Tag Archives: Henry James

The Space Between Thoughts

8 Apr

Swing

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‘It’s not about taking photographs, it’s about thinking about photography. The more photographs you take the less you think’ [my emphasis] 

(Jan Dibbets, Modern Painters Magazine, March 2013, p29)

Perhaps you should stop thinking then and start knowing’ 

(CJ. Sullivan Wings of the Divided, p11)

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About two years ago I decided to buy a swing and hang it from the large Horse Chestnut tree I have in my back garden. I bought it for two reasons: 1. because it was on that exact tree that my grandfather slung a similar swing for me when I was a child and I’m a sentimental sort; and 2. because I wanted to have something physical in my life that would remind me of what it’s like to be in transit and how okay that is. Swinging to and fro. So when I feel I’m doing too much or I’m caught in ‘doing’ (the processing), I trot down to my swing and rest in between the push-pull. The movement catches my thoughts and I become unstuck in the space in-between. The natural dynamic of this space  seems to allow for the seeds of  creativity to  be sewn

– in the space that’s left between the up and the down.

Dibbet says, ‘it’s not about taking photographs it’s about thinking about photography’ [my emphases] There’s a huge difference. One is about outcomes and the other is rooted in what lies before the outcome and what powers the engine of our production-and coats the delicate fronds of our intent to create. We disconnect all too easily when we produce  instead of  giving ourselves space to feed what drives that actual act of creating. Knowing what matters to us and moving within that, so there is a reserve of explored self-knowledge, awareness  and experience that acknowledges a world in flux and  from which we can draw. A kind of faith of sorts that doesn’t take and doesn’t amass.

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I went down to the bottom of the garden to my ropey-tree swing and swung for a bit. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out  and the rays were dancing off the bare branches and as I moved back and forth I could feel myself disengaging from the flurry of my mind and getting caught in what can only be described as my own space in transit.  In that space appeared new ideas and little glimpses of  parts of me that I sometimes shun,. or fragments that I can hand-heart, 100% identify as creative ‘me’. More importantly within the space of the up swing and  the down swing there is also a place for ‘don’t know’, for uncertainty. Too blurry to see……..yet.  

I think there are parts of our creative lives, hopes and dreams that maybe we don’t need to see yet (or maybe never). As the Libyian writer  Hisham Matar states ‘In our own stories there are always things we don’t know’ *. But unless we value the in-between space we’ll never know that we know that we don’t know. 

I hope- I’m making sense.

Knowledge is what we accumulate when we think. It’s a possession of thoughts which isn’t necessarily concrete and easily definable. Knowledge can be knowing that we don’t know and that is equally important to our creativity as we create and when we create and after we create.  When we ‘do’ too much we get confused:

  • We confuse doing with knowledge
  • We favour thinking over knowing (that deep gut feeling…faith)
  • We confuse experience with thought
  • We confuse worry with reality
  • And foreground reality as what matters instead of our creative hopes and dreams.

This is what can happen if you don’t allow yourself the grace to move within the spaces between things. For this is where nurturing faith in our creative abilities lies. Oft times we confuse processing with thinking, we confuse ruminating for thinking. Creatives get caught in ‘stuff’ and that’s ok because it’s then through a process of unpicking (if we have the courage to do so) that we know who we are as artists and as human beings.

If  we allow ourselves to swing – ‘to and fro’ -then we can see that experience is:

never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative-much more when it happens to be that man of genius- it takes itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of air into revelations.

(Henry James, from The Modern Psychological Novel, Leon Edel)

That’s what a bit of swinging can do for you. 

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* For the interview with Hisham Matar see:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/04/out-loud-hisham-matar-david-remnick-libya.html

Classic Friday #2 Turn of The Screw

18 Jan

Welcome to Classic Friday with Nisha Moodley, your monthly journey into  Classic authors  and their Literature!

Nisha MoodleyNisha is a South African writer, blogger, amateur historian, mystery-chaser and former ghost-hunter who, with a completed collection of short-stories under her belt, is currently working on her first full-length novel.

http://nmwritersbloq.wordpress.com

I hope you enjoy this ‘Classic Friday’ entry and I’ll be back on  Friday 22nd February for some more…

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The Turn Of the Screw - PenguinTITLE: TURN OF THE SCREW

AUTHOR: HENRY JAMES

GENRE: 19th century GOTHIC HORROR

DATE FIRST PUBLISHED: 1898

NO. OF PAGES: 133 (my copy : Vintage Classics/Random House)

It’s been mentioned in numerous popular TV shows including CSI and LOST; it has been the inspiration for many Hollywood movies like Deborah Kerr’s The Innocents (1961) and Nicole Kidman’s The Others (2001). Oscar Wilde described it as “a most wonderful, lurid and poisonous little tale.”

