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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Fact and Slushy Stuff in the Movies

posted by on August 8 at 16:12 PM

After reading some recent articles pertaining to movies I reviewed last week, I feel compelled—though no one has asked me—to defend a seeming contradiction.

Becoming Jane is full of bullshit. For instance, the lifelong spinster Jane Austen was probably quite ugly; at any right, she did not resemble Anne Hathaway.

Portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra

(Or, if you prefer, the more flattering but probably inauthentic squinty-eyed portrait I referenced in my review.)

And Ms. Hathaway:

Anne Hathaway

My review pointed this out, but really my beef was with the plot. I strongly dislike the Shakespeare in Love method in which a story conceived by an author is fancifully superimposed on a few facts from the author’s life, and this is a particularly egregious example—Austen tried to elope with a suitor and then wrote a novel in which someone who does the same thing is portrayed as a brainless little twit? I don’t think so. (For more about the fact and fiction in the movie, see Slate and the LA Times.) Still, Becoming Jane is supposed to be fiction.

Arctic Tale, on the other hand, looks like a documentary. (It’s being marketed as a “wildlife adventure,” but no one will notice that.) Here’s the Slate article that has everyone talking about the film’s sneaky agenda; my review is a few below Becoming Jane here. I don’t disagree with many of writer Daniel Engber’s contentions. Yes, the film is obviously a liberal response to March of the Penguins. It’s no mistake that the polar bear family is headed by a single mother, or that “storyteller” Queen Latifah calls the baby walrus’s second guardian an “auntie.” It’s an unashamed agitdoc about global warming, and I too took note of the epilogue in which a little kid tells his peers in the audience to nag their parents about buying a hybrid car. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’s a problem that the animal characters are composites of many animals photographed in the field—I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to shoot a single polar bear family over the course of a year, much less amphibious walruses! In nonfiction nature writing, a typical anecdote drawn from several examples wouldn’t raise any hackles—why does it bother us in film? And Engber obviously doesn’t realize what liberties the first, French-language version of March of the Penguins took. That movie wasn’t a documentary at all—the animal characters had their own lines of dialogue. (You can read my review of that DVD here.) Anyway, Arctic Tale may not be entirely literal, but I recommend it.

And I still despise Becoming Jane: Unlike Arctic Tale, its ideas are pallid and ridiculous.

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I fully agree. Couldnt have said it better about Shakespeare in Love... I thought that movie was a big load of crap. Aside from factual aspects, the movie sucked duck dick.


Posted by catnextdoor in abq | August 8, 2007 4:29 PM

well for what it's worth, i think anne hathaway has that "hollywood ugly" quality, which is to say she's not UGLY ugly, but she fits the bill just enough, so you can at least believe the character is ugly, but you can still stand to look at her for a couple hours.

"mary anne from gilligan's island ugly. TV ugly, not UGLY ugly."

Posted by brandon | August 8, 2007 4:41 PM

I might have enjoyed Becoming Jane in an escapist fluffy way, if it was about a fictional girl in that time period. But as it is, just seeing the commercials on tv makes me want to tear my hair out. How could they do that to Jane Austen? Awful! Hmph.

Posted by Kristi | August 8, 2007 4:43 PM

Although she was no Anne Hathaway, Jane Austen wasn't ugly, and is generally believed to have had little resemblance to that sketch. Letters written by her acquaintances show that she was generally considered a pretty girl in her youth. She never married, but she did have several love interests over her lifetime.

To me, the most interesting portrait of Austen is this one:

Painted only a few years ago by a forensic artist. Here is a brief article about the portrait.

Posted by Cate | August 8, 2007 4:52 PM

I could look at Anne Hathaway for hours, myself. She's very pretty. But I can't think of a worse Jane Austen. Austen was a brilliant, snappish, razor-sharp observer. I have no idea what her personality was like, nor am I particularly interested; but the very idea that some doe-eyed lip model could portray the person who wrote those books is contemptible. It just contributes to the mentally-retarded Masterpiece Theatre version of England, which I hate. The suggestion that her brilliant reworking of the clay of romantic cliche must have been inspired by some candlelit clenches of her own, as if she was nothing more than a dating tip dispenser or wedding planner, is violently offensive.

Posted by Fnarf | August 8, 2007 5:01 PM

She looks more like Jane Hathaway from the Beverly Hillbillies.

Posted by Wrong Hathaway | August 8, 2007 5:02 PM

There's a finer distinction you can make between SiL and Becoming Jane: SiL is about the power of invention informing a playwright's life and work, how that creativity could author a life as well. (I just can't credit Stoppard with SiL as a naive, facile response to "Where did he get his ideas!" With Stoppard, ideas are the drama.) Becoming Jane has no such pretension; it's strictly about diminishing the creative process by demonstrating that it's just an unreliable mapping from actual circumstance to fictional plot. Which difference in perspective might be explained by Stoppard's theatrical longevity and Kevin Hood's more lengthy career in TV screenwriting.

