Saturday, January 24, 2009

The House of Mirth

As I watched Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz sparring in the early scenes of The House of Mirth, I thought of Josef von Sternberg, because of the way Terence Davies exaggerates social behavior into abstraction. But the resemblance is superficial. Sternberg opens up a big space between the characters and the way they behave, and then fills that space with his own awareness. (I used to resist Susan Sontag's categorization of Sternberg as camp, but now it seems to me fairly accurate, if one allows that camp can be a serious business.) Whereas Davies loves the idea of behavior as ceremony, and fully commits his characters to it. The cross-currents and complexities in their personalities may eventually be revealed (more later about how they are revealed), but in the moment the actors represent a central idea very clearly and very forcefully.

The beauty of the careful compositions and the elaborate decor also seems to express the same emotional commitment to surfaces. A fascinating aspect of Davies' artistic personality is that he is willing to undercut all the sources of his and our pleasure: not just the joys of elegance and the love of ceremony, but also any delight to be had in the catfighting power struggles that organize the fiction. Some filmmakers might take a compensating spiritual pleasure in Lily Bart's hardwon but Pyrrhic moral discipline as she approaches her destiny - Davies takes none. Thus the remarkable bleakness in Davies' work: beyond the beautifully dressed women and the opera music, there is only absence and death. Perhaps there is a masochism at work here to make Sternberg's look trifling by comparison.

There is an elaborate psychological schema at work in this movie. Lily is not merely bushwhacked by predatory society: she is deeply complicit in her own downfall, reacting so violently against the part of her that desires social position that she destroys her own ability to cope and survive. This theme is present everywhere in the narrative; it does not require inference. The interesting thing is that this psychology barely manifests in Gillian Anderson's performance: Davies wants from her a tragic and ceremonial demeanor, not tipoffs. It's actually quite hard to tell whether there is a disconnect between the material and Davies' directorial sensibility, or whether Davies rigged the story to express the psychology (he did adapt Edith Wharton's novel, after all) and then suppressed that same psychology on the set.

In many writer-directors, one feels that the writing and the directing are of a piece, that they are aspects of the same process. Davies may be a test case for another paradigm, according to which the roles of writing and directing would be separated, and even opposed.


Jaime said...

It's funny - on movie sets, the script is in most conventional cases held to be "scripture," and any contradictory choices made by the director are met with confusion or hostility, or both.

I've found that when you're managing people, almost all of them do not enjoy conflicting instructions, and that a sense of going against a previously established grain can be problemsome.

But the director can rescue himself from that situation - I think any director would prefer that he's seen as the set's authority figure, even if he's written the script himself. You might write a script but when you arrive on the set you talk everyone into believing that the scriptwriter, being a figure of the past, is something like a dying god, to be acknowledged as a structural force - but one of limited power.

The military has a very simple way of resolving complaints of conflicting instructions: "follow the last order given."

Did you make a mental list of what Davies seems to inscribe as "director's roles" and "screenwriter's roles"?

Michał Oleszczyk said...

"Lily is not merely bushwhacked by predatory society: she is deeply complicit in her own downfall, reacting so violently against the part of her that desires social position that she destroys her own ability to cope and survive."

I think Davies' snesitivity to this aspect of Lily comes from he's being gay and in such a proclaimed conflict with himself (he often says in interviews that he hates being gay). Lily feels such loathing at the possibility of becoming a "jeune fille a mariee" that she hurts herself. She says to Selden: "Love me, but don't tell me so". It's a contradictory yearing in her: she would like to receive Selden's love, but resents the whole 'packagaging' that such a love would have to be wrapped in. She's a women in deep confliict with the culture she was brought up in, and because this culture is ingrained in her: a women at war with herself. She wins, and that's why she loses (dies).

Dan Sallitt said...

Jaime: when I wrote about Davies' two filmmaking roles being separated, I was referring to way the characters' psychology is represented. Lily's subconscious, self-destructive agenda is worked out clearly and deliberately in the script: it is pointed up in various ways, often in other characters' dialogue; and scenes are structured around revelations of her conflict with herself. Yet Davies the director does not want his actors to be objects that we can scrutinize for clues: he wants us to be in awe of performers; he wants us to feel the power of the ceremony of theater. If I hadn't been aware that Davies had written the adaptation, I might have wondered whether the film was the lucky result of the collaboration of a hieratic director and an analytic writer.

It's true that the practice of making cinema usually entails a single source of authority. Yet the "dying god" model you describe isn't uncommon in the arts: theater directors are motivated to stage idiosyncratic interpretations of classic plays; rock musicians do not like to cover a song without altering it to make it their own. Of course, filmmaking is more inflected by the ways of the business world than some other art forms. Even arty films use a filmmaking model that was honed for commercial use.

Michał: I find the incompatibility between Lily and Selden rather complicated. Selden seems to love her, but will not marry her because he believes that she doesn't really want him and wouldn't be content with him. And the film gives credence to this opinion: though I believe Lily would accept his proposal, it seems to be true that a large part of her had wanted a different match with more money and social advantage, and that she would be settling for Selden, even though she loves him. Her terrible punishment of herself makes sense only if she is composed of two powerful and opposing forces - and I think this is compatible with the evidence we are given.

Jake said...

Fascinating. Given House of Mirth is a tragedy, what place does the idea of catharsis have in your theory of pleasure? Is that a useful concept for you?

On a not-totally-unrelated topic, did you see Dr Horrible’s Singalong Blog?

Dan Sallitt said...

Howdy, Jake. Catharsis – geez, I don't know what to say. I went to the Poetics (freely available online – Aristotle must have lost the copyright), and it looks to me as if Aristotle is trying to describe the value of tragedy by observing that it purges the audience of pity and fear. As I am old-fashioned enough to think that the purpose of criticism (mine, anyway) is to identify and explain the value of works of art, I can relate to Aristotle's desire to justify the way tragedy traffics in emotions that we try to avoid in real life. Living in a post-Freudian age, though, I tend to accept on face value that we get direct pleasure from the suffering of ourselves and others, both in art and in life; and generally I try to locate the value of art in the way that it manages these reactions and juxtaposes them with other attitudes, rather than in the way it might adjust our stores of pity and fear to appropriate levels.

Then there's another connotation to the word, having to do with the formal techniques by which the viewer's feelings are shaped and focused, leading to a satisfying emotional climax. And I certainly find this topic very interesting, though from the more modern perspective that these systems can be sabotaged in various ways to good effect.

No, I haven't seen Dr. Horrible, and I'm pretty much ignorant of all things Whedonesque. I saw part of one episode of "Buffy" once, and it looked quite interesting to me. What am I missing out on?

Jake said...

Thanks for that – it helps me understand where you’re coming from better, I think. I don’t know how much distinction you’d draw between the suffering of fictional characters and the suffering of real people, including filmmakers. For me there’s quite a gap between The House of Mirth and Of Time And The City, where Davies makes himself into the victim and invites us to wallow in misery by his side.

Dr Horrible is an interesting little thought experiment that brought a few of your ideas to mind. When you say that Sternberg “opens up a big space between the characters and the way they behave” that would be a good baseline description of how Whedon works as well. Also, he’s all about supplying as much immediate pleasure as possible, before punishing us down the track.

Dan Sallitt said...

Jake - I know that there are differences in audiences' reactions to the suffering of characters and to that of real people, but I think that these differences are fewer and less important that we generally assume. So I tend to want to point out the similarities.

I too was sometimes uncomfortable with Davies' attitudes in Of Time and the City. With his sense of victimhood comes a fair amount of edgy bitterness.