Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Henry James’ prose style has been described as turgid, wordy, labyrinthine, difficult. I find it artful and effective. It is part of the context and the environment of his fiction. James deliberately uses his prose style as a way of methodically uncovering the hidden layers of his characters, and of giving readers time to absorb statements and realizations and discoveries about characters. We’ve been spoiled by contemporary fiction that conditions us to expect short and deliberately styled journalistic sentences. Not so with James. His language provides entry to the consciousness of his characters.

In his 1908 introduction to The Portrait of a Lady James explains that he thought of this novel as a work of architecture constructed around the consciousness of his central character, “erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form, constructionally speaking, a literary monument. Such is the aspect that to-day ‘The Portrait’ wears for me: a structure reared with an ‘architectural’ competence, as Turgenieff would have said, that makes it, to the author’s own sense, the most proportioned of his productions after ‘The Ambassadors.’”

Through his influence on such writers as Conrad, Joyce, Faulkner, Wharton, and others, James taught modern readers how to read. His use of irony, his ability to suggest what is going on around a character who herself may have no idea, his use of unreliable narrators, his placement on the reader of the burden of comprehension, perception, and judgment—these are what we expect of modern fiction. We are more attuned to these devices in 2010 than we would have been when Portrait was first published as a magazine serial in 1880 and as a book in 1881 (it was later extensively revised for the 1908 New York Edition, the one I’m commenting on here). Our surprise at various revelations in Portrait might therefore be less intense in 2010 than it would have been 130 years ago. Yet we can still appreciate the careful delineation of character, the genuine human understanding and sympathy that James brings to his characters, his ability to define the structure of an entire social structure and historical period.

One of the most interesting characteristics of this novel is how the reader’s estimation of various characters changes and develops. Isabel’s understanding develops as well, but readers are typically able to sense before she can what the intentions and virtues (or defects) of certain characters are. Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond are two examples. I was suspicious of Osmond from the start, and when Isabel was persuaded to marry him, I was sure unpleasantness would follow. James carefully and subtly builds the case against Osmond so that the reader reaches conclusions without being forced to them. Even our perceptions of Isabel evolve. At first she seems wholly innocent and good, yet her acceptance of Osmond as a husband seems a grievous mistake, as does, in retrospect, her rejection of the marriage proposal from Lord Warburton (whose character is never much in doubt). James’ characters in this novel are three-dimensional forms to be regarded from all angles and perspectives, in different lights and contexts, before their true nature comes clear. James in his preface to Portrait writes that "The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million — a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will."

To James, characters are not merely fictional constructs—they are living organisms with whom he engages fully.

Isabel Archer as a virtuous yet ambitious American falls victim to her own gullibility. Her initial obliviousness to the bad intentions of others makes her an inevitable victim. She is manipulated by others around her, even those who she believes are her closest friends. She is a constant object of scrutiny—because she is an American abroad (a circumstance more remarkable in 1880 than today), and because she is a beautiful, intelligent, and perhaps headstrong young woman. Everyone watches to see what decisions she will make, what her ultimate fortunes may be. She is a possible marriage partner to some, a possible source of wealth and advancement for others. Like Christopher Newman in The American, her innocence and lack of experience with “Europeans” put her at risk.

It’s easy to regard Portrait as a feminist novel. While Isabel means to determine her own destiny and wants to see as much of the world as she can, others are intent on making certain she is tied down. Marriage is the social institution to which most women in the 1880s would be drawn, but Isabel is not necessarily interested in that choice. When she does marry, she does so as the result of a character she misjudges. When she is faced with the choice of not returning to her husband after a long separation, the demands of social convention, propriety, and commitments to others for whom she feels responsible over weigh her desire not to go back. It is a cowardly decision in some ways, a surrender to convention, to return to a cold and manipulative husband, yet because certain individuals need her and depend on her, it is also a decision of courage and sacrifice. Portrait as a novel offers a dim view of marriage, which it shows as oppressive to women. There are four failed marriages in the novel, most notably Isabel’s. Portrait’s conclusion is as dark a conclusion as one might imagine for Isabel personally, barring her serious injury or death.

James has often been described as a novelist of human consciousness. Portrait is a full and rich evocation of the consciousness of Isabel Archer. Few characters have I admired so much as Isabel--in the sense that a reader admires literary characters--and few books have given me as much pleasure in the reading as this one. In his Preface, James explains how he decided to develop the novel, “’Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s own consciousness,’ I said to myself, ‘and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick to THAT— for the centre; put the heaviest weight into THAT scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself.’”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart (2009) is notable for its relatively successful (because narrow) portrayal of a once famous country music singer struggling with decline, alcoholism, and general physical collapse. The acting by the two lead actors, Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is strong. The settings—bowling alleys, seedy nightclubs, one concert arenas, Gyllenhaal’s house, Bad Blake’s house, and the western desert--are what you’d want in this film about a down and out country music singer.