So what is it about Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw that makes it the quintessential classic ghost story?

Brief Synopsis :

A bachelor offers a young woman the position of governess to his orphaned niece and nephew whom he takes no interest in and considers to be a burden. She accepts the job offer, which gives her complete authority and sole responsibility of the children. When she moves to their home in the Essex countryside, she finds herself immediately enchanted by her new charges: a boy, Miles (10) and his sister, Flora (8).

The children at first seem perfect in every respect. Both beautiful, charming,intelligent and obedient, they win over the young woman’s heart completely. In her eyes they can do no wrong. But when a letter arrives from Miles’ school stating that he has been expelled (with no reason given) and when two ghostly apparitions start making their appearance in and around the country home, her sanity and loyalty are put to the test. With the help of her new confidante, Mrs. Grose the housekeeper, she learns that the apparitions resemble those of her predecessor and lover, both of whom died mysteriously. Convinced that something diabolical is at work, she strives to take action andprotect the children at all costs.

The-Turn-of-the-Screw-blueThe diminutive story hardly possesses a complicated plot so what makes Turn Of The Screw stand out from other books in its category? Perhaps it is not only the supernatural apparitions and the eerie country house in an atmospheric locale that play the starring roles in this ‘poisonous tale.’ As James clearly suggests in the opening narration, the fact that young innocent children are involved adds to the dark and disturbing quality of this tale. The corruption of innocence is an apparent motif in the story. This corruption seems to present itself as something to be feared the most, more so than the ghostly appearances themselves. Although, what form this danger or corruption takes is not made clear to us. The beauty of this novella, I feel, lies in its noted ambiguity; the intended loose threads keeping the reader wondering long after they’ve put the book down.

Written in the first person perspective, The Turn Of The Screw possesses all the sentimentality that characterizes many Classic novels. At first I didn’t think anything of it. Usually sentimental dialogue is there to create emotional depth and feeling for the characters but in this case it also serves another function, which I’m not sure if James had intended or not. For the main character at least, her emotional dialogue adds uncertainty, creating that aforementioned ambiguity. The inconclusive nature of the story has been both criticized and praised in equal measure by literary critics and other book reviews I’ve come across. Nevertheless James created a psychological narrative here, the main plot and ending of which, relies on the reader’s interpretation.

The equivocal storyline has one positive quality, if nothing else. It enhances the mystery of the plot, adding a sense of uneasiness, helping us to identify with the main character but at the same time, making us question her as well. James gets us thinking, which has to be lauded even if the narrative does confuse us at times.

Portrait of Henry James

Portrait of Henry James

Is this book for you? This is definitely a must-read for any fan of 19th century horror fiction. Readers of general Classic fiction might also enjoy it but be warned it is not the easiest of reads. I have not read any of his other works so I don’t have a general view of his writing style but judging from Turn Of The Screw, Henry James seems to have an affinity for long complex sentences with far too many comma breaks. I found myself re-reading sentences over and over in order to comprehend them which did hinder my enjoyment of the book to a certain extent. If you can overlook this one writing characteristic or if you are well-accustomed to it, then Turn Of The Screw is well worth a read.

About the author :

Henry James was born in New York in 1843 but moved to Sussex, England in 1915 and became a British citizen. A former Harvard student, he gave up his Law degree and took up writing full-time. He published his first novel, Watch and Ward in 1871. His other notable novels include The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Ambassadors (1903) and What Maisie Knew(1897). Turn Of The Screw, however, is his most famous work.

 

It’s the Feeling That Counts

19 Nov

An Exploration of Emotion in the Film MAGNOLIA

‘Films Have the Power To Create Dreams’

From the Film ‘Hugo’

One of my all time favourite films is Magnolia, directed by PT Anderson (PT). In my opinion one of the most powerful, immersive films ever.  You cannot fail to be moved by it, even if you find it difficult, strange or melodramatic. In contrast to Hugo, it’s a film about emotions and not about dreams. It’s about connections and what matters most in life- feeling. Yes, films, I would argue, are on one level about dreams and escapism but the best ones are the ones that make you feel and connect and where you can find a tear gently tracing down your cheek. Magnolia carefully takes you on a journey through dilemma and emotion to a place where you can rest in the positivity of a tentative smile. The smile we see above, of Claudia, Melora Walters.

‘The moment we cry in a film is not when things are sad but when they turn out to be more beautiful than we expected them to be’  Alain De Botton (from Goodreads, Quotes)

To me Magnolia is that film. At the beginning of the piece you are thrown into a fist of  in-your-face feeling; feeling that appears barbed, but by the end, through a subtle process of aclimatisation you come to realise,  is not barbed at all but tender, universal and beautiful. It’s actually a film about the beauty of feeling (with all its pointed edges exposed);  As the film scrolls outwards you are given  a private space to emote and to connect with emotion- in the dark facing a flickering screen.  Magnolia moves you into a state of pure emotion. Each scene is pure emotion. Directed emotion, emotionally directed.

