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05 July 2010 @ 06:23 pm
Becoming Jane, round 2  
I feel a bit like I’m going “Why does it hurt when I poke myself in the eye?,” but Becoming Jane is still irritating me. A few brief things, and then the major one:

1) I’m not sure why I’m supposed to like Tom Lefroy when he’s actually a bit mean. In the interest of full disclosure, I really like Laurence Fox because of Inspector Lewis, so I’m automatically sympathetic to this character, and this character is more my “type,” but still. His character, Wisley, and Jane are dancing and Wisley’s a terrible dancer--he botches a step and treads hard on Jane’s foot. Embarrassed, he apologizes, saying that he’s “mortified” and that he practices dancing, but it just doesn’t stick. Cut to Tom Lefroy looking down from a balcony (ah, the subtlety!--he’s actually looking down at the assembly!), laughing and smirking. And he’s supposed to be our hero--the guy who laughs at other people’s embarrassment? I get that he’s supposed to be fulfilling the Darcy role here and all (although he’s also Wickham, which is just weird), but seriously.

2) Something that isn’t really related to the Austenian aspects of the film: I could wish that filmmakers were less enamored of the idea that antagonism is the only form of romantic tension possible--but if you’re going to do it, then please, make sure that antagonism doesn’t merely stand in for attraction. Two people arguing doesn’t necessarily mean that they are secretly in love with each other. No, not even in Pride and Prejudice--because that’s not what actually happens in the novel. Elizabeth genuinely dislikes Darcy, what with the rudeness, and the ruining the happiness of a most beloved sister, and all. She comes to discover that she was misinformed about some of his behavior; he changes other aspects of his behavior; then she falls in love with him, realizing she didn’t know him as well as she thought. She’s *not* secretly in love with him the whole time. This does sometimes get read back into adaptations (*cough P&P3’s first proposal scene cough*), but it’s not really there in the novel. And it seems to me a lazy way to set up a relationship if it’s not done right--and it’s really not done right here, in my opinion.

3) The whole “we’re so different from all the other, stuffy costume dramas” meme is one that always irritates me, and here it’s compounded by the idea that the filmmakers are showing all the bits that we supposedly never get in Austen, but it’s particularly discordant in this case, when the film is so indebted to Austen’s novels and to adaptations of those novels. For example, an early scene, in which Tom is being berated by his uncle (I’m paraphrasing the dialogue):

Tom’s uncle: I was born rich, to be sure, but I have remained so through exceptional conduct. I have practiced restraint. Your mother, my sister, is poor because she did not.

Tom: My mother married my father for love--

Tom’s uncle: Yes, and that’s why you have all of those brothers and sisters in, ah…

Me: Portsmouth. (Yes, I sometimes talk to the people inside my television. I was corrupted in my youth by MST3K.)

Tom: Limerick.

There are many other such moments scattered throughout the film: cousin Eliza quotes Elizabeth Bennet’s remark that handsome young men must have something to live on as well as the plain ones (and the whole conversation in which this happens is itself an echo of Elizabeth’s conversation with Charlotte Lucas on the subject of marriage); Lady Gresham’s appearances are thinly veiled allusions to Lady Catherine (and she even remarks on the “pretty little wilderness” at the Bennets’ Austens’ house, causing Jane to lunge for a pencil in order to write this down); Jane launches into a defense of the novel that will feel familiar to readers of Northanger Abbey; Wisley hits us over the head at the end of the film by using the phrase “It is a truth universally acknowledged.”

But the film also draws on Austen adaptations as well: boy-mad Lucy Lefroy is basically Lydia Bennet, but the scene in which she plays pianoforte and sings off-key is pure Mary Bennet from P&P2. After Jane refuses Wisley’s proposal, there’s a ball at his aunt’s estate (which he will inherit), and Jane wanders around, the camera caressing the property in full-on Lizzy-at-Pemberley, “of all this I might have been mistress!” mode. The music at this ball wants to be “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” so hard it hurts--and while the featurette on the DVD (“why does it hurt when I poke myself in the eye?”) points out that the choreographer deliberately used dances that haven’t been seen in other Austen films, the way the scene is shot is clearly indebted to those many other scenes of the felicities of rapid motion. The film’s general use of wild countryside is familiar from recent adaptations like S&S 2007 and P&P3; the shot of the pigs at the beginning and the run-down Austen house could almost have been lifted from the latter.