The plot is predictable. It reminded me of the 1971 film Payday in which Rip Torn portrayed a similar sort of country music singer in serious decline. But Crazy Heart is its own film with its own narrative. It works on the proposition that the love of a good woman can redeem even the most lost of lost men. This is the premise of innumerable country and western songs. Payday gave a grim naturalistic portrait of the country music industry from the viewpoint of a man--Maury Dann--struggling to pay his way from one day to the next, indifferent to the pain his alcoholism, drug abuse, and narcissism have caused. It’s difficult to like Maury Dann, or even to recognize what there might have been about him that once would have given him promise in the country music world. Crazy Heart asks its audience to like Bad Blake. Yes, he’s an alcoholic who has made all the mistakes alcoholics make—broken marriages, alienated children, lost opportunities. But he’s also lovable. When he sings we can understand that he really does have a talent. When he screws up, we’re sorry. And when he and Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), bruised by a painful divorce, start a relationship, we’re hopeful. Jeff Bridges portrayed a character vaguely similar in the title role of The Big Lebowski (1998).

(Crazy Heart is in fact about a lost opportunity, but also about the possibilities it opens up).

Payday ends with Maury Dann dead in a cornfield. Crazy Heart refuses to give up on its romance with Bad Blake, even in what happens in his relationship with the younger Jean. The novel by Thomas Cobb on which the film is based provides a darker, and perhaps even more realistic, outcome.

Good acting and a strong screenplay make Crazy Heart work. Robert Duvall’s brief appearance as Wayne, a bartender and Blake’s close old friend, enriches the film.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Lovely Bones

I have not read Alice Seybold’s novel The Lovely Bones, the basis of the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson. My comments on the film do not necessarily apply to the novel, which I will read eventually.

Visual imagery and acting are the strong points of Jackson’s film. The premise, that a dead girl can somehow interact with the living world, that there is an intangible interconnection between the living and the dead world, is highly speculative. And the film’s portrayal of heaven, or whatever place it is that the dead girl goes to, is simply fraudulent—the film goes where it shouldn’t, where it can’t. If heaven exists, it is beyond the ability of anyone living to comprehend. That part of the movie is fantasy. It is one thing to have a dead character narrate a story—Quentin Compsons does that in the second section of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But he does so as a purely narrative convention. Faulkner does not speculate about where or how or if he is—his voice merely recounts events leading to his suicide. In this film the dead girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) inhabits a world for the dead but at the same time can observe and somehow move around in the real world. At key moments, in ways subtle and in the end obvious, she can influence events. In the end she seems to interact directly with a still living character. The Others (2001) uses the conventional trappings of a ghost story but adds a Turn of the Screw kind of twist. The Others succeeds because viewers don’t know the truth until the very end. In The Lovely Bones director Jackson spells out the situation in so much detail that the implausible fantasy overrides and weighs down the film. On the one hand we have grieving parents, siblings, and friends trying to deal with a horrible tragedy; on the other we have the dead girl inhabiting a fancifully drawn, arbitrarily constructed after-life that seems less heavenly that psychedelic. The two dimensions of the film are a mismatch.

The Lovely Bones is a fantasy and a murder mystery. The murder mystery is more interesting and successful, though we know from an early point who the murderer is. The dead girl narrates the film as she attempts to understand what happened to her and why, and as she tries to accept her new situation. She can see family members but cannot interact with them. But there are subtle, faint ways that she can influence them, especially her father’s growing obsession with discovering his daughter’s murderer. Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon is beautifully convincing as she grapples with her loss of the life she was just beginning to live. She plaintively, wistfully mourns her own death, the life and family and boyfriend she has lost, and she feels real fear—or whatever fear it is that the dead may be said to feel—as she moves closer to discovering or realizing or remembering the moment of her death. Mark Wahlberg as her deeply grief-stricken father is particular good. This film was most affecting in its portrayal of how the parents and Susie’s sister react to her disappearance, not only when they learn of it but as her absence influences them for weeks and months to come.

Some might argue that the film is a fantasy and that I should view it as such. No. It tries to be fantasy and reality both. It doesn’t work.

The film is often engaging, with strong characters and scenes, but its ultimate premise offends. Its conception of the afterlife, and of what happens when one dies, should offend those who believe in heaven and those who do not. Surely the Afterlife—if it is, whatever it is—is not a New Age Theme Park.