Friday, 21 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Pain and Prejudices

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Metropolitan” (Whit Stillman, 1990)

Available on iTunes.

This week, we passed the bicentennial of the death of the matchless Jane Austen, responsible for no less than six of the language’s favourite novels of all time and over thirty direct adaptations of those works for film and television, not to mention the host of other movies based on or inspired by stories and characters of her creation. I myself have seen very few of those adaptations (Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, from 2005, is the only one not featured in this blog post), but their number and popularity are enough to set them aside as a genre unto themselves. A far broader and more pliable genre is that of the loose adaptation, into which Whit Stillman’s remarkable indie comedy Metropolitan falls, as inspired by Austen’s Mansfield Park, along with better known films like Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice) and its sequel (Persuasion), Clueless (Emma), and Material Girls (Sense and Sensibility).

I’ve never read Mansfield Park, but the characters themselves of Metropolitan make a pretty strong case for the novel when they debate its value, and the one championing it is revealed to be an Austen fanatic (which is hardly to put a foot wrong for Carolyn Farina’s level-headed and sensitive debutante Audrey) while the one against it — Edward Clements’s young socialist Tom, whose class-consciousness and self-consciousness are closely linked — has not only neglected to read it, but eschews the reading of novels altogether in favour of literary criticism: “That way, you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.” It’s particularly shrewd of Stillman, who wrote and produced the movie in addition to directing it, to reference Austen in this way, and by it he shows how Austen has become an entrenched part of elitist culture, even (really, especially) when her name and work are thrown about in conversations that discuss the hubris and decline of that same American elite. (A peculiar delight of Stillman’s script is the bandying about of one character’s coined abbreviation for the class under discussion: U.H.B., which the others shorten to an acronym, “uhb,” standing for “urban haute bourgeois,” because none of the other terms like “preppy” or “Wasp” seem quite accurate.)

During the Christmas holidays, while all the Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue U.H.B. youths are back in town from their semesters at liberal arts colleges, the winter season of debutante balls is underway, and Tom, a classmate from Princeton, who is lower down in the socioeconomic order, pretty much accidentally gets swept up in the scene of the balls and afterparties. He is very much impressed with Nick (Chris Eigeman), a cynical and pontifical quasi-philosopher and critic, and becomes the customary escort of Audrey, whose affections he elicits far more strongly than he realises. As he has no social bearing or established family background, he must impress the group with his ideas, which include an affinity for Charles Fourier’s socialism and his musings on his mutual friend with the group, Serena (Ellia Thompson), with whom he remains totally smitten.

Stillman made Metropolitan, his debut feature, from a screenplay he had written while working an ordinary day job and on a shoestring budget, to finance which he had sold his own apartment. It’s loosely based on his own experiences in Manhattan (his parents were divorced, as Tom’s are) during a Christmas break from Harvard, and many of the apartments in which he filmed belonged to friends and family. Beyond these material factors, however, the film feels intensely personal and sincere for Stillman, and one recognises immediately the youthful certainty of Tom who feels right at home with his social and political ideas before they’re shaken up totally by his emotional and psychological experiences among his new group of associates — radical socialist skepticism gives way to fascination and attraction, and the tectonic foundations of Tom’s existence shift irreversibly through the course of the story. Stillman’s script is packed with incisive, back-straightening dialogue — perfectly suited to fans of Austen’s characters’ directness and verbosity — but, to an even greater extent, the images he creates are littered with tender, deep emotional insights. The core idea of the film is sociopolitical: Might the American upper class become as obsolete and outmoded as its European counterpart? Has that already happened? Are there escape routes away from the path to oblivion that each of these young people seems to be travelling? In a time when the very existence of the upper class is drawn attention to as an outrage, and the political power of cinema is often overlooked (though, thankfully, the reputation of Jane Austen seems quite secure for now), Metropolitan seems eerily suited to the moment.

“Love & Friendship” (Whit Stillman, 2016)

Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Vudu; on Microsoft.

