Saturday, September 30, 2006

A review of the BBC's Jane Eyre: Episode 1

I regret to say that the first episode fell short of my expectations. And I did try not to bank on it too much, given the fact that probably no adaptation will ever measure up to my very own version of the story. I did have a lot of faith in this one. Especially because of Ruth and Georgie and Sandy Welch. I did so love how Sandy did North and South. There the camera work was magnificent and the scenes were evocative, superior to that found in Jane Eyre.

Nevertheless, here are a few comments and observations:

The young children weren't given enough film time and the Gateshead/Lowood scenes were so glossed over it is quite painful to witness. There's no mention of Miss Temple and her influence, and we don't even feel too sorry for Helen Burns or the other children (what did they die of again?). And do the Reed's have a maid called Bessie? Are we to feel sorry for little Jane Eyre or not? Poor Georgie didn't even get a proper chance to prove herself. I think knowing Jane as a child is so vital to understanding her as an adult that in reducing and glossing over what is left of her childhood, they have deprived us from knowing parts Jane fully. Adele is ignored in this version yet again. Although the actress who played her seems considerably older than 8 years of age, she isn't given much emotional spotlight. She does little than sing and dance, and hardly betrays feelings of loss.

Then we move to the Thornfield scenes. I would like to know if we will ever hear Bertha's laugh. I mean Jane goes through the first episode without hearing Bertha at all. Perhaps they meant to use the scarlet scarf flapping in the wind (which is quite obvious a symbol to me) as a substitute for Bertha's laugh. Jane hardly encounters Grace Poole in the first episode. They have made Mrs. Fairfax take the role of cook as well, for there are many scenes of her in the kitchen (Were they toning down the status of the gentry, like they did in the recent adaptation of Pride & Prejudice?) Ruth's expressions were quite good, but I think she also had a lot of potential that could have been used if the scenes were written better. While they have economized on the lanaguage, I am not sure that the technique merits applause because I fear that they have overdone it. The language seems rather too trite, bordering on breaching decorum. While Jane says little, we are able to overlook this fact in the book primarily because we have access to her inner thoughts. The first episode showed a Jane who doesn't seem to be very curious, unlike some of the other Janes I've seen. Again, this is because we are not shown much interaction with Bertha/Grace Poole.

As for Toby, his rendition of Rochester did not move the way I had hoped. He looked grim and melancholy and snarked at times..but I think he was just..just..that, without many other Rochesterian idiosyncracies. For one, he really is quite good looking for the role! I didn't get a chance to feel sorry for this Rochester in this version (I think the truncation in dialogue is to blame for this) and I couldn't really sympathize with Jane for falling for him so easily here. He seemed to be flirting overtly with Jane, who is not without her coquettish responses. The way he said "Sit" was so disturbing, when Pilot sat instead of Jane!! However, I might have to wait till I see the rest of the series to give a verdict on him.

Perhaps the film makers were trying to highlight Rochester's character as a person who thinks of those below him as animals. First he orders Jane to sit like Pilot and then he compares her to an insect that undergoes metamorphosis (and he has such a flair for Natural Science in this version!).

The first episode did highlight the evolving romance. Jane seems to be falling for Rochester instantly, as he is with her. Also, we get a peak into Rochester's study, when Jane ventures into it incidentally. Such an act is not unlike Elizabeth Bennett's trailing into Darcy's billiard's room in the 1996 version of Pride and Prejudice, or M. Paul's leaving presents for Lucy Snowe in Villette. All three cases strive to stregnthen the intimacy between the leads, thus rising the sexual tension, which seemed to be a core factor in this adaptation.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Limits of Sex in "The Full Bronte"

The Bronteblog mentions an article by Lucasta Miller, in which she investigates how these seemingly virginal sisters came to write some of the most passionate novels in English Literature. In an attempt to explore the "lust on the moors", she resorts to analysing factual details about the Brontes' background. However, because so much of what we know of the Brontes' is a mixture of fact and fiction, she is not free from falling into this trap. Of particular note is her assertion of Branwell's fathering an illegitimate child, a matter that is merely conspiratorial in nature. Further, she states that Emily was "shy to the point of antisocial and happy only when at home with her own family".

