious to see what she will do next. She entertains.

In an extreme case this might be bad. I think of all the language that Edith Wharton uses to illustrate that Selden loves to contemplate Lily Bart (in The House of Mirth) as an art object, but that loving to watch her is not the same as loving her. I'm not sure that I want to place Knightley with Selden, but I do want to suggest that he has a few things to learn about loving wisely and well and that the novel shouldn't just be read as the perfect male waiting for the reformation and maturation of the imperfect female in order to be worthy of him. In fact, in this area, Knightley and Emma are much the same--they are both cast as observers of life first and participants only vicariously (Emma through Harriet, Miss Weston, matchmaking; Knightley through watching Emma, advising Robert Martin, watching John and Isabella). Their reasons for being so may be different. There could be a mixture of temperament, fear, conditioning, and selfishness. (Perhaps it is bad for a man, too, to have too much the power to have his own way and Knightley may be in danger of growing into Mr. Woodhouse as he grows older.)

Being in love, much less pursuing it, brings a person into a vulnerable state. I often ask my students what Emma brings to the match. How she helps Knightley rather than just being helped by him. There is an emotional cautiousness about him that manifests itself in this tendency to sublimate affection into observation or curiosity (much safer emotions). Emma has as much reason to fear entanglement or attachment as he. This chapter introduces her resolution not to marry and she will repeat to Harriet the litany of points in favor of remaining single, most of which center around the fact that marriage is a risky proposition both emotionally (for everyone) and socially/economically (for her, especially). If Emma gives up more of her freedom (or at least more of her security) in falling in love, her willingness to move from the state of observer or vicarious matchmaker to that of one who owns her own feelings is an emotionally brave one, and there is both a zest for life and a willingness to take risks that leaven Knightley's caution and, I think, challenge him to strive for happiness rather than settle for contentedness.

[For more close readings of Emma, click on one of the labels below. I try to post a close reading of a passage every Friday.]

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Brothers and Sisters

So, Sally Field won an Emmy for some television show that I had never heard of called "Brothers and Sisters." Given that this is the golden age of television and that I liked her work in "ER," I decided to give it a try. Ouch, big mistake.

I can't remember the last time I so much talent in the service of such mediocre writing. Oh, wait, I guess I can, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

Like "Studio 60" this show suffers from having a main character representing beliefs that the writer(s) don't share but who we are expected to accept as sympathetically and accurately portrayed. In Aaron Sorkin's show, that character was an Evangelical Christian whose views were continually mocked and undercut but who we were supposed to understand was loved by those around her (and who created her) because they were fiercely loyal to her. Of course, personal loyalty and respect are not the same, and it is always irksome to have some straw-man representative of yourself or your arguments paraded before others and then watch those who caricaturize you congratulate themselves smugly on how tolerant and fair they are.

In "Brothers and Sisters" the divide is political rather than religious. Calista Flockhart plays a pundit supposedly sufficiently famous to have her own "Crossfire"-like television show where she represents the red states...but her reasons for supporting the Iraq war are that she was close to the Towers on 9/11 and saw people jumping out buildings.

Television at its worst, particularly melodrama, has a tendency to be reductive. Let's reduce complex arguments to single positions, each represented by a particular character, so that an issue can be resolved in 40 minutes by creating a hierarchy of values or positions. When one infertile brother asks another to donate sperm and the other objects, the entire issue is handled in one episode which essentially reduces the conflict to fear vs. familial loyalty. Familial loyalty trumps personal concerns, therefore he should do it. The character is given one brief speech in which he alludes to a lawyer he has seen kids messed up by non-traditional arrangements and as a gay man he has concerns about brining a kid into the world who might be alienated (rightly or wrongly) while growing up. What strikes me as telling is that this speech is designed to make the character more sympathetic in that his reasons are not entirely selfish, but it is not designed to make the issue more complex. The answer is still that he is wrong, and no attempts are made by the other characters (or writers) to address those concerns and understand them--only to dismiss them as being less relevant or important than his brother's desire for a child who shares his family's genetic material.

One has to feel a bit of sympathy for the Catch-22 being presented to the (sure seems to me) liberal writers of the show. Intro to creative writing says "write what you know" but then the cultural audience turns around and says, "Why are there no [fill in the blank] characters on your show?" As a result, many of these shows feel either idealized (the family's absolute loyalty to one another comes across as an attempt to paint what a family should be rather than that of an actual family dealing with actual conflicts) or condescending (fairness is allowing a stock character to sound bite the other side before the "right" argument wins out).

I remember taking a class in undergraduate school with James Farmer as a visiting professor, and many of the same issues were raised regarding race. It was one thing for whites to include black characters in their shows, but it was (and is) quite another for blacks to tell their own stories from their own points of view.

The bizarrely grating thing about "Brothers and Sisters," though, is that it doesn't even work as propaganda. Like "Left Behind" the execution is so sloppy, the thinking so fuzzy, that the slanted nature of the rhetoric contained within the narrative serves only to invite the deconstruction of the priviliged position within the narrative rather than the embrace of it.

When the family is fighting over the dinner table about whether or not war is an appropriate response to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers (nobody ever mentions the plane that crashed into the Pentagon for some reason), the father offers this gem:

The world outside this house, we can't control. Not with bombs...not with diplomacy...and not even with love. We know that now.

Oh, I see. What we know "now" (i.e. after 9/11) is that we can't control the world outside us with love. We can't control it with bombs either or diplomacy. This is such a curious message and speech on several levels. On the surface it appears to be entirely fatalistic. Neither guns, diplomacy or love will work, so what's to choose between them? I get the sense, though, that the entire arc of the series' argument is that since nothing will work, let's not do the war since it has human costs and won't work. But I digress. The rhetorical linking of "we know that now" with this fatalism creates the implication that all three approaches have been tried (and exhausted) and that the attacks of 9/11 were an equal response to and rejection of (or indifference towards) all three responses. I'm picturing some suppressed Al-Qaeda video with Osama Bin Laden boldly proclaiming, "We will show the infidel he cannot control us with his love!"

