Archive | August, 2015

1939 – TROUBLE AT MILL

6 Aug

wutheringheightstradead2

WYLER’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS

The assertion that a film fails to represent a book or doesn’t do it justice is not a new one and is common, especially when a production purports to accurately portray literary provenance. The process of embellishment or the reimagining of character or plot from canonized literature often leads to a faux representation that viewers accept as a true rendering of the author’s work, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Invariably a director will apply his own interpretation to that which doesn’t require gilding. Although we’ve come to regard film as art we must not delude ourselves that they – just as novels – are written for a market in the hope of profit and not just for aesthetic purposes. Although this may sound cynical let us consider how often we’re regaled with box office receipt figures rather than accounts of artistic merit and directorial accomplishment. Such is the case with the 1939 production of “Wuthering Heights” which although can be forgiven for its technical failings due to its contemporaneous – although surprisingly award winning – cinematic ability, we cannot so easily dismiss the license that was taken by Wyler with Bronte’s novel. The film although claiming to a be “a faithful adaptation” by the New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent is nothing more than a romantic period-piece designed to elicit the most bums-on-seats in order to garner the greatest profit for Sam Goldwyn. Anybody who has read the novel will recognize instantly the flaws in the film and will undoubtedly register a deep dissatisfaction after viewing it.

“Wuthering Heights” although it contains a love story is anything but and instead is a novel of agonizing desperation, revenge and societal machination; the microcosm of a small community who represent the hegemonic traits of larger class culture. Its principal characters are of course flawed and rather than accepting that which will bring them eternal happiness are instead bent on self-aggrandizement and the destruction of those perceived to have done them wrong. The rub of course and the denouement, is the realization that which they have lost was not the fault of others but theirs alone. The character of Heathcliff as we read him in the novel and the visualization of the character in the film are worlds apart and although sharing certain traits are conspicuously different; that which we discover through the mind’s eye thanks to Bronte’s writing is manifestly absent in the visual rendering.

Heathcliff is played by Lawrence Olivier who unfortunately lacks the grit and grime one would associate with such a robust character. In recent years in other productions of the story the character has been played by men more fitting to the role; one thinks of Tom Hardy’s 2009 portrayal which was far more realistic in terms of Bronte’s descriptions. In clipped English tones “Larry” – contrary to the uneducated stable boy Bronte describes – becomes that which he accuses Linton of being; a “whimpering milk sop.” In the film it’s the “pasty faced” Linton (David Niven) who initially seems to portray a man of substance and not Heathcliff and of – continuing in the tradition of class hegemony; at least in the beginning of the film – possessing inner strength.

Bronte paints Heathcliff as an enduring soul, one who despite his once elevated position under the care of old Mr. Earnshaw submits to the despotic behavior of Hindley. He isn’t the self-reflecting, submissive stable hand that Wyler portrays, but a survivor who chooses his own destiny and eventually succeeds in his plan to destroy all who’ve treated him ill. The scene where Heathcliff slaps Cathy is plagiarized from the one in the novel where he attacks Linton when he first meets him as a boy. Successively we’re reminded in the novel how weak Linton is and yet the director chooses to reverse character stereotypes. Perhaps this was done in order to garner sympathy for the leading man who – despite which ever camera angle is chosen – has the cleanest, most carefully manicured hands of any stable hand! 

For obvious run reasons the director chooses not to show the adolescence of the characters but instead portrays them as young adults. The first meetings between Linton, Heathcliff and Cathy occur originally when they’re children. The illusions of grandeur that Cathy decides to adopt are slowly ingrained into her over the years through the obvious wealth and kindness of the residents of Thrushcross and therefore the fabrication of the ball earlier in the film is merely an expedient.  Perhaps a similar simulation of time passing as utilized in “Citizen Cain” would have been more expedient, as the viewer is left struggling to construct a realistic time frame between one incident and another. Here the characters lose significant depth as it’s the experiences they have as children that cement the animosity – particularly in Heathcliff – of their adult years.

The continuous portrayal of Heathcliff and Cathy at Penniston Crag are also beyond the scope of the novel as are their surreal declarations of love. In the novel the relationship is understated to the point where Cathy first expresses her love of Heathcliff to Nelly and not the boy. Again this lends a simpering edge to Heathcliff that is incomparable and completely out of character. Further, Heathcliff’s confession that he tried to escape to America, but instead jumped overboard, is a complete fabrication and deliberately puts the power of the relationship – in the tradition of fin ‘amors – in the hands of Cathy. When Heathcliff leaves the house he disappears into the night to mysteriously return a changed man. There are no thoughts of Cathy in his head only those of revenge. The director turns Heathcliff into an indecisive, when in the novel he proves to be a man of action and self-determination.

