Saturday, June 18, 2005
Ridiculous from Today’s Perspective
‘To look either forwards or backwards,’ Italo Calvino suggests, we have to admit the reality of our own cultural contexts. ‘In order to read the classics, you have to establish exactly where you are reading them “from”, otherwise both the reader and the text tend to drift in a timeless haze.’ I’m interested in how texts which interpret other (anterior) texts - movies that adapt novels, for instance - achieve this, without thereby domesticating and ossifying the wildness and strangeness of the life of the past. And by golly, some movies work it through the embassies of literary criticism. Mansfield Park and Lionel Trilling are the topics of the first important conversation between Tom Townsend and Audrey Rouget, the callow hero and modest heroine of Whit Stillman’s 1990 movie Metropolitan.
Austen’s book is introduced into the film as a book; moreover, as a book whose value and import for belated readers requires talking over.
–by Tolstoy, War and Peace, and by Jane Austen, Persuasion and Mansfield Park.
Mansfield Park! You’ve gotta be kidding!
But it’s a notoriously bad book! Even Lionel Trilling, one of her greatest admirers thought that.
Well, if Lionel Trilling thought that he’s an idiot.
Hah! The whole story revolves around, what? the, the immorality of a group of young people putting on a play.
In the context of the novel it makes perfect sense.
The context of the novel! - nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is ridiculous from today’s perspective.
Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look even worse?
Lionel Trilling’s intervening presence is a buffer or screen between the all-absorbing, omnipotent fiction, and what its readers, the movie among them, are free to make of it; he stands for the intimation that if a novel comes equipped with a troubling reputation, there can only be a kind of näivety in making an untroubled “adaptation” (and the movie does go on to adapt parts of Mansfield Park.) It is not accidental that the critic and the author are given roughly equal conversational force, nor that Tom’s wrong version of Trilling meets with Audrey’s equally blunt rejection. The critic’s name is shorthand for all previous readers and all the accrued criticism of canonical novels / great weight of received opinion. As Audrey observes, that is something like what the confident diction of the seminal essay alluded to implies:
“There is scarcely one of our modern pieties [Mansfield Park] does not offend….Our favorite saint is likely to be Augustine; he is sweetened for us by his early transgressions. We cannot understand how any age could have been interested in Patient Griselda. We admire Milton only if we believe with Blake that he was of the Devil’s party, of which we are fellow travelers.”
And so on. I guess some of that is just how we wrote criticism in the 1950s. (If we were an extremely clever person.) But it is also true that in order to accept Trilling’s contention – he says, ‘Mansfield Park is a great novel, its greatness being commensurate with its power to offend’– the reader must be made to feel the impossibility of doing anything other than siding with the modern people. But how can this be necessary? We are modern, irrespective of whether we’re up to all the exhausting decadences and outrageousnesses that being a modern seems to entail.
When Audrey, who is rather romantically interested in Tom, does read Trilling’s essay on Mansfield Park – finding him ‘very strange’ – she asks Tom if he too thinks Fanny Price is ‘unlikeable’. (That Tom remembers Trilling’s account of group morality in Mansfield Park, while Audrey is more struck with his hatchet job on the ‘virtuous heroine,’ is one way this web of intertexts is used to delineate the concerns of the characters.) Only then does it emerge that Tom has not actually read the Austen; indeed, he (like the awful Mr. Collins) never reads novels. ‘I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelist’s idea as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.’
The film gently ridicules this remark by cutting straight from Tom’s solemn face into another scene as he talks, implying he can’t be rationally answered with politeness. But it also allows the comment to stand – as if to say, there is a bit of truth in the idea that nothing ever reaches us pure, and you ‘can never really forget’ what you (should) know: the imagination is not free of limitations and debts. But those constraints are what gives it form and shape and meaning. (Trilling argued this, too.)
1. How do you address the fact that Metropolitan‘s populated by “Polly Perkins” composites of the doomed bourgeois in love Stillman knew growing up?
2. I recall the unexpergated script in Barcelona and Metropolitan: A Tale of Two Cities made it fairly clear that the events in Metropolitan occured in 1968 and I remember thinking “Damn, that must be significant” but I never ventured too hard to discover why. You haven’t happened to’ve done that, have you? I only ask because Said’s reading of Mansfield Park is fresh in my mind, so the problem of chronicling discreet charms in the midst of unacknowledged revolution strikes me as a compelling parallel that refutes Tom’s contention that “none of it really happened.” Some of what Austen wrote about did happen--if not in exactly that way or at that time--and presumably some of the conversation-cum-narrative in Metropolitan did too. (I vaguely remember an interview with Eigeman in which he discussed once meeting his prototype in a restaraunt with Stillman. Could be mistaken.)
1. I don’t, since Metropolitan reads perfectly well as a text populated by “composites” of readily available literary precursors - characters and tropes. The Polly Perkins story is a nice allegory of the writer’s creative process, and while it probably does pertain as you say to Stillman’s personal biography, it also catches something about his reading history, which is reconstructable and discussable in ways the personal stuff isn’t. The ‘composite’ motif in Metropolitan corresponds with the ‘makeover’ theme in Clueless, which is nice.
2. There are fragments of conversation in the film that place it in the mid to late 60s - a reference to Averell Herriman as a man in his 70s, for instance. The autobiographical flavour agrees with that dating, since Stillman was born in 1952. (See what a pathetic groupie I am?) What’s interesting about that is, while the more neurotic types in the film are convinced that everything is poised on the edge of some terrible social upheaval / catastrophe, the movie is pretty careful to fudge specifics to do with period. It begins with a title card that says “Manhattan. Some Time Ago.” The clothes and hairstyles place it squarely in the late 80s. That slipperiness is another way the film ironises the kids’ sense of being ‘doomed to failure’: it’s hard to prove that “now” is worse than “then” if you can’t be sure that “now” refers to a definite historical period rather than an internal frame of mind.
...I think the I got the title card wrong - it says something like “Not so long ago”. Quite different, ahem.
This is only tangentially related to your post, but I found the “AFL-CIA” and de Sade references objectionable. And the Carl Barks, in a different way.
Fair enough, Jonathan: that’s an interesting collection of things to object to. Tell me why you don’t care for the Scrooge McDuck, I can’t think of a reason, unless it’s that it strikes you as condescending?
I’ve got nothing valuable to add here, Laura. Just wanted to say that that was an excellent post.