Now, I might be inclined to cut the writing some slack if the show or the characters in it evidenced any awareness of the inanity of this argument, but all the trappings of the narrative (music, climactic pacing, response shots), indicate this speech is meant to be taken entirely in earnest and accepted (by the liberal and conservative children alike) as a wise and definitive interpretation of the events that have traumatized them AND of the events that caused or led up to it, which makes no sense. Surely the liberal "kids" would complain that 9/11 is not evidence that diplomacy can't work in Iraq just as Flockhart's character would almost certainly respond that military intervention in Iraq to attempt to find and destroy WMDs (the scene takes place during the period where reports questioning the sincerity of "evidence" that said Iraq had not yet been widely reported) and disrupt terrorist training by state sponsors of terrorism is being touted as a RESPONSE to 9/11, not the cause of it. [I imagine she would also say that while we may not be able to "control" the world through military intervention we might be able to influence it, and that the logic that since we can never be 100 percent successful at eliminating terrorism we should not try to limit it is pretty asinine.]

My point here is not that "Brothers and Sisters" is a wretched show because of its ideology. I actually share some of the values and positions I think it priviliges. Rather, my point is that a half-baked, smug assertion of one's moral and ethical superiority in the face of one's straw-men adversaries is more likely to engender resentful scorn than thoughtful persuasion. One only needs to listen to any random 20 minutes of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News to experience the reverse and recall how incredibly irritating it is to have self-serving card stacking arguments championed as the hallmark of our morally superior fair and balanced approach to complex and potentially divisive issues.

Later Edit:
Regarding the sperm donation episode, one give away that the cards are stacked is that the arguments of those who say the brother should donate the sperm (his siblings) do not change after they hear (some of) his reservations. That is, his concerns are dismissed rather than answered. This is remarkable, if you think of it. It is hard for me to not read into this fact an attitude not just that his reservations are wrong, but that they are worthless. It is one thing to say that another's argument has not persuaded one; it is quite another to say that another's argument has not caused or forced you to modify, reconsider, tweak, or otherwise clarify your own position. But that is what we get, a simple reassertion of the "correct" position, which the gay brother eventually accepts. What a powerful indicator that the writers/series has no real interest in an exchange of views or dialog but only provide the alternative view (or a character making it) in order to give the illusion of fair time/consideration.

I mentioned "Left Behind" in my post and I see two parallels worth teasing out. In the sperm donation episode another brother who served in the military volunteers to donate his sperm and is initially rejected. After he shares an emotional story, his brother relents and lets both him and the gay brother donate sperm. I found it interesting that all parties involve know that the military brother is struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. Putting aside questions of whether or not research indicating that a predisposition to these behaviors can be genetically passed on, there is absolutely no indication that anyone in the family, amongst friends, at the fertility clinic suggest that he ought to be physically evaluated to see if he is healthy much less asked to undergo any kind of screening for whether or not the involvement in such a process would be mentally healthy for him. The three brothers agree and bam, next scene they are in the waiting room with their cups of sperm to give to the bank. What this tells me is that the writers of "Brothers & Sisters" like those of "Left Behind," appear to have a profound disinterest in the characters they have created as people and in the implications of the situation they have created. It's all a vehicle or context to make an ideological speech about values, thus we can't really do much research into how the process actually works.

In what I can only assume is meant to be ironic reversal, the republican pundit sister is the one who convinces the gay brother to donate sperm by telling him that what the sterile brother wants is the essence of "family values." I was reminded of the scene in "Left Behind" in which we are told that the Pope has been raptured but (lest the fundamentalist audience fear the authors are being ecumenical) he has frustrated some Catholics by adding reforms to the church to make it more protestant. The surface message here is, "Hey, I'm not prejudiced, I took a high profile Catholic and had him raptured," but the metamessage is "I'm not prejudice because I don't hate all Catholics, I only hate the Catholics who ACT Catholic." In the same way, Flockhart's character on "Brothers and Sisters" is supposed to be this token "good" republican to show, "Hey we are not prejudiced against all conservative republicans just the ones, you know, who believe what conservative republicans believe." You can call yourself whatever you want as long as you hold to our values.

One could, I suppose, give the show credit for being secretly ironic if it had the courage to, say, demonstrate the contradictions between the values she says she espouses and the values she demonstrates when shown in a good light. One might ask, for instance, how and why a good conservative, red state, republican Christian might be against stem cell research or the morning after pill but be so strongly in support of in-vitro fertilization in which (if I have my facts straight) eggs are fertilized, frozen and implanted one by one and those "left behind" are often discarded or destroyed.

I'm not saying this as an argument against in-vitro, per se. What I am saying is that it seems ludicrous to me (and indicative of a deep disinterest on the part of the creators of her character in being fair rather than just sounding or appearing fair) that this character neither seems particularly bothered by these implications of the practice she is urging her brother to participate in nor, perhaps, particularly aware of them. Were we not told so often that she was so good at her job, I could explain away these huge disconnects between what we are told she is and how she actually comes across as evidence that she is meant to be a satire of a hypocritical republican rather than a portrait of a good one. Because that reading doesn't appear available to me, the most logical conclusion I can come to is that the writers were uninterested in or unwilling to actually create a character who was a conservative republican to represent the republican point of view.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Emma (16-21)--The Martins of Abbey-Mill Farm

I tend to think of the conversation between Emma and Harriet about Robert Martin and his family as the first major scene in the novel. There is the brief dialog between Knightley and Emma that ends chapter one, but for the most part what we have read up until this point has been expository scene setting. With Harriet's entry into an intimacy with Emma, the text begins moving forward rather than simply looking back or painting the present.

