Vision not Illustration

Read a post entitled “It’s All About the Story” on the Austenblog relating the controversial remarks the Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway made recently in an international film festival.  He criticised modern blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, dismissing them as “not films but illustrated books”.  As for all the Austen movies sprouting up in recent years, Greenaway said:

Cinema is predicated on the 19th-century novel.  We’re still  illustrating Jane Austen novels—there are 41 films of Jane Austen   novels in the world.  What a waste of time.”

This is my response.  I recognize that not all attempts of turning books into films are successful, many far from being effective.  However, a good movie should be the portrayal of a vision, not mere illustration or graphic representation of the written words.  As I have commented in that post, let’s just say a film is the visualization of the novel, not mere illustration.

And there is a major difference between vision and illustration: the former is seeing through an interpretive lens, rather than simply transferring images from one medium to another like the latter.

That’s why we may like a certain adaptation over another of the same Austen novel, and that’s why there can be more than one movie on the same story… Just as Bach had created Theme and Variations, we can have Story and Adaptations. That’s the reason why we still go to the concert hall and listen to different masters playing the same pieces of music, infusing into their performance their own unique persona and interpretation.  As an art-house filmmaker, Mr. Greenaway should have grasped this very fundamental notion.

As for future endeavors to turn Austen novels into films, I say, “All the best!”

Field of Dreams: Baseball for the uninitiated?

Saw Field of Dreams (1989) on AMC last night, and this time, it hit me harder.  Watching the movie again has stirred up some ripples, deeply and belatedly.  To say that Field of Dreams is about baseball is like saying Cinderella Man is about boxing.  Movies like these speak to us not because we are necessarily sport enthusiasts, baseball or boxing fans, but that we, every one of us, belong to a family, or at least in memory, and that we are a part of the human race.

By heeding a voice telling him to build a baseball field in his cornfield, Ray Kinsella unknowingly began a journey of reconciliation.  Using baseball as a springboard, and through the characters and the ingenious twists in the story, the movie leads its viewers, who are as unknowing as Ray, to taste the almost mythical reality of dreams fulfilled, past yearnings realized, and lost relationships redeemed.  The film satisfies by simply portraying the very possibilities that these miracles can happen.

It is because of these universal themes that the film can reach far beyond nationalities and borders.  In fact, the original story is not written by an American.  The movie is based on the book Shoeless Joe, which is written by a Canadian author, W. P. Kinsella.  Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Kinsella used to teach English at the University of Calgary.  (I still remember listening and taping his interview on a CBC radio program…oh, those were the days.)  Among the numerous awards and nominations the movie has garnered including an Oscar Best Picture nomination, it won the 1991 “Best Foreign Film” category in the Awards of the Japanese Academy.

