Tag Archives: FILM

1939 – TROUBLE AT MILL

6 Aug

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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.

TWELFTH NIGHT – COMPARISSON BETWEEN SCREEN AND PAGE

21 Nov

THE PLAYS THE THING

(Or in Nunn’s case, the eye’s the thing)

 

A Comparison between William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night and Trevor Nunn’s film production of the same name. In particular Act 1, Scene 3 and the exchange between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek.

 

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               The Hollywood revisionists, in my opinion, would have us, the paying-public, believe that Shakespeare originally wrote for what they ignorantly insist were uneducated audiences; the plays performed for the working people of London, the loiterers, bed-pressers and bear-baiters of Southwark and their no-betters, the hereditary in-bred gentry. Time and again we’re served images of ill-dressed drunkards whoring and snoring their way through what we today would consider classic performances. Such is the nostalgia for Shakespeare’s plays that the Globe Theatre has been rebuilt in London close to its original site and where, during the season, they’re performed for paying tourists. We know that the streets of London weren’t as Richard Whittington imagined paved with gold and that to see London was to smell it, but it would appear that the revised history that we’re offered is exactly that, the majority of factual information and contemporary language cut to the screen editors floor or quietly moldering on what used to pass for library shelves. Shakespeare’s language has been slashed and burned, unnecessarily embellished, rewritten and offered in brilliant Technicolor to appease the contemporary market. Although Renaissance audiences would be wowed by the spectacle that is film, they’d be less impressed with that which we hold to be possibly the most beautiful prose ever written in the English language as sadly they’re missing. According to Sean Coughlan, a journalist writing for the B.B.C., in his article on current educational standards of British youth under a common core curriculum, England is now 22nd in the world out of the leading 24 nations in literacy. A sad claim indeed and only bettered by their American cousins who were 24th. Education during the time of Elizabeth was highly valued and under the grammar school system, children were offered Latin, Greek and French. Although there was more emphasis on reading than on writing due to the cost of materials the average student was no slouch and therefore the language of Shakespeare would not have been such a stretch of cerebral elasticity as it sometimes appears to be to us today. By comparing the written play of Twelfth Night with a film bearing the same name it’s possible to discern where language has given way to style and art, and where entertainment is enjoyed more by the eyes than the ears. The film by Trevor Nunn does the original play little justice but is a cornucopia of sound and color and is a pleasant way to while away 134 minutes “for want of other idleness.”(1.5.63)

               Nunn’s production is rich in costume, sound, and visual brilliance. The actors are world class and clearly no expense has been spared. In fact the only thing that seems to have been spared is the language. Act 1, scene 3 is our introduction to the characters of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek, two of Shakespeare’s’ most amusing characters. Sir Toby is, as his title suggests, a member of the gentry and cousin to one of the plays main protagonists, the Lady Olivia.  Toby is a wit, with charm and grace whose faults are many and whose drunkenness is profound. For whatever reason we discover him under the care of his cousin, snoring in her garden, drunk from the previous evenings libations. Nunn portrays him in the scene as an inebriate still holding a bottle and who, due to the late hour he’s kept, has been locked out of the house and forced to sleep outside. The original text is not adhered to and Nunn opts to skip to line 14 of the original dialogue and instead of Belch being the first to speak we’re introduced to Maria, a ladies maid. In the authentic text Belch utters the immortal words, “I am sure that cares and enemy to life,” (1.3.2) no doubt performed in an intoxicated manner to which Maria replies, “By my troth Sir Toby, you must come in of nights.”(1.3.3) Shakespeare shows in words what Nunn chooses to portray. The film audience has to visually digest the fact that Belch is a drunk by the proffered images, where as our Shakespearian seat-warmers are offered a man staggering onto the stage waving a bottle and ranting. Nunn’s portrayal is flaccid and does little to inject action or comedic effect whereas Belch, as a Falstaffian figure dominating the stage, would’ve been hilarious. Maria’s indictment is considered to be important enough to be included however, not until later in the scene, towards its end, and then spoken by Sir Toby to Sir Andrew. Nunn decides to negate the humorous exchange between Maria and Sir Toby and the rich language steeped in metaphor and double entendre is completely negated. One has to ask oneself, why? The deleted exchange, although recognizable as modern English, is rich because of its Elizabethan qualities. Clever and witty, “l will confine no fitter than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in.”(1.3.10) These utterances are complete, drunken, rubbish but they’re funny. Nunn instead of showing the dulled wits of a sharp man simply shows the figure of a drunk being hauled off on the shoulders of two servants.

