Archive for June 1st, 2010

Dear friends and readers,

This is a fourth in my series of blogs on films from 18th to 19th century sources.  First was the Hardy films, then for the 18th century, the Duchess and a Cornwall landowner, back to the 19th with, Young Victoria and ritual humiliation, now two of the many films over the century to adapt Henry James novels and stories, specifically the 1972 BBC Golden Bowl and the 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl.

We see here an instance of how Henry James matter is often used to sexualize the 19th century trajectory for films in a for dark films disquieting and sinister way, as for example, the 1999 (Nick Dear) and 2009 (Sandy Welch), Turn of the Screws.  For lighter films (The Europeans and Daisy Miller), we find something quietly contemplative of family, social, sexual life.  

In a comparison of a 1972 and 2001 film, we also see the vast changes in film style over 30 years.  Film construction, the way a film is put together is central to the point of view on reality it allows.  The 1972 film was willing to endow great depth and importance to inward life, and was content to find in subtle nuance unending abysses of wounded feeling; the 2001 film must objectify, it must turn into bizarre kinds of opposition, overstate in order to get us to take what happens as significant. This is more than a matter of seeking a popular audience (the 72 film didn’t have to and didn’t aim at that), for the way the characters are regarded changes with this.


The 1972, Golden Bowl, screenplay Jack Pullman,director James Cellan Jones, producer Martin Lisemore

Bob Assingham (Cyril Cusack) contemplating the story he is telling us, how silently it happened is one of its strongest curiosities

I finally finished watching this once famous rendition of James’s Golden Bowl (I say once famous because it’s not available for sale as a DVD) for a second time. It’s just brilliant. I’ve now watched 4 of the 6 episodes, and it reveals that the dramaturgy of the 1970s, essentially staged plays or playlets, as as capable of holding the viewer as anything from the mesmerizing computerized and radical new modern thematizations of the 1990s and recent poetic cinematographies (1st decade 21st century) are.  It does have moments outside and they are rightly picked and effective:

The hour or so before the Prince’s weddig that Charlotte and the Prince share out in the open

You must have great actors to carry it off and good scripts.  Cuzack is up to it :).  The dramaturgy and cinematography is of the older stage scene kind; no montages, little voice-over, no mesmerizing computers and music.  The acting is not quite all but a great deal of it.  Furhter, the scenes are exquistely well-written, carry great force and slowly evolve into a fearful affair on the one side (Prince and Charlotte) although not sufficiently shown incestuous pair on the other.

Charlotte Stant (Gayle Hunnicutt) and the Prince (Daniel Massey) contemplating the cracked bowel (gilt over glass); the bowl is indeed badly cracked

This film has not been superseded for how can a work of art be superceded.  It builds slowly, and slowly the characters emerge. I think its final emphases are different from James’s book:  the films really get across (Daniel Massey as the prince is unforgettable in his facial expressions) that the prince is left bitter and lonely and scared from his loss of Charlotte and Maggie’s ruthless behavior towards her:

The Prince, earnest and soft, bought, anxious only not to be a hypocrite, when we first see him

that Charlotte is left shattered, just shattered and without a will (here Gayle Hunnicutt comes into her own at the close).  Maggie is presented as frantic and jealous of the prince and angry about this sexual liasion, but here is what I find the presentation not adequate to the case:  there is no sense really of Adam Verver as himself having evil or sinister tendencies  He is presented as loving his daughter and while incest is in the air as something emotional, we are not made to feel really that the father and daughter tried to buy their way to a private life of their own, using this desperately poor pair. 

Maggie (Jill Townsend) also when first seen, innocent

I surmize the film-makers thought this too strong and so Verver is seen as simply loving his daughter and passive throughout — we get no sense of this man’s power as he must be since he made so much money. He is absolved.  This is the script, not Barry Morse. 

Adam Verver (Barry Morse)

Maggie too is absolved, the other side of the "evil" ignored. It’s true in the book Fanny Assingham (both parts of her name salacious and undercutting) sees only this, but then she’s dense.

Also one could come away from the film blaming Fanny because we see how she controls our narrator who gets the last word that she made a mess of things. She never forced these people to marry or the prince and Charlotte to have an affair — which however discreetly they do in the film.

Fanny Assingham (Katherine Byron)

So there is woman-blaming here for we see how she controls her husband.  She is also obtuse to the pain and suffering of everyone, especially Charlotte and the Prince, utterly conventional in her acceptance of the father-daughter, rejection of the true lovers:

Against this is Charlotte Stant (Gayle Hunnicutt) as the deer caught in the lights of the oncoming car which rolls over her

The one minor women in the film who is having an affair with Mr Brink reinforces this.

Even so, even if the full weight of uses of people the tale unfolds is not there, enough is.

I don’t remember if Bob is so central; does anyone?  in the novel is he a mouthpiece for James, for in the film Cuzack as Bob is. The way he sits, holds his face, talks the lines reminds me of lines by James in letters and photos of him.

The movie does fit the Victorian model:  we are shown deep familial-erotic-social pathologies — for the heart of the story is two Americans buy this prince and this woman without a family. The bowl’s crack — a glass bowl covered with gilt, not gold at all, captures all these threads as James would say beautifully.


The 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl, produced Ismail Mercant, directed James Ivory, screenplay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Charlotte (Uma Thurman) bought, put into a savage outfit, paid for

I also watched the 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl, and much preferred the 1972 film adaptation to this new one –though it too has merit, fundamentally from its use of visual symbolization. As I wrote yesterday film-style is of central importance in the core philosophy of life of a film: in this one it’s not only the giving-over of the daring technique of making Bob Assingham the narrator as James that makes the difference, but modern computer techniques, zoom, distancing, jump cuts, on location with good cameras, huge sums on places and luxuries — important as all this is — but the outlook.  

