The boys of the newly formed Dead Poets’ Society are holding one of their weekly meetings (except Knox Overstreet, who’s at a party trying to talk to the girl of his dreams) when there’s a sound—the likes of which strikes terror into the hearts of teenage boys: a girl’s laughter. Charlie leads them in, offers them cigarettes, while the rest of the group stares on in silence, not sure what to say, what to think, or even whether or not they’re allowed to speak. The boys eventually try to talk, though it’s Charlie who eventually succeeds in properly “wooing” the girls by of course reciting poetry: first a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning, and then a second one by George Gordon, Lord Byron. Continue reading In Defense of Mr. Byron
Over winter break, I’ve had the opportunity to fuel my Jane Austen obsession with Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptations of Sense and Sensibility (2008) and Pride and Prejudice (1995). I enjoyed them both! In my enthusiasm, I’ll follow up Caroline’s wonderful post on Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon and Cailey’s fascinating review of Feeding France with a few comments on the very different ways that Davies’ two miniseries represent the kind of solitary states that turn up all the time in Austen’s novels. I mean those moments in the narrative when a character’s (often the heroine’s) “privacy” is inflected with—or we might say invaded by—irrepressible thoughts and feelings for others. The tendency to doubt, judge, “(re)read” and generally speculate about other minds is one of the things that makes an Austen heroine the herione–this capacity distinguishes Elinor Dashwood from Anne Steele, Elizabeth from Mary Bennett. (There are shades of thinking and feeling for others, of course. Lucy Steele, for instance, is good at anticipating other people’s behavior but her cunning doesn’t enable her to transcend her immediate interests.) Frequently, a heroine’s thoughts and feelings about other characters come into relief when she is alone—i.e. temporarily free from the claims, misconstructions and physical proximity of others.
After reading Darcy’s letter exposing the ‘truth’ about Wickham, Elizabeth Bennet famously cries, “Till this moment I never knew myself.” The expression passes in just the kind of reflective solitude that I want to suggest is the special privilege of the Austenian heroine. We might equate Elizabeth’s urgent solitary exclamation with the sort of emotional content that Shakespeare’s soliloquies represent. Think, for instance, of Richard III’s despairing exclamation upon waking from a nightmare that, “There is no creature loves me; / And if I die, no soul shall pity me: / Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” For Richard as for Elizabeth, self-knowledge comes with a fresh and difficult (humiliating, haunting) perception of one’s relation to another (or others) . In general though, dialogic forms like drama and film evoke solitary movements of thought and feeling far less frequently than realist novels. For Frances Ferguson, “the limitation of theater is that it consists of almost nothing but direct quotation, so that drama must continually create an unfolding plot that motivates individual characters to present their views, to have thoughts that rise to the level of the expressible” (167). Theatre can’t, in other words, capture unvoiced thoughts and feelings like free indirect style.
Though their film consists of almost nothing but direct dialogue, screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Simon Langton manage to evoke the intense feelings of shame, regret and longing that accompany Elizabeth’s recognition that she has misjudged Darcy’s character. Nancy Yousef has observed that Elizabeth’s attachment to Darcy grows with self-abasing feelings of gratitude that are “largely described and situated in solitary meditations” (107). The BBC adaptation stays faithful to the spirit of Austen’s novel by showing us that Elizabeth’s romance with Darcy develops as much in private spaces of reflection as in face-to-face encounters. The filmmaker’s attempts to show that Elizabeth is a reflective character are respectable (she is frequently shot sitting in front of the mirror) but, in one instance, the visual representation of Elizabeth’s preoccupation with Darcy is semi-ludicrous. In the carriage ride from Rosings to Merryton, Elizabeth gazes pensively out of the window and, all of a sudden, a ghostly apparition of Darcy appears reflected before her. He rehashes a line from the proposal scene: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Although Elizabeth’s feelings of regret and self-loathing are conveyed in the bodily shudder with which she responds to and vanquishes Darcy’s specter, the whole bit has me thinking less about Elizabeth’s affective state (the scene leaves little to the imagination) and more about how unnatural it feels to know exactly what a character on screen is feeling. Movies may just be better off leaving us to wonder about the content of characters’ minds.