When Harriet expresses surprise that Emma has not noticed Robert Martin, Emma replies:

A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it. (17)

This is an odd little speech, which can be confusing, especially to American readers unfamiliar with both the social rules governing class interaction and the ways in which Emma is tweaking them. In "'I am a Gentleman's Daughter': A Marxist-Feminist Reading of Pride and Prejudice" Johanna M. Smith provides a handy chart giving a simple overview of the class distinctions in Austen's day. She places the yeomanry in the category of but below other members of the "gentry" who are defined as landowners whose income does not derive from manual labor. The line between yeoman and other gentry is indistinct because the yeoman work the land themselves, thus engaging in manual labor.

Emma's point here, then, is not that social propriety forbids her from noticing or meeting the Martins...Knightley, as we know takes an interest in and interacts with the family. Rather, it is that interactions with the family would validate their position in the gentry class, and Emma has no desire to do so. The closer a family or person is in rank to her, the more Emma insists upon keeping clear the hierarchy established by social class. Exercising clear charity does not threaten to further blur the line between gentry and worker since it will be seen only as magnamity on her part, but exercising familiarity with the yeomanry validates any claims that family (or people socially on the level with them) might have to equality with Emma, which is a claim she is not yet willing to grant.

The term "gentleman" in our day and age is a social designation more than an economic one, but in Austen's day it was still very much the latter. We see in Emma, perhaps, the very early rumblings of class change that are forged economically by the advent of personal wealth acquired by the middle class as a result of industry and trade and socially by the awareness that the nouveau riche and middle class sometimes act like gentlemen more than do the landowners. Being a gentleman is no guarantee of acting mannerly and many who are not ladies may still act like them. [This passage also reinforces Emma's disturbing quality already elucidated of thinking of people first in terms of category and only secondarily as individuals. "A young farmer" is "the last sort of person" she would notice. Just as Harriet is thought of as "a" Harriet Smith earlier in the chapter, Robert Martin will be referred to later in it as "a" Robert Martin. To the extent we can depersonalize people, we find it easier to justify our prejudices towards them. This is why it grates when we hear people characterizes African-Americans or Hispanics or gays or Christians or Republicans or Americans or blonds or engineers or whatever, even if the characterization is benign. There is something inherently condescending in the relegation of a person's primary identity to that of group member and something inherently jarring to contemporary sensibilities to govern our conduct first by their membership to that group rather than to their actions towards us.

Emma the character is aware, of course, that ideally being a gentleman means something more than having money. Hence the application of the adjective "true" or "real" to designate those (like Knightley) whose conduct is in keeping with their social class. Even so, when push comes to shove, Emma cares more about and falls back on the traditional economic designation as the ultimate determiner of social rank. ("He is not so genteel as a real gentleman" (19) is Harriet's tautologically-comic-socially-true-but-morally-inaccurate concession about Martin that Emma finally wrings from her.) Elton may not act like a gentleman, but he is. The Martins may be admirable in their conduct, which is commendable, but pristine manners will never make them socially equal to Emma.

In a roundabout way, we see Emma trying to exploit these competing notions of gentry in one area while trying to quell them in another. (The novel is, let us remember, a comedy). Harriet, because of the "accident" of her birth should be "particularly careful as to [her] associates" (18). Her own claims to gentry status are even more indistinct and questionable than those of the Martins (a point that Knightley will make later), thus she must take the more care to insist upon them and see that they are acknowledged. "There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman's daughter," (18) says Emma to Harriet. And why can there be no doubt of this? Harriet is a member of the gentry class only because Emma recognizes her as such, and she recognizes her as such only because she wishes her to be so. (Emma's inability to change the facts of society by sheer force of desire will continue to thwart her all the way to Box Hill.) If Emma has anything to back up this assertion it is only the propriety of Harriet's conduct. Yet while it is nice to have this slack in the definition of gentry to exploit when it is convenient, the use of it is already beginning to create knots that will entangle and trap Emma, for it will become increasingly difficult to not apply the same standards she uses to judge others to herself, and Emma is, at the end of the day, a fair minded person in her judgments. She may have a tendency to think too highly of herself, but she is also capable of sincere self-examination and criticism.

It is easy enough to "tsk" at Emma's snobbishness here and roll our eyes at her hypocrisy, but we do so at the risk of condemning ourselves. Most of us are more progressive in our ideals than we are in our actions, more conciliatory about the demands for equality from our ideological opponent than from our neighbors.

[For more close readings of Emma, click on the labels below this post.]

Monday, September 17, 2007

Toronto International Film Festival Wrap Up

My festival overview/wrap up is now available at The Matthews House Project.

Here is the link.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

My Kid Could Paint That

Last but not least, my review of My Kid Could Paint That is now available at Looking Closer. Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for providing review space.

Here is a link.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Emma (15-16)--A Mutually Satisfying Friendship

Emma, we are told in the beginning of Chapter IV, lost no time in "inviting, encouraging, and telling [Harriet] to come very often" (15). The escalation of rhetoric here gives us a glimpse of one possible interpretation of Emma--nice enough when things go according to (her) plan but more overtly demanding when they don't. Is that the hallmark of immaturity or diplomacy? We must not forget that Emma is doing Harriet a real service and Harriet is satisfied with her companion as well.