4) I needed--to be fair to this film--to examine why I find it so infuriating when Shakespeare in Love, which also plays fast and loose with the biography of a favorite author, is one of my comfort films. There are two reasons for this, I think. One is pretty straightforward: SiL is much more upfront about its tenuous relationship to history than Becoming Jane. It uses anachronism in particular to signal this: the first scene has Mr. Fennyman setting up a modern system of screwing over the actors--“Mr. Fennyman, I think you’ve hit upon something”--hundreds of years before its time, Will owns a souvenir mug from Stratford-upon-Avon, the Thames is full of chatty taxi drivers who just happen to be in boats, and the taverns have waiters who read out the day’s specials. This is clearly not the “true story.” Becoming Jane displays no such disruptive anachronism; its anachronisms are not marked out by the film itself and look more like carelessness (like Jane’s pen in the film’s opening shots, which definitely isn’t a quill pen, and looks like it has a steel nib--a thing which would have put Caroline Bingley right out of the pen-mending business). Of course, one should always approach historical fiction with a certain amount of skepticism, but the film itself does nothing to foster that skepticism (even providing one of those screens of text at the end to tell you what “really” happened after the events of the film, which helps to mark those events as also true), which allows the viewer to interpret its many references to Austen’s novels (especially as this is meant to be the “pre-story” that inspires those novels) as true events that Austen would later record, rather than knowing winks to an audience already alerted to the joke--as with “the Rose smells thusly rank by any name” in Shakespeare in Love.

The other reason, though, is the differing ways in which the films cue us to think of the main characters’ writings. This is evident to a degree even in their titles, Shakespeare in Love versus Becoming Jane. In the former, “Shakespeare” is already a pre-existing category; we might watch him fall in love through the course of the film, and the invented love story is said to inspire at least two if not more of his plays, but it doesn’t create Shakespeare as a writer, the way that Jane’s love affair with Tom Lefroy is supposed to create Jane Austen. In keeping with this, Will is presented to us as a mostly-formed but unappreciated writer, already capable of transcendence, whereas Jane is presented as a mere scribbler who needs the love’s catalyst (and a bit of “horizon widening” from Tom Lefroy) to become great.

This is done primarily through character reactions to their writing. In SiL, Will’s plays go mostly unappreciated because Marlowe is the big man around Bankside (and because, according to Henslowe, the people want comedy, and Shakespeare insists on writing things like "Richard Crookback"). But we recognize his genius despite that because Viola de Lesseps does: because she finds beauty in the parts of Two Gentlemen that the Queen sleeps through, because she knows that Will can write “the very truth and nature of love” in his plays. Will has to transform the silly Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter into the luminous Romeo and Juliet, but it’s a matter of fiddling with the material, not learning to be a better writer. In Becoming Jane, by contrast, Tom Lefroy dismisses Jane’s writings as mere “feminine accomplishment” (and a barely-polite “accomplished” is the best word he can come up with, elsewhere, to describe what she’s written). And we’re invited to see his judgment as accurate--indeed, it’s the only judgment of her writing offered us--by the way Jane runs up to her room and hurls her writing into the fire. She might be a writer someday, but she isn’t one yet--and apparently, only Tom Lefroy can turn her into one.

(There’s also the related fact that Shakespeare in Love is in large part a film about the writing and putting-on of a play, with scenes in progress amply on display, whereas Austen’s novels exist mostly beyond Becoming Jane’s view. We see Jane beginning First Impressions (later to be Pride and Prejudice) after she’s been inspired by love, and the camera pans over a few familiar, hastily written lines--“In vain have I struggled. It will not do”--but the film isn’t, despite its title, all that interested in watching Jane become Austen, or in depicting the act and struggle of writing. It’s a love story about someone who might be interesting in the future, but isn’t currently doing anything to make her so.)