In this blog, I would like to consider how emotion is created in a film, using Magnolia as a particular and special example of that. Rather than immersing you in a dream world where you can suspend your disbelief, Magnolia  keeps rooting you back into what matters,  (through the  emotional sensibility of its characters) and reveals to you the powerful consequences of that individual choice . This, I think, is quite an unusual technique. In cinema today much emphasis is placed on the power of plot and story to drive emotions and character. However, Magnolia  it is strikingly different – emotions drive the plot and the characters; the plot feels secondary (in a good way) to what is going on in vibrant colour within us and the characters. It’s the feeling that counts.

John August who wrote  BIG FISH suggests there are 4  ways in which emotion is formed in a film, and I want to use this quartet  to explore Magnolia:. Emotional engagement can only occur:

IF: 1. Emotional Catharsis is created – a journey through dark territory, through which you can see the characters develop and from which you eventually get release

IF: 2. The  Writer creates emotions through obstacles and  dilemmas from all sides

IF: 3. The Actors give striking performances rooted in honesty and struggle from the beginning and established from the onset.

IF: 4. If the Director successfully co-ordinates all of the other elements: the pace, camera angles, music, and totally  commits to the emotional build of the piece.

In my opinion Magnolia does this, and in so doing becomes a profound articulation of the shared plight of us all (the common condition of man); the fact that life is hard, difficult but there is forgiveness, love and release on the other side. (If you are brave enough to ‘SAY’ and wise -up)

PT  wrote this epic film just after the death of his father when he was only 29. It is the fact that the action and emotions are grounded in  personal experience that makes this  film so special and singular. It also explains the intensity of the piece. Emotion  is perpetually ratcheted up, relentlessly until the final release. The plot and the characters are pushed to the very edge by dialogue and circumstance. There is no release. And this is just like life; and it is this realisation  that PT is trying to create- the complexity of life communicated through diverse characters;  trying to communicate and create the delicate spider’s web of existence:

‘Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads’,

Henry James (from The Modern Psychological Mind, Leon Edel)

And what PT does is intricately create an immense sensibility from the differing emotions of his  major characters. The themes dealt with in the film are huge, universal and engage with core issues that are common to us all: ‘the silken threads’ that so complicate our lives : about lies and reality, parent and child relations, love and sickness, how we try and let go of the past, but how the past doesn’t let go of us; the importance of choice; the power of forgiveness; saying, just saying; resting in regret and being okay with this; how hard it is to do what we really, really want. These matters are the nub of life; guilt and redemption; losing and finding. All these themes are directly engaged with in this film. It’s amazing!

PT , not only wrote and directed the film; but he also  wrote the script with specific actors in mind (Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, William H. Macy, John C.Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, Jeremy Blackman) The dialogue was completely tailored for the actors; he knew their strengths and their abilities and new they could take the sparseness of his words to a different level, and because they were all friends as well, the distance between actor and director was foreshortened and strong performances could be easily accessed. This personal, real-life bond further  underpinned the piece. If you have  that as a bedrock as well than it further enhances the commitment and ease of the performances.

Lots of truly seemingly inconceivable incidents and coincidences happen in this film. However,  PT makes this acceptable by a questioning of the very nature ‘ happenstance‘. He makes it a theme running through the film itself  by book ending the piece with a prologue and a postscript that throws up the question of ‘happenings’ not just being about chance, ‘that extraordinary things do happen’. This thought now laid, seeded in our mind,  gives us a template in which to place the threads of the story. In so doing he also subtly makes a comment about artifice and realism. Is a  film  a piece of artifice purporting to imitate life or vice versa?

In terms of direction, quickly and in a very fast paced, edgy way,  characters are individually introduced. PT moves initially quickly between the different storylines. It’s hard to keep up; it’s a bit confusing (just like life), the dialogue is extremely naturalistic and visceral. You don’t know where you are quite -but  extremely strong  individual characters are established before you: the god-fearing policeman; the adulterous wife, the lost girl, the dying father filled with regret; the dying father filled with a need to redeem himself; the son fronting out as a man, but truly still just an unhealed boy wanting love, the young and old child geniuses – one wanting to be able to choose and the other wanting to give, just wanting to be loved. All of these  characters are  snappily and separately laid out before us and established. And then thread by thread PT starts to merge them, and the lines of dialogue start to intermingle and the emotions stretch out like a taught rubber band.