Even so, the opening paragraph is filled with language that depersonalizes Harriet and makes Emma's motives look venal. "As a walking companion, Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find her" (15) suggests Emma is looking for someone who could meet her needs and is not particularly interested in Harriet as a person. At the end of the same paragraph we are told that "a Harriet Smith [...] one whom she could summon at any time [...] would be a valuable addition to her privileges" (15). The use of the article "a" before Harriet Smith is damning. Emma needs not Harriet but "a Harriet," that is someone of the category of Harriet, who can provide for Emma what she needs. Thinking of Harriet as a "valuable addition to her privileges" both commodifies Harriet and reinforces Emma's bossiness.

Austen uses two significant words "elegant" and "clever" to contrast the two friends. Harriet was "not clever" but had the "power of appreciating what was elegant and clever" (15). On the surface this suggests that Harriet appeals to Emma's vanity, which is true. There is a more subtle hint here that we are getting only Emma's perception and that is in the word "elegant." This word is rarely used by the narrator to describe Emma (it is actually more often attached to Jane Fairfax), so this sentence can be read to suggest that Harriet reinforces Emma's self-conception, even when it isn't based in reality. This reading is reinforced by the next sentence where we are told "altogether she was quite convinced of Harriet Smith's being exactly the young friend she wanted" (15, emphasis added). The word "wanted" with its dual, conflicting meanings of "desired" and "lacked" is perfectly crafted by Austen to simultaneously underline and hide the conflict between Emma's sensibilities and her own.

Emma's first attempt to assist Harriet is an "endeavor" to find out about Harriet's parents, an effort which apparently consists of grilling Harriet, who knows nothing, and going no further. A close reading of Austen shows, I think, how strongly language can shape our reading, and the introduction of this paragraph with a word like "endeavor" (from Emma's perception) can lull us to sleep and help us miss the fact that the subsequent description (from the narrator's more neutral perception) is not at all in keeping with the label given to it.

We are also told that "she could never believe that in the same situation she should not have discovered the truth" (15, emphasis in text). Emma, apparently, does not believe in social environmental determinism, but then what handsome, clever, and rich person ever does? Many modern readers might be trained to think "there but for the grace of God go I," meaning if I were in another's situation, I might be susceptible to the same forces that caused him or her to make the decisions he/she did. Not so, Emma. She can't believe she would ever be any different and thus (it is implied) can't understand why anyone, despite their circumstances, does not act like her.

I would like to suggest using this passage that Emma's primary fault is a lack of imagination. She interprets actions as meaning what they would mean if she were to do them and thus unthinkingly makes her perceptions the standard for reality that ought to govern all judgments. It is precisely this inability to place herself in another's position that will cause her to misjudge Elton and insult Miss Bates. Similarly, she will be portrayed at her best when she is fearful of losing her just realized true love but is able to try to see things from another's perspective.

Finally, it is hard for me to decide how Austen would have us feel about Harriet. The most obvious answer is that Harriet is not too bright and we should feel about her the way Emma does--with a sort of benign condescension. One wonders, sometimes, though, whether this is the real Harriet or a role she is (and has been) conditioned to play. Most people of all classes, education, and ages have an innate radar that tells them when friends are genuinely interested in them and when they are being used. Is Harriet's broken? Is it not developed? Is she an innocent savant seeing good in Emma that we do not yet have evidence of? Or is she, perhaps, complicit in her own humiliations, willing to play the role of sycophant in exchange for the valuable addition of privileges an Emma Woodhouse brings to the table?

The more they saw of each other the more their "satisfaction in each other" increased (15). Perhaps this means Harriet is just obtuse or easily satisfied, but perhaps it suggests on some unspoken level a bargain being struck that Harriet is aware of. It is easy enough to read the rest of the novel as Harriet being the naively trusting party who is hurt by Emma's constant (if well meaning) meddling. Is it equally possible to read Harriet as playing a role--of making a conscious decision to try to parlay her friendship with Emma into something better for herself? What strikes me as odd about these two readings is that they are so diametrically opposed to one another and yet, in their own ways, so equally plausible.

[For more close readings of Emma, click on the labels below this post.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Miscellaneous TIFF 2007 Notes

I got (and still am) sick on my last day. Surprising it doesn't happen more with all the finger food eating, walking around and congregations of people. Still it sort of sucks.

As a rule TIFF doesn't play previews, but I find myself strangely looking forward to "Death Shark."

Not sure how it works at other festivals, but I wouldn't take too seriously the various awards based on voting. This can have a lot more to do with what venue and time a film is playing at, how many people actually vote, if they are in a hurry to get to the next film, etc.

No Country for Old Men

Exapnded comments about this film are now available at Looking Closer. Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for the space.

Link is here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Expanded comments about John Sayles and "Honeydripper" are now available at Jeffrey Overstreet's Looking Closer blog.

Here is a link.

TIFF 2007: Day Five (America's Real Artist Laureate)

My last full day at the festival ran the gamut from an earnest but faltering first film to the sure hand of an accomplished master.

No Country for Old Men
I've got a review coming of this elsewhere, so for right now I'll say that despite not being a huge fan of the Coens nor of McCarthy, I was won over by the film. Javier Bardeem's performance will probably be argued about and over, but this is a function, I think of his character rather than his abilities...but more on that later. It does have some stylized violence, but it last the "isn't that clever" irony of Fargo or Blood Simple, and as a result the violence actually served the themes of the film rather than just its style. I'll probably see this again. Oh, and I was afraid, very afraid of Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell. I thought he'd be too smug. He wasn't. Jones is terrific.

When did You Last See Your Father
Earlier this month, I watched "The Young Lions" on cable just because I wanted to see Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in the same film. If anyone watches "When did you Last See Your Father?' thirty years from now, it will probably be to see Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth together on screen. I love both, though Firth was limited by the film's flashback heavy scenes and Broadbent by the gamut of films about larger than life but flawed fathers in recent years. I confess the main thing I realized walking out of this film was just how good last year's "The Squid and the Whale" was at elevating the genre. Good to see Juliet Stevenson get some work, too. But a little too literary and a little too well trodden ground.

