Saturday, 26 March 2005

a bit more thesis

I'm feeling a bit lost this evening; ate too many Easter eggs, presumably (what IS that brown stuff easter eggs are made from? It's sure not chocolate.) So, to reassure myself that I do in fact exist, I'm going to throw a rather large chunk of the second chapter of my dissertation into the clipboard, & splay it down this invitingly blank page. This bit comes from my chapter on Jane Austen movies -- sort of obligatory if one is writing about adaptation -- but to ward off the evil bonnet-wielding freaks, I'm mostly sticking to movies about people who read Jane Austen novels, rather than straight-out full-breakfast adaptations. The movies dramatise what it is to be a reader imaginatively recreating the text (which is a necessary preamble to formal re-creation, ie adaptation.)

About half-way through Victor Nunez’s graceful independent film Ruby In Paradise (1994), the title character opens a book chosen at random from the overflowing shelves in her boyfriend’s house. The book is Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but the film leaves that identification to be made by whomever among the audience can place the novel’s first few sentences, when Ruby reads them out to Mike. Ruby Gissing doesn’t have a lot of time to read, as a rule, but the novel quickly captures her attention: she compares the unlikely heroine Catherine Morland’s situation and origins with her own, although when Catherine’s clergyman father reminds Ruby of someone in her own undiscussed past, the memory is clearly not a happy one. Reading the book to the end, she writes in her journal: ‘I liked this one. All that fuss over finding a man. It isn’t all that different now. Who’s it going to be? And when? And why?’

In a host of ways Nuñez’s film seems to invite the audience to take up Ruby’s reading of her own story into the plot of Northanger Abbey and use it as a loose but extensive structuring principle for the entire work. Ruby In Paradise is about one woman’s bid for freedom within the system and an examined life, rendered in non-Romantic, anti-Gothic terms. Like Northanger Abbey, it deals in little problems and imperfect people, boring routines in dull places, ordinary lives and banal events; also like Austen’s novel, it deals in cruelty, imprisonment, escape, exploitation, assault, loneliness, desperation, and emotional and economic survival. It is no stretch at all to read the sleazy bully Ricky as a modern-day John Thorpe and Mike as a wearier Henry Tilney, as Ruby no doubt reads them herself; her final rejection of both men, however, suggests that a more sceptical or problematised use of Austen’s novel is at work within the film.

Of the two published substantial critical appraisals of Ruby In Paradise, one (quite legitimately) barely notices the Austen theme at all. The other, by Zelda Bronstein, reads the whole movie as a systematic revisionist adaptation of Northanger Abbey. According to Bronstein, in the scene discussed above the film ‘openly acknowledges its debt to Northanger Abbey’ (46) but her essay makes it quite plain that, on even the most abstract rendering, the movie’s points of difference with the novel far outnumber its similarities. Ruby hasn’t got Catherine’s cushioning home, family, and social connections, and Catherine neither understands when she is being talked down to, nor disentangles herself from the man who does it to her. Within Bronstein’s economy of indebtedness, those differences rather help to confirm that Nuñez is taking all his important cues from Austen, even if his sense of the exigencies of modern life dictate that most of them be negated.

The most compelling argument for describing what Ruby in Paradise does as a form of adaptation has to do with the survival, in the movie, of the view of marriage only half-ironically voiced by Northanger Abbey’s narrator:
Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. (125)

Ruby knows she isn’t ‘well-informed’, but at the same time is not naïve about it, and knows there is a saving dignity in her position. ‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ says Mike to Ruby, ‘the way Austen seems to dwell on the superficial and the comic, and yet all the while revealing the contradictions and value systems of an entire society?’ Something about the way his back is turned toward her as he speaks, his attention on the pan of spaghetti he’s draining, indicates that he expects no reply to this statement, and Ruby just says ‘it was a neat story.’ In fact, it is Mike who is impatient with ‘superficial and comic’ things: he yawns and sneers at a science fiction movie, while Ruby and the rest of the audience sit engrossed, in a way that brings Austen’s famous apostrophe in defence of the Novel irresistibly to mind. Mike is a kind and loving man, deficient only in sympathy for ‘ignorance’, which for him means deriving satisfaction from a life, like Ruby’s, spent working the till in a gift shop, and this seems to be why she ultimately gives up on him. Struggling to keep herself whole and present takes all Ruby’s energy, and if she has none to spare for luxuriant, Quixotic fantasy (imagining herself into Austen’s novel), then it is proper that the movie recognises this and respects her self-creation, without pressing her narrative into the contours of a mould she hasn’t herself chosen.

