Monday, 13 March 2017

Live in Fragments No Longer

DVD Notes: “Howards End”

In brief commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of the film adaptation of one of my favourite novels, I read Anne Thompson’s blog post from last August listing five lessons that contemporary Hollywood can learn from “the classic” Merchant Ivory film Howards End. Thompson posted her piece to coincide with the release of the first of many Merchant Ivory restorations, and characterises the films as “period dramas adapted from literature (often E.M. Forster or Henry James) and graced with top actors and gorgeously detailed sets and costumes.” She comments that their “remarkable collection of low-budget indie dramas … were so instantly recognisable that ‘Merchant Ivory’ became not only a brand but also a description of an art film genre often identified in ads with ivy trellises.”

So far so good. Thompson’s judgements of the film as a “classic” and of the oeuvre as “remarkable” are value judgements, and she’s welcome to them. I’m not particularly fond of any Merchant Ivory film and have written as much on this blog; the two iconic out (they were romantic as well as production partners) filmmakers more or less began the middlebrow tradition of selling nothing more than literary tone and faux-élite literary credentials with their many literary adaptations cobbled together by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an esteemed novelist in her own right. As with the contemporary work that continues this tradition – perhaps most prominently Downton Abbey – the films invite viewers to relax into the affluence they depict, as well as to look on the setting through a cheap halcyon gauze of crude nostalgia, with virtually no cause for reflection or examination. With carefully considered storylines and meretricious intellectual and cultural value, the work of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Jhabvala can be regarded as important precursors to today’s esteemed television fare.

Where Thompson goes wrong is in prescribing a set of rules – her five lessons – that she skims from the patterns used by Ivory in making Howards End for the movies that Hollywood makes today. She’s decided that Howards End is better than the current industry average, and that that average could well be lifted if more production teams could just start acting like the one that created Howards End.

Her first lesson – “Hire a superb screenwriter to adapt an accessibly cinematic literary property, crammed with rich roles for women” – reveals her bias and her mistaken attitude. She regards the screenplay and the source material of Howards End as strong aspects of the film, and, for some reason, specifies that “accessible cinematic literary” properties are to be selected. To get it out of the way, it may be good to point out that for more movies that evoke female experience with great insight and artistry, the solution is not more adaptations of books with female characters, but to create platforms for creators with sufficient sensibilities to imagine and depict that experience. The simplest and most comprehensive solution would be to produce more films directed by women. The sex of the screenwriter hardly matters, and the number of female characters “crammed” in would depend on the property.

As it happens, I do not consider Jhabvala a “superb screenwriter,” mainly because most of what she does is not adaptation or writing for the screen, but transcription. She removes the dialogue from the chunks of text in the novel and pastes it as the character’s dialogue in her screenplay, and more or less keeps the scenes as they are in the book. This is certainly not what any film-maker should be encouraged to do by anyone, and when I consider my favourite literary adaptations – films such as Fantastic Mr Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Gone Girl, and Psycho – it’s obvious that what make for the best opportunities for directors to thrash out their artistry are two important factors: firstly, directorial control over the script (no matter what the credits say, I’m convinced that David Fincher played a large part in deciding on the shape of the story and its characters, and we know how controlling Hitchcock was when the story of Psycho was being adapted for the screen), and, secondly, the audacity to radically alter, add to, remove from, expand, compound upon, and even subvert any or all of the work the author put into their novel (that Gillian Flynn adapted her own work for the screen does not mean that the film version of Gone Girl is faithful in its thrust and its foundation to the spirit of its source). The fact that Thompson praises Ivory’s reporting that he would defer to Jhabvala’s judgement of what should be in the script and what shouldn’t shows that she doesn’t hold directorial inspiration and cinematic authorial control in as high regard as is necessary to appreciate the true artists of cinema. It would explain why she loves as bogus a masterpiece as Howards End and why she doesn’t see the kinds of movies she evidently admires coming out of Hollywood anymore. Television is the medium in which directors are there to serve the objectives of the writers, and the fare she’s looking for can be found on any network on any day of the week.

Thompsons’ next lesson is, “Shoot in Super 35. If there was ever an advertisement for working from a larger negative, ‘Howards End’ is it.” It’s true that Howards End is a better looking film that Merchant Ivory’s earlier works; however, this is not due to any improved or sharpened sense of style on James Ivory’s part (indeed, there’s no sense of style to speak of in any of his work). He doesn’t film any better than he had before; it’s only the basic mechanical tools that have developed. A better camera does not make one a better photographer; prettier film stock does not make a film better; and recommending that other films make use of the same specifications as a film one admires will not make any subsequent films any more worthwhile.