Where Metropolitan, Stillman’s first film, was inspired by the plot and characters of Mansfield Park, Love & Friendship, Stillman’s latest, is a more direct adaptation from Lady Susan, Austen’s very first work of fiction, an epistolary novella written when she was about seventeen years old. (The film’s title is taken from her first title for the book, wrongly spelled as Love and Freindship.) In Metropolitan, the characters’ style — their diction, gestures, phrasing, dress, home living, etc. — is an important consideration to Whitman; in Love & Friendship, it becomes his very subject. The story concerns the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), who hopes to find a match for her adolescent daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), but slyly endeavours to secure one for herself as well. The film begins with her being hounded out of the home of her friends the Manwarings (Lady Manwaring detected Lady Susan’s impropriety in regarding the virile and attractive Lord Manwaring), and heading for Churchill, the estate of her late husband’s brother, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), who is married to Catherine (Emma Greenwell). At Churchill, Lady Susan meets, is charmed by, and easily wins the admiration of Catherine’s brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), the son of the ancient and proud DeCourcy family (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave offer a warm and tender portrait of a mature couple secure in affection, as Lord and Lady DeCourcy, Catherine and Reginald’s parents). The suitor Lady Susan has pegged for her daughter, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), is fantastically rich and suitably imperceptive; she lays bare all her schemes and tricks in discussions with her friend and ally, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American, whose husband, the grave and gouty Mr Johnson (Stephen Fry), has forbidden any further contact with Lady Susan, on pain of being sent back to the newly independent and united States. (Lady Susan has a few delectable lines, musing on her friend’s Americanness: “She has none of the uncouthness one expects of Americans, but all of the candor.”)

Stillman presents a scintillating portrait of a woman who is determined to obtain her self-liberation and self-actualisation in the world, which, in her time, is mostly dependent on her relationships with and subordination to the men she encounters. She subverts those established social and political orders through genius and inventive manipulations, equivocations, persuasions, and gambits. Rather than settle with her lot and the constricting conventions of her day (and class), Lady Susan changes her world entirely and realises her own passage through it. And she achieves this by working from deep within the system, beating everyone around her at the games of social graces and personal style (no black mourning dress was ever worn so alluringly). Stillman once again has accomplished wonders through both his writing and directing, and lays bare both the straitening effect of the strict social mores and the profound moral faults they conceal — the savagery, deception, and brutal assertions of domineering power. It is through external, apparently superficial style (which really runs from deep within her purposes and ideas) that Lady Susan shatters the external directives she’s expected to meet.

Stillman cannily sets out his own moral ideas in a number of speeches, mostly memorably by the effervescently scatty Sir James, whose every word and deed tumbles into a mighty coup of embarrassment and folly. (It’s a mark of Stillman’s artistic power and cinematic invention that he can present a personal and thorough philosophy through uproarious comedy.) Sir James, having mistakenly pronounced that Our Lord has instructed us to obey the twelve commandments that the prophet brought down from the mountain, is gently informed that there are only ten, and misunderstands so that he gleefully deliberates which two of the twelve to leave off. His considerations bring up a brilliant insight — after dismissing the commandment of keeping the Sabbath, which has nothing to do with morality but is a mere custom and ritual, he declares, “Many of the ‘Thou shalt not’s — don’t murder, don’t covet your neighbour’s house or wife — one simply wouldn’t do anyway, because they are wrong.” Even Sir James, in his ineffable silliness, doesn’t need to be told, on any social, political, or religious authority, what truly immoral behaviour is, and, when a rule is imposed that clearly doesn’t involve ethics or morality, he sees no trouble in disregarding it. The young curate at Churchill (Conor MacNeill) tells Frederica of the “aesthetic trilogy” of glorifying and preserving the Lord’s creation, outlined by the German philosopher Baumgarten: beauty, truth, and good. “Truth is the perfect, perceived by reason; beauty, by the senses; and the good, by moral will.” My own reason, senses, and will perceive Stillman’s Love & Friendship as an exquisite work of substantial ideas and thrillingly distinctive style. As does Austen’s sublime work, Stillman’s “human love partakes of the divine.”