Posted by MvB | August 8, 2007 5:16 PM

I don't quite see where you're coming from re Shakespeare in Love, but in my opinion you and much of the world have overestimated Tom Stoppard. Arcadia excepted, of course.

Posted by annie | August 8, 2007 5:24 PM

I strongly dislike the Shakespeare in Love method in which a story conceived by an author is fancifully superimposed on a few facts from the author's life.

Oh wow, you just described Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and most hipster novels to be quite honest.

Posted by Gomez | August 8, 2007 5:27 PM

Oh really? A "forensic artist"? Going on what, exactly? Normally a forensic artist gets to ask a bunch of questions of people who have seen the person they're drawing. No such people exist in Austen's case. Most of the documentary evidence is extremely sketchy, if not downright silly. The fact is we don't know very much about her, nothing of interest ever happened to her, and her letters and other papers were destroyed. All we have is the books. Honestly, that's all we should really need.

The important question about the movie is of course whether Hathaway gets her clothes off and cavorts a bit. Maybe bounce up and down. Stretch a bit? Mmm. Lovely.

Posted by Fnarf | August 8, 2007 5:55 PM

How do you know Jane Austen was ugly? Because she was a good writer?

I like Anne Hathaway and I don't consider her a "doe-eyed lip model." She's an actor.

Posted by what? | August 8, 2007 10:40 PM

I actually enjoyed the film... sure, it wasn't a true biography of Ms. Austen. It wasn't meant to be. It was meant to take an event from her life and fictionalize it.

Her surviving letters say that she met Mr. Lefroy, flirted with him, and sat talking with him so much that people about town were talking. That lasted six days though. There's no mention of her eloping with Tom, or even starting to...

It was a fanciful take on "what if..." that's all. I don't think it was meant to show that the artist took her life and reshaped it into her work. Rather, I think it was trying to show that she needed inspiration for her great work. Tom points out that she needs broadening to really write, and loving/losing gives her that.

Posted by Phelix | August 8, 2007 11:43 PM

@10- Actually, the process used by the forensic artist was quite interesting. One of the main sources she used was family resemblance. Jane Austen had 10 or 11 siblings, most of whom there are reliable portraits of. Also, there are surviving silhouette portraits of Jane and her parents, which helped her.

There are also a great many letters in which she's described by family members and acquaintances which provide clues. (People wrote more physical descriptions of their friends when photographs weren't cheap or easy to duplicate.)

Obviously, no one could say it's an exact portrait (or as accurate as more "fresher" forensic art), but it's likely closer than any of the others.

Here's the link to the PDF of the painter's description of how she did it:

Posted by Cate | August 9, 2007 5:07 AM

I have no idea if Becoming Jane is any good, and I won't be seeing it to find out (though I actually quite liked Shakespeare in Love-- we don't like Tom Stoppard now?), but it is a fatuous argument that the movie loses something because Anne Hathaway is playing Jane Austin. Look, I have no doubt that Anne is far more of a looker than Jane, but c'mon people, it's a freaking movie! Movie stars are beautiful; that's why they're movie stars. Even "ugly" movie stars are not ugly. Yes, Anne Hathaway is much hotter than any Jane Austin, just like Brad Pitt is hotter than any cop, or George Clooney is hotter than any lawyer, or Anthony Hopkins is hotter than Richard Nixon, or Charlize Theron, even with ugly makeup on, is still hotter than Aileen Wournos. The day that movie producers start making movies full of ugly people for authenticity's sake (or, more accurately, the day anyone would go watch such a movie), I'll be bundling up for a frosty day in Hell.

Posted by Mr Me | August 9, 2007 8:58 AM

Annie: " my opinion you and much of the world have overestimated Tom Stoppard." Shit, that cracks me up. That goes up on the quote wall!

Look, my point is that Stoppard as a dramatist seems to be primarily motivated by how ideas affect people's lives. So there is no "real life" vs. "art" dichotomy in his work, ontologically speaking, because ideas form the basis for both lives and art. (In SiL, ideas about gender role, romantic love, what Art is for, etc.)

When he gets blocked, (Stoppard's) Shakespeare appropriates from his life, yes, but what he's appropriating is his creative response to a problem, not the facts of whatever circumstance (more like lateral thinking). His Shakespeare is a show-off, but what he's showing off is, basically, his creativity. And that corresponds well with what we all get from Shakespeare's plays. Stoppard knows it's not factually "true," (I imagine him knowing a frightening amount about Shakespeare), but the idea of this Shakespeare is compelling (to many, if clearly not all, people).

To me, a one-to-one mapping of event to art as some kind of insight just isn't congruent with what seems to inspire Stoppard's work. It's hard for me to imagine him sitting down every day to write something so pedestrian in intent.

Posted by MvB | August 9, 2007 11:44 AM

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