A total bummer of a pulp mystery, and I can only attribute the high star ratings on this site as the residual memories of the elegance and literary wi...moreA total bummer of a pulp mystery, and I can only attribute the high star ratings on this site as the residual memories of the elegance and literary wit of the classic film noir that was adapted from it, 1947's Out of the Past. It's telling that all three of the enthusiastic quotes adorning the cover of this edition are taken from reviews of the film, and have nothing to do with the novel itself.
Homes constantly allows the plot to stray into long chapters dealing with peripheral characters who are hardly distinguishable from each other (I had a difficult time keeping them all straight--they all have similarly terse, one-syllable names like Guy, Slats, Lou, etc--and finally gave up when I finally realized they don't add much to the plot anyway), and there's a lot of focus on the good-girl Ann and her dogged suitor, small-town Jim. But at least there's the presence of Kathie, one of the most infamous femme fatales in all of cinema to compensate, right? Well, no--she barely makes an appearance here, and to add insult to injury, is named Mumsie McGonigle, which has to be the most ill-conceived name for a femme fatale ever.
So how did Homes, which is actually the pen name for Daniel Mainwaring who is credited with the film's screenplay, manage to transform his pigs ear of a novel into the silk purse that is the screenplay of Out of the Past? As it turns out, some archive detective work in the 90's by film scholar Jeff Schwager revealed that Mainwaring's screenplay was deemed completely unsuitable and discarded (the same goes for an additional draft by James M. Cain), and that the screenplay used in the film was actually by an obscure studio writer who went by the name of Frank Fenton. All of the elements that are most loved about the film's screenplay--the incomprehensibly sophisticated twists, the witty quips, the character of Kathie--only surface in shooting scripts after Fenton was assigned the project. He was never credited, however, and Mainwaring happily took all credit for the lauded screenplay (I read an interview with him from near the end of his life and he discusses it as if it was all his own creation).
But even if I was ultimately disappointed, I'm not sorry I read this. In the end, it merely made me love the film all the more. (less)
Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell are the hook and main selling point, but this is actually a collection of essays covering a number of modernist women...moreVirginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell are the hook and main selling point, but this is actually a collection of essays covering a number of modernist women writers, including H.D., Colette, Dorothy Richardson, Bryher, Stein, etc. The topics traversed—ranging from the Woolfs's personal albums to Bell's photographic experimentation to early, pioneering female film criticism and more—is unceasingly fascinating, which is why I was often frustrated with how dull Humm's analysis could become. It's pretty dazzling when it sticks to original research and close reading of a wide range of material (which accounts for the four stars), but all too often comes it lapses into ponderous strings of academese, and I quickly began to skip just about everything directly dealing with psychoanalytic theory (which is why I considered docking one of those stars).
The major highlight is the consideration of the Woolfs's personal photo albums as demonstrating a number of her literary techniques in visual form. Never chronological or even topically arranged, the five albums instead are largely associative constructions and often contain multiple photographs of a single subject from different visual perspectives (echoing cubist and other innovations of modernist visual art), and sometimes "superior" versions of photos can be found hidden behind ones that are less representationally perfect but contain flaws that are more artistically interesting and/or evocative (hinting that the albums were more than just personal records) . I wish Humm had explored a bit more Leonard's admitted contribution to the albums, but overall Humm makes a convincing case that Woolf's larger aesthetic project involves her "amateur" involvement in the photographic arts just as much as her "professional" achievements as novelist, essayist, and literary figure.
There's also a nice overview of the intimate connection many female modernists had to cinema and the photographic arts in general, opening up a number of avenues of inquiry I'm already researching and/or plan to pursue further.
[One of the images Humm includes from the Woolf albums]
Quite frankly I would rather have dental work performed than read most of the material brought together in this collection: of interest to me was its...moreQuite frankly I would rather have dental work performed than read most of the material brought together in this collection: of interest to me was its inclusion of what editor John Bryant calls "The Ur-Billy Budd," that is, the several brief fragments of poetry and prose that eventually generated into the Billy Budd as we know it today (see my full review Melville's novella here).