Critics who love to associate Kevin Costner only with Waterworld should at least remember that, he is the man who brought us such American modern classics as Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves….all other failings are forgiven, easily.

~~~3 Ripples

WWJW: What Would Jane Write?

thejaneaustenbookclub2

The Jane Austen Book Club

Calgary International Film Festival 2007

Some time ago, I was using the phrase “intellectual chick lit” to describe the book Literacy and Longing in L.A. to a friend and was instantly retorted with: “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”  I had no reply.  Maybe to respond to the bad rap “chick lit” and “chick flicks” have been getting, a few writers have infused literary ingredients in their concoction in their attempt to create more intelligent work.  The Jane Austen Book Club falls into this short list.  The book written by Karen Joy Fowler (2002 Pen/Faulkner Award finalist) was turned into sceenplay by Robin Swicord (Screenplay, Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) who made her directorial debut in the movie.  I had the chance to view it on the first day of the 2007 Calgary International Film Festival.

The book club is established with the original intent of consoling Sylvia, who is recently divorced from her husband Daniel.  It is a plan conceived by her good friend Jocelyn, a never-been-married dog breeder.  Following the theme of Austen’s Emma, Jocelyn has brought along the only male, Grigg, to the club, intended for her friend Sylvia.  What follows is the expected outcomes, Grigg falls for Jocelyn instead of Sylvia, who later reconciles with her estranged husband, while the other members of the group also are either hooked up with new found love or have their relationships mended.  Very neat, very happy, very clean ending.  Is this what Jane would have written if she were around today?

TJABC reminds me of the British movie Love Actually, which was released during the Christmas season in 2003.  Dealing with the love affairs of eight different couples in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the season has got to be a swift and jolly feat.  The movie remains a montage of famous British faces delivering superficial Christmas cheers under the banner of love.  TJABC has just slightly fewer characters, with six members in the group responsible for leading discussion on one of the six Austen novels.  Despite the juxtaposition and parallels of Austenian motifs and plots, I feel that both the movie and the book circumvent the periphery of contemporary life and relationships without offering much depth and insights as Austen’s own work. But of course, who is comparing Fowler with Austen?  Having said that, I must say I’ve enjoyed the acting of some of the characters, especially Prudie (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), and Hugh Dancy (who would have thought he’s a Brit?)

Coming back to my original question:  What would Jane Austen write in this 21st century?  Would she fall for “chick lit” that can be turned into romantic comedies, for good cheers or box office successes?  Would Jane Austen be a mere romance writer, or “chick flicks” producer? Carol Shield noted that Austen’s heroines “exercise real power”, given their disadvantaged social positions.  Martin Amis stated “her fiction effortlessly renews itself in every generation.”  Virginia Woolf said about Austen’s writing: “That was how Shakespeare wrote.” Harold Bloom commented on the somberness of her work.  Thornton Wilder claimed that Austen’s “art is so consummate that the secret is hidden.”   Fay Weldon summed it up well:  “I also think … that the reason no one married her was … It was just all too much.  Something truly frightening rumbled there beneath the bubbling mirth:  something capable of taking the world by its heels, and shaking it.”  Thanks to Fowler for including such commentaries at the back of her book.

Austen is a sharp and incisive social commentator of her time, a progressive thinker holding a sure sense of morality, and a brilliant observer of human nature and relationships.  Her wisdom is well crafted in the disguise of humor and satire, her vision covered under seemingly simple, idealistic fervor.   Her critique of the manner and injustice of society, if transferred into modern day context, might not appeal as “chick” or as “romantic” as many of us would want to see, or can accept.

What would Jane write?  Definitely not “chick lit”.

~~1/2 Ripples for both book and movie

The Painted Veil

 The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil (2006)– In contrast to my review of Away From Her (Posted May 22), this is one movie I’m afraid I’ve to say, ‘words are mightier than the scenes’.  Not that I don’t appreciate the great cinematography, the angle, lighting, and the depth of many of the frames in presenting a very appealing piece of cinema artistry, but somehow, I don’t feel for the characters and empathize with their situations as much as when I was reading the novel by William Somerset Maugham. The characters seem to have lost their complexity, the plot thins out and the resolution seems too instant. I miss some great lines in the book that seem to have been unfortunately cut out in the screenplay.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Maugham’s writing, Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, The Painted Veil as well as his short stories.  However, movie making is a totally different art form and business venture from book writing and publishing.  Finding the key to transform one to the other remains a unique quest for each project.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other Maugham’s work in film, such as Being Julia (2004), and quite like Up At The Villa (2000), but not as excited about The Razor’s Edge (1984), and now The Painted Veil (2006).  Transforming great lines from a book into equally inspiring visual story-telling is an arduous task, and it’s something that mere beautiful cinematography cannot suffice.  Nevertheless, I do applaud Edward Norton in his undertaking this difficult assignment…I’m sure shooting a movie in China poses its particular challenges.  I’d love to see more Maugham writing turn into films, and wish more contemporary versions can be made…maybe a modern day Of Human Bondage?

~~ 1/2 Ripples

Away From Her

away-from-her

Update Jan. 28, 2008:  Julie Christie has just won the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Actress Award for her role in Away From Her.

Update Jan. 22, 2008: Julie Christie has just been nominated for a Best Actress Award and Sarah Polley for Best Adapted Screenplay in today’s Oscar Nominations announcement.

Away From Her (2006)–How can you make a good short story even better? … By turning it into a screenplay written by an equally sensitive and passionate writer, and then, through her own talented, interpretive eye, re-creates it into a visual narrative. Along the way, throw in a few veteran actors who are so passionate about what the script is trying to convey that they themselves embody the message. Such ‘coincidents’ are all happening in the movie Away From Her. Sarah Polley has made her directorial debut with a most impressive and memorable feat that I’m sure things will go even better down her career path. What she has composed on screen speaks much more poignantly than words on a page, calling forth sentiments that we didn’t even know we had. Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent stir up thoughts in us that we’d rather bury: how much are we willing to give up for love, or, how would we face the imminence of our loved ones’ and our own mental and physical demise. Based on the story by Alice Munro, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, Polley brings out the theme of unconditional love not by your typical Hollywood’s hot, young, and sexy on screen, but aging actors in their 60’s and 70’s. It may not be as pleasurable to watch wrinkled faces hugging and kissing, or a man and a woman in bed, bearing age spots and all, but such scenes effectively beg the question: why feel uncomfortable? Why does love has to be synonymous with youth, beauty, and romance? It is even more agonizing to watch how far Grant is willing to go solely for love of Fiona. Lucky for us, both writers spare us the truly painful at the end. It is through persistent, selfless giving that one ultimately receives; and however meager and fleeting that reward may seem, it is permanence in the eyes of love. And it is through the lucid vision of a youthful, 28-year-old writer/director, that such ageless love is vividly portrayed….Oh, the paradoxes in life.

~~~ 3 Ripples

(Photo Source: Guardian.co.uk)