Saturday, June 18, 2011

Darla's Top Five List of Favorite Jane Austen Movies

Jane Austen, 1873, Unknown artist.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not read the novels of Jane Austen, or seen the film versions, this discussion may reveal too many details.

I studied Jane Austen in college. After six months of reading her novels day after day, Jane Austen can become addictive. I really cannot choose any of her novels that I enjoy more than others. They all have unique qualities that make them special to me, for different reasons. I do, however, prefer some film versions over others.

The semester I took the Austen class, I was a single mother with two children struggling with childcare issues. I started taking my daughter to class with me. She read the novels and drew pictures of the characters while listening to the lectures of my exceptionally patient professor. So, now my daughter is an Austen fan, as well. We do not always agree on our favorite Austen movies, but that is part of the fun! Anyway, this is my list:

1)My number one favorite Jane Austen movie is Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. I believe Paltrow does an excellent job of capturing the somewhat naive, conceited, yet deeply compassionate personality of Emma Woodhouse, but I have always been impressed by Paltrow's performances.

It was Jeremy Northam who surprised me. There are other actors who I would have considered before him for this role, but now that I've seen the movie (close to 100 times) I cannot imagine anyone else as Mr. Knightly. Northam carries himself well and is a convincing gentleman, particularly in those times when he tries to speak to Emma about her behavior. Although his attraction to Emma Woodhouse is not as obvious in the book, Northam's subtle hints in the movie are well done--not too much to be sappy, just enough to make my heart dance.

Although Toni Collette's role seems minor in the novel, she is more prominent in this film, and should be. Collette is a talented actress who is often seen in the background, so the fact that she was pushed more to the front in this film as Emma's protege was a pleasant surprise.

2) My second favorite Austen film is Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The first time I rented this movie, the clerk at the movie store said, "The man who plays Mr. Darcy might throw you off at first, but give him a chance. He grows on you."

And of course, she was right. Now that I've seen the movie dozens of times, I think he is adorable. I was surprised to realize Macfayden is the Sheriff of Nottingham in Ridley Scott's version of Robin Hood--he looks nothing like Mr. Darcy in that film! But in Pride and Prejudice, his body language, stance, speech, everything is perfectly matched to the character as described in the novel. I can understand how someone who has never read the novel might find him a bit too reserved, but that is the entire point of the novel--Mr. Darcy is shy, and Elizabeth Bennet, Keira Knightley's character, judges him harshly, believing him to be a snob because of his great wealth.

The one scene in this movie that bothers me annoyed me equally in the book. When Elizabeth discovers that her sister, Lydia, has run off with the despicable Mr. Wickham, and announces the tragedy to Mr. Darcy, he says simply, "I will leave you," and disappears! This is not the actions of a gentleman, but this scene is poorly written in the novel, as well, in my opinion. I think the best scene in this movie, one of the most unforgettable scenes in romantic movie history, is when Mr. Darcy walks through the field in the morning mist and Elizabeth sees him and sighs. Ah, love!

3) My third favorite Austen movie is Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Kate Winslet has earned every Oscar nomination she has received, and ho so much more. She is wonderful as the overly-sensitive Marianne Dashwood. There were so many times when I was on the edge of my seat, eager to reach into the screen, grab her, shake her, and shout at her, "please do not do this, you fool! He is playing with your heart!" And yet, Emma Thompson, her careful, reserved sister, Elinor, speaks calmly to Marianne, trying to reason with her in gentle, loving ways, which is so obviously the wrong way to respond to a younger sister who rips her own heart from her chest and tosses it onto the ground to be stomped on by the boots of any handsome young man who gives her a passing glance! My only criticisms of this film are in regards to the leading men.

