Sunday, March 27, 2011

"First-Rate" Stories

Robert Gottlieb decided to use NYRBlog as a platform for having a go at the new film version of Jane Eyre.  He declares his position with his very first sentence:

The new film version of Jane Eyre isn’t all bad, but it’s all wrong.

For the most part I appreciate the argumentation techniques he musters to warrant this claim.  However, his punch line got me to thinking:

No, it’s likely to be second-rate novels that make good movies, ones with exciting stories and clearly etched characters but no particular vision of life, no unique authorial voice. These latter qualities are what books are for.

I shall not argue over whether or not Charlotte Brontë wrote “first-rate” novels;  but I was struck by the attributes he felt described such writing, wondering about when I had encountered those attributes.

Yes, I certainly agree that these are qualities found in the books he cites building up to that punch line, Moby Dick and Madame Bovary;  but do those qualities only reside in books?  I certainly do not intend to defend the current state of movie-making.  I almost never go into a movie theater any more because of the amount of time I put into attending performances.  I do not mind waiting for things on cable, but it seems as if there are fewer offerings that attract my attention once they become available.  Nevertheless, it seems as if many of the series that have become the bread-and-butter of the premium cable channels are not stinting on the qualities Gottlieb so admires.  Regular readers will probably guess that my prime example will be The Wire;  and perhaps one reason is that, to use Gottlieb’s language, David Simon was so good at taking the “authorial voice” he had developed as a reporter and channeling it into script-writing.

However, it is through another one of those qualities that one can appreciate why such series rise above the sorry state of movies.  It has to do with the need for that “particular vision of life.”  It is not that feature films entirely lack that vision;  but, in the hands of most production companies, ninety minutes makes for a rather impoverished account of such a vision.  Simon’s vision, on the other hand, could not be distilled down to such a modest duration;  and he was fortunate in having the liberty to unfold it over the course of several years, thus encouraging viewers to reflect on it, rather than simply “consuming” it.  I agree with Gottlieb that books lend themselves to such reflective behavior, but I think we need to appreciate the work of those creative enough to get beyond nineteenth-century conventions without short-changing the reflective nature of what they produce.

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