               Enter Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek a man as thick as two-short-planks with the intellectual edge of a stick of butter; a comic portrayal of the upper class who, despite their airs and graces, are portrayed as idiots. Quite a brave move by Shakespeare considering the censorship of the Master-of- Revels but clearly one he got away with the. The administrator was probably in on the joke and equally aware of their betters not being so much better? Sir Andrew is a moneyed and titled idiot, the buffoon in the comic duo, a coupling of the straight and funny man that we’ve seen time and again in the likes of Laurel and Hardy and such. Although Sir Andrew is a fool, he has money and this is why Belch plays him like a viol-de-gamboys. In the original text Toby describes the attributes of Sir Andrew casting him “as tall a man as any’s in Illyria” (1.3.20) and is quickly rebutted by the maid Maria. The exchange is quick and witty and the characters are very swiftly defined. The original text is brisk, sharp and cutting but in Nunn’s production it’s completely ignored and the very best is parsed to the point of non-existence. Instead we are to rely on back ground music, the cheap giggles of bit part actresses and facial expression. In this aspect the film is more of a movie than a talkie and Nunn neglects to flesh out his characters. The façade of Shakespeare’s creation is as deep as table-spilt coffee and such a waste of comic genius. Again why? Why would the director dispense with over twenty lines of dialogue in favor of facial expression? Could it be true that a picture paints a thousand words or does Nunn decide not to tax his audience? The thing with Shakespeare is that it takes a little effort, as do most things worth having. Knowledge of Shakespeare requires historical research, a sense of the historical period, and also to have actually read the plays and discovered the language. Clearly Nunn’s ideal wasn’t to achieve celluloid prowess but to produce a product. There again, wasn’t that what Shakespeare was also trying to do? We know that in the enclosed spaces of the Black Friars Shakespeare added lighting and music to his performances but his plays were performed as were. Even in a more intimate setting where theatrics were possible the plays were still true to themselves. Unfortunately in Nunn’s production we’re given spectacle and not much else.

               Maria, the ladies maid and admirer of Sir Toby in the original copy has an exchange with Sir Andrew that is lyrically composed and worthy of a second listen. Her wit is acute and her jests acerbic, against which our errant Knight has little chance. Performed on the stage in front of an audience the exchange would’ve been extremely amusing. In Nunn’s production it’s all but nonexistent. The lines are completely negated and the scene is as barren as the jests at the end of Maria’s fingers. In the original it helps to prove what a fool Sir Andrew is but in the film we’re once again exposed to very little of the original. An Elizabethan audience would no doubt have delighted in the verbal duel and loved the depth of character portrayal. Any experience, in my opinion, at a theatre is so much more profound than a viewing. The sights and the sounds, the atmosphere, all help to make theatre a rich spectacle. Rather than the brain lapsing into Theta and Delta, whilst being stimulated by popcorn and cola, the mind through live performance flourishes in the Alpha. This is the obvious difference between Nunn’s confection and Shakespeare’s sustenance.

               Sir Toby’s final exchange with Sir Andrew where they discuss his dancing ability and the Knight’s confession that he is “a fellow of the strangest mind” (1.2.109) is lost in the production. Nunn chooses instead to display and idiotic dance sequence that is neither amusing nor bright; a parody of a mad dance performed by a fool rather than an exchange of minds in a conflict of adept brilliance. The dance would probably have been more fitting for the stage and the exchange better for the film, and yet that isn’t the case.

               The film although it adds something to the play, takes from it so much more than it gives. The colorful language, depth of meaning and inside jokes are forfeited for visual opulence. When one reads a book it engenders thought and creates and individual reality whereas film offers generic space where one is forced to endure the imagination of another. How often have we heard that the book was so much better than the film? In Nunn’s reappraisal of Shakespeare the director loses hands down. If one where to see the film without having read the play, or watched it merely without truly understanding it, then one would probably come away thinking that they’d just witnessed a period drama rather than enjoying a timeless piece from a dramatic historical period. The reason we remember the Renaissance is not because of film directors but instead thanks to writers such as Shakespeare and Johnson. Henry V was all but forgotten and yet thanks to Bill is now perceived as one of the most English of English kings despite his military incompetence and near defeat at Agincourt. On the other hand, we the British love an underdog as evidenced by our victory at Dunkirk and Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade!

               Nunn has taken a mainstream piece and sidelined it into something cheery and colorful. Thankfully the play will be remembered for itself and not for the inept, portrayal of face making actors who have so few lines they couldn’t help but con them well. When one compares Nunn’s cinematic production with that of Kenneth Branagh’s we see a world of difference in portrayal. Branagh’s play is austere and all the action unlike Nunn’s travelogue, takes place on one set. The costumes are basic, as is the stage, but it’s a worthy performance in that unlike Nunn’s is truer to the original text. In Branagh’s Twelfth Night, although in very little else he’s produced in my opinion, he offers something memorable, a play within a film. Nunn offers a distraction.

 

AVAILABLE ON KINDLE

30 Aug

BookCoverPreview

The book LORD ALF is on KINDLE.

If you click the side-link or go to Kindle you can download the book.