Monday, July 3, 2017

From the book

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

I recently ended up in hospital for nine days, which will bring anyone’s movie-watching plans (and many other kinds besides) to a crashing halt. Of course (switching right to the silver lining), it’s great for catching up on books. I read Harold Evans’ enormous The American Century, biographies of directors John Cassavetes and Lindsay Anderson, and even got through the 700-page J P Morgan biography I’d purchased and immediately forgotten a year and a half ago. Lots of newspapers and magazines too. And although I had a TV by the bed and all that time on my hands, my only real concession was to watch Seinfeld twice a day, which I considered pretty restrained under the circumstances.

Sickbed movies

Trying to perk me up with movie humour, a friend sent word that he was prescribing Dude, Where’s My Car as a tonic, but I think that might only have prolonged the stay. Actually, when I was admitted (rather out of the blue) to hospital, I’d been in the middle of rewatching Luis Bunuel’s Tristana on video, which constituted a major unfinished piece of business. So on being released, with at least a week’s convalescence at home ahead before going back to work, Tristana came first, and then I watched my Barry Lyndon DVD. But the new movies were calling as well. So on my second day back, I pulled my slightly battered body into a cab and went to the theater.

I might have chosen StartUp.Com or a second viewing of YiYi, and the official destination movie for the week was supposedly Pearl Harbor, but I ended up at James Ivory’s The Golden Bowl, which is Merchant Ivory’s latest adaptation of a Henry James novel. I haven’t read the novel, although the Morgan biography, in meticulously documenting the social calendar of its subject, had the milieu seeming prominent in my mind. But I suppose the choice of this film, under the circumstances, tells you something about my expectations – that it would cater sufficiently to my ambitions for movies, and substantial movies.

It opens with a melodramatically staged scene of medieval intrigue, which turns out to be a flashback of an old incident from his family history told by a rather impoverished Italian prince (Jeremy Northam) to his American lover (Uma Thurman). Events soon settle down. The prince is engaged to marry the daughter (Kate Beckinsale) of America’s first billionaire (Nick Nolte) -an event that seems to leave the devoted father worryingly adrift until he then woos Thurman for himself. Some years later, the two couples are in place, but the natural affinities cut across them – between the father and daughter; and between the former lovers. The indiscretions of the latter pair become increasingly obvious, earlier to social acquaintances than to their spouses, but eventually to all.

A soldier’s daughter

The golden bowl of the title is an artifact that comes to symbolize the flawed structure in which the characters find themselves (it has a crack in it), and going solely from how the film treats the object, it’s an apt symbol that nevertheless elucidates nothing. James Ivory and his producing partner Ismail Merchant have been subject for years to charges of negating the complexities of their subject-matter by middle-brow tastefulness and lack of imagination – whether historical/biographical (Surviving Picasso, Jefferson in Paris) or literary adaptations (A Room with a View, Howard’s End). Ivory’s last film, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, was hardly noticed at all, but I thought it quite a departure, bearing an intuitive free-form quality that made something quite mysterious out of the material. In one scene, Ivory even seemed to be aping the kind of devices usually employed by Spike Lee. The film left considerable uncertainty over its intentions, but it was a satisfyingly adult kind of uncertainty.

A Soldier’s Daughter appears to have been an isolated experiment, for The Golden Bowl reverts solidly to meticulous portraiture and storytelling. Everything about the film is solid and well judged (it essentially seems like a study in a fragile and illusionary harmony undermined by the inevitabilities of money, propriety and human limitation) – nothing about it is remarkable. The events and relationships depicted here are intriguing, but no more so than any competent dramatist might devise. The film’s best moments are isolated, to the extent that they often seem disconnected from the rest. For example, near the end, Thurman leads a tour of Nolte’s art exhibits. The camera travels down a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII as she describes it. Her description is perfectly apt, and apposite to the film’s themes in more subtle a manner than the eponymous bowl. When the frame cut back from the texture of the painting to the scene as a whole , I felt a distinct jolt of disappointment. There are perhaps seven or eight moments that make such an impact. Certain moments with minor characters have a ripeness, or frissons of surprise, that seems lacking in the central story (which Nolte aside, is hampered by uninteresting casting).

Barry Lyndon

I don’t want to regurgitate the article on Stanley Kubrick I wrote a few months ago, but Barry Lyndon may have provided an unfortunate counterpoint in how it fuses form and content into a whole that’s almost too rich and allusive to be assimilated. Kubrick’s film is famous for some of the most painstaking period reconstruction ever attempted, but in virtually every other respect it resists easy viewing – often through devices and choices which assessed in isolation might have been said to make “no sense.” Whether or not the film would be any more satisfying for knowledge of Thackeray’s source novel, it’s certainly more satisfying for a knowledge of Kubrick’s other films. Which I think is a good way for cinema to work.

Just about everything in The Golden Bowl “makes sense” of sorts, but in a hermetic manner that smacks of limited ambition – limited, at least, in any sense that’s not defined with reference to the source novel. I see no plausible course here other than to cite Ivory’s film as an occasion on which one should indeed stick with the book. Some may want to extrapolate this into a broader comment on the whole business of adapting literature into cinema, but as a non-reader of novels, I’ve never thought that restriction necessary. It’s just that after nine days spent staring at the ceiling, and having made a conscious effort to see a film rather than read a book, it would have been nice to be better and more specifically rewarded for it.

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