By not giving us full access to Elinor Dashwood’s thoughts, a montage towards the end of the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility imagines new possibilities for Austen’s heroine. The montage is about as effective as any scene in Antonioni at generating ambiguity about a silent figure. Multiple shots dwell on Elinor after she has returned to Barton and learned (been misinformed) that Edward Ferrars has married. In this moment in the novel, psycho-narration follows Elinor’s thoughts as she conjures a vision of Edward settled in marriage and discovers that, “happy or unhappy,—nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.” In the film, however, Elinor’s mood of frustrated desire saturates a series of strangely beautiful shots that picture her going through the solitary motions of everyday life. We watch her paint a landscape, hang a picture, buy a fish, gaze out the window and, finally, out at the sea. Though Antonioni would probably leave off the sad tune that acknowledges Elinor’s disappointment all too obviously, her contemplative activities suggest visually the kind of aimlessness that he became famous for representing on screen. Watching Elinor, we entertain the idea that she may be sad, bored, distracted or lonely but we are not certain that her feelings correspond to thoughts of Edward.
In the final shot, Elinor appears on a bench before the sea, with her back to the viewer. In an essay on Austen and Cavell, Eric Walker argues that this image represents Elinor’s self-sufficiency—“like Elinor herself in the image, Elinor’s desire, autocentric and allocentric, faces elsewhere, elusively”—and simultaneously anticipates her upcoming marriage—“the bench marks the grounded and settled spot where the marriage empire summons identity to take seated place, with room for one other.” Insofar as the shot suggests thoughts of an absent other, it evokes the typically intersubjective quality of solitude in Austen. But where the novel Sense and Sensibility gives us an incontestable description of the unpleasant thoughts about Edward that are running through Elinor’s head in this moment, the film, which can only suggest thoughts and emotions, leaves open the possibility that Elinor’s thoughts may tend, elusively and abstractly, towards a horizon that is hers alone to imagine.
Ferguson, Frances. “Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2000): 157–80.
Walker, Eric C. “Walker, Austen and Cavell,” July 1, 2014. http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/cavell/praxis.cavell.2014.walker.html.
Yousef, Nancy. Romantic Intimacy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.
For some strange reason, I was always drawn to the mysterious topic of film in my country, Croatia, and the neighbouring countries whose story of different cultures intertwined at some point in history. I used to watch a lot of films while I was growing up, but I have never actually considered them as being that interesting, or multi-layered, with a hidden message crawling under the main storyline of a film, probably because of the themes that explored the problems of social significance through a representation of violence, for example, or comedies that came out after the war period in Croatia, dealing with memories and consequences of it, and the fact that I was too young at the time. But that changed rapidly. I grew up, and started to see the world around me in a different way, while struggling with the grim reality of a young person with so many hopes and dreams to be cut off and put down by the political and social situation in the country I lived in. More and more I realized that the topic of identity and the crisis of the same is becoming a vital part of my research, as well as my own existence. A lot of people have asked me why film then, and horror film of all genres, to explore identity, and the more people asked me that, the more I thought that I chose precisely the right medium for my research. Continue reading In the shadows: memories of childhood, memories of identity
Like Arden, I, too, have been burning with curiosity about the recent critical reactions to several Frankenstein adaptations. But rather than valiantly sacrifice my time to the gods of Hollywood mediocrity as she so nobly does in her last post, I managed to escape the sub-par recreation of I, Frankenstein and instead turned my intrigue towards a much more mainstream and accepted performance: Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre stage production of Frankenstein, featuring the incomparable Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Continue reading More Frankenstein(s): Cumberbatch, Miller, and the National Theatre
This unapologetic lead balloon of a film has created controversy among Romanticists. What gives? I sacrificed myself to find out.
For the last number of months, I’ve been surprised by how often I, Frankenstein has reared its malformed CGI head in discussions about Romanticism. The film, which came out in January 2014 and has a 3% approval rating among critics, seems oddly difficult to dismiss. The film’s “near viral” negative response has resulted in a curious sort of academic Whack-a-Mole, as dismayed scholars continually reject any influence of anything “like this” on their work and teaching. But like any supernatural villain, I, Frankenstein always comes back — and so, it is lamented, the film is bound to make an eventual appearance on some ill-fated undergraduate syllabus. Continue reading I Watch I, Frankenstein
The Sublimity of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sublime film. Tracing the evolution of humanity from prehistoric hominids to space age explorers immersed in Cold War politics, the film considers the telos or final aim of the human: a sentient computer. In terms of plot and thematically the film is sublime indeed, but especially when it’s big. Kubrick’s movie comes back to the theater this week as part of Seattle’s first Science Fiction Film Festival, using a 70mm print, which basically means the resolution is higher than a standard 35mm print. But 70mm film was/is used to shoot very few films, and the Cinerama, where 2001 will be screened, is one of only three theaters in the world with the capacity to project one. For everyone else, the DVD will have to suffice (at least you get the extras!). While I always thought aesthetic theories of the sublime had much to contribute to a conversation about Kubrick’s futuristic journey, is a big screen really a prerequisite for such a discourse?