I refute such a belief about Emily, or anyone that is reserved. For how do we know if they were just shy, or bored with the people and world around them? What if one is just happy with the thoughts buring in their own heads that they don't need to resort to seeking 'friendships' with others? And I certainly don't think that one must experience a conventional romantic relationship in order to write about it. Emily might have been a recluse, but maybe she appeared to be so in front of those indivuduals who she deemed were 'incompetent', unable to comprehend the breadth of her intelligence. No doubt, for they might have been burnt by her intensity, of mind, of spirit.

I don't understand why so much disbelief is raised about anyone who can write a passionate, erotic story without having experienced sex. I would like to pose the question, what is sex? If sex is a means of rousing one's self and drowning in orgasms of ecstasies, then could not this pleasure be attained by other ways than sleeping with someone within the confines of the bedroom? I know it is possible for the mind to take intense delight in learning for learning's sake. There is a preculiar thrill one gets after mastering a foreign language, in solving a math puzzle, in crafting a story, in making patterns on a canvas. These are all very active, very involved acts, that employ, if done earnestly, every inch of one's being.

When the human capacity for action is so enormous, why limit pleasure to the single act of having sex in a conventional sense? After all, is pleasure something we want to limit? If pleasure is finite, why do we spend our entire lives seeking it? Surely, we also don't spend our entire lives having sex and sex only!

In discussing the lives of virgin women writers, we tend to ask more questions of their love lives than their inner lives, the lives they lived in their heads. We try so hard to find explanations in conventional form: there's the theory that Emily must have been in love with a young man, or else she could have not written Wuthering Heights. In trying to find such simple solutions, people are in fact limiting themselves. They are limiting their own imaginations from exploring the paths previously untrodden. They are tying to define the indefinable.

But I ask, is that not just as cruel, if not more, as Heathcliff, the character's, "revolting scenes" of violence? And more importantly, who is to judge?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hamlet's Oedipal Complex

From left-right: Polonius, Gertrude/Ophelia, Hamlet/Fortinbras, King Hamlet/Claudius, Leartes/Horatio.

Yesterday I had a chance to catch a production of Hamlet performed by Actors from the London Stage. This version had only 5 actors, who took on multiple identities, a technique that reveals different strands of Hamlet criticism, all packed into a single performance, a single writing.

Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, was played by the same woman who played his lover, Ophelia. By doing so, this version emphasizes the oedipal tensions inherent in the play. In the original version, Hamlet seems obsessed with his mother's sexual appetite, and her marriage to his uncle soon after Hamlet's father's death. Towards the end of the play, Hamlet steals into his mother's closet and implores her to shun her lustful nature and to remain faithful to the memory of his father. Many adaptations have exploited this scene in bodice ripping ways on screen, where Hamlet is not much younger than his mother, who is a beautiful, voluptious, scarcely-clad seductress. However, this version went further to suggest that she could in fact have been his lover, for she plays Ophelia. In the original play, Ophelia, Polonius' daughter, is Hamlet's lover, who he later torments and accuses of betraying him.

When Hamlet claims to see the ghost of his father, we can't help but question his credibility. Was the apparition a manifestation of Hamlet's scattered thoughts that was spinning out of control? Was the ghost nothing but voices that Hamlet heard in his own head? Was the ghost something the guards made up on a whim as they were searching for new leader? And more importantly, we wonder what the ghost's purpose was in appearing in front of Hamlet.

In this version, the same actor played the ghost as well as Claudius, Hamlet's uncle who Hamlet believes is the cause of his father's death. By doing so, this version suggests that perhaps Claudius could have duped Hamlet, played a trick on his sensiblities. Also, this makes Hamlet's oedipal complex seem more aggessive because his anger at Claudius then translates to his anger for his father, whom he cannot quite bring himself to admit openly. Thus, the father figure is split in two to reveal the love/hate aspect of Hamlet's relationship to that individual, his overwhelming desire for his mother, and jealousy at being unable to unite with her. Morever, the ghost doesn't appear in front of Hamlet in this version, but rather, behind him, so that we really are not sure if all this is just a construct in Hamlet's mind, a mere conjecture.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I was surprised to see Tara Fitzgerald nude in the movie I Capture the Castle. She did manage to play the character of Topaz, the Mortmain children's eccentric, artistic step-mother with relish, though!.