“Wuthering Heights” to my mind and also comparable to the writing of its author, is a mean, austere bastioned, stone building that was built to endure the inclement weather of the moors. Instead it’s revealed by the director to be a clean, well lit, orderly home. In my own imagination I envision the rooms as cramped, the house to be in disorder and in general disarray. There’s no impression of a Yorkshire farm house and instead one is cheated of imaginary creation with what is obviously a film set. Contemporary sets, thanks to the shrinkage of technology and the ability to utilize existing locations, offer a more realistic experience to the viewer. Bronte does a fantastic job of visualization in her descriptions and to have read the book and to have visited her location – if only in the mind – was far more satisfying than the faux décor of a Hollywood stage.

Everything in the movie is extraordinarily clean, from the hands of the stable boy to the farm yards themselves. Even the skies above the moor are of a perfect hue offering a surreal experience to the viewer. Rather than the claustrophobia of inclement weather, the sun ridden grasslands of northern England seem boundless juxtaposing the lives of its inhabitants – particularly within the four walls of “Wuthering Heights”- which are rather more limited. Although a willing suspension of belief is necessary to enjoy most films, the advent of realism with the popularity of color film has allowed a director to more accurately portray his own artistic vision. The choice to shoot the movie in black and white was not necessarily a good one as the portrayal of the countryside in color would have added to the depth of the movie. Instead the falling action is over shadowed; creating a shallow and lifeless environment populated by wooden figures. What was also noticeable was the attire of the actors who appear to be dressed in anti-bellum American clothes instead of the more traditional flat-capped country attire of a nineteenth century rural environment.

Because the director has chosen to make the character of Heathcliff weaker than his literary contemporary we are constantly put in a position where we can observe his inner turmoil; to perhaps understand the emotional man behind the perceived rough exterior. In particular the stable scene where Heathcliff thrusts his hands through the window in frustration is particularly poignant. Almost revisiting the sickness of Catherine at Thrushcross, Heathcliff throws himself on to a bed of straw in a dirty old stable, mirroring the frustration of his unrequited love. Rather than a man of fortitude we discover a character that has more in common with Bronte’s Linton than Wyler’s leading man. This scene of pathos fails to garner our sympathy but rather, compounds the obvious weakness of the character and showcases the sickness of love.

In all the movie fails to replicate the written word and would leave any ardent follower of Bronte disappointed and unsatisfied. Even taken outside of the novel, the story line is weak and the characters tin-cut. That it is of any worth at all is as an example in the progression of film history and the diverse representations the novel has endured through the decades. If the story of Heathcliff was based only on Wyler’s movie then he would have been nothing more than a disposable love interest and not the giant of literary history that he is. Written as a Byronic hero, Heathcliff stands head and shoulders above an ill-chosen, ill dressed, poorly accented cast, in what was clearly a studio production of a made for profit motion picture.

Advertisements

THE SHINING

4 Aug

           shining

GOTHIC CODIFICATION – THE BOOK/ THE MOVIE

The visual medium of film is the ideal showcase to exhibit those traditional tropes of Gothic literature that are so conventional to the reader. Although imagination is a powerful tool – as King’s writing proves – the addition of quality illumination, professional cosmetology and a score that would make an exorcist quail, are not without their place. It’s the Gothic that’s Chorus to so many great films including “The Shining” and it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons for its immense popularity. The visualization of the unheimlich is a powerful attraction; ominous locations, other worldly situations, uncanny, dark and brooding moments, strange characters and the inevitable parataxis that wrong foots an audience are all part of the well-fingered apparatus of cinematic satisfaction used to excite pliable minds. By using different methodologies to exhibit horror with brilliantly rendered imagery King and Kubrik both succeed in painting imaginations.