I thought Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars was too reserved. In fact, he was a dud. And Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon was too eager and unconvincing. I have never seen a Colonel Brandon that I liked on film. In my opinion, in the book, Brandon was a noble and honorable gentleman. In film, most actors tend to play him as a bit too eager for the much younger Marianne. Thompson and Winslet were both nominated for Oscars for their performances in this film, and rightly so. Emma Thompson did win an Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

4) Number four is Persuasion starring Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Filmed in 1995, this is probably the least-known film version of Persuasion. So, why do I like it? I love it! To me, it is realistic. It matches the novel precisely. Anne Elliot is not a young, seductive, impetuous beauty, she is an older woman who made a decision based on finances when she was young instead of following her heart, and now, as an older woman, she not only realizes she still feels great passion for her first love, but she also realizes that this may be her last chance to have a relationship with any man at her age.

Amanda Root correctly portrays the crisis that most of Austen's characters suffer when they must choose between what is right for their heart, and what is right in the eyes of society. Ciaran Hinds is not a young, bold lover, he is a man who has lived a single life building a fortune at sea and is ready to settle down with a woman and spend the rest of his days a bit more calmly. He is also perfect for this role. He does not come across as the angry, jilted lover. He understood why Anne Elliot rejected him so many years before, so he made his fortune and tried again. I like this movie so much that I think it is tied with Sense and Sensibility. Although it did not win any awards, it should have because it was true to the novel, and the performers were true to their characters.

5) My final choice would be Mansfield Park with Frances O'Connor as the adult Fanny Price and Johnny Lee Miller as the adult Edmund Bertram. I think O'Connor is captivating. She holds the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she first appears on screen. It is a good thing she is the star, too, because Johnny Lee Miller is a bit boring in this film, but O'Connor picks up the slack with her energy and charm. Like Amanda Root, O'Connor's portrayal of her character is true to the novel. She shows Fanny Price to be creative, imaginative, and far more intelligent, graceful, and noble than her wealthy relatives.

Alessandro Nivola took my breath away. His character is handsome, and he knows it. He is also convincingly in love with Fanny Price, but too much of a flirt to be able to convince her, or the audience, that he would ever be faithful. Fanny Price does make the right choice in following her heart, which Austen's characters rarely do their first time around, but Nivola's character is certainly tempting, even to the audience. Again, this is why I liked this film, because Fanny Price is true to herself, which is true to the character as written by Jane Austen. She knows she will never be happy with a man with roaming attentions, no matter how handsome he might be. The only part of this movie I did not like was the ending. It was too simple, tied up in a pretty bow.

I think the greatest difficulty in making a film out of a Jane Austen book is the fact that your primary audience will be fans of the Jane Austen novels. It is difficult to judge any of these movies--and there have been dozens of film versions of all of the Austen novels--without comparing them to the books. I chose the five on my list, though, because in my mind, the writing and acting represented Austen's original novels and characters most accurately.

However, if you disagree, I would love to hear from you!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Birds: Man vs. Nature

I love photographing birds, but some of the pictures come out rather...spooky. They always remind me of my favorite "scary" movie: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

This, of course, is a Common Grackle, a gregarious, and stunningly beautiful creature. Although the recent Great Backyard Bird Count showed that the overall Grackle population in the United States is down, population is booming in our area of the Texas Hill Country. In fact, we have a large, healthy flock that lives in the trees around our house. They have a sharp, loud call that could be seen as intimidating by those who are unfamiliar with bird calls.

The Grackle is in the Black Bird family. Black birds are mentioned throughout The Birds, as are crows. When it comes to spooky, black birds work best. Just ask anyone who has seen The Birds and they will tell you there is nothing scarier than row after row of large black birds sitting on wires, staring down into the camera. And as Black Birds, Grackles and Crows are all extremely intelligent, curious creatures, it is easy to train them to stare into the camera!

A flock of Grackles is called a "Plague." A flock of Crows is called a "Murder." Oh, the horror!

The Birds, released in 1963, is loosely based on Daphne du Maurier's 1952 classic novella. It takes place in Bodega Bay, California, a quiet, little seaside village, occasionally visited by tourists, those wishing to escape big city life, businessmen who drink heavily in the afternoon, and a quirky ornithologist who is inexplicably stunned by the strange behavior exhibited by the birds in this movie--rather than intrigued and excited by the rare opportunity for study.