In light of my queer-inflected interest in this story, I particularly love the penultimate lines:
"In my last queer dream here I bid adieu— For most part a dream of ships no more— A muster of men from every shore— Hail to ye, fellows, and is it you?"(less)
I had hoped that during the time that has lapsed between having had to read this and Moby-Dick or, The Whale as an undergraduate and now I would have...moreI had hoped that during the time that has lapsed between having had to read this and Moby-Dick or, The Whale as an undergraduate and now I would have warmed up a bit more to Melville, who along with Dickens holds the dubious distinction as being my least favorite "canonical" authors.
No dice. I found this just as difficult to read and even more difficult to sustain any kind of interest in, and was most grateful for the relative brevity of Billy Budd, especially as Melville's writing style can charitably be described as impenetrable, if not at times actually unreadable.
The thing is, I really, really WANT to like Melville. I love reading interpretations of Melville's writing, as they are of the type that fracture and fragment under postmodern analysis, bursting with utterly fascinating queer resonances. Certainly the all-but-slavering characterization of the titular character throughout the novella is one of the glories of homoerotic 19th century literature:
"He was young; and despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion but where, thanks to his seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan."
Of course, Billy's corporeal beauty is rather problematically utilized by Melville as a symbol for purity, innocence, and moral as much as physical beauty, something that ultimately creates a rather blank and even unsympathetic cipher of a character. Not that, Claggart, his shadowy nemesis, is accorded any particularly interiority either that would help rationalize the hatred he develops that will eventually destroy Billy…
But Melville's silence in regards to the character of Claggart is also one of the most evocative qualities of the novella, creating an opening that has often been interpreted as sexual in nature: that Claggart is motivated by an attraction that is almost inevitably one-sided, that his fateful claim against Billy is rooted in a self-hatred caused by this attraction, etc.
One way or the other, what interests me about Billy Budd is that Melville's elusively was appropriated by director Claire Denis for her lyrical and (very) loose adaptation Beau Travail (France, 1999). In Denis's capable hands the bare bones of Melville's story is transformed into a beautiful meditation on postcolonialism, homoeroticism, the human (specifically male) body, marginality, movement, race relations, etc, etc, etc that in its own way is just as elusive and endlessly evocative as Melville's text. Only rendered, if you excuse my (very) biased opinion, with a masterfulness and density that Melville's text barely hints at.
Even just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind's short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as m...moreEven just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind's short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as my own (*sigh of relief*). Because, well, this text is just weird. Really, really weird.
The story, revolving around an unorthodox boarding school young girls become mysteriously initiated into, places each girl into a hierarchical "family" of seven other girls, and over the next seven years rigorously trains them in ballet and to play instruments. By their sixth and seventh years, the girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, are then employed by the school to perform in elaborate nightly performances to help finance the institution, and judging from both Wedekind's detailed descriptions of the performances as well as the vocal reactions of the audience, the plays are selected for their "tastefully" lascivious plotlines and elements. The girls, unable to comprehend the double entendre of the actions they are performing, are then ushered out of the school once the menstruation process is about to begin.
If this sounds like erotica, if not actually thinly veiled pornography, countless descriptions and actions, often presented as asides, do little to dispel such a charge (i.e. "if you missed even a small step, you felt the cane on your legs, a sensation that trickled up to the back of your neck. Gertrud always smiled when she beat us"). Or such scenes of swimming in the stream, with "hundreds of girls… undressing ready to sunbathe" (they swim naked, of course), or the narrator's remembrance of her role as one of the peasant girls in her first performance, in which she remembers that they "had nothing to do but lie on the steps and display [their] naked upper bodies and calves." Umm, yeah. Creepy.
But just when one has pretty much written off Mine Haha as esoteric smut (albeit beautifully written, extremely fascinating smut), Wedekind switches gears, and suddenly giving the entire story a liberal, even feminist slant: the description of the performance features prominently the main female character trapped in a cage, railing against the injustice of her situation, and it retrospectively echos a brief moment earlier in the narrative when the narrator and several other girls stand at the large, barred iron front gate of their school in which they note the "heavy bolt" that prevents their access to the mysterious world beyond. While nothing is ever explicitly stated, it is clear, however, that more is involved now than an elaborate fantasy.