And then the film jumps forward to show Jane as a recognized authoress, with adoring fans--one of whom is Tom Lefroy’s young daughter Jane. (This is supposed to be really telling, although Jane is a very common name.) So even her eventual authorship is used to motivate a scene of melancholy heartbreak rather than as a subject in its own right, and a moment that could have been about Austen’s skill as a novelist--she’s invited to give a reading--is about longing looks between Jane and Tom, with the text hardly audible or recognizable. (I can’t actually tell which novel it’s from, in part because I can’t remember the few lines that were read.) Shakespeare in Love shows Will doing the opposite--turning his heartbreak into poetry, with Viola giving her approval to the enterprise: “If my hurt is to be that you will write no more, then I shall be the sorrier….Write me well.” Shakespeare in Love takes “Shakespeare” as a given and revels in its Shakespearean text, staging whole scenes of Romeo and Juliet; Becoming Jane might ransack Austen’s novels for zingers and clever bits, but as far as presenting Jane Austen is concerned, it hardly lets her get a word in edgewise, because it’s far more interested in whom she (supposedly) loved than in what she wrote.

In short: don't really care for Tom Lefroy from the start and he never grows on me; the filmmakers try to promote Becoming Jane as a "different" kind of costume drama in a way that doesn't make sense to me; and I could probably forgive the film a lot more--goofy love story or not--if it seemed at all interested in portraying Austen as a young woman with a real, vested interest in being a writer, instead of someone who occasionally writes down some stuff, and then at some point undergoes some mysterious, love-fueled, mostly off-screen alchemy that turns her into the author of six brilliant novels.
Constant Readerskirmish_of_wit on July 5th, 2010 10:59 pm (UTC)
But everyone knows that ladies can't have real, vested interest in being writers! That might mean that they aren't wholly invested in men! Or that they think on their own! Or have ambitions unrelated to marriage and/or children! Ridiculous.
tempestsarekind: elizabethtempestsarekind on July 5th, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's right, I forgot! Well, now it all makes sense--how Jane writes her novels because she couldn't marry the man of her dreams and all that. Emotional substitution ftw!
Jay the Nerd Kid - Elitist Internet Royaltybewarethespork on July 5th, 2010 11:31 pm (UTC)
That was some excellent meta.

About antagonism as sexual/romantic tension: this one has always confused me, mostly because I know it happens in real life sometimes, just never the way it is on screen. Andy and I became friends through a series of arguments and then got into a relationship partly because we dared each other into it, so I know that people who appear to dislike each other may actually be attracted to each other. In my experience, though, it just doesn't happen the way the movies say it does. There was never any doubt that Andy and I liked each other (as much as the two of us were in vehement denial about it for weeks), and neither of us ever pretended to dislike the other - we're just naturally proud and competitive people who enjoy a good argument. :D

tl;dr - UST: I'm not sure it works that way.
tempestsarekind: books and flowerstempestsarekind on July 5th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you! (And thank you for reading all that; I got a bit carried away.)

Yeah--there's a difference between arguing and really enjoying the argument, and I think movies have a tendency to show the first without showing the second. A lot of the time, the characters actually dislike each other, and then suddenly the two characters are in love. And sometimes there's a best friend character around to smirk knowingly when the woman says she hates that guy, and that stands in for "I know you really like him." But they forget to show the part where there's some connection there, underneath the arguing.

Movie UST: I don't get it, either.
Jay the Nerd Kid - Elitist Internet Royaltybewarethespork on July 6th, 2010 12:00 am (UTC)
I didn't mean to read all of it, actually - it just sort of drew me in. :D

I had friends smirking knowingly when I talked about how I definitely didn't like Andy at all and I was just playing with him because it was fun etc. etc. etc. The amount of times I heard "I told you so!" when I started going out with him was quite ridiculous. XD But then, I never pretended to hate him - I just said I didn't like him (even as I made lots of excuses to spend extra time with him and basically couldn't stop talking about him for two weeks; denial: not just a river in Egypt!).

I would love to see a movie portraying an antagonistic relationship that is a cover for desire/attraction in a realistic way, but then I remember that this is Hollywood and I decide to stop hoping while I'm ahead.
tempestsarekind: too wise to woo peaceablytempestsarekind on July 6th, 2010 12:15 am (UTC)
Well, that's very flattering!

Also: hee. You and Andy are adorable, from all the available evidence. :)

I would love to see a movie portraying an antagonistic relationship that is a cover for desire/attraction in a realistic way, but then I remember that this is Hollywood and I decide to stop hoping while I'm ahead.

I know. I feel like Hollywood used to be better at this sort of thing? It's been ages since I've seen It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday, but they seem to get it right, and it's the jumping-off point of several Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies: the flying sparks actually make sense--as opposed to this weird "I hate everything you stand for; let's run away together!" thing that Becoming Jane has going on.