Bodega Bay is under attack. The attacks start small, and coincide with the arrival of a spoiled rich girl from the city played by the famous scream queen Tippi Hedren, mother of actress Melanie Griffith. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) Hedren's character in the film is named Melanie Daniels.

Rod Taylor stars as Mitch Brenner, the lead male role in this film, though Tippi Hedren is the true star. The legendary Jessica Tandy plays Brenner's mother, Lydia Brenner, and the very talented Veronica Cartwright plays his little sister, Cathy. Suzanne Pleshette plays the dark-haired, deep-voiced, seductive, though not too sexy, schoolteacher/former girlfriend of Taylor, Annie Hayworth. Pleshette has always been one of my favorite actresses, capable of switching easily from a comedy role to drama. In The Birds, her most dramatic scene is not shown. We, the audience, see the aftermath. Like all great classic horror films, the most terrifying aspects of the schoolteacher's demise take place in the viewer's imagination.

Alfred Hitchcock makes his signature appearance in the opening scene of the film when Mitch Brenner meets Melanie Daniels in a pet shop where he is looking for a pair of love birds for his sister's eleventh birthday. Hitchcock walks past the pet shop with a dog on a leash.

Although Hedren was called a "scream queen," she does not scream in The Birds. She gasps, and cries out, but does not scream. In fact, in the one scene where she is trapped in a bedroom with the birds and you would hope that she would scream, or at least call out for help, she raises her arms and says "oh, eh, gasp."

Oh well. That scene aside, it is still a very scary movie. The term "Scream Queen" is most often used to describe the beautiful damsel-in-distress in horror films anyway and has less to do with actual screaming than it does with the image of a helpless female.

Back to the movie. The birds begin to flock, large flocks containing every imaginable kind of bird, but the birds seen most often throughout the movie are crows and black birds, though considering the large population of Grackles in the United States at that time, I would venture to guess there were a few Grackles involved in this dirty deed. Nevertheless, crows and black birds are mentioned most often by the characters in this film. Perhaps because, typically, crows, like vultures, are used as a symbol for death.

The most important aspect of this film that is left to the viewer's imagination is trying to determine why the birds attack in the first place. The audience is clear from the beginning about one thing and one thing only--all of the birds are acting strangely, including pets, and there is nothing about the behavior of these birds that could be considered normal in any sense.

It is hinted, or insinuated, that the birds are rebelling against abuse of the earth by humans, in one scene in the bar when a professional ornithologist, who happens to be in Bodega Bay at the time of the attacks, explains to Tippi Hedren's character, "Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet."

The theme of rebellion against human encroachment is explored more deeply in the 1994 remake, The Birds II: Lands End. The remake received poor reviews and the director removed his name from the film and used a pseudonym, Allen Smithee, instead. The remake was too graphic. It failed in those areas where the original succeeded greatly by showing more than implying. Another remake starring George Clooney and Naomi Watts was discussed in 2007, but nothing has happened as far as production. Tippi Hedren's response was, "Why?" And I have to agree. The original was a classic in every sense of the word. There are so many talented writers on this planet, why does Hollywood insist on remaking the same films over and over? Take a chance, use some imagination, try something new!

Speaking of something new, the techniques used in the original The Birds were both unique and creative. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for special effects that were created by a true genius in film, Ub Iwerks, who co-created Micky Mouse with Walt Disney. Iwerks used a technique called Sodium Vapor Process to combine actors with background footage by having the actors perform in front of a white screen lit with vapor lights.

Birds do attack humans. I have a friend who had his right collarbone rebuilt after he was attacked by a flock of Canadian Geese while riding his bicycle. A male Canadian Goose can weigh 12 pounds. An attack by a small gaggle of geese could be deadly.

There are more than 10,000 species of birds in the world, and 925 in North America. If they ever do decide to mass together and attack humans, we could be in serious trouble!