Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Terence Davies and The House of Mirth

At seven, I saw Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, and discovered the movies, loved them, and swallowed them whole. And my love was as muscular as my Catholicism, but without any of the drawbacks. Musicals, melodramas, westerns, nothing was too rich or too poor for my rapacious appetite, and I gorged myself with a frequency that would shame a sinner. - Terence Davies
What a great quote that is. It comes from Terence Davies' Of Time and the City (2008), an autobiographical tone poem about Liverpool and childhood that also serves, in part, as a meditation on cinema - or, if you prefer, a sensually intoxicating reflection on the sensuous itself, and the way cinema embodies that. Rendering the concession stand utterly redundant with a few deft turns of phrase, Davies - delivering the above text in voice-over in the film, alongside images of famous Hollywood stars walking the red carpet - suggests that all the gastronomic pleasures we need are right there on the screen. Perhaps outside of another Ter(r)ence, Malick (and Wong Kar-wai), there's not another film-maker who drinks up the world and turns it into sensuous images like Davies, evinced not only by these words but also by the luminosity of Of Time and the City, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988; still hard to see, but it's available on the Interwebs), and the best of the three films of his I have seen, The House of Mirth (2000), one of my favorites from the last ten years.

The comparison with Malick is a mere convenience of first names, and thus can only be pushed so far, but it nevertheless paves a way. Malick's films are set in history and - through their voice-overs - suggest narratives that frame history differently. In The House of Mirth Davies tells the story of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), a heroine with a tragic belief in the intrinsic value of social capital, against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York. She desires to reach the upper echelon of high society. Her desire is driven by nothing more than the fact that wealth itself exists: It's there, she can conceive of nothing better, so wealth it is. Her world is populated by back-stabbing friends (Laura Linney, strangely evil where she is usually so warm-hearted and real) and weary fellow travelers (Elizabeth McGovern suggests entire worlds of weariness that still await Lily simply through the way she takes a drag on her cigarette). The men have similar desires, although they are more concrete in nature: for Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), it is extramarital sex; for Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) it is money; for Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) it is books. (Although this is a feminist film, I'm tempted to say these three men give the best performances in the movie: They craft their characters in the quick, but bold, strokes necessary relative to the little screen time they are given, enabling Davies and Anderson to get on to other matters).

Unlike the Malick characters, however, Lily Bart is given no voice-over. It would certainly be possible to extract one from the wealth of interiority Edith Wharton's novel provides. Instead - eschewing, thank God, the middlebrow costume drama just as Malick astutely avoids the commonplaces of the Hollywood historical film - Davies locates Lily's singular presence in history in other ways.  The narrative arc of The House of Mirth traces the residue of the aristocracy to the rise (well underway when the film opens) of industrial capitalism as a line drawn between two different types of predatory misogyny: Aykroyd's Tenor cloaks his intentions in a facade of good manners while LaPaglia's Rosedale is an upfront, aggressive entrepreneur. (Stoltz's Selden is lodged firmly in-between them; as a lover of books, he appreciates them as aesthetic objects like any good aristocrat, but also collects them for their monetary value). But this narrative arc is not the source of the film's power. The most salient shots frame Lily alone, wrested away from the machinations of her "friends," in images that do not seek realism, but rather evocation. They imply what the voice-over might have said in another imaginable version of the movie:

Raul Ruiz once wrote that most narrative films today are structured around something he calls "central conflict theory," the idea that "good dramatic construction" is realized around the structuring of a series of melodramatic events that depict conflicts between characters. Ruiz detects a way of thinking behind this:
In daily life's subtle tissue of purposeful but inconsequential actions, unconscious decisions, and accidents, I fear that central conflict theory is not much more than what epistemology describes as a "predatory theory": a system of ideas which devours and enslaves any other ideas that might restrain its activity. (Poetics of Cinema, 14).
The social players in the New York of The House of Mirth have to work to repress conflicts in the polite language of turn-of-the-century society (and to repress the vulgar presence of the cash which enables their language and their politeness). So, this narrative trajectory, tethered as it is to "central conflicts" that are all structured around the possession of money, and Lily, by a group of men, is definitely predatory. But because these conflicts mostly involve the flow of capital, they're also invisible. We are more interested in Lily, and the possibility of her agency, of her ability to write a different narrative, and so is Davies: He wants to make visible what the forces of the society he's depicting work to restrain. This results in exquisitely intelligent cinematic feminism: The House of Mirth neither absolves Lily Bart en route to boo-hoo melodrama, nor does Davies linger unnecessarily on the pathos of social cruelty. Instead, he accepts tears, tension, and barbarism as social facts, and adroitly moves beyond them - resists them - by getting to the business of style. And it's style that gestures toward the voice that Lily is never able to possess.

So Davies emphasizes the sheer visual power of those liminal moments of narrative boredom (or, better, exhaustion): Lily, cutting a sophisticated figure as she walks alongside a disembarking train; Lily, abandoned by her friends, wandering alone in the city (as if one could ever wander alone in New York, then or now); the camera, just before Lily takes a vacation with a friend to collect herself, washing over the surface of a pond dotted with raindrops; Lily, having taken her own life, with the red liquid of the choral leaking out of the bottle next to her, as if in a substitute for her blood, just as Davies substitutes quietude for melodrama and reflection upon the tragic social situation of Lily Bart for the "conflicts" we're more used to consuming.


One more thing: Gillian Anderson. Before this she was the skeptical spirit of a TV show about aliens and UFOs (The X-Files). I have friends who swear by that show and the first film it spawned. (I know no one who liked the sequel). Although I have always found her intriguing, Anderson's appeal to me does not derive from that show, which I recall only having seen two or three times, but from this film. The question of whether or not it is a great performance seems to linger, though. Nobody I read or speak with talks about her much anymore. She's done little that was notable since, and during the year of the film's release (2000) she was ignored at the Oscars. The film itself seems aware that her performance is a bit of a tryout: While watching the film again last week, I recall one or two moments when I suddenly felt that I was not watching Lily Bart, but rather Gillian Anderson reading the part of Lily Bart. Some of the dialogue is almost mannerist in her hands. Yet this seems right. It's obvious enough that Lily is attempting to act herself into a certain social role, and Anderson's performance captures the sense that Lily's every moment with another social agent is something of an ongoing try-out. That she never asks if the role is actually worthy of her is one of the sources of the film's sadness.  At any rate, I don't mind those moments; we shouldn't simply sink into the story world of this film - or, rather, we should sink into it differently. We gobble up Davies' luminous images, as they accrue across the body of the film, but a few of them stand out, as images that exceed history as it was lived at that moment. They remind us that the story Lily might have written had she not been a victim (of her own choices, and of the awful company she keeps) is not actually inscribed in this film, or anywhere else.