Sunday, 23 March 2008

On Austen's Clues

Clueless, the 1995 Alicia Silverstone fluff-fest, was based on Jane Austen’s Emma; surprising, but apt you must allow. I never cease to enjoy the expression that comes over people’s faces when I share this piece of trivia, whether they be lit-buffs/Austen fans or just plain Clueless haters.

Let me first note that there has been a long tradition since Clueless for fluffing down various canonical works into teen-aimed flicks, which may or may not have been sparked off by the movie. Most people do not know that Clueless is based on a Jane Austen novel, and it was never marketed that way, not is it ever mentioned. That Ten Things I Hate About You is a version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is better known. Less witty modernizations of canonical works are even more publicized, like the dreadful She’s the Man starring Amanda Byrnes, a lamentably predictable excuse for Twelfth Night. Clueless may not be as witty as Ten Things or even as stylish as Cruel Intentions, but I think it certainly shares more with Emma than any of the ones I’ve mentioned, and that sheds some interesting light on the work of Miss Austen, particularly as the relationship between Clueless and Emma is so seldom thought of.

Cher Horowitz is the ostensible contemporary take on Emma Woodhouse, in characterization if not social location; after all modern day Beverly Hills is hardly the most pleasing equivalent for the classes Austen wrote about, who though wealthy and privileged (and not always that) were not really glamorous. Both heroines are blessed with good looks, affluence and social superiority, and marked with the same flaws, although Cher’s vanity and self-regard is less advertised than Emma’s. Both fancy themselves as instrumental in the matchmaking of a teaching figure (Miss Geist in Clueless, Miss Taylor in Emma) with someone else, which inspires an ostensibly well-intentioned pageant of good deeds (and I do mean pageant) which inevitably go wrong. Both have to learn that the inherent flaw in their good deeds is the vanity which underlies them all, and that they are not as socially competent as they had thought themselves (in a word, clueless). Both end up with the one person who is able to criticise them (Josh in Clueless, Mr Knightley in Emma), symbolizing their arrival at humility and self-knowledge.

Why then, is Clueless such a fluff-fest, and Emma a canonical work? What stopped the many that don’t and didn’t know where the plot blueprint for Clueless came from, from applauding the movie the way many received Austen’s works and still do? Is the dressing up really that important? Surely if one has profound significance then the other should too?

I suppose the answer in part does have much to do with the dressing, or the fluffing down. Jane Austen was praised not only for her use of irony and wit but also for her keen observation of a society that she represented very well, all of which in Clueless is naturally dismissed. Consequently the meticulous representation of the manners, propriety, hypocrisies and virtues of a small slice of human experience have been largely sacrificed.

Jane Austen was, fundamentally, a realist writer, and Clueless, for all its amusing translation into contemporary fluff, is a fantasy world. It is not the sort of fantasy that this blog celebrates, but the kind which ultimately yields little more than spectacle and decadent self-indulgence. In doing so, it really makes fun of itself, representing its trivia as exactly that: trivia. Because no matter how polished or trend-setting Clueless was, or how great Alicia Silverstone looked in it, we are meant to laugh at Cher, and never for a moment take her or her trivia seriously. It is ironic, but not the way Austen was ironic. Emma, on the other hand, though every bit as vain and self-indulgent as Cher, is somehow a heroine whose redemption we do take seriously, whose trivia, it seems, we do take seriously.

Why is this? Perhaps the crucial difference between Clueless and Emma is that Emma's [social] cluelessness was never the primary flaw, but her lack of respect for a complex system of conventions meant to serve courtesy and honour, as a result of arrogant dismissiveness. And curiously, in its very irony, Clueless replicates this flaw, by mocking the trivia which emerges with such skill in Austen's novels as anything but. Because if Austen's novels teach us anything, it is that playing justly by society's rules is never trivial if it serves their original purpose to sustain virtue and express compassion.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Of Seeing and Believing

I am always excited about film adaptations of books. The same is also true of books that movies have been based on. Even if I didn’t particularly like the movie, if I discover there is a book behind it, I will get my hands on that book. I can’t exactly say why this is. I suppose I love comparing a story-telling across two mediums. Most of the time I am disappointed of course, but that is a universal cliché. I still always get something out of it, see something there I hadn’t considered before: the director’s vision sometimes so far from my own it enters my consciousness as an entirely new aesthetic, if not an entirely new story, so that I can appreciate it for its own sake. And I believe that is fairly peculiar of me.

The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights is what I consider a good example of a film adaptation. I say this particularly because I didn’t really enjoy this book, and that has nothing to do with the current controversy whirling around its religious themes. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was reading it for a class, but I didn’t feel the wonder and heightened emotion that one should feel from a good fantasy work. I didn’t ‘recover’ the ordinary through its fantastic estrangement. The movie effected this. The movie made me realize there were things in that story that had tuned in to my sense of the epic and the fundamental. But it had taken the movie to bring these feelings to flower. I find this quite remarkable, that the movie did what the book could not…definitely a first for me. And I have never cultivated prejudice for one medium, over the other. For me both books and movies nurture imagination in their own particular ways. Yet undoubtedly we have fewer opportunities to find book adaptations of movies than movie adaptations of books. I have found both, and been very surprised by both experiences. If anyone has any doubt of this, take a scene from what you consider a ‘good’ movie, try and write down all the subtle and fine touches in a single expression on a character’s face, make it into a ‘book’. You could write pages, but I don’t think you would get the same effect, not without being a tyrant over your reader’s imagination. And the same is true, curiously, of movies based on books; no actor could precisely capture what you felt for the words that originally evoked those emotions.