For that matter, Much Ado About Nothing totally works in this regard; they may be "too wise to woo peaceably," but it doesn't stop them from wooing while they fight.
Jay the Nerd Kid - Elitist Internet Royaltybewarethespork on July 6th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
So people tell us. :D

"I hate everything you stand for; let's run away together!"

I don't even get the logic there. I can understand "against my will, I find you intriguing and attractive; let's run away together!" and "you clearly have more to you than I thought you did at first; maybe we can be together after all!" but the idea that you can actually loathe someone and still want to run off with them? Only in Hollywood.

For that matter, Much Ado About Nothing totally works in this regard; they may be "too wise to woo peaceably," but it doesn't stop them from wooing while they fight.

There's The Taming of the Shrew as well, for that matter, and basically any romantic comedy by Shakespeare. He seemed to like his antagonism-as-UST quite a bit.
tempestsarekind: all the world's a stagetempestsarekind on July 6th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
To be fair, I think they were actually aiming for both of the versions you mention, but--to my mind, anyway--they forgot to show the parts where she found him intriguing or thought he had more to him. So they wound up jumping almost immediately from "I find you really disagreeable" to "how can I possibly live without you?" with not much in between. (I actually got to the declaration of love and was really surprised, because I was still waiting for the bits where she maybe liked him a bit more than previously. Oops.)

Sometimes Shakespeare veers over into full-on sadism! But the relationships between Beatrice/Benedick and Rosalind/Orlando are among my favorites in literature. (I'm such an As You Like It girl; it's ridiculous.)
Jay the Nerd Kid - Elitist Internet Royaltybewarethespork on July 6th, 2010 01:15 am (UTC)
Thus managing to miss the point of the whole Elizabeth/Darcy romance, sadly.

I am woefully under-read when it comes to Shakespeare, having only read (in full, anyway) Hamlet, King Lear (my favourite!), Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. (As much as I love Shakespeare, we don't get to study him much in med school, so most of my reading is confined to what I did in high school.) But I have seen Taming of the Shrew, even if I haven't read it, and I have read bits of The Merchant of Venice, which I loved to bits. I know As You Like It as the "all the world's a stage" play, mostly.
tempestsarekind: the man himselftempestsarekind on July 6th, 2010 01:39 am (UTC)
Well, reading Shakespeare is kind of what I do for a living, so. :) (And I haven't read all the plays yet; there are some stragglers I still need to take care of.) But you've read a pretty good set!

I get the impression that people mostly don't read As You Like It very often, although it's very popular during summer Shakespeare festivals (probably because it takes place in a forest and is really good to do outdoors). It's my second-favorite play, though, because so much of it is just people hanging around and being clever at each other, and testing each other's ideas about love. And it's about the sheer determination to be hopeful in one's dealings with the world--"Now am I in Arden, the more fool I. When I was at home, I was in a better place; but travellers must be content." I think that's true of most of the comedies (which is why it's my dissertation topic!), but I think AYLI is an especially good example of making hope from slender means.
Jay the Nerd Kid - Elitist Internet Royaltybewarethespork on July 6th, 2010 01:47 am (UTC)
I would love to be able to read cool things for a living, but sadly, my father didn't think doing a literature degree would set me up well career-wise, so here I am in medical school, where half the students are closet Shakespeare aficionados anyway. :D

so much of it is just people hanging around and being clever at each other, and testing each other's ideas about love.

Actually, that sounds like something I'd enjoy. :D Maybe I should give it a try!

You know, I'm secretly sort of jealous of all my friends who are doing literature-related things and writing cool dissertations and such? There isn't much of that in my degree - I mean, there's the option of doing Honours, but honestly, the regular degree is so intense that I'm not sure I'd survive piling extra work on top, and there's the extra option of going into research, but I'm too interested in psychiatry to give up the opportunity to practice just so that I can focus on my other medical love, neuroscience research. I really envy people whose degree courses (and post-grad courses too, I guess) consist of getting to read awesome things and write about them.
tempestsarekind: viola readingtempestsarekind on July 6th, 2010 02:00 am (UTC)
Well, your father might very well have been right about that. :) I'm half convinced I'll have to go live in my mother's basement after I complete the degree (if I ever do).

I definitely recommend As You Like It, though!