The only other movie I've seen in which she acted was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, where she played Helen Huntingdon. If we intertwine fact and fiction, then it is rather amusing to speculate Helen Huntingdon as Topaz!

Also, let's not forget Mrs. Reed, whose character Tara portrays in the new adaptation of Jane Eyre. Being neither awkward nor ungainly, at least she can carry herself well! ;)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

In The Eyes of the Beholder: The transformation of Nanny McPhee

A few days ago, I watched Nanny McPhee, starring Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, and many other quite popular British actors. The movie was based on the Nurse Matilda stories written by Christianna Brand. The story revolves around the lives of the Brown children and the change in their behavior that takes place when Nanny McPhee arrives to take charge of them. Emma Thompson, who penned the screenplay, explained that she had had to change the name of Nurse Matilda, the central character of Brand’s original version, to Nanny McPhee, in order to appeal to a wider selection of audience; many people are not familiar with the term 'nurse' being referred to a nanny as it had been the case in the past. Additionally, the name 'Matilda' conjured up visions of Roald Dahl's young heroine, so that had to be changed to 'McPhee' so it is more fitting to this Nanny, a much older character.

The film begins with a portly woman dressed in cap and nanny's garb, bursting out of the Brown household, screaming for her life. She is the 17th Nanny the children have managed to drive away with fright, for their latest trick was pretending to 'eat the baby', the baby being little Aggie, the youngest of the Brown fry. Mr. Brown learns that this is only yet another act put on by the children, who are, in spite of their naughty behavior, quite clever little things. A busy widower with a lot of mouths to feed and under the patronage of his rich aunt-in-law who insists that he should remarry for the sake of the children, Lady Adelaide, Mr. Brown is unable to control his children and just as he begins to despair, he hears a voice telling him, that what he needs is Nanny McPhee. A day or two later, when the children wreck havoc in the kitchen after having their cook (played by Imelda Marsden), bound and gagged, to the cooking board, Nanny McPhee arrives mysteriously, and contrives to stop the children from destroying the kitchen, and almost burning the baby. Nanny McPhee tells Mr. Brown that she is to teach them 5 lessons and the way she works is that when someone needs her but does not want her, she will stay, but when someone wants her but no longer needs her, she will go. Over the course of the movie, the children not only learn these lessons, but also use their wisdom and affection to change the people around them.

What I found most intriguing is the portrayal of this Nanny. Unlike the other governesses, Nanny McPhee is dressed in black, foreshadowing the mystery that surrounds her. The first impression of Nanny McPhee is stirring: she is horribly ugly. "Ugly". She is big boned, stout, with wrinkle, mottled skin, a large nose that resembles a potato, two huge warts with hairs growing on them, and a large tooth sticking out of her mouth that is "the strangest tooth one ever saw". Everyone is disgusted by her appearance, including Mr. Brown, and to some extent, even the children, though they are more intimidated by her power. When they refuse to obey her, she punishes them until they have to surrender and apologize. When they pretend to be ill with the measles, she gives them a taste of their own medicine and when they are hesitant to mind their Ps & Qs, she shows them the consequences of their actions.

Nanny McPhee is a character of power and fantasy. Her appearance is mysterious and so is her departure in the end. She disappears whenever she pleases and does not seem to reside in her room like any normal nanny, as evidence by Simon's visit to her room. Although she brushes her sudden appearance off as, "I did knock", Mr. Brown (and the viewers) are baffled when we not only don't hear the knock, but are certain she appears from thin air. Like little Tora Brown, we too cannot help noticing when her warts suddenly disappear although the other changes that happen to her are subtle until the end when they are pronounced. Nanny McPhee maintains her power as long as she remains ugly. When thing are set right by the end of the movie, the Nanny acknowledges that she has to depart, and so we no longer are invited into her magic. It is almost as if our ability to live in fantasy ends when the Nanny becomes beautiful. It is as if only an ugly 'witch' can wield magic.