Battle in Seattle
I didn't like this film much, and I'll have to give more thought to why I didn't. I had a good talk with Doug Cummings over dinner, and one thing we discussed was the capacity of politically evangelical films to annoy rather than inspire. That's a bit too simplistic, though. This film is earnest but still too morally satisfied with itself. "Last week, people didn't know what GATT was" one anarchist says to another in a fine bit of self-referential criticism, "now...they still don't know what it is, but they know its bad."

I've got a review coming out soon, so I'll just say that I loved this film. Another great work by one of my favorite filmmakers. A new John Sayles film is a cause to rejoice. A few days ago, one guy introducing film had the temerity to suggest Alan Ball was threatening to make himself America's new poet laureate. Hah. Now John Sayles, on the other hand, is someone about whom that claim could be made without it sounding silly, in fact....

Monday, September 10, 2007


Jeffrey Overstreet has graciously provided me some review space over at the Looking Closer blog for my further thoughts about Persepolis.

You can read it here.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

TIFF 2007: Day Four (Some World Cinema)

The way my TIFF schedule worked out, Sunday was a day mostly for international film with tomorrow being a day for some American films.

I had positive feelings about each film today, but none were quite as strong as some of the ones I've liked so far.

This Argentinian film is about a couple who move across the border to Uruguay in order to try to shield their hermaphrodite child until she is old enough to choose an identity. An easy film to appreciate, this is also a hard film to really think too highly of. It has a bit of a forced self-consciousness that and staginess that I distrust--but I think this is really just a case that, as Darren Hughes said to me, given the film's subject matter it is hard for any scene to be about anything else. In the end the film sides a little too heavily with the father, making it a plea for tolerance and self-definition--messages that are worthy but may not require the effort it takes to get to them.

Bucking Broadway
A small screening at the Jackman of John Ford's recently rediscovered and restored Western. Peter Bogdonovich did a nice introduction to the film, but he said he had not yet screened it so little of introduction (or the parts of the interview that followed that I heard) added much to the Ford documentary recently replayed on AMC. Bogdonovich conceded that Bucking Broadway was not a great film, but one did see occasional shots (like one of the boss rancher looking out the door) that showed bits of what was to come. A different TIFF experience, and a nice change of pace, but I was hoping for something a bit meatier in the mediation of such an important filmmaker as Ford.

In Memory of Myself
The buzz in Toronto is that people who like Into Great Silence don't liek Saverio Costanzo's narrative film about a novice thinking about joining a monastery, while those who like In Memory of Me don't tend to like Into Great Silence. I liked this film, mostly for the ending (which, oddly I found more Hegelian than paradoxical), and I thought the acting and mood were terrific. The music ended up being a little too bombastic (reminding me of the use of music in The Passion of the Christ to marinate the film in emotion rather than extract emotion from it), and the use of silhouetting was effective but overdone. It's still early for me to make a definitive conclusion, but I think maybe the film could/should have been pared a bit. There were some talky parts that explained what we were seeing, and I found myself wanting either less of these or less of the characters then lyrically acting them out. In some ways it serves as a documentary about the process of entering a monastic order, and that it does so sympathetically without coming across as propaganda or endorsement is quite an achievement.

Buddha Collapsed From Shame
Hana Makhmalbaf's second film is a day in the life of a young girl in Iran who wants to go to school but is endlessly sidetracked by environmental, institutional, and personal factors. Not a flawless nor polished film, but it has moments of real power. There is a mix of stark naturalism and romantic idealization (of the child) that keeps the film from ringing true as a personal story, but as a vehicle to give us a window into the conditions that exist in places we may never see the plot suffices. When the boys (against the protagonist's protests) play "the stoning game" and the camera goes to a point of view shot of the young girl in the sand, we realize that the threads that hold a young girl to life are as tenuous as a young boy's ability to distinguish between reality and illusion while being taught by adults who don't appear to be able to make that distinction themselves.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

TIFF 2007: Day Three (Sublime, Good, Good, and...Not)

Today was my hump day at Toronto, and it carried with it a mix of exhilaration and sadness. It was my fullest day yet of films, and I'm feeling as though I'm here. But I also have to try a little harder to not let the shadow of the end cast a pall over time that should be enjoyed in the moment.
A quick run-down on the films:

Easily my favorite film experience of the year thus far, this animated film of the graphic novel by the same title is a magnificent blend of scope and concentration, of emotion honestly felt and extracted and empathy sincerely felt. The film inspired me to skip Battle in Seattle to write a review which I hope to get posted somewhere soon, so I won't say too much more about it just yet other than if you get an opportunity to see it, grab it...and make an opportunity to see it.

My Kid Could Paint That
This film surprised me in some pleasant ways. I was expecting something similar to Who the $#@&* is Jackson Pollock--that is a film that used its subject matter to comment ironically about the state of modern art. While it clearly started down that path, the filmmakers (as well as the film's subjects) were clearly thrown a curve ball by a 60 Minutes report that questioned the authenticity of some of Marla Olmstead's paintings and the process used to create them. As a result, the film becomes as much about journalism and American media obsession as about modern art. I hope to write something a little more about this as well, but we'll see. Just an aside--I thought Michael Kimmelman, the art critic for the New York Times came across spectacularly in the film. How strange it is to see an academic or professional expert in a film (especially one about art) who is cogent, clear, and concise, using his forum to both educate the public and frame the topics at hand rather than to simply making a sweeping pronouncement.

