Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Dispatches from Sundance 2012: 4

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

Taras's fourth report from Sundance 2012 (read Dispatches from Sundance 2012: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3):

The prerequisite to making a new film adaptation of Wuthering Heights is reinvention of the novel, and that is exactly what Andrea Arnold, director and screenwriter, does in her 2011 version, shown as part of Sundance’s Spotlight series. Emily Brontë’s text provides the arc along which the film explores the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy. The twists to the tragic story is that Hindley is cast as a skinhead and the actor playing Heathcliff is Black. “Fuck you all, you cunts,” he says shortly after arriving in Mr. Earnshaw’s family farmhouse. The belligerence remains with Heathcliff throughout the film. He becomes progressively more loathsome – a racialized reinvention by Arnold that takes risks.

Anyone expecting anything romantic from this film will be disappointed. Dialogue is sparse in Arnold’s screenplay. Instead she gives the film an elementary physicality that overpowers the mental functions. The Yorkshire Moors provide the pungent sounds, the earthiness, the sky and wind, a sensual banquet that, within its technical limits, this film tries to provide. It contains “all creatures great and small” - the title of the 1970s BBC TV series about the experiences of a veterinarian, which was also filmed in north Yorkshire. Be on guard, though: there is no legal rider insisting that animal subjects were treated humanely in the shooting of the film. Mud, sweat, murkiness, galloping horses, petrified hare, barking border collies, circling birds-of-prey, fowl of all descriptions are the co-stars of Arnold’s film, alongside a primordial Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley.

Even at 128 minutes in length, the film does not complete the telling of Brontë’s story. Brontë purists may also be puzzled by how different - in looks and personality - the adult actor playing Cathy is from the young actor. It inserts disconcerting discontinuity in contrast to the novel’s linearity. The young Heathcliff possesses charm and evokes pity that his older counterpart fails to do, though that may well be Arnold’s intention. If there is a flaw to this film, it may be the atomistic characters floating randomly across the Moors, past each other, never connecting.

For a stark alternative to Wuthering Heights, Sundance premiered a British thriller directed by James Marsh, whose two recent films were the documentaries Project Nim and Man on Wire. Shadow Dancer is a film about IRA activities in Northern Ireland at the height of the conflict in the 1970s. But it is also about less often examined British intelligence operations in the Six Counties. The efforts of both sides (the Ulster Protestants are not central to the story) to outwit the other drive the action of this film. The labyrinthian networks established by the opposing forces are documented in the film. As in a game of chess, it is taking an opponent’s piece off the board that can be decisive to the outcome.

A blithe summary of the moral of the film might be, counterintuitively, that the IRA always gets their man. Through water boarding, beatings, intimidation of family members, shooting through the knees (not depicted in this film), and the final solution – the dreaded phrase “let’s go for a drive” said by an IRA member to someone suspected of collaborating with the other side - the IRA was able to weather the fierce dirty war launched by British special services in the 1970s. Crucial to its organizational survival was disciplining members and ruthlessly punishing defectors.

The romantic interest that develops between Collette, member of a Republican family in Belfast, and MI5 officer Mac, charged with infiltrating the IRA, is unconvincing in this screenplay; it’s a better fit for an Angelina Jolie story. Through a series of twists and turns in the plot, driven largely by Collette’s evolving relationship with Mac, it is the British who pay dearly, and disproportionately, for obtaining the information needed to kill a minor IRA hit man.

I saw a fraction of the world cinema dramatic and documentary films shown at Sundance 2012. The one I enjoyed most was Liberal Arts – utterly predictable, it may be, since that is what I have practiced in life. Josh Radnor (star of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother and many other television credits) triples up as director, screenwriter, and low-key star of the film. It is set at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio – one of the best of its kind: the four-year undergraduate teaching college where studying liberal arts is seen as neither a stigma nor a burden in today’s corporate world of American universities.

Holding a mind-numbing job in the admissions office of a college in New York City, Jesse enthusiastically accepts an invitation to visit his former Kenyon professor who is retiring. Jesse is all of 35 and feels awkward being on a campus that is populated by 18 to 22 year olds. When he meets Zibby, 19, an apparent soul mate who introduces him to classical music like Beethoven’s Sixth – what did Jesse do when he studied at Kenyon? – the two agree to exchange old-fashioned letters sent through the U.S. mail. They become emotionally involved. But are they destined for a sexual relationship?

The screenplay addresses the issue of age appropriate relationships. Zibby is 16 years younger than Jesse and though that doesn’t matter to the girl, it matters to the boy. He gets even more squeamish when she tells him she’s a virgin. As this relationship is put on hold, age appropriateness becomes irrelevant when the seducer is a middle-aged female professor of English Romantic Literature (played with verve by Allison Janney, Kenyon class of '82) who toys with Jesse, her former student and newfound boy toy. It all works out in the end: back in New York he finds a young woman running the local bookstore. “Age appropriate,” says Jesse in an aside to the camera.

Most enjoyable film - really? Radnor’s dialogue is unceasingly clever, introspective, and witty. But could we expect anything else from someone with a liberal arts degree from a liberal arts college? In a moment of plot resolution, Jesse klutzily asks the bookshop manager whether her husband or boyfriend would mind if they went out for coffee together. “No, they won’t, they’re both out of town,” she says.--Ray Taras

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans where he also directed its World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years.

Read--Dispatches from Sundance 2012: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

--Marshal Zeringue