The change in Nanny McPhee's grotesque appearance follows the change in the children. As the latter learn to behave better, Nanny McPhee becomes more beautiful, less hideous. Her warts disappear, along with the ungainly tooth, her sagging skin resumes its elasticity of youth, and her body regains its graceful curves. By the end of the movie, we are left with a glowing, ethereal figure of Emma Thompson, the actress as we know her. She has shed the monstrous exterior of the middle aged Nanny and now plays the role of a fairy-godmother sort of character, for she converts Evangeline, the scullery maid, into a "beautiful princess", a snowy wedding gown in tow, removing the obstacle of the 'evil' woman, the atrocious Mrs. Quickley, so that Mr. Brown is free to marry the girl he has been waiting for and the children can get a rightful second Mama.

As much as the story has a simple fairy tale ending, it questions our sense of beauty and morality. What are we to make of the transformation of Nanny McPhee? Is she really more 'beautiful' in our eyes by the end? And more importantly, I ask, Why is she not allowed to remain ugly through to the end? Why are the children not allowed to see through her exterior and grow to love her for her kindness and sense alone?

The work, both the original story and the adaptation, creates an illusion of beauty in a material sense. By showing the changes in the Nanny's appearance and correlating that with children's behavior, the film suggests that how we view someone depends on what is inside ourselves. When the children were intolerable imps, they could see her as nothing but grotesque. Even Mr. Brown, becasue of his neglect of the children and preoccupation with work, views Nanny in the same light as the children. However, as the household begins to change, Nanny does so as well. When all the lessons are taught and true love enters everyone's hearts, Nanny McPhee turns into a beautiful woman, almost resembling a fairy princess. No one seems to look at her in awe at the end, for they are wrapped up in their own happiness. The film suggests that as people find happiness within themselves, they see everything around them as beautiful. So this begs the question, "So what did Nanny McPhee really look like?" Was she always beautiful but we never viewed her that way in the beginning because we are shown what she looked like through the eyes of the wicked children? Or are the viewers like the children, in that we are flawed to begin with, and are reminded of the injustice present in our own hearts just like the children's?

But I maintain, Why must she turn beautiful in the conventional sense? Even if such a change on the other characters is necessary, why must this manifest in the triumph of conventional standards of beauty? Why is an ugly woman not allowed to win and stay the same?

Is it so, Charlotte?


"Now Charlotte, she's got a strong libido, that she does"

Monday, September 11, 2006

Reading and Creativity

Today's post on Bronteana quotes an article by Karen Utley, which posits that the "Imagination deficit could cripple society". Utley analyses the imaginative minds of the Bronte sisters, C.S. Lewis, and Agatha Christie, and concludes that unlike the children in the past who immersed themselves in books, children in the present day are spoon-fed information through high-tech means such as the Internet and video games. She claims that, "[the electronic entertainment industries] saturate young minds with ready-made, pre-imagined adventures", which works to their disadvantage when it comes to their ability to imagine on their own. While she insists on the importance of the Imagination for our survival, she does not present a solution besides deriding the influence of modern technology and declaring that "parents and teachers [should] take defensive action to protect children's imaginations."

I think what Utley suggests in her article, though she doesn't quite phrase it, is that children must have enough exposure to books. They must have other diversions than playing video games or surfing the net. The act of reading and conjuring up pictures in one's head from the words printed on a page is no easy task. The child must have patience and willingness to delve into the world of the book she is reading. As her reading capacity improves, she moves from picture books to classic works of Literature, and as she analyses, she begins to delve deeper into emotions, the human condition. She must imagine to feel, and vice versa. The great works of literature are enjoyed best after close study and this helps sharpen the child's analytical skills.