100 Nails
I was telling my friend Andrew that I liked this film but I'm not totally sure I got it. It certainly made me curious to see some of Ermanno Olmi's other films. I felt like the film was in two parts and it took me awhile to connect them. I got some meat from my contemplations, but I'm still concerned that this may be me reading too much into it. The film starts with an act of vandalism at a university library and looks for awhile like it will be satire--maybe a cross between Jane Smiley's Moo, The Da Vinci Code and Columbo (except, you know, Italian). Then it turns in to a sort of Jesus of Montreal meets Riddley Scott's A Good Year (except, you know, in Italy). I guess the key to whether or not I understood it is that I don't know as I think the film was entirely sold by the main character's argument. If it wasn't, then it was subtle, and I got it. If it was, then I was reading too much into it.

Nothing is Private
Well to quote the proverbial friend of a friend--"What did [I] think was going to happen?" About half way through this film I tried to remember why I thought I might like it. I guess because I did find parts of Six Feet Under to be genuinely pathos laden. I am not, however, an American Beauty fan.

The TIFFG person introducing the film said that it was a new stage of development or maturity for Alan Ball, but to me there is a sameness about his work that is very formulaic: people do bad things until you dislike them then they do something good so that the film can scold you for being intolerant; people do good things until you like them then they do something bad so that the film can pity you your naivete for trusting anyone. His works recognize that venality is not the same thing as evil and argues that being conflicted about one's evil makes one a more complicated and sympathetic person than those who are unconflicted about their venality.

Plus, those who know me know that few things irritate me more than being drowned in a sea of people who love something when I don't, and I was in a theater with 1300 people who truly, madly, deeply, passionately, gayly love the work of Alan Ball...and I just don't. I may live to regret saying this, but while I appreciate and chuckle at his ability to spotlight the obtuse hypocrisies that are often present in his hicks, and zealots, and fascists, there is an oversimplification in his one-size-fits all deconstruction of human weakness that I find as monolithic and absolutist as the people he most loves to caricature. There was some good acting here, but I think anyone who saw American Beauty or a single episode of Six Feet Under could probably tell you after the first fifteen minutes or so where the film was going and how it was going to get there.

I predict that someone, somewhere who is a fan of American Beauty will write a review of this film that calls Ball "fearless" and "uncompromising" in his willingness to depict controversial subject matter. We will also be told (as, in fact I was told with the introduction to The Brave One) that it is "not for the faint of heart" as a means of saying that if you are not giving a standing ovation with the rest it is because you lack the courage and honesty that someone like Ball has. That may even be true, I guess, I don't know.

It's just that in this day and age I hardly think it requires boldness or courage to say that there is no one righteous, nay not one. I think the thing I find tedious about Ball's work is that I'm supposed to feel sympathy for characters based on how bad (or conflicted) they feel about their faults instead of based on whether or not they ever really explore or consider the possibility that transformation is possible.

I suppose there are some generic reminders here that the world is a broken place that are not incompatible with truth but likewise don't pass (in my minority opinion) for insight.

Friday, September 07, 2007

TIFF 2007: Day Two (One Surprise, One Disappointment)

Les Amours d' Astree et Celadon

There is a famous quip comparing Rohmer films to watching paint dry, and I'll express a preference for narrative any day, so I wasn't expecting much. I found it really interesting, though, my favorite of the festival thus far.

There is a non-stylized representation of the past that reminding me just a little of Bresson's Lancelot du Lac. That style actually makes the characters seem human rather than legendary, and the narrative, while simple, highlighted the complexity of human emotion.

It helped that I've read enough works about the codes that inform Romances to not be baffled by some of decisions that inform the practices of the people within the system--although there were a few places, particularly in the cross dressing in the last thirty minutes of the film that I didn't quite "get."

Overall, though, I liked how it showed that human nature doesn't change much even in the formalized systems that govern human interaction do.

Terror's Advocate

I love documentaries, but I confess this one was a bit of a disappointment. There is always some educational or historical value to the documentaries, but I felt like the film couldn't decide if it wanted to be about Jacques Verges specifically or a more general history of terrorism specifically. It tended towards the latter, which made it a bit too diffuse to have some of the dramatic power or insight that some of the best documentaries have.

I also felt like it suffered a bit from an archivist's dilemma in that it at times seemed to be shaped more by what footage or interviews the compiler had than by a particular vision.

Schroeder directed Reversal of Fortune which I love and which shared some themes with this film, particularly the idea of being confronted with someone whose ways of thinking or approaching life seem to you so very, very strange.

I'm not totally sure, but the film's stance was not actually as sympathetic to the subjects as I would have expected, in part because, at times, Verges can come across as being less idealistic about exploitation and oppression (and how to fight it) than he does as being enamored with his own celebrity.

There is some insight here--especially early on when the film tries to explain how those whose identities are form in the crucible of colonial oppression think only in terms of negatives and cannot think in terms of reform or compromise. There was also a line (I forget who said it) about how revolutions can't always destroy their people, sometimes they have to save them. What I took that to mean is that one weakness of the underlying strategy of terrorism (and/or fighting colonialism through systemic violence) was that it was less successful at giving people alternatives to hated policies or authorities than it was at polarizing and manufacturing dissent. As a result, the sort of revolutionary, violent dissent which the film argues Verges was one of the architects of may have initial success but will ultimately implode under the weight of its own poverty--it can't transform a culture it can only cannibalize it.

That may be a wishful projection of my own opinions regarding terrorist agitation rather than something Schroeder was embedding in the film. (He does feel the need to have a prologue stressing that his views are not necessarily those of the subjects interviewed.) In that sense I wasn't positive if the film was celebrating Verges or using him as a symbol of man's venality in order to suggest that the ideological defenses of terrorism were a pragmatic rhetorical strategy devised by a lawyer and not an expression of political theory advocated by a true believer. I suspect that latter, but as I say, that may be reading too much of my own ideology onto the film.