 The Gothic Trope of location is paramount to any horror setting and has been astutely applied, although with subtle difference, in both the novel and the film. The image of a ruined dilapidated castle in a remote landscape – as epitomized by Walpole – can take any form. In Bronte’s book it was Wuthering Heights; in King’s it’s the Outlook Hotel. Therefore the rule of thumb to great horror is equivocal to great real estate deals; location, location, location! Prolific use is made by Kubrik of the corridors within an isolated, abandoned, snowbound hotel that lead the viewer down blind cornered passages along a succession of locked doors. His locations are quotidian although because of the tense situations he creates quickly metamorphose into the unheimlich. Coupled with his porosity of time and the fine line between the real and surreal he very quickly invokes the atmosphere of the supernatural. King does exactly the same thing and although not using the maze paradigm as Kubrick does -particularly at the end of the film – constantly takes us down into the bowels of the hotel to the gigantic wheezing boiler that is central to both the life and the death of the Outlook. His use of the ancient elevator is so finessed that that to even imagine looking through its diamond shaped portholes is enough to cause chills to run up and down the reader’s spine. Add to this the dramatic chase sequence across America – think Planes, Trains and Automobiles -of Hallorann who is thwarted at every turn in his efforts to reach Danny. The winding snow filled roads encountered by the cook become the snow drifted maze experienced by the boy that Kubrick so brilliantly captures with the steady-cam at the climax.

The hero is the split personality of Danny which in the book is far better implied than in Kubrik’s production. The imagination in this particular instance is a more capable tool for creating the elusive figure of Tony who we perceive to be a shadowy figure at the edge of peripheral vision, as opposed to the finger puppet association used in the movie. Halloran also exhibits aspects of heroism and in the book is a more determined, dynamic personality than the actor portrayal in the movie. Wendy of course is stereotypically cast as the Gothic heroine. King portrays much stronger characters in the book than Kubrik does in the film; his fight scene between Wendy and Jack on the lobby stairs evokes far more terror, although Kubrik does a fine job with an axe and a bathroom door. Wendy is determined to save her son and despite multiple injuries is able to fend off her crazed husband who – in spite of a knife wound that would kill any mortal man – continues on his quest to hunt and kill Danny. The idea that Jack is in fact the embodiment of the Hotel is better defined in the book than the movie. One could be forgiven for believing that the director’s representation of Jack is of a man suffering from cabin fever – in the book we are continuously referred to the legend of the Donner party– when in fact he’s been possessed by the hotel. Jack according to Grady has always been the caretaker as they were both hired by the same person; the Outlook.

Clearly the anti-hero is Jack Torrance. Rather than Byronic he’s simply a flawed character; a man who has trouble controlling both his appetites and his demons. Although we want to believe fervently that it wasn’t his fault that he was sacked from his teaching post nor that he consciously broke Danny’s arm, we know that Jack is his own worst enemy and that ultimately he will fail. King constantly alludes to childhood and continuously presses all the buttons of nature and nurture, implying that no matter how hard Jack tries – despite the hotel’s influence – he’s the embodiment of his father. From the second he accepts the Ullman’s offer of employment at the Outlook his family are doomed. Despite not drinking and his efforts to finish his play his mind is constantly on alcohol. King describes how he is manically wipes his lips and there’s hardly a moment when he isn’t thinking about booze or the memories associated with it. His obsession with the hotel’s history and the time he spends in the cellar pouring over documentation accurately portray an addictive personality.  In the film we see the physical change in Jack as he becomes more and more obsessive and disheveled and Kubrik takes his failures a step further when he reveals  exactly what it is he’s been spending his hours writing at the typewriter, “ All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

King’s use of the supernatural is sublime. His book paints a realistic picture of animated topiaries, independently operated confetti filled elevators, ghostly inhabitants in the presidential suite and an eternally occupied bathtub in room 217. The constant allusion to the sounds of the ages reverberating through the hotel and the allusion that all time is framed within the walls of the hotel; masks off at the midnight hour and all will be revealed! King writes his book in layer cake fashion by reiterating earlier subjects, adding details and then later compounding them. How it is that Wendy suddenly knows about a masked ball and how does the passenger on the plane know Hallorann’s name? Kubrik on the other hand in visual brilliance shows us what King can only describe. The Grady girls who were murdered by their father, the elevators filled with blood and of course the opulent Gold Room in constant use by the Hotel’s eternal guests. The Gold Room scenes are truly breath taking and the moment when Jack sits at the bar suddenly to be confronted by the mysterious Lloyd – who he apparently has always known – who is either a ghost – as King describes – or simply a figment of an alcoholic brain magnified by cabin fever is beyond brilliant. Kubrik’s use of period music and costume to extenuate the overlapping layers of history adds to the drama of the plot. King attempts this in his writing by adding lyrics – “I see a pale moon rising” – to his scenes but unless the reader is familiar, unfortunately remain simply words on a page. If anything, this is the epitomic difference between the written word and the medium of film. A director manifests that which an author can only describe.