In contrast, most video games hardly invite such critical analysis, let alone that of human emotions. When a child plays a video game, she isn't invited into imagining a world like she must do when she reads, and instead, the world is provided for her. She is told what she must do to win that 'round', how many points she must get, how many hurdles she must pass, and what she is to expect when she reaches the next 'round'. In a lot of cases, she is told what to expect in the end if she wins, even before she starts the game! There is little complexity in setting, plot, and hardly any character study. The characters are usually static: for example Sonic the Hedgehog is still his happy go lucky self, even if he gets beaten to a pulp by enemies or wins a lottery. We are not invited into his mind or other details that help us perceive his mind in the manner that is found in literature, because this isn't the primary focus of the video game. It's goal is to entertain differently.

TV programs differ from well written books in that the latter demands more engagement with the readers. The reader gets intimate with the characters because of her investment in the story. A lot of TV programs show us what each character looks like, and how they feel; the TV program is someone else's interpretation of a story/event while the book, through intimacy with the reader, directly speaks to the reader without an additional middleman, an additonal barrier. Thus the reader is more involved as a result of the imagination necessary in order to brings the characters to life.

The Imagination has the ability to turn abstract things to reality. Utley argues that, "Progress in arenas from social reform to technological invention would be crippled if people lost their ability to imagine a better world. Tolerance and empathy depend upon the human capacity to imagine all the implications of the Golden Rule." The strength of the imagination depends on the opportunity to engage as much of one's mental capacity to feel as is possible. Life is not merely a video game where dexterity can make or break or score. We live in a world with real people with real emotions. And what better means than good books to teach us of our history, our own natures?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

On Illusions

I always make sure I am armed with at least one book in my (rather large) messenger bag when I set off for work in the morning. The commute is relatively long and besides, reading bits of a good book helps me jump-start my day, giving me glimpses of another world I could inhabit when the monotony of Wold of Work tends to weigh me down, which is often the case. Despite efforts to economize on the contents of my bag, I still manage to retain my uncanny habit of never being able to pack light.As a result, my bag was quite heavy this morning, for it also contained an unopened bottle of water. As I waited to board my train, I pulled out the first book I had brought with me and one one I was on the verge of finishing and started to read it. When I finally reached the end, I felt exhilaration...and relief. I had finally finished this book that I had been reading for over a week now, when it should only have taken me not more than few days. I soon slipped the book back into my bag and waited.

Nothing happened.

My bag was as heavy as ever. Not an ounce of it had changed.

It took me a while to realize that in some strange sense (subconscious, no doubt), I had assumed that finishing the book would have reduced the load in my bag. I had finised reading L.M.Montgomery's A Tangled Web, and I must say that the book was rather heavy in a literary sense, for it was very character-centered. And there were too many characters to keep track of. Untangling the tangled web of mulitple plots in the novel took some energy and when I reached the end of the book, I expected, in scientific terms, to feel the effects of 'work'. I believe I must have confused mental strength with the physical, the tangible. I had expected the literary contents of a book to somehow affect the physical weight of my bag. I had expected a reward and wished it to manifest in the form of easing the physical burden that strained my bones. I had confused the tangible with the intangible.

The results of our mental endeavors are not immediately apparent in the manner of those belonging to their physical counterparts, and can surpass the familiar, the conventional. The pleasures of reading are limitless; Imagination prevails.

Speaking of illusions, another example presented itself while I waited for my train, listening to the audio episodes of the BBC's Jane Eyre starring Ciaran Hinds and Sophie Thompson. Although I did not approve wholly of Thompson for her rendtion of Jane, on account of her unconvincing tone and over-emphasis on the theatrics, I thought her casting proved to be an interesting study. The only other period movie that I happened to watch where Sophie Thompson had a significant role in was Emma. There Thompson played Miss Bates, a nosy but harmless spinster who is mortifyingly snubbed by Emma, while Knightley defends her. Miss Bates is at the margin of her society, lives with her deaf mother, is very plain, poor, and has little prospects. When a rich woman such as Emma snubs her in a public gathering, Mr. Knightley, the kind hearted soul that he is, chides Emma and desires to take sides with Miss Bates. He also takes pity on her family, especially regarding the welfare of her neice Jane Fairfax.