The worldview of Northanger Abbey’s narrator, then, is given an important function within the fiction of Ruby In Paradise: something very much like it informs the worldview of the movie’s heroine, but this does not amount to an adaptation of the novel. Although it is Ruby who ‘narrates’ the film, speaking in voiceover the words she finds to write in her diary, hers is not the consciousness underwriting the entire fiction. Northanger Abbey is read by the heroine, but not by the film. The burden of the novel is construed as an experience which is real by virtue of being intensely private, and thus cannot be meaningfully shared, because it is locked inside one person’s past experience. Thus it represents one extreme solution to the challenge literary memory presents to the cinema. Ruby in Paradise resists depicting the Austen novel as anything other than a closed book.

‘When you get right down to it, the most fantastic thing you could film is people reading,’ Godard wrote. The filmed and screened projection of a person reading is a sign which, potentially, guarantees that person’s interiority – as it is used here, and in some other movies, it is richest for the auditor ‘opting in’, so to speak – the auditor who has also read the book in question and who will supply a set of remembered mental gestures. This auditor will remember her own experience of reading, will draw on and bring into the film-viewing a recreation of engagement with what Georges Poulet called ‘a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects.’(59) To observe somebody reading a book you have read yourself is to feel you understand what that person is doing psychically. Movies that authentically adapt literary works go on to weave the literary memory back into the fabric of the film text, whether or not that memory is roused by the literal image of a reader.

In Ruby in Paradise, the significance attached to Austen’s novel is so compressed that one is easily tempted to redistribute its density across the movie at large. Ruby’s relationship with the book is minimally but entirely organically motivated and contained by her reading of it, and the chief (or better, only) influence of Northanger Abbey within the movie is in the part it plays in her interior life. Rather than as a map or armature for the film, Austen’s novel is used to naturalistically convey something of the hidden mind of the person reading to herself, up there, on the screen. People encountered in movies, not unlike those in real life, are made known to us mostly by their words, actions and appearances. A book, because it ‘goes in’, may be taken to confirm the existence of the interior, and as in Ruby in Paradise, to fill it out a little. A book in a movie, like any other signifier, may be full or empty of meaning, according to the degree of artistic acumen with which it is deployed. There is a lovely example in Persuasion (Roger Michell, 1995): as she packs the family’s library in preparation for the departure from Kellynch, Anne Elliot picks up a copy of the Navy List, which falls open in her hand. Between the leaves is a letter folded in the shape of a boat. Quietly closing the book, Anne glances up at the servant working opposite, to see if she has been observed. This scene is not taken from the novel, but it is profoundly responsive to it. The navy book, already associated with lost expressiveness and optimism, is literally a container for Anne’s silent grieving, which remains sharply folded and pressed away, undemonstrated and unseen, not lessening, a wound which is stale and musty, yet too easily reopened. The outward form the movie uses to depict Anne’s piercing trauma is (ironically) wordless and private, just as it is depicted in Austen’s novel, despite the deep differences between the two versions......


Chuck said...

I like your reading of Ruby in Paradise. I haven't seen the film in about six or seven years (maybe longer), and I'd completely forgotten the reference to Austen, though I liked the film quite a bit. Not sure I have much to add other than to note that I like your reading, especially Ruby's resistance to the "fantasy" that Northanger Abbey seems to offer.

And you've made me want to watch this film again (and wish for more films by Victor Nunez).

Lucy Tartan said...

Thanks, Chuck. I appreciate that, a lot.
As far as I'm aware, not a single one of Victor Nunez's movies has been released in Australia, except Ulee's Gold which was shown at film festivals the year after it first appeared, then vanished. He is really not known here, which is bad, because the utter integrity of his work is something no-budget independents here could learn from.
Your blog is superb, by the way.