This squares with Wedekind's reputation, then, as one of the most vehement and articulate critics of European bourgeois culture in late 19th century, particularly in regards to its repressive stance in regards to sex and sexuality (one of the reasons why Spring Awakening still seems so audacious and modern, capturing such a huge American audience over the last few years). And so that becomes the pièce de résistance of weirdness—suddenly what has seemed so queasily porno-ish is now being positioned as a progressive, utopian social vision. It's an odd dynamic that the novella is never able to resolve (though really, Wedekind might not even have realized it was something that needed to be resolved), and that's what created such a conflicted, unmoored reaction in me.
Which brings me to why I even read this in the first place. As it turns out, several years ago a French film director took the contradictions and ambiguities of Mine-Haha and transformed them into a masterful film. Among other things, in Innocence (2004), Lucile Hadzihalilovic completely reworked this material, positioning it as a dreamy, evocative metaphor for female sexual maturation, though she is careful to retain many of the ambiguities and complications that marks Wedekind's novella, leaving them eerily unresolved as well (which caused its own minor controversy when the film was released). As such, placing literary and cinematic texts next to each other creates a fascinating dialogue, their uneasy reflection in each other resolving some issues and questions but opening up even more.
Which, it must be admitted, is exactly as I was hoping for, as I'm writing on this topic for my thesis, and I was hoping to use this novella and adaptation as a key example. And now I can. :D
Dunno... can something be interesting without being compelling? Because that's the conflicted feeling I get when remembering this study—Stam is a dist...moreDunno... can something be interesting without being compelling? Because that's the conflicted feeling I get when remembering this study—Stam is a distinguished writer and scholar, of course, and I appreciate the varied and multivalent approach in analyzing Jules et Jim, which many feel is Truffaut's masterpiece (I need to rewatch, but I've always been firmly in the camp that holds that the director never quite reached the same heights he managed with Les quatres cents coups). Stam places both Henri-Pierre Roché's source novel and the film adaptation into a variety of biographical and historical contexts, and also looks at the later adaptations Truffaut made of Roché's work. It's a learned and impressive piece of scholarship that is also readily accessible—no easy feat. But does it say something that I never exactly bothered to finish it? (less)
Essentially ground zero for adaptation studies—it's actually kind of embarrassing that I hadn't given it a look until recently (I'm assuming checking...moreEssentially ground zero for adaptation studies—it's actually kind of embarrassing that I hadn't given it a look until recently (I'm assuming checking it out multiple times from the library to have it sit unopened on my shelf doesn't count, right?).
Bluestone follows Lessing's classic distinction between the verbal and visual as articulated in Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (though interestingly never references Lessing explicitly), and in minute detail argues that "what is peculiarly filmic and what is peculiarly novelistic cannot be converted without destroying an integral part of each."
Fair enough, though almost all analysis and commentary on the subject—my own included—in the half century since have taken on a more nuanced approach in how the literary and cinematic interact in film adaptations, thus Bluestone's study takes on that unenviable position of being that initial, influential text that everyone subsequently takes to task to erect their own theoretical conjectures. The majority of the book is comprised of essays that entail close, formalistic readings of both the cinematic and literary text of the type that was de rigueur in academic studies in the first half of the twentieth century (which is my diplomatic way saying that it's good stuff that makes for dull reading).
Someday I will sit down and give it a thorough read though. (less)
For any good cinephile the standard line is that on its way to the screen Vertigo (1958) radically transformed its original source material, the (rela...moreFor any good cinephile the standard line is that on its way to the screen Vertigo (1958) radically transformed its original source material, the (relatively) obscure French mystery novel written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, most commonly known by the portmanteau moniker “Boileau-Narcejac.” This transformation directly resulted in what many feel is not only Alfred Hitchcock’s most deeply and intensely personal film, but one of the greatest films of all time. This is more or less what I expected, but it is not at all what I got.
What I discovered instead was an extremely interesting psychological mystery, and nearly all of major plot points and narrative events included in Hitchcock’s film originated within its pages. As some research demonstrated, I’m not the only one to feel like Boileau-Narcejac’s has received a critical short shrift. As Peter Lev writes in a thoughtful consideration of the connection between novel and film: “D’entre les morts is a thoughtful and innovative work of mystery fiction that deserves study both in its own right and as the precursor to the film Vertigo.”* I highly recommend Lev’s essay and some other scholarship that has emerged on this topic for deeply considered analyses, but for the sake of a review I offer several cursory thoughts and observations.
[Technically some of what will follow could be considered spoilers, though this shouldn’t be an issue for anybody who is even cursorily aware of the film’s plot.]