The 2001 film opens with a dream scene of the past — early modern, the Prince’s forbears (we learn the Prince is telling Charlotte of this so the sequence is a kind of flashbook presented discontinuously):  coerced marriage, the young couple defying the going to bed with one another, the males rush in and murder the girl, make the young man craven and obedient:

I was not sure I agreed with Laurence Raw who read the 1972 film as making the woman all powerful — for after all Charlotte is destroyed and for all Fanny Assingham’s efforts, it’s finally Adam Verver who makes the decision to go to the US, and the Prince who gives up Charlotte when he need not have — he is bleak in the face but he is not helpless and he is wanted.  That is, the story matter by James himself criss-crossed this interpretation. However, seeing this one I must agree. I did like how in this one Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) comes into his own as a cold fierce determined man when it comes to protecting his daughter and using Charlotte (sexually as well as his wife); he is frightening at times. But the dialogue for Maggie made her abject and not in charge and manipulating in the way she is in the book and also in the 1972 film.  So although Kate Beckinsale was chosen (chosen for Emma in the Austen films), she was turned into a role very unlike her usual one and she seems stilted. It turned Fanny into a foolish side-kick.

Further this opening sequence identifies Charlotte as sheer victim, and as the film progresses and she appears in more ane more extravagant outfits which seem to imprison her, we know who her rich master is, the hard (in this film) Adam Verver.  The opening sequence to this film shows us Charlotte and the Prince (Jeremy Northam) where as in The Wings of the Dove (or Trollope’s Duke’s Children), we have a couple agreeing to part for money. Here the man is requiring it, and the woman abject, crying:

She begs him, please don’t do this, let’s not do this (you marry Maggie and I find a suitable rich man)

This coheres with what I am seeing in other 1970s movies: often they have much stronger women than the sources they are taken from (not I’m afraid the Pallisers).

The greatest loss as to characters was the way Jeremy Northam was directed to play the prince. The movie opens with the lovers, Charlotte and the Prince agreeing to give up one another — a Trollope theme – and here she is protesting and tearful (partly she has nothing and he his name and place and hopes of marriage to an heiress) but when confronted by Maggie he just caves in, and we are to believe he loves Maggie and cares about his honor and that’s why he is cleaving to her. No bleak bitterness here, and much hypocrisy towards Charlotte. Uma Thurman, Cecile in Les Liaisons Dangereuses: her type is the abused woman it seems. The characters lost a great deal. Not Northam’s fault but the way he was directed. James Fox as Bob Assingham was turned into a sexual husband dominating his wife that way. 

Here again early in the film the Prince knows which side his bread is buttered on

As to the meaning, there was even less about Maggie and her father. No sense of them as somehow emotionally incestuous at all. At least the 1972 movie showed that over time if it was never explicitly acknowledged and the pair remained unblamed.  Interesting to me here is no more sex in this one than the 1972.  In the 1972 we see Daniel Massey a couple of times just about to take Gayle Hunnicutt’s clothes off and we get the sense of a long lived affair while Maggie and her father stay together. In this movie they do nearly strip and jump into bed, but the sex is done discreetly and over quick and hardly seen among bedclothes and seems only to happen once.

The actors seemed to be directed to behave too formally too.  Finally, for a 2001 film it stuck very close to classical conventions, with no disquieting uses of shots, angles, cameras, discontinuities which should have shown what was being ripped open within.

On the other hand, I had nothing against the luxuries for Verver is supposed to be super-rich, and in this film we had clips of films from the 1910s of miserable cultureless cities in the US, and also of workers working long hours in wretched conditions. We’re told they’re not keen on museums. But Verver says this is his payback. It reminded me of how at GMU we are getting so many buildings built with donors names and nothing we need (also a new horror, a hotel — erasing parking and putting up parking fees for students and teachers alike). And yet the luxuries were overdone and distracting I thought and the film clips of poverty and hardship brief and there to tell us about the father more than for themselves.  The film-makers interwove real footage from the early 20th century of bleak American cities, streets and factory life (anticipating the way in the 2003 TV Dr Zhivago footage from the Russians riots and massacres in the streets was woven in).

Arguably the most powerful moments of the film are in its savage riots of wealth and color — at balls, for example (and this kind of thing the 72 film had no budget for).  

The idea is the atavastic self under Verver comes out here.  Alas, Maggie is absolved of this.   The objets d’art are made to stand for meaning: the Prince passes by this statue —  we are to see he is the inwardly wounded, man:

They seem not to know what to do with Fanny Assingham and Bob.  Anjelica Huston is thrown away as this smooth woman, conventional but not doing the mischief because too stupid and to the side:

The comlicit Fanny saying "didn’t we agree" you would leave the Prince

She is under her husband’s thumb in this because compliant sexually:

In the 1972 film Cuzack would never enter a room so forcefully; and it is his wife (Katherine Byron above) who takes her husband to bed

No wonder laurence Raw in his Adapting Henry James to the Screen devoted only a few pages of his book to it.  Nonetheless to see the difference is instructive in film cinematography as well as content ideological change. I will come back later tonight to comment more on his take on the films as well as Diane Sadoff’s Victorian Vogue later in the week.

These two movies fit far more into my view of 18th century movies where while the pathology of family life is on the surface the interest, the driving impulse is to get at sicknesses in sex life.  The 2001 film does do more justice to the world outside the world of the wealthy; we are made to feel the other world impinging but that wealth controls and rules those outside the palaces.


Read Full Post »