Dear friends and readers,
It will come as no surprise that the most common or repeated topic at the ASECS in Los Angeles (not far from Hollywood) were film or media studies, or (perhaps) those were the ones I noticed and was told about. It might surprise to discover that a number of those papers (including mine) used as their texts Jane Austen films. It was the zeitgeist topic. A young male Austen scholar told me he went to a panel expecting to hear a paper on Jane Austen’s novels and discovered it focused on a couple of Jane Austen films. Gothic too, Jane Austen as gothic was an element in this.
I confess I did not go to all of these. To my regret I was not able to attend “Appropriating the Restoration and Eighteenth Century: Fictionalized Place and Time on Film and Television,” which hosted papers on “Blackadder: Satirizing the Century of Satire” (by Sarah Stein), “Filming ‘The Fanny Wars:’ Mansfield Park, Literary Fandom and Contemporary Critical Practice (by Fiona Brideoake),” and (especially hard to miss), “Crossbones, Piracy, and the British Empire” (by Sirvidihya Swaminathan). It was on against another on film I felt I had to go to, as some people there would be attending the panel my paper on film was to be given. I regretted missing “Jane Austen and Multimedia” on Saturday morning, which included a paper that includes The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (it had been heavily advertised & I thought it might be over-crowded). My friend told me a panel on teaching Jane Austen was often about films. I especially wanted to hear Andrew McInnes, “‘It wants shade:” Pride and Prejudice and the Gothic” but had to leave the conference early to spend time with friends.
Plus my stenography is not what it once was. So this does not begin to cover even part of what was said on film or Jane Austen films. I offer the gist of a few papers and some of the conversation about them afterwards.
I began with a double panel, “The Eighteenth Century in Hollywood:” two sessions in a row. Thursday 9:45 am to 1 pm. Paula Byrne had been expected to talk on Belle, but couldn’t make it. Stella Tillyard, author of many books, historian, the source of a number of films, spoke first on “Aristocrats, Tides of War, and A Royal Affair.” She began by asking, What makes for a successful historical drama? Outside the university there has been an immense growth of interest in history, to see a non-fiction past depicted. There is also a desire to get at the interiority of the experience. To adapt these for the screen (as in the John Adams mini-series) one must have strong plot-design, tension, and to exploit the medium of film. These films are based on some sort of vision, tell about the future; the books are disguised autobiographies often. Her book, Aristocrats was written with a general audience in mind as a 5 act play, with entre-acts; it was history as an argument about this group of women in their context and novelized. The mini-series was framed by a narrator (the voice of Emily when older, Sian Phillips) to convey information; all kinds of compromises continually, including spun out at length pageantry and love and dressing scenes. There is an urgent commercial desire in films women go to for heroines: few 18th century women had any agency for real; the much-touted Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire is a tragic figure. People want to see sites of power, courts, theatrical moments. O’Carroll and her film-crew kept in mind the Reithian imperatives of inform, educate, entertain. They filmed in Ireland for the tax breaks, and part of the story takes place there. The mini-series is marvelous at bringing to us the materiality of the past. She went over some scenes (the fireworks) to show what effects were sought and how. There was a kind of thrill to filming in the real Carlton House where the Duchess of Leinster lived, with an original picture really there. (Today it is a tasteless hotel.) So film records the time at which it’s filmed too.
The shorter format film has advantages; it usually has a stronger sense of tension, sense of mystery as we chose epitomizing moments. Tillyard was especially proud of the 2006 Danish film, A Royal Affair; not a commercial success, an art film. It is a family romance seen through a historical lens, a poignant story about friendship, sexuality, Caroline Matilda’s affair with the German doctor, Johann Frederick Struensee;the king is presented as melancholic rather than mad, and finds in the doctor someone he can tell about his condition to. In 2012 Denmark was willing to tell more truths about the lack of egalitarianism in earlier Denmark. It is one of the recent Scandanavian noir films. Tillyard showed a few clips where we saw a quiet austerity of approach and intelligent use of sound and image.
Jeffrey Hatcher, author of many screenplays, told of how he got into 18th century films. He said as a screenplay writer you are fictionalizing with all the realities of a film in mind; you want enough information to fill out concrete circumstances. For Stage Beauty, he had just the right amount. He kept in mind what he read about Edward Kynaston, the last male actor to portray women on the 17th century stage. For The Duchess, he had the problem of a book (Amanda Foreman’s) which took the character from cradle to grave. You want to tell the story from the character’s crucial and best moments; so he was a bit at odds with the producer. He tried to focus in on particular political moments: she was good at campaigning, became a symbol of radical chic, understood the ways of her world and sold an image. In her private life she knew much trouble, with Elizabeth Foster a kind of succubus, the Duke’s mistress, perhaps Georgiana’s dominating lover too. Georgiana had a long-time affair with Charles Grey, later prime minister, so he took the giving up of this affair for the sake of his career as a turning point in all their intertwined lives. Ralph Fiennes was able to make the Duke far more appealing than he is written up for in the script or was in real life — for example in the scene where he is seen teaching Bess Foster’s sons to use a gun. Hatcher sees Fiennes as a kind of Jean Gabin. Amanda Foreman felt some of the depiction of Georgiana was unsympathetic towards her, and Hatcher conceded she was not a heroine for him. Like Tillyard, he felt the Duchess a tragic woman who lived a terrible life however glamorized. He ended on the intransigence of what happens to story matter in popular film genres, maintaining you cannot make an anti-war war film.