The parts about Algeria were the most interesting, just from an educational standpoint. The stuff about Carlos and/or some Palestenian politics came across as the most tangential to the film, which could use a good edit, I think.

Overall Rankings Thus Far:
Les Amours de Astree et Celadon
The Brave One
Terror's Advocate

Emma (13-15)--Harriet Smith

The second half of chapter three deals with the introduction of Harriet Smith, whose acquaintance will help form the outline of the plot that drives the novel. Harriet is brought by Mrs. Goddard to dine at Highbury for one of those evenings with Mr. Woodhouse that we have heard described already--amiable but rather taxing. Mr. Woodhouse has some problems being the host not because he is inhospitable but because of a genuine (if misguided) care for his guests' health. The point of Emma's social graces and own amiable character is reinforced yet again in the remark that she "had particular pleasure in sending them away happy" (14). The word "pleasure" suggests that as with her father, Emma genuinely desires to make other people happy. Her good intentions may not protect her from mistakes of judgment, but they ought surely to temper our judgment of her character.

Emma's interest in Harriet is clearly less altruistic than she makes out, and the ease with which the reader can see that hints to me that Austen maying be laying a trap for us. Certainly the reader can be so delighted at a quick discovery of Emma's somewhat mixed motives that it is easy enough to neglect the larger point that she is doing Harriet a real service and is not requiring of her the sort of slavish devotion or appreciation that someone like Mrs. Elton would require of Jane Fairfax. Harriet shows "so proper and becoming a deference" that she "must have encouragement" (13). It is also said of her (as filtered through Emma's perception, I think) that she is "artlessly impressed" (13), meaning that there is not self-conscious flattery in her appreciation of and esteem for Emma.

That Emma's vanity is provoked by Harriet's company is also hinted at in the line "her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired" (13). That the next line begins "she was short, plump, and fair [...]" hints that perhaps the sort of beauty that Emma particularly admires is the sort that complements (or compliments) her own. Not that Harriet is portrayed as ugly. She does have "blue eyes" that are mentioned three times. We are told that "those soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted" and that Emma was busy in "admiring those soft blue eyes" (14).

Were one so inclined, one might speculate about whether there is some connection between Emma's stated disinterest in marriage and her pleasure in being able to "collect" (12) ladies into whose soft blue eyes she can stare long enough to get distracted. But I'm just being glib, really. The word "collect" indicates to me, if anything, a tendency to depersonalize and dehumanize her company that makes Emma's interest in Harriet appear more aesthetic than untoward. I don't think we are supposed to read Harriet as unattractive--just not as attractive as Emma (who is herself more "handsome" than "elegant" or "beautiful" and preternaturally conscious of pecking orders of all sorts and her place in them).

Where Emma's narcissism shows a bit more clearly is in the language used to convey her response to Harriet's homage. In describing Emma's assessment of Harriet's situation and resolution to better it, Austen three times uses the word "must" and twice uses the word "should." As George Justice discusses in “Must and Ought: Moral and Real Conditions in Emma" the word "must" carries with it a connotation of moral imperative. Here, its strident repetition indicates that Emma doth protest too much methinks. There is certainly nothing wrong with a young woman of a higher class taking an interest in and socially helping someone of Harriet's condition, but the language with which Emma considers this favor makes it come across as a duty more than a charity: "[Harriet] must have good sense and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given" (13; emphasis added).

This tendency to elevate inclination to the plane of duty and opinion to the level of certainty would be quaint but not too dangerous were it only attached to a benign enterprise. Unfortunately it extends to her estimation of the Martins as well, "very good sort of people" who nevertheless "must" be doing Harriet harm.

Is Emma carried away here, or is she deliberately shaping her estimation of the Martin's to justify conduct towards them she instinctively knows is wrong? The narrator tells us that Emma "well knew by character" the Martin family and "knew Mr. Knightley thought highly of them" (13). That's two "knows" in one paragraph--a pretty forceful declaration of fact for a narrator who generally eschews declaration for suggestion. That Emma can so quickly dismiss the regard of Knightley (a thing not easily gained, as she knows) is a strike against her but may also be an indication that she is less duplicitous than scatterbrained. Emma seems remarkably capable of sustaining contrary impressions or opinions (contrary to each other and contrary to evidence), and her claim that the Martins "must" be harming Harriet, although based on nothing substantial so far as we can tell is nevertheless presented, I think, as a sincere delusion--much like her certainty that Harriet is the daughter of a natural gentleman.

This passage helps to round out some of Austen's meaning in describing the "power of having rather too much her own way" (1) as an evil. Unchecked power, even when well intentioned can cause real damage. Perhaps because so many of Austen's heroines are themselves victims of unchecked power, we can understand both the accomplishment of Emma in being (eventually) able to discipline herself and the fear of Austen that many readers might not like Emma. It is always easier to root for the underdog and to see in her victimization some mirror of our own.

The passage that best expresses Emma's mix of vanity and sincerity is that which describes the lead up to the supper table:

...the evening flew away at a very unusual rate; and the supper table, which always closed such parties, and for which she had been used to sit and watch the due time, was all set out and ready, and moved forward to the fire, before she was aware. With an alacrity beyond the common impulse of a spirit which yet was never indifferent to the credit of doing everything well and attentively, with the real good will of a mind delighted with its own ideas...(14)

We are never far, in the opening of the novel, from a reminder of the many dreary nights Emma has to spend watching "due time." Once again that which is exceptional in her--a spirit never indifferent to the credit of doing everything well and attentively--is dismissed lightly as undeserving of much praise. Here it is done so by calling it a "common" impulse, but it is not an impulse I have found common. Still, the word "real" accompanying "good will" is telling. When Emma is not delighted with her own ideas but only cognizant of the credit of doing everything well, she is capable of rising to meet the challenge. Her good will in those instances isn't quite real, though. The difference may not be perceptible (or even important) to those who are the objects of her manufactured good will, but it is hard to sustain such practices through discipline alone.