Miss Bates' character, at least outwardly, has similarities to Jane Eyre herself, in both her appearance and station. Having Sophie Thompson play the role of Jane Eyre after she had played the role of Miss Bates, seems, in a strange sense, as if she is telling us another side to Miss Bates' story. We are invited to think of the possiblities that could happen in the life of this otherwise lonely middle-aged spinster. We can't resist asking, What if she was younger? What if she met a man she loved? What if others snubbed her and she still retained her integrity?

In other words, what if Miss Bates was like Jane Eyre?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

What does a girl really want?

Yesterday I happened to watch What A Girl Wants starring Colin Firth and Amanda Byrnes. The movie has all the ingredients of a chickflick, replete with the Cinderella-like ending. However, despite the subtle presence of this fairy tale in many other films, this one has no qualms about projecting it from the very beginning. There is the poor little girl who gets the Royal treatment and wins the admiration of her Superiors. The elements of fantasy include lavish settings, a debutante ball, charming men, ugly sister and nasty (potential) stepmother.

Byrnes plays the role of Daphne, a 15 year-old American teenager who finds out that her father is British and embarks on a life-changing tour to England to reunite with him. On learning her identity, Henry Dashwood's (Firth) life begins to change. An important political figure engaged to a woman with similar leanings, he is on the verge of gaining prominence in the eyes of the public, when Daphne steps into his world. Thereafter, he is enchanted with her free spirit, candor, and simple elegance that is far removed from the superficiality, greed, and the stifling formalities revolving around him. The more he gets to know Daphne, he increasingly becomes frustrated with his present situation, leading to a (predictable) climax, that works to both his and Daphne's favor.

Despite the weak plot, I liked the theme of the little girl searching not only for her father, but for love and acceptance from him. Along the way she manages to teach him important lessons about life and love. While this theme is not uncommon in children's literature, this movie is rather unusual in that it involves a much older protagonist. I still would have approved of this if it wasn't for the fact that the film makers had to sneak in a romantic interest for Daphne. Pairing Dashwood's character with a potential lover is forgvible since he is a middle aged man and the chances are that one is likely to find him attached to someone. However, to do the same for Daphne is unnecessary. I think the story would have worked better if it was about Daphne's finding her father without her also finding a lover.

Learning about, and finding, one's self is a difficult quest that warrants considerable study. Daphne's life back in American lacked something vital: the presence of a strong male figure, a father. So she sets out to find him, to fill this void in her life, NOT to find a boyfriend. I think the mistake with a lot of such movies is that they try so hard to satisify every whim of the viewers. I suppose simply having a teenager seek her father is not enough and they've had to provide her with a boyfriend just to feed our romantic fantasies.

But I ask, How can Daphne possibly give enough of herself to both her father and her boyfriend at that point in her life, while she is only beginning to know each of them? Why could just knowing her father not suffice?

I can't comprehend why the inclusion of a romantic interest is absolutely necessary in the vast majority of movies we see today. We continually see heroines fall in love before they know about themselves. It is almost as if the boyfriend is a temporary relief, not a permanent cure, for their afflictions, especially if these have to do with their own natures. In Daphne's case, she seemed perfectly happy as a young girl, with only the absence of father clouding her happiness. If she is to got to England to find her father, then what role does her boyfriend perform other than being the garnish on the cake?

If a garnish is what is needed, then why should it appear in the form of a boyfriend? Why can it not take the shape of something little related to conventional romance? Like what if Daphne learns more about her English grandmother? Or what if she converses with the Queen? Or better yet, what if she develops a talent for hunting (which the British royals are fond of)? There are thousands of possiblities, and yet, the boyfriend seems to be the popular addition. Even so, such films don't get into any depth of a relationship beside the superfical, such as "Oh his accent is so cute!", or "He is the hottest boy in school!"

Can a girl not want a deeper relationship with her parent? Can a girl not be allowed to discover herself and her personal accomplishments removed from being muddled in love with an equally naive boyfriend? This ending of this films seems to suggest that what a girl wants isn't just the love of her parents, that this is somehow not enough. If her happiness is still incomplete, why should it always be the boyfriend who fills this place?