To begin, the commonalities: the aforementioned similarity in the basic narrative and plot, the central character of a former police detective (named Flavières in the novel, Scottie in the film) who becomes obsessed with his client’s wife, as well as the name of “Madeleine,” who becomes the object of Flavières/Scottie’s desire and obsession. It is this last attribute that most immediately interests me, as it nicely evokes what Carol Mavor (who is herself invoking the ideas of the late, great Chris Marker) describes as “the Proustian inflection of Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine in Vertigo.”** For reading the novel after seeing the film–which is, I presume, the case with the vast majority of the novel’s reader’s today–is to experience involuntary recall, with memories of the movie’s lush imagery constantly materialize with a potency attributed to the madeleine by the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu. But for me this is far from a bad thing, but instead creates an ideal site where a film and a literary text can and should be read as being in dialogue with each other, and a consideration of this type in turn reveals a number of insights, gaps, and resonances that can deepen and complicate understanding of both texts.
Because more than the similarities, what fascinated me most were the elements that appear in one text but not the other, as these often were the things that would often open up unexpected vistas of possible meaning. A particularly good example: D’entre les morts is overtly intertextual in a manner the film never is. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice figures prominently in the narrative–so much so that Flavières’s affectionate pet name for Madeleine becomes “little Eurydice” (I had never considered Vertigo as an explicit retelling of the Eurydice myth. It seems so obvious now). It also references the cinema at a key point as well, as Flavières “rediscovers” his Eurydice when he glimpses her on a larger-than-life movie screen after he aimlessly wanders into a Parisian theater one afternoon. Considering that Vertigo is often characterized as an implicit meditation on cinema itself, it is interesting to note that these seeds seem to have (at the very least) been planted in the original novel. On a completely different level, while Vertigo is a depiction of one man’s obstinate descent into obsessive desire, the novel uses these personal experiences to explore the larger social trauma experienced by the French during WWII, which is perhaps why it leads to a darker conclusion than Hitchcock dares (though on a dramatic and emotional level, the film’s conclusion is far superior).
This review has amplified the novel’s strengths; I could further explicate the many areas where the film exceeds Boileau-Narcejac’s vision (the dream-logic of the narrative, the general oneiric quality it evokes, the representation of space, the creation of the supporting character of Midge to form a heartbreaking love triangle, etc.). Vertigo was crowned “the greatest film ever made” in the most recent Sight & Sound poll, and there’s a reason for that–it a legitimately great film, yes, even one of the great films. And this is a level of distinction that Boileau-Narcejac’s novel never comes close to achieving itself. But just because it’s not one of the all-time great mystery novels doesn’t at all detract from the fact that it’s very, very good. And this is something Hitchcock scholarship has tended to downplay–often to the point of deliberate obscuration–but much like the story of “the sad Carlotta Valdes” or her textual equivalent Pauline Lagerlac, in any consideration of Vertigo Boileau-Narcejac’s novel lingers like a mysterious specter, implying backstories and whole alternative histories that might well be repressed, but never fully erased.
Probably best appreciated in conjunction with the much more famous film, of which this is neither its source material nor an after-the-fact novelizati...moreProbably best appreciated in conjunction with the much more famous film, of which this is neither its source material nor an after-the-fact novelization. According to its creator, both were conceived and created simultaneously ("the book had been painted with one hand while the other he was on a fresco—the film" is how the introduction paraphrases Pasolini's own explanation), and while it certainly does shed some light on some of the more opaque actions in the film (particularly all the running around the characters seem to do), the novel certainly does precious by way of "explaination." Instead it reveals different facets of the work, mostly of the internal sort, but at the same time it unveils its own sets of riddles and mysteries. The Vistor—Dionysus? Christ? Demon? Angel? Death?—remains as enigmatic as ever, though his presence, and subsequent loss, is just as deeply felt as the lives of those he leaves (abandons?) spin dizzyingly out of control, elegantly conveyed in both prose and poetry.
Both film and novel are of the type that make me wish I knew so much more—more about mythology, Biblical history, European Marxism, art, religious mysticism, Pasolini himself and his own personal mythology, even "inconsequential" topics like Italian geography...
"In any case this is certain: that whatever/ this scream of mine tries to say/ it is fated to last beyond any possible end."(less)