If this is a defect in Emma, I stop to wonder what sort of defect it is. One can hardly manufacture "real good will" and in its absence the ability to earn the credit of doing things well and attentively is nothing to sneer at. I have a hard time counting it a moral failure that Emma's powers of self-delusion do not extend to being able to convince herself that she genuinely looks forward to or enjoys nights of insubstantial conversation around a dinner table. It certainly cannot be said of her (yet) that she allows her lack of deeper affection or good will to get in the way of her duties as hostess or that she is anything less than generous in performing them.

As someone who often finds myself restless in social situations that privilege superficial surface discourse over intimate or substantial conversation or activity, I can relate to Emma's restlessness and understand her pleasure at having found that time has passed more quickly than she anticipated. Nor can I really fault her for wanting more of Harriet's company or that of anyone that helps alleviate some of the tedium that I can well imagine Emma feeling on such nights. It is no surprise, then, that the next chapter will open by telling us how quickly Harriet becomes a regular fixture at Hartfield.

For more close readings of Emma, simply click on the hotlink label at the bottom of this post.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

TIFF 2007: Day One

I managed to get myself to Toronto with only a few speed bumps. Customs was a zoo; who'd have thought it, and the pick up line for the out of town packages took maybe three times as long this year as it did last year. (Last year I went on Friday morning, so that may have been a difference.)

Carlos Saura's film is essentially a series of musical vignettes of singers and dancers performing various numbers in the style of this Portuguese music. The audience at the Ryerson loved it (and was heavily peppered with Portuguese, who apparently are a subcommunity in Toronto).

I had mixed feelings. It was interesting from a cultural anthropological point of view, and the performers were quite good. As a film, though, it was perhaps a bit static and repetitive. I tend to want dance numbers on film to show me the entire body, but only one or two of the numbers did; after awhile I felt like I was watching Portuguese MTV.

The Brave One
Jodie Foster, Neil Jordan, and Terenece Howard introduced the film.
Foster claimed at the beginning that it was "subversive" (or at least that she hoped people would find it so), but I confess I found it more cynical (about the audience and the characters). To be truly subversive, I think a work of art must ultimately have a moral point of view and not just play devil's advocate. There is even a difference between being ambiguous and just confused.

Joel Silver, in introducing the film, suggested that the script came to his office as more of a genre piece--a revenge flick--and that the participation of Foster and Howard helped put a new, deeper spin on the material. I certainly think their participation elevated the film--Foster is terrific and Howard equally so--but there is a difference between being a genre film with a pedigree and being something more than a genre film.

I think the film lies at the end. Without giving away major spoilers, it suggests that (despite Foster's final monologue) things are concluded adequately...or at least that equilibrium is restored after a fashion. Saying so seemed to be the only way of allowing the audience to feel good about feeling good about some of Foster's and Howard's choices, and I didn't think the film ultimately had the courage of its convictions.

[Also, if I may openly plagiarize Russ here--may we PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE have an end to the use of cell phones ringing as a dramatic fulcrum? And while we're at it (this not from Russ) an end to vomiting as a sign of a character's own self-revulsion? Some may argue these are conventions of the genre. I think they are just cliches.]

Neil Jordan has directed two films I love: The End of the Affair and The Crying Game. He's also directed films that didn't work for me: Interview with the Vampire, Breakfast on Pluto, and Michael Collins. I did find more thematic connections to the films I like than those I didn't...we have characters dealing with the weight of living with irrevocable decisions, the awareness (increasingly forgotten these days) that man is body and not just spirit...or at least that the love of man must include body and spirit.

It seems like everything these days has to evoke 9/11 and this film is no exception. At least it is pretty bald about where and how it invokes it rather than thinking it is being subtle by talking about violence, power, revenge, and proportionality in general sort of ways and then saying with faux surprise, "Gee what does that sound like."

Actually, I'm not sure if the film didn't have the courage of its convictions or if it didn't believe the audience would have the courage of their convictions. I'm not sure which is worse, actually, But both are pretty deadly for a film with pretensions. If The Brave One were satisfied with just being a revenge genre piece it would be fine. The more it congratulates itself for being an "Important" film, the less slack I'm willing to cut it for not having much insight or conviction of its own while it is wagging its finger at us for not knowing where we stand (or insisting that we must be callous or shallow if we claim we do).

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Movie Prayers: Mary of Scotland

"Oh, Heavenly Father, I give thee thanks for the security of this voyage, which hath brought us safely to my native land. Counsel my heart. Guide my steps in this land of my birth, that I may rule with piety and wisdom."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

(Un) Becoming Jane

The print of Manufactured Landscapes did not arrive at The Galaxy Theater, so management said those of us who had come for the film could watch any show in the theater for free.

It is perhaps a sign of the paucity of new releases that Cindy and I picked Becoming Jane as a sad replacement.

Now granted, I'm not sure that anything short of an undiscovered Dreyer film would have got me out of my bad mood at having looked forward all week to seeing ML again.

That said, I really hated, hated, hated, hated, hated, hated, and hated this film.

I could explain why I hated it, but that would take a certain amount of time and effort away from my looking forward to other, better films that I may see next week in Toronto.

Cindy, inexplicably didn't hate it. She thought it was okay. There were two old ladies sitting in front of us who seemed to like it.

I, however, hated it.