The film could not work if the actors did not commit to the themes and characters wholeheartedly. Without their sincere performances Magnolia would be pure melodrama; and, indeed, if you look at it in snippets it can feel like that. However, the  performances put it onto a different level, and as one committed performance coalesces with another something very serious and beautiful occurs. Gradually you start to become completely encaptured by the emotion, and its reality.This makes the other surreal and biblical happenings, circling around the feeling  and plotlines feel like  mere add ons.  The plot in Magnolia although important structurally:  moving  the story  and characters to their climaxes, is always secondary to the real action of the piece: the shifts of emotion and feeling. In other films, it’s different, in Magnolia, the emphasis, the placement, is elsewhere because the film is about internal shifts and movements and not about external occurrences. It’s about how things linger and rest in us.

Pace is maintained by the way PT chooses to  use  the camera.  He creates pace and movement via particular shots and camera angles. All of which serve the story. He places cameras in odd space, looking up from a safe:

tracking a frog falling from the sky

Tracking the young child-prodigy Stanley running through the television studio, slinking through it as if it were a dark tunnel.  As Mike Figgis states on digital film making:

The function of camera movement is to assist in the storytelling. That’s all it is. It cannot be there just to demonstrate itself’,

(from Goodreads, film quotes)

Equally, there are moments when the pace slows right down and we are left (almost alone with the emotion of the character. we are left to see the intimate nuance of a person’s face in anguish). PT manages these shifts brilliantly and he gives you time to really experience the dilemmas of the characters, and the careful interweaving.

Music is a strong connecting factor and directs not only the viewer’s gaze but the emotional threads of the characters, even to the extent where they share a song, which is extremely affecting as well as serving to give a space for the viewer to collect themselves before the pivotal regret scene between Earl (Jason Robards) , the nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Tom Cruise) ….. All the songs are by Aimee Mann, and in fact the songs  are used to emotionally direct the film. The song ‘Deathly’ actually  inspired PT to create  the character of Claudia  (who you see heading this post). The music thread pushes the viewer through to another emotional level that we really have no control over  (music always has that power) and that helps to open us up to accept the highly charged drama we’re seeing in front of us. PT uses the music as a foundation for our emotions.

The film builds and builds up until a pivotal seen with ‘Earl’s ‘/Jason Robards regret speech which is phenominal and which culminates in an extraordinary performance by Tom Cruise.  There are lots of issues around  Tom Cruise but in this moment he’s fantastic: capturing that moment where anger, frustration and love merge into something excrutiating.

The Regret Scene…Combination of brilliant writing and perfectly pitched performance:

which leads to where the film becomes pure emotion through another extraordinary performance:

I would argue that it is at this moment that the film reveals itself for what it is. It is emotion. This film I think is an expression of emotion masquerading as a film, and the catharsis comes not from the plotlines unravelling (although this is the vehicle) but through the releasing of emotion in that scene. This ‘spewing’ is underpinned by fantastic dialogue which engages with a profound life issue that touches us all (oh, what I could have been, oh, the regret) and when this is combined by strong performances we cannot fail to become part of the ‘ ‘immense sensibility’  which is the character’s sensibilities, connecting to the film’s sensibilities, connecting to ours –a beautiful spooling spider web,

Magnolia is not an easy ride. It shows the consequences of making a choice, choosing truth, and choosing hurt because that is the right thing to do. ‘If it’s worth being hurt, it’s worth bringing pain in’. A phrase that is put into nearly every characters mouth- a line connector- and a matter of choice far removed from dreams and escapism.

Magnolia completely embodies the 4 principles of capturing emotion that John August outlines. PT controls the pace of the film through fast-cuts and slow lingering intense close ups. The intensity of the piece is controlled by great actors and solid performances;  the writing takes us from snippets of dialogue, mumbled , to complex and challenging encounters of words. Everything is perfectly thought through so that we can become emotion; get caught  and suspend our disbelief  (because in life extraordinary things do happen). It gives us a rare moment and space to find ourselves up-lifted by something so unsettling beautiful, like the curve of Claudia’s mouth as she finally smiles…..like the realisation that we’re not part of a dream but part of an extended emotional reality.

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If you haven’t seen this film I highly recommend it, and do  let me know what you think.

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As always thank you for your interest and your feedback is always welcome!

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ARTIPEEPS NEWS:

  • Your second helping of  Flash Fortnightly with Laura Besley  is coming up this  Wednesday (21st).  Great New flash Fiction
  • This Friday (23rd) we have a second blog coming from ArtiPeeps’ resident English Art Correspondent JAMES MACKENZIE on his connection with KOBO online Art Gallery. So watch out for that one!
  • And starting from next Friday (30th) we have CLASSIC FRIDAY with NISHA MOODLEY introducing and reviewing classic fiction….

There’s lots afoot!

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