Saturday, 21 October 2006

At the movies

Had a terrible horrible day with writers' block yesterday so in the evening emergency cinema was administered. Due to timetabling factors the movie turned out to be The Devil Wears Prada. The last film I saw before this was A Prairie Home Companion so I've had a fairly good go at the fountain of Meryl Streep, but am not yet sick of her by any means.

Anne Hathaway was the ingenue in last night's movie and incredibly annoying and twee. Maybe she's like that all the time, I haven't paid attention up till now. Last night I did attend to her carefully because she is soon going to appear in a movie playing Jane Austen, and I'm convinced now that the Austen biopic stands no chance of being anything but a terrible disaster. The sensible thing would have been to have asked Meryl Streep to do the part.

The last few nights I've been reading myself to sleep with William Hazlitt. In general I think I might prefer to keep my opinion about him to myself but this passage appended to "On The Pleasure of Hating" struck me as really quite ridiculously weird and in urgent need of explanation:
The only exception to the general drift of this Essay (and that is an exception in theory - I know of none in practice) is, that in reading we always take the right side, and make the case properly our own. Our imaginations are sufficiently excited, we have nothing to do with the matter but as a pure creation of the mind, and we therefore yield to the natural, unwarped impression of good and evil. Our own passions, interests, and prejudices out of the question, or in an abstracted point of view, we judge fairly and conscientiously; for conscience is nothing but the abstract idea of right and wrong. But no sooner have we to act or suffer, than the spirit of contradiction or some other demon comes into play, and there is an end of common sense and reason....Among the thousands that have read The Heart of Mid Lothian there assuredly never was a single person who did not wish Jeanie Deans success....On the stage, every one takes part with Othello against Iago. Do boys at school, in reading Homer, generally side with the Greeks or Trojans?


As to boys at school I can't even guess at what answer Hazlitt counts upon us making. To me both sides in that war seem equally a/moral. He's so sure that readers always disinterestedly and automatically take the morally superior side. He's so very definite about it that I can't help thinking he must be being immensely, impenetrably ironic, because there are thousands of examples of, and hundreds of theories about, powerful readings that go against the moral grain of a text. I suppose we are a bit more used now to sympathising with underdog characters who are cast as morally deviant or lacking, but it's not as if that kind of response was unheard of two hundred years ago. Or perhaps Hazlitt means we always sympathise with unfairly maligned characters, *even when* the maligning is being carried out by the writer who invented the character. Maybe we do that on occasion but I think we can only do it by distorting in our minds what we've actually read and by imagining facets and angles to characters that don't exist in the text. I.E. we might want to rush to Mary Bennet's defence, say she's not really a pain, she's just a misfit and misunderstood because she likes to read (etc), and that wish rises from something creditable and kind in us, but it's a case of applying rounded and penumbral real-life thinking to gappy and stark fiction. Doesn't translate. There's no real Mary Bennet outside the one Austen supplied us with. Better to just enjoy her as she is, and if that enjoyment involves feeling a kind of gleeful hatred you would not feel for a real person like her, well that slight discomfort with your departure from how you usually relate to people is what the novel's done to you. I see no evidence that we don't carry over our real-life prejudices to the reading of fiction. There would be little pleasure or interest in it if we somehow had to drop all that before we could get on with a book. The interestingness arises when we are given that experience of thinking in a mode that clashes with our habitual patterns.

I wonder what Hazlitt would have made of Absolutely Fabulous.

The Devil Wears Prada expects us to disapprove of Meryl Streep's character, the formidable legendary fashion magazine editor, and endorse Anne Hathaway's dowdy, earnest and self-righteously censorious and whining little junior assistant, but it makes a weak and flabby set of arguments in the Hathaway character's favour and Streep is magnificently magnetically commanding and poised. I very much doubt anyone who's seen it felt specially enraptured by the moral journey of the assistant. Certainly I really hated her awful smug friends and would have liked to see them taken down several pegs, especially the one who leapt hungrily upon the free Marc Jacobs handbag. The only interesting things in the film are Meryl and the clothes, both of which the movie seems to want us to despise. Puritanism of a rather grossly hypocritical and self-defeating type, actually.

I thought A Prairie Home Companion was excellent, however, so the news isn't all bad. And now I have written this I might be able to write something else as well.

16 comments:

Mindy said...

I've read the book but not seen the movie. I hear that Meryl is very good, and came away from the movie with a good understanding and sympathy for the character she played. Basically her attitude was 'this person (you are complaining about) is phenomenally busy, stop whinging and do the job you get paid to do'.

Zoe said...