I think I've lost some objectivity of late, regarding grad school in English literature: there are a lot of frustrations, and a lot of arbitrary restrictions and requirements around how one is allowed to be a scholar. But there are parts of it that I really enjoy, and parts of it that seem perfect for me (I mean, I wrote a three-page essay about a movie today, of my own volition). And getting to spend lots of time with Shakespeare is a definite plus! Now if I could just figure out how to get out of my own way and write my dissertation...

The nice thing about literature, though, is that it's capable of fitting into one's life even if one isn't studying it formally. It's harder to make it fit, sometimes, but--soapbox time--I really truly believe that literature is for everyone, and I want to do my best to make that possible for people who don't believe it is.
Jay the Nerd Kid - Elitist Internet Royaltybewarethespork on July 6th, 2010 02:30 am (UTC)
I think he probably was, but still, it might have been cool to do a degree just because I loved it.

I'll put it on my to-read list. :)

I find what you say about restrictions on how to be a scholar very interesting. What sort of things are you talking about? I know there are referencing systems and things, and I remember a couple of vague things from my dad's past life as an academic about supervisors and academic politics. What are the other restrictions?

I really enjoy literature and I love reading even if I can't study books as a formal thing - it's more a matter of finding the time. And I like to engage with texts critically, because in my past life (as a high school student interested in the humanities), that's what I learned to do. I took an extra critical literacy subject because I just love pulling texts apart and really getting into analysing them. I would love to do that for a living some day, actually; I'm thinking of doing a literature degree after I retire from the medical profession.
tempestsarekind: ophelia has so few optionstempestsarekind on July 6th, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, I adored my undergraduate degree in English, and I'm still very grateful that I did it. My father wasn't best pleased with the idea, either, at least until my mom started saving articles about people who had gotten degrees in English and nevertheless managed to find successful jobs afterward. Then he was at least reconciled to the idea. :)

Hmm, my problems with academia. That's a tough one--although I do have a whole "grad school angst" tag devoted to the subject! I think point 2 in this post explains some of it:

Basically, my biggest problem has been that it's seemingly not enough to analyze the texts themselves and make new points about them; you have to align yourself with specific schools of criticism, and use the "proper" theorists, and that alignment seems to matter far more than the actual works we're supposed to be talking about.

I hasten to say that I only know this very small corner of academia, so my view is colored by interactions I've had with students and my advisors, and the kinds of feedback I get from one of them in particular--which is never about my ideas, but about which critics and theorists I'm using, and how I'm not using them enough, or correctly, or whatever. So I've been spending a lot of energy worrying about how to be more "academic," even though I want to write the sort of old-school criticism that could be read by anyone with an interest in the subject. And I feel like I spend much of my time reading things that take me farther and farther away from the texts--not that one doesn't need some kind of framework for criticism, but it often seems that people tear down others' work simply because they haven't used a particular theorist (or argued about why that particular theorist is irrelevant), rather than discussing the actual merits of the work. It's possible I would feel very differently about things if I had different people to talk to about my work.

But the part where I get to read literature I love and think critically about it is quite nice. :) And teaching is often frustrating, but I want to be good at it. If I weren't worried about having to make the right steps to be competitive in the job market, I would be much happier with what I'm doing now.

Edited at 2010-07-06 04:42 pm (UTC)
katesutton on July 6th, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
This sounds like a very disappointing movie, BUT it also sounds like a movie I need to see. Because I also really like Laurence Fox due to Lewis. It's one of the times when I am most disappointed with British TV because it's OVER SO FAST. :( Four episodes! What's with that?
tempestsarekind: history boys oxfordtempestsarekind on July 6th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
I know! (PBS is showing series 3 of Lewis in late August/September: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/lewis/index.html . So I'm very much looking forward to that.)

As for Becoming Jane, he's in it so little that I might not bother, really. Or maybe see if you can find the relevant bits on YouTube. :)
Valancy: Duh!B&Wvalancy_s on July 7th, 2010 02:30 am (UTC)
Hee. Reading this comment felt oddly like patting myself on the back, because you just validated all my thoughts about this movie through lucid argument :)

I want to put in one word for this movie, though - everything else about it angers me, but the score is glorious romantic perfection. I listen to it quite a lot, actually.
tempestsarekind: austentempestsarekind on July 7th, 2010 09:23 pm (UTC)
Tee hee. Glad to have been of service!

I did notice the score; it was quite pretty. I could see listening to it often.