One coffee and a bad pun hits the header. What else is new?
I have Tom Stoppard on my mind this morning, though, and I haven’t even seen the production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that is in town. But I did watch Parade’s End this week, and Anna Karenena last night, and both are written by him.
The television mini-series is exceptionally good, the film is a misconceived mess. Go figure. Or, perhaps, think about how incredibly hard it is to make great art, how much ‘accident’ comes into it – especially when collaborative work is involved, as is the case with film and television.
Parade’s End, adapted from the Ford Madox Ford novels, has gotten some smart, superb reviews but most of them seem to be guarded, suggesting it is ‘no Downton Abbey‘ and that the characters are ‘harder to relate to’. Yes, thank God. What is so good about it, for me, is that it is so wittily and movingly (both!) grownup.
People are sometimes difficult to relate to, or to fully grasp. Not everyone in our life, or in a book or film, behaves in ways that we ‘get’ immediately. People can be complex, so can relationships. Not everyone in a work of art is someone who will be either our best friend forever or deeply and obviously evil. (I suppose someone can theoretically be both if we see ourselves as Loyal Henchperson #14!)
(You can probably see where I am going with this by now.)
Parade’s End (which is not flawless as the tone wobbles at times) features a really difficult man, and part of the series is about that. It is explored. He is so ‘virtuous’ he can be impossible to live with. Rectitude and principle can be a problem in personal lives. His wife Sylvia (a stunning, can’t take your eyes off her, Rebecca Hall) is manipulative, maddening, sexually disloyal, and yet in complex ways (that word again!) a victim of her husband’s nature. It is a relationship that does not satisfy any desire for ‘clarity’, it isn’t easily summarized, and that’s what I found so wonderful about the acting and writing (and directing). If an audience (or the reader of a novel) want spelled-out simplicities, some works will frustrate. If they want a window into the way life works, in all its inconclusiveness morally, Parade’s End is wonderful. (It is also often very funny.)
Anna Karenina, the book, is even greater. It is greater than almost anything written. Tolstoy’s genius (which he seems not to have understood himself, later in life – read Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox on that) is to have an huge and intuitive grasp of so many different kinds of people and relationship. His compassion and his ‘eye’ give us a sense, reading him, of living the lives in the book. The new film undermines this with an almost shocking completeness. By choosing to emphasize artifice, setting the film mostly (not even entirely, abandoning consistency) in a theatre setting, the writer and director declare everything to be artifice. We are set back from the tragedy of Anna (and the eventual harmony of Levin and Kitty). The film becomes all about its own cleverness, and the subtext is: a modern audience cannot ‘relate’ to 19th century Russia. The story needs a ‘window’ of fakery to give us distance, just as we are distant from that time.
Almost every shot draws attention to its own cleverness. We watch the movie being made, not the story being told. And somehow – I would never have thought this possible – talented people conspire to actually make Anna herself unsympathetic.Tolstoy is natural and humane and encompassing. The film is smart people putting a gimmick on screen. It dances as fast as it can to distract. It juggles and plays the kazoo.
For me, the takeaway from the two works, aside from the remarkable fact of the same scriptwriter (a brilliant man) doing two works in the same year or two with such dramatically different results, is this: Parade’s End on television respects the viewer. Anna Karenina on screen doesn’t trust its material or its audience at all.
For some time I have been saying, as a riff on Tennessee Williams in Streetcar Named Desire, ‘I have always relied on the intelligence of strangers.’ I do. I try to trust my story and my readers, both. To not be afraid of subtlety, ambiguity, complexity, or the attempt, as best I can manage, to be thoughtful within a page-turner.
The two Stoppard works I just watched have crystallized my awareness of all of this. I am also, as it happens, re-reading War and Peace, and I just wrote an essay on re-reading in general. (I’ll let you know where it ends up.)
Needed to do something to get over the apprehension of how bad the Yankees are likely to be this year.