I have just returned from seeing TDWP with Duckie, and could not agree more. It was fluffy in a nice way for someone who doesn't get to the movies much, but that was the NY/clothes/Meryl magic (wasn't that soft speaking voice beautiful?). Anne Whatserface was a monumental pain and it was most unconvincing. The only thing they weren't lazy about was the frocks. I also thought Nigel rather fab.

Ampersand Duck said...

Yairs, we were the ones up the back being loud and scathing before the movie started, picking large holes in the ads and the trailers.

I liked Nigel too. And I've decided to practice my soft but firm Miranda voice. A lot.

Tim said...

Meryl was great, Nigel didn't get enough screen time, but the film as a whole was a bit of a dud. I sat there thinking that if Anne Hathaway's character was a couple of years younger she could have been played by Hilary Duff and I would have been taking my daughter to see it instead of my partner. It lacks anything resembling bite, yet ironically it still manages to completely bite.

lucy tartan said...

Nigel was the Stanley Tucchi character?

I haven't read the book & am a bit curious about how it manages to impart the fashion lust thing. I guess it probably depends a lot on the dropping of brand names.

The ads before my screening were half ads for hair dye and vanishing cream and so on, and half ads for kids cartoon movies - I suppose they advertise kids movies to audiences assumed to be women much more intensively than to audiences they think have a lot of men in them.

lucy tartan said...

it was weird how nobody smoked.

Galaxy said...

Didn't I see on At the Movies David saying something about the director being radically anti-smoking, so its absence from the film was a stand against what he perceives to be a glamourisation of smoking by linking it with fashion?

Anyway, I love Meryl, especially when she does a comic turn, which she does so well in TDWP. But get her in the same room with Lily Tomlin and hoo-boy! I wanted to clap at the end of Prairie. The conversational patter, the impeccible (sp?) timing. Perfect.

jo(e) said...

I thought Meryl Streep was just fantastic. Her performance was what made DWP worth seeing.

I find myself just annoyed at the Hathaway character.

Meredith Jones said...

ditto Hathaway bad Streep fabulous. But Hathaway was ok in Brokeback Mountain so there is some (but not much) hope for the Austen film. The Streep character has some excellent lines. I just can't wait to meet someone to whom I can say "the details of your incompetence do not interest me."

cristy said...

Just chiming in with the same opinion as everyone else really. Not being remotely into fashion, I think that half of the good part of the film was completely lost on me. I am as earnest and clueless as Hathaway's character, but HOPEFULLY not quite as painful.

The concept that she would take the job in the first place utterly baffled me. Her friends also completley pissed me off, making me feel more loyal to those who I was clearly supposed to hate...

Street was tops. Redeemed herself completely in my eyes after her performance in Death Becomes Her (I know it was ages ago, but it really made me cringe).

TimT said...

Hathaway's character was dull, dull, probably a dumbing down of the original protagonist in the book to make her fit the plot cliche. I ticked them off when I left the film - 1. Smart girl who doesn't care what other people think about how she looks 2. Rugged-looking but good-hearted boyfriend who just, like, so totally understands her. 3. Bitchy fashion industry professionals. 4. Obligatory gay man ... etc, etc, etc.
Streep's character was more interesting, though it depended more on Streep's performance than the script.

Guess the film did fall down because of Hathaway, still, I kind of enjoyed it; the production values were marvellous. Maybe it was the decadent combination of product placement and fashion industry sponsorship that gave them such a huge budget. So I kind of enjoyed the film anyway.

Saw 'Prairie Home Companion' a few weeks ago. I don't know, with the Angel of Death floating around the set and looking so incredibly sad and compassionate, it just kind of annoyed me. Apparently this Garrison Keillor who wrote the script and hosts the show on screen and in real life is quite an American wit ... Or so the papers hasten to tell us ...

genevieve said...

Garrison Keillor is a rich resource that life has hidden from you so far, Tim. Read his Young Lutheran's Guide To The Orchestra and weep.

I sometimes think only people who sew
(or used to, but have taken up playing with desktop computers and ignoring their gardens) really appreciate haute couture. The only time I have been into Crown is to visit the designer shops and look for buttons that were not securely attached.
Whilst researching my romance novel, of course.

Betty said...

Why is everybody commenting on Meryl Streep and nobody on Homer. For what it's worth, students (mine were not all boys) don't like Achilles, loathe Agamemnon, relate positively to Hector and Andromache (particularly Andromache)feel ambivalent about Helen,have a sneaking admiration for Odysseus, but don't generally take sides in the Trojan
War.

Since the movie, they appreciate Ulysses loyalty to his cousin. Ha. They write about it in exams.

Cristy said...

"Why is everybody commenting on Meryl Streep and nobody on Homer."

I can only answer this on my own behalf, but for me the reason is that I am ultimately quite shallow despite my lack of fashion knowledge.

Sorry.

lucy tartan said...

Cristy! you're anything but shallow.

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