Friday, January 29, 2010

Wordless definitions: particular

Why is it some cats prefer to drink from a running faucet? The water doesn't taste any different, and it's harder to get. I think they just like the power of sitting somewhere, expecting you do something, and seeing you do it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Janespotting: Northanger Abbey, 1987 TV-film

There haven't been many film adaptations for Northanger Abbey—the fewest of any of Austen's novels—probably owing to its relative lack of popularity as well as the difficulty of translating all the literary references to film. I felt fortunate that my library had the first such adaptation, a 90-minute BBC/A&E production broadcast in 1987. I approached it with a mixture of hope and trepidation. After all, less than a decade later a BBC/A&E collaboration would give us the sublime Pride & Prejudice mini-series. Still, 1987 might be a little early to expect an upgrade from the bland quality of some early productions. After having viewed this version of NA, however, I can safely say it wasn't bland. Instead, I think the writer and director might have erred a little too much in the other direction, for there were times I thought I might have enjoyed the film better if I had been on hallucinogens.

I understand that there is a challenge in conveying Catherine's interest in Gothic literature, one that is most easily met by showing scenes from these novels. In this adaptation these scenes are shown as Catherine's fantasies (starring Catherine and other characters), but often they bleed into scenes that are supposed to be taking place in the "real" world. For instance, there is one scene that in the novel takes place in Bath's Pump Room, but in the film is set in the Grand Bath. Men and women are in special swimming costumes (gowns for the ladies), still wear their elaborate hats, and have little plates worn around their necks that float in the water and hold edible treats. Evidently this co-ed bathing was a custom at the time (but without the hats), although as portrayed in the film it looks like something out of Fellini. A similarly bizarre scene occurs during Catherine's visit to the Abbey, when a visit from the General's friend the Marchioness (an invented character who looks ridiculously like a harlequin) leads to a fantasy involving the Marchioness's young African servant leading Catherine outdoors, where she is rescued by Henry on a horse. Extremely weird.

The strangeness wasn't helped any by several design elements, in particular the music, hair, and costumes. The latter involved lots of bright colors, tons of ribbons, huge feathers, and a style that was entirely too baroque for the era. The hair was very '80s, with lots of feathers and curls (even, God help us, on blond Henry Tilney). And the music ... completely bizarre and out of character. I get that they were trying to enhance the Gothic mood, but when you hear electric guitar and keyboard during landscape scenes, or a saxophone during a romantic scene, or Gregorian chants during the bathing scenes, it just takes you entirely out of the Austen mood.

I think that was my main problem with this adaptation: it doesn't have the Austen mood. I'm not sure they understood that Austen's NA is a satire of Gothic novels, not a tribute to them. This version too often tried to re-create the Gothic atmosphere—even to the point of exaggerating both James Thorpe's and General Tilney's characters so that they seem genuinely threatening—but the whole point of NA is that Catherine is seeking the Gothic in a place where it doesn't exist. And the one scene in the novel that most closely resembles the Gothic—when John Thorpe"kidnaps" Catherine for a coach ride when she has promised the Tilneys a walk—is for some reason omitted in favor of her first ride, when all he does is go a little too fast.

Still, I don't want to leave the impression this adaptation wasn't any fun at all. The performances were pretty good, especially Peter Firth (no relation to P&P's Colin Firth) as Henry Tilney. Some scenes were spot on (despite the music), especially the one where Catherine finally gets her countryside walk with the Tilneys, and I liked how they fleshed out the final romantic declaration that Austen is frequently too modest to detail. There were many good uses of dialogue directly from the book, and even one phrase that I believe is original but sounded so like Austen I had to look it up to see. As the film opens, and Catherine's brother calls her away from her book, she tells him, "literature and solitude are as necessary to a young woman's development as sunshine is to ripe fruit." Now that is a sentiment I can fully agree with.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Photo of the Week--1/25/10

No pigeons in this picture, but I had to post it as an example of how you never know what a kid will latch onto when you travel. Boy was six during this trip to Germany, and he was fascinated by these little canals that threaded their way through the city of Freiburg. We visited in June, and in October he was still talking nonstop about how he was planning his own system of canals to cross our backyard, the neighborhood, the school.... I'm not sure what their purpose was supposed to be, I guess it was enough for them to look cool.