In the talk afterward it was said that adaptation to film must be an act of betrayal in which you try to hold onto some essential truth of the life or time or the book. How central film-editing is when it comes to the final product. The writer of a book has to accept that someone else (a team) has taken possession of your idea.
The second session was made up of the responders. Misty Anderson thinks we are in a post-Johnny Depp era, i.e., The Libertine with Depp as the Earl of Rochester has been highly influential. Her aim as a college teacher using film is to think with students about how what we are seeing is the product of late 20th century capitalism; we have to critique what Chatsworth House was built upon then and is built upon now. Like Rozema’s Mansfield Park, bring out the cost of this world. Belle she saw as a fairy tale about racism. A Royal Affair shows how many people are moving towards atheism, and full modernity (the reaction to this) is not turning out to be a success. Devoney Looser said she tries to bring out the relationship of these films to original and present texts, emphasize the importance of educational influences in shaping identities. She would use how Lady Emily Lennox’s life was radically altered by her relationship with the Rousseauistic tutor, Ogilby and that of her children. The film Aristocrats kept a sense of the thousands of pages behind the knowledge that made making Tillyard’s book possible. John O’Neill talked about using satirical cartoons of the era to critique the films he studies with his students. Linda Troost told of how she first fell in love with the 18th century by watching costume dramas set in the era. She often needs to rely on films to convey a sense of period to students as they take her courses to fulfill a requirement and have had little history. The problem is to to teach them to look for signs of where we are in history and where we are fictionalizing. She has used 18th century historical dramas like Rowe’s Jane Shore to show how earlier history was portrayed analogously in the 18th century. Steven Thomas focused on Belle as a film that meant a lot to him personally. It is rare to see black faces on admirable characters; we do see the costume drama world from Belle’s eyes, feel her hurt about how this world regards the color of her skin. He teaches the film as a political fable for today. he emphasized how scant the evidence for what we see and how much change from the historical record is done.
The talk afterward was lively, varied, and included someone who suggested the influence of film on literary studies today is pernicious. Tillyard had emphasized how important is literal historical accuracy for sets and how that is a driving force for how a film looks. This insistence prompted me to offer the idea that filmic realism changes from era to era, so that the realism of a films of the 1970s (say Oneddin Line and the 1970a Poldark) looks quite different from the realism of the new Poldark and Belle today. The length of scenes, the way they are filmed, has changed utterly, so technology drives the look of films just as much. Someone argued landscape is much more central because of filming on location. People countered Misty Anderson’s thesis, offering a real demonstration for the influence of Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones and again Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon. It was suggested that plays were influential on how people saw themselves in life and how they wrote their novels and that has influenced how we portray characters in films until today.
There were four papers on “The Eighteenth Century on Film,” the panel my paper found a place on. Friday, 11:30 am to 1 pm. Since I was giving a paper my notes are minimal in comparison to some of the thoroughness with which each participant managed to present his or her paper inside 20 minutes. Dorothee Polanz seemed to survey the whole of the Marie Antoinette canon in her “Portrait of the Queen as a Celebrity: Marie Antoinette on Screen, 1934-2012.” Polanz demonstrated that on film Antoinette is an over-dressed doll, recognizable in iconic gorgeously elaborate and exquisite scenes; she is a mythic figure, and the poignancy of aspects of her life lost. Polanz tended to focus on more recent more naturalistic portrayals; she did suggest that the use of the part of a vehicle for stars is part of this and you can undermine this image, try to break it apart by casting somewhat against expectations. In her “‘Too light & bright and sparkling;’ the BBC Pride and Prejudice and the Secret of Style,” Melissa Bissonette’s insightful thesis was that the way the camera was used in Davies’s famous film continually kept Darcy’s eyes averted from us, showed him from the back, thwarted the viewer’s desire to see him up-close; he is carefully kept from Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth too, so that in the latter part of the film when they finally make long and full eye contact over a piano scene, we feel intense satisfaction. It’s a kind of game where a desire for erotic satisfaction is kept up for 6 hours. I have put the version of my paper I gave at the conference on Academia.edu, “Screenplays and Shooting Scripts into Films.” I’ve written about the process I went through coming up with my choice of films, my argument that we need to study and publish film scripts as central to understanding a film, and that screenplays and shooting scripts can be valued as a new experimental genre in itself elsewhere on this blog and Ellen and Jim have a blog, Two. Steven Thomas in “The Assurance of Belle, the insurance of the Zong, and the Speculation of Cinema,” talked at length about Belle. He offered a detailed history of the real political case used at the center of the film, talked about the history and conventions of costume drama, and while he said the discrepancies between historical accuracy and the fable before us were not important, he did show how speculative financial capitalism (how insurance policies lead to inhuman human acts) and the horrible treatment of people who were enslaved was beautifully hitched onto this finally melancholy romance film with many ghosts from today’s hurts (like the politics of African hair).
There was little time for talk afterward. I was asked what kinds of films or which films have had film scripts published and I answered from the notes on my paper (see academia.edu). People talked about Marie Antoinette’s agon during the revolution, her trial, and if modern attitudes towards her as a celebrity have changed the fundamental hostilities towards her; if she is a compensatory victim. Polanza spoke of Chantal’s Les adieux a la reine and Sofia Coppola’s sweet film. Of course Colin Firth’s performance was brought up. There was not time to do justice to Thomas’s complex paper.
Over the course of the sessions I attended people probably did not begin to talk about the financing of films, roles of producers, uses of close-ups (so important in film) and modern montage anywhere near enough. .