Maybe it was the effect of the succinct and the visual, and the medium just more properly suited the fairy-dimension. Then again I shall definitely enjoy the book more when I get it again.

One can read fantasy in the ‘right’ way of course, while still not succumbing to its emotional seduction. By the ‘right way’ I mean that we can ask ourselves the questions that we are supposed to ask, that the fantasy compels us to ask. In the case of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, people have been reducing this complex process to seeing ‘through’ the story to what it is ‘really about’. But this is missing the whole point of the value in fantasy’s extraordinary power to pull us back to the heart of the things we do. Reading (or watching) fantasy is never about what the story is about. It should give narrative form to ideas, the way myth does, but it is in its displacement to a world made strange, a world of magic and fairy-tale beings, it allows us to examine those ideas critically and consciously, without the distractions of the material. So the fantasists tell us.

And I confess I will always try to believe them, so long as they play fair and give us such worlds of wonder and peril as this. Whether seeing (movies) or imagining (reading), it is always really about imagining, isn’t it? It is just a way of feeling more than we ever could at the height of the mundane, in realms far beyond what is right there.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Happy Endings in the Land of Nothing

I recently watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding again. Not one of my favorite movies, not particularly profound, but always enjoyable nevertheless. I think one of the reasons it strikes people so is because it is essentially a fairy-tale in all the mechanics, and because its selling grace lies in its representation of cross-cultural contact resolving in classic eucatastrophe, the happy ending inserted in that space which in reality is so often the scene of the tragedy this movie flirts with. Ostensibly this is a brave, admirable message with contemporary relevance. But I couldn't help thinking how much this movie's happy ending depends on not only constructing a space in which it can operate, but on displacing that space where vital tragic elements should have been resolved.

Examined closely no inter-cultural understanding takes place in the movie, because there is no contact. What happens from the beginning of the movie is that a place is introduced for one culture, the colourful warm American Greek family. That culture is set up in Tula’s opening lament against a vague unresisting homogenized ‘norm’, invested with the authority of its status as ‘normal’, but essentially no real character of its own. This ‘norm’ is represented first by the ‘blond, delicate’ girls who mock Tula’s Greek culture as a little girl, and later by Ian and his parents, the Miller family. The function of the first is to provide a context for Tula’s angst and to locate the American Greek culture as defined by ‘difference’, a difference which is celebrated and whose short-comings are redeemed through sentimental comedy. The function of the second (the Miller family) is simply to maintain the basis for that celebration through simultaneously emphasizing its peculiarity and locating the culture’s value in its difference from the Miller family, whose homogenized lack-lustre status is epitomized in Tula’s father’s phrase ‘the toast family’. How is that celebration maintained?

Who is the Miller family, and just what are they supposed to represent? If the comparison between the two families is examined it is plain that their primary signification is that of emptiness, comprised of negatives, ‘not-being’, ‘lack’. Ian’s family lacks loudness so there is space for Tula’s family’s loudness and even for Ian to learn their language. They are not religious so there is space for Ian to assume Tula’s religion. Ian is a vegetarian, his diet defined by lack, while Tula’s family are big eaters. All contact with the Greek culture then is defined by ‘filling’, a ‘filling’ which is enabled by their structured emptiness. A large part of that structure consists of Ian giving in to all Tula’s family’s demands while there is no instance where the opposite ever needs to occur.

Their silence is contrasted with the Greek family’s loudness; their dispassionate secularity with the colourful faith in the Greek Orthodox Church; even their colouring tends to hues and lines (beige, white and understated shades) suggesting ‘space’, while Tula’s family wear bright or dark colours. Gus calls them ‘dry’, the ‘toast family’ and they lack life, emotion and even religion. Ian tells Tula ‘I came alive when I met you’, and the sign of the Miller parents getting up and dancing at the end of the movie signifies the same. ‘Life’ enters the empty culture through being substituted by fullness, signified by the American Greek culture.

I want to be plain here that my complaint is not simply that inter-cultural understanding occurs at the expense of any one culture. I am not implying that Western culture, secular culture or whatever is being represented by the Miller family is vilified by the movie, because it simply isn’t present in the movie. The Miller family are rather conveniently empty; and as such they don’t so much signify a culture as a vague West emptied of culture. Ian effectually ‘becomes culture-ed’ by accepting Tula’s culture where before there was none. And what this implies is that there is only a space for other cultures if we make absent the vitality of the dominant culture, implicitly, because other cultures simply cannot hold their own in a direct tackle with it were it allowed to be present in its true complexity and vitality, and that is deeply discouraging and offensive.