“Get Out” (Jordan Peele, 2017)

Available on BoxOffice; on DVD (pre-order).

In Justin Simien’s indie satire Dear White People, from 2015, one black character, Coco Conners, says to another, Samantha White, about the white people in blackface at a Halloween party: “They spend millions of dollars on their lips, their tans, their asses, Jay-Z tickets, because they want to be like us. And they got to be for a night.” Jordan Peele’s far superior satire, released earlier this year to surprisingly overwhelming success (grossing over US$250 million worldwide), takes the conceit much further, where white people take far more drastic measures (I’ll avoid spoilers) to benefit from the perceived cultural and physical advantages of black citizens and black bodies. Those drastic measures bring the film to its particular genre, a skilful fusion of comedy and horror, which succeeded in drawing that broad and intersected market of consumers to the box office. And the significant artistic and cultural triumph of Peele, aided by a brilliant cast and crew, has succeeded in establishing him as a critical denizen of the industry and the artform.

David Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, a young black photographer who accompanies his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), on a trip to her parents’ house, whom he will meet for the first time. It’s not necessary for me to reveal any more of the plot to say that Get Out is a beacon of social and political commentary that succeeds simultaneously as art, which reveals the insights of its creator while providing undiluted pleasure to viewers. Peele displays a perceptive attention to gestures, turns of phrase, and nuances in interactions, amplifying them to satirise attempts at racial contact — when Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford) and brother (Caleb Landry Jones) address Chris as “my man” or “fam,” the term resounds with grating clarity, and there’s a jarring disconnect between Chris and another young black man he meets, introduced as Logan (LaKeith Stanfield), regarding the distinction between “snitch” and “tattletale”.

Peele presents two different kinds of white racist in his film, each overrun with distasteful impulses and repellent behaviours. There are the friends of the Armitages, who visit in droves for the weekend, all well-to-do and ingratiatingly polite, who address Chris explicitly on the grounds of a broad, fully-formed set of presumptions based on his race, which they take as licence for their specific and disgraceful behaviour while interacting with him. They have no perception of Chris beyond that of his race, and, however flattering they believe their acknowledgements of it to be, there is no personal or individual basis on which they can communicate with him. The other kind is the more subtle and progressive sect of the Armitage family themselves, ostensible liberals who apparently hold all races in equal regard — indeed, who barely acknowledge someone’s race, and claim to barely notice it or concern themselves with it at all. In this, Peele asserts, they deny any of the underlying unique features of black experience and black identity. He further suggests that these people most certainly do harbour discriminating perceptions and prejudices, and the deceptions they employ in hiding this are particularly damaging, on a personal basis as well as a wider social one.

The horror of Get Out lies more in moral horror at its characters’ actions and their implications than in conventional scares and gore. This revulsion arises from the intentions of a particular group of white racists in the film (again, avoiding spoilers) who seek to empty black bodies of their blackness and black minds of their black consciousness; a black person like Chris who had sought merely to assimilate is forced by them to fully conform and imitate to their oppressively white culture. Peele even suggests a psychological and moral danger in assimilating — Chris, himself a typical mainstream liberal, argues with his friend Rod (played spiritedly by Lil Rel Howery) about his relationship with his white girlfriend and her white family, and the views that are ultimately more accurate are held by Rod, who bases his reasoning not in any political theory or Chris’s cultivated sense of well-behaved propriety but in historical experience, particularly that of black people in American society. Chris comes to discover the sharply racialised reality of the world through his own horrific experiences. “Why do you always have to make it about race?” is a question heard often enough when attention is drawn to this reality; the answer Peele has is equally direct: We didn’t make it about race. We found it this way.

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