It doesn’t hurt.
Kubrick’s film opens with “The Dawn of Man.” A group of apes scavenge for sustenance, fighting with other clans of apes for a nearby waterhole. By today’s standards, the apes resemble homo erectus, bipeds prior to the use of tools. The stage in their development is important because one morning, Moon-Watcher (as he’s called in the script), awakes to find a large, black, symmetrical object: the monolith. Geometrical form, par excellence. Following from the encounter, Moon-Watcher creates what amounts to the first tool, thus inaugurating the next step in human evolution. Moon-Watcher sees a bone and anticipates its use as a weapon. The film presents viewers with a radical notion, that an external object determines brain capacity. In other words, the encounter with the monolith animates Moon-Watcher’s imagination, but as the German Enlightenment philosopher Kant would say, the monolith itself does nothing.
For Kant, writing on aesthetics in his Critique of Judgment (Berlin, 1790)—a foundational text for studies on the sublime—sublime experience occurs only in the mind.[i] A sublime experience follows from the “might” exhibited in nature causing a feeling of “respect” in the viewer. A truly sublime effect turns its subject into a “brave” and “noble” character with a newfound sense of moral purpose (§§28-9.99-106). However, Kant disavows any purpose within the sublime object itself. If it’s an ocean it’s only an ocean; if it’s a volcano it’s only a volcano (§29.110).[ii] So according to Kant, the monolith could be anything because, for the human, it is the mind that determines the object.
From the inauguration of the first tool, time is compressed. Kubrick now jumps almost two million years into the future as the camera follows Moon-Watcher’s hurled weapon through the air. In a vicissitudinous cut Kubrick links two tools at the limits of technology: From Early Pleistocene bone to a twenty first-century military vessel orbiting earth. The gesture forces us to ask, what’s the difference? As Adrian Mackenzie might say, the bone is local while the spaceship is global.[iii] But how local are bones? Like the monolith, these objects seem to traverse time and geographic location. Furthermore, despite the apparent innocuousness of the film, the accompanying evil (or banality) of the monolith reveals itself in that imagination’s inauguration ushers in weapons of war—first and foremost.
For film’s third section, Kubrick introduces a different kind of sublimity. If the military spaceship doubles as Moon-Watcher’s bone, the monolith’s double is the HAL 9000 computer. Faceless and seemingly indifferent, HAL is “the most reliable computer ever made.” On their mission to Jupiter, the crew is comprised of HAL, scientists in hibernation, as well as two conscious scientists, Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. Next to his human counterparts, HAL appears fragmented without an actual body, restricted by the cameras determining his sight. On the other hand, HAL acts as the ship’s nervous system; that is to say, he is totally mobile, ubiquitous, and dubiously inescapable. If the sublime requires safe distance, as it did for Edmund Burke in 1757, HAL creates the illusion of distance, while in fact he is closer than anything else.[iv] Kubrick zeroes in on a sublime object that cannot be measured in terms of physical distance. The object is remote in appearance but near in personality, distant in body but near in omnipresence. In this sense Burke is wrong while Kant and Kubrick are right: measuring, identifying, and containing the sublime says nothing about sublimity.
Maybe a good reviewer would explain the film’s end, but in the spirit of the sublime I will not enact that violence. To be fair, the end should be experienced on the big screen, which is why, should the opportunity arise, any fan of the sublime or science fiction ought to see the film in the theater. But what does one gain from bigness? If in the end we admit that size alters experience, have we not undone the whole point of this article? To admit that proportion is part of the sublime experience is only to admit exactly what these various thinkers ultimately gesture toward: the sublime cannot be contained within a single criterion or tedious criteria.
The Seattle Science Fiction Film Festival runs from 4/19 to 5/2. Among others, films include Metropolis, Dune, Barbarella (of course), but sadly not Bladerunner.
[i] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J.H. Bernard. New York: Hafner Press, 1951. Print.
[ii] On this point see Paul de Man’s “Kant’s Materialism” in Aesthetic Ideology. Ed. Andrzej Warminski. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.
[iii] For an interesting commentary on the limits of technology, comparing Paleolithic hand-axes to thermal nuclear devices (57-86), see Adrian Mackenzie’s Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed. London: Continuum, 2002. Print.
[iv] Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958.