Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

For clarity: this isn't a movie. It was a mock-vlog reenacting Pride and Prejudice. It was set in California, and brilliantly updated. But I did waste a lot of time on it, and it deserves critical attention. It was an ambitious and well-executed project.

Things it did well: 1) captured the family trauma and separation anxiety that even the novel seems to make light of (I got all misty - several times). 2) made Lizzie a dynamic, maturing character rather than the static wit of Austen's novel (this contrast is clearly arguable). 3) updated the social conditions without sacrificing too many finer plot points (marriage became interchangable with business relationships). 4) brought familial affections to the foreground ahead of romance as part of the "updating." 4) ended drama/trauma with surprise and humor. 5) the female costumes. Brilliant.

Things it did badly: 1) Collins and Darcy were both clearly beefcakes in business suits. That works great for most casual audience members who like a nice beefcake with their Harlequin, and for Collins's already-established dislikability, but it's fatal for a romantic hero like Darcy, who in this portrayal, was clearly struggling to keep his pectorals behind his shirt-buttons. While his uneasy physicality made Lizzie's descriptor "robotic" quite believable, it made his position as CEO of Pemberly Digital totally ridiculous. Real businessmen (especially the obsessive, reclusive types) can be robotic, but they know their business, and they jargon fluidly, and they USE CONTRACTIONS. Anybody who thinks people don't use contractions is working with a stereotype outdated by nearly half a century. And briefly (and oddly successfully) resuscitated by Ryan O'Neal in What's Up Doc?. And sorry, but anybody who spends THAT much time in the gym is going to be more comfortable with himself.

The unfortunately clumsy use of jargon and academese is the fault of the writing, not the acting, but a superlative actor can pull off bad academese. See Samantha Carter or Daniel. . . in Stargate: SG1, or Darth Sidious in the Star Wars prequels (they all got bad writing, but only Ian McDiarmid managed to sound like not an idiot).

Anyway, Darcy is nearly impossible to write or act, after the brilliantly taciturn Colin Firth. Even (don't hate me) Matthew Macfadyen, though very much the Romantic (note the big "R") hero, and a beautiful specimen of the male of the species, ended his version by spouting drivel to satisfy the contemporary craving for verbal orgasm.

I think the key to a successful Darcy is "aloof." Less is more. The more you write, the more you are exposed to criticism, and this reticence is precisely the philosophy by which Austen's hero lives. "We neither of us speak unless we expect to amaze the whole room" - or some such epigram. 

Um, and what was up with his hair?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Holiday

Having seen this film perhaps three or four times, I expected to drift through on my enjoyment of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, but the family dynamic made me slow down and pay attention. The father is a stock character: a stereotyped arbitrary authoritarian-style parent, right down to the now-cliched mispronouncing the potential son-in-law's name when upset. It's the Seton siblings that got my attention.

The three siblings are Linda, Julia, and Ned, in chronological order of ages. Linda is, of course (Hepburn), the heroine. As the actors play it, Julia is the only dynamic character (ostensibly). Although atttiudes shift between the three, Julia rides the waves of audience disapproval toward new heights of aloofness. Linda garners all of the sympathy with her deeply pathetic self-sacrifice and dedication to non-money-based ideals. Ned drinks, which wouldn't have endeared him, but he also supports Linda verbally, and woos the audience with his musical talent and bitter humor. However, he hasn't Linda's (or Julia's) courage to do more than drink, talk, and play. All three siblings developed under the pressures of wealth, and each reacts differently. Linda grows strong in resistance. Julia allows herself to be shaped by it, growing strong in her own way, but clearly deformed. Ned is aware of the pressure and its immorality, but hasn't the strength yet to resist. Because of his awareness and submission, he is likely in the worst pain emotionally because he submits against his own conscience, becoming smaller and visibly self-destructive.

I am a dark-haired, non-conformist oldest sister, and my next youngest sibling is a blonde, hard-working woman. Like Linda and Julia, my sister and I often disagree about politics, personal philosophies, and people. She's the pretty one - the trophy daughter. I'm stubborn, clumsy, and inclined to error. I don't try to "save" my sister from her life choices, but I do care about her happiness very deeply. Katherine Hepburn plays the blindly devoted older sister perfectly, and embraces Linda's propensity to error.

All three siblings are tested by Johnny Case (Cary Grant). He enters the ancient home with great naivete, and each sibling must react to it, and face the audience's judgement thereby. Julia loves the person at first, but reacts to his naivete by trying to eliminate it - to cut off that part of his personality with great prejudice. Linda embraces it - acknowledges it as a probably fault, but still submits to the uncertainty exactly as she could NOT embrace the security of her family's wealth and position. Ned, though positioned differently, as a heterosexual man, accepts Case's quirks only as far as it allows them to be playmates or drinking buddies. Case's naivete becomes the testing apparatus on which audience approval hangs, and so it's clearly essential that a charismatic star like Grant play the role.

Julia wants to change Johnny, which is clearly an attitude against the moral code of the film, although the moral code of the film appears flawed in the depression-era production context. Johnny wants to make a quick million, quit his job, and tool around the world. That kind of flippancy, as delightfully manic-pixie as it is, is bound to frustrate the thousands of unemployed audience members sitting in the dark. And yet the film questions the need for 9-5 work, as if all those unemployed audience members have been given the profound option of a "holiday" (sans million) without the family pressures. Johnny's nativete only functions properly as moral rubric as long as he holds the audience's admiration, which he does only as far as he maintains a sympathetic raport with poverty: enter Edward Everett Horton.

EEH is one of my absolute, all-time favorite voice- and screen-actors. His trademark befuddled wit and general good-humor never fail to cheer me up. In this film, he plays a poor professor, and Johnny Case's dearest friend, and it is that money-free friendship which allows the millionaire Case to keep the moral balance of the story. He's rich, but he's friends with poor people (though people with clear Cultural Capital, as well as a certain amount of charisma). He's the kind of guy who might make friends with me, too. That kind of identification is absolutely essential in these kinds of veiled morality tales, even veiled as they are in brilliant screwball comedy.