“Forget celebrity. Cast the right actor for the part.” In her third lesson, Thompson forgets just how famous and glamourous Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and Helena Bonham Carter were, even in the early 90s, and that they were just the kind of people that the aspirant middlebrow audiences of Merchant Ivory films were looking out for. She also forgets that celebrity can often work marvellously when handled correctly by an inspired director. Carey Grant and Katharine Hepburn were chosen for Bringing Up Baby just because of their star power, and Howard Hawks’s star-driven comedy turned out to be one of the greatest films of all time. Leonardo DiCaprio can’t be the single best fit for every part he plays, yet in performances like that of Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, he tears through the screen on a combination of a celebrity’s dazzlement and a committed artist’s preternatural energy. Joseph L. Mankiewicz chose Bette Davis specifically for his satire All About Eve (another of the greatest films ever) because of the grand theatricality of her public persona. Thompson should not forget that performers like Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and many others draw moviegoers purely with their charisma, and that the images wrought from it by directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Peyton Reed, Terrence Malick, David Fincher, and Stephen Soderbergh is invariably far more inventive, far more valuable, far more culturally substantial, far more enlightening, and simply far better work than theatrically trained actors who display technical virtuosity but no spark of personality when they snugly fit into a literary role.

Now, Hopkins, Bonham Carter, and Emma Thompson are indeed brilliant movie actors as well as accomplished theatrical performers, but Ivory has no idea how to get anything like a fiery, bloody, heaving person out of them for his camera. The speech in a Merchant Ivory film always sounds more like a recitation for radio than actual or dramatic speech for film, and, once again, seems like it would be more at home on BBC serial drama than on any big screen. The actors all speak of getting to know the character through the text, and not through any conception of the raging inner lives of their characters as real, living people, another way in which Fantastic Mr Fox and Gone Girl are proven many times better.

Thompson addresses a recent reality in the industry with her fourth lesson: “Dare to be cheap. The movie will be better for it.” To hold to this as a rule would be to disregard one’s love for The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Cleopatra, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings, Gone With the Wind, My Fair Lady, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and any of the Marvel Universe movies. It’s true that limited resources can spark a director’s inventive vein and bring about wondrous work through astounding methods (à la Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Alfred Hitchcock, and others), but if any such sparks were lit during the filming of Howards End, there is absolutely no evidence for it on the screen. Ismail Merchant managed to find real locations in which to film Howards End, but James Ivory’s filming is so lacking in any sensibility whatsoever that it may as well have been shot on a cardboard set, and no extra constraints to set off better inventions would have done anything to improve it.

Thompson ends off by exhorting film-makers to “Stay open to the moment,” which is laughable when considering Howards End. Every single frame seems to be designed by some strict Edwardian, such as the characters depicted, and nothing at all in the film arises from the circumstance of the filming or spontaneous ideas that come to the director or performers. They stick to the constrictive script, which is faithfully hewn out of Forster’s novel, and forget that art is meant to express a life lived and not illustrate a thesis defended. At the end of Thompson’s piece, the actress Emma Thompson muses “Would a movie as discursive, erudite, and long be tolerable in this day and age?” The erudition of Howards End is fake, and comes only from the falsely rarefied senses of the director, who imitates them from Jhabvala and Forster. To speak in a British accent, using formal and high-flown figurative language, talking of theosophy and womens suffrage is not erudition, nor is a theoretical argument the condition for discursiveness. The question of the film’s length is strange, considering that a recent movie like The Wolf of Wall Street is much longer than Howards End, and, quite rightly, was more commercially successful. Emma Thompson’s sentiments, mistaken as we all can be at times, match the self-satisfied superciliousness of James Ivory and Vanessa Redgrave when viewing the restoration of the film at Cannes last year. Any merit that the film has is not due to the filming or the adaptation, but has been gleaned from the great merits of Forster himself. The list of films from which contemporary Hollywood can take its lessons is quite long, and wonderfully varied, without any set rules or patterns, and infinitely closer to the unruliness of life than the staid, calculated adaptations by modestly ambitious art-house residents like Merchant and Ivory.


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