As promised, the second in a series, “Professor C.’s Wharton Web Seminars.” In which we discover how literary criticism and flame wars intersect.
Before watching the film of Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth,” directed by Terence Davies, with Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart and Eric Stolz as Lawrence Selden, I stumbled on an internet war. What follows is a much shortened version.
“mikeeoo”: This is my favorite of all the Wharton novels adapted for the screen…Absolutely true to the novel.
“rdconger”: The film and the performances were ALL abominable.
“americansykho”: Oh my. Have you ever read The House of Mirth? … I’m French and I studied literature… you definitely can’t say that “it is a transparent rip-off of Madame Bovary.”
“rdconger”: The fact that you thought the weak, aimless, and dull performances by Anderson and Stoltz were “especially amazing” tells me that you have absolutely no serious talent for assessing a performance… nor even for discerning what is “amazing” and what is “dreck.” I could point out that I read and speak French as well that I have a Ph.D. in comparative literature – but that doesn’t prove my point.
“theninthgate”: You demonstrated nothing, apart from being a “particularly inept” reader and movie viewer…I think it’s safe to assume that no one would have suspected you of having a Ph.D. in comparative literature.
“rdconger”: Well, we could continue the pissing contest, I guess….I don’t care how many critics liked this unimportant film…You make the logical error of appealing to authority.
“theninthgate”: Next time you decide to ramble about “an unimportant movie,” do your homework…don’t be such an angerball. Unless your idea of not behaving like a herd animal is to make an ass of yourself.
“rdconger”: All you can do is attack me personally, and you cannot, and do not, refute a thing I’ve said.
“theninthgate”: Relax, take a chill pill, go for a walk or something.
“rdconger”: Physician, heal thyself.
“Dracii”: wow you are a bit full of yourself, aren’t you? And you have a Ph.D. wow good for you…Dreck?? You are multi-lingual as well? Bully for you.
“x-phile-1”: I love Gillian Anderson in “The X-Files,” but I’m not blind. She was all wrong as Lily Bart.
I’ve written this without having seen the film. Now it feels like a college test. Do you agree with “rdconger” or “mikeeoo”? Why?
Having finally watched “The House of Mirth,” I’m (reluctantly) more on the side of “rdconger, Ph.D” than that of “mikeeoo” and others who liked the film. The House of Mirth, as much as The Age of Innocence, is about what goes on beneath the surface of things. “The House of Mirth,” the film, is mostly surface, little depth.
The novel’s first scene is crucial. Lawrence Selden sees Lily Bart standing outside Grand Central Station, having missed her train to Rhinebeck, where she’s to visit the Trenors in their grand (and foolishly named) house, Bellomont. Lily has some time to kill. She and Lawrence Selden are old friends, not lovers, but attracted to each other. Lily is poor and needs a rich husband. Selden is a lawyer, not rich. How to pass the hour or two together? The dialogue between them is a masterpiece of flirtatious indirection and understandings that are never spelled out. “ ‘What luck,’” says Lily, “ ‘how nice of you to come to my rescue.’” What form should the rescue take, asks Selden? “ ‘Oh, almost any-– even to sitting on a bench and talking to me,’” says Lily, stopping herself before saying “anything.” “Anything” turns out, by stages, to be perhaps tea at Sherry’s, or tea in “a quieter place,” then a walk that leads to Selden’s apartment building, and finally, as if by accident, to tea in his apartment — “‘Why not? It’s too tempting – I’ll take the risk,’” says Lily; “Oh, I’m not dangerous,’” says Selden. He assures her, turning the latchkey, “there’s no one here.” Over tea, they talk about Lily’s need to marry.
As she leaves, Lily encounters a charwoman who looks at her askance. She is upset. “What did the creature suppose? Could one never do the simplest, the most harmless thing, without subjecting oneself to some odious conjecture?” Then, outside, she meets Simon Rosedale. “ ‘This is luck,’” he says, echoing Lily’s greeting to Selden. But why is she in town? “‘A little shopping, I suppose?’” Trapped, Lily fibs, “I came up to see my dress-maker. I am just on my way to catch the train to the Trenors.’” A bad mistake. Simon Rosedale owns the building, which he’s named “The Benedick” (“ ‘I believe it’s an old word for bachelors’”); “ ‘I didn’t know there were any dress-makers in the Benedick,’” he says. He offers her a ride to Grand Central: “ ‘You’ve barely time to catch the five-forty. The dress-maker kept you waiting, I suppose.’” Lily turns him down.
The film deals crudely with the minuet that Lily and Selden dance together. Some of the dialogue remains, but it is as if the director doesn’t want to waste time on human divagations and subtleties. “What luck,” says Lily, “how nice of you to come to my rescue. ” “What form should this rescue take,” Selden asks? Lily: “Oh, almost any.” Selden suggests tea at Sherry’s. Lily: “I’m dying for a cup of tea but isn’t there a quieter place? Selden: “I live near here.” Lily: “At the Benedick still?” Selden: “Yes, why don’t you come up?” Lily: “Why not? It’s too tempting – I’ll take the risk.” Nuance and tension are quite lost. Lily already knows that Selden lives at the Benedick. There is no stroll on Madison Avenue that in the novel takes them past the Benedick, where Lily asks, it seems innocently, “Do you live here?” In the novel, the dance between Lily and Selden takes time. In the film, the two of them almost rush to his apartment. And as Lily leaves Selden’s, there’s no charwoman to embarrass her and point the moral of the tale (though she does turn up later at Lily’s door to offer her Bertha Dorset’s incriminating letters to Selden). Rosedale is blunt, not oblique. “Benedick,” he says, “means confirmed bachelor.”
The players, Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz, are to some extent hampered by their material. The rhythms of the film, in speech and movement, are as regular as a metronome, and neither of the principals manages to rise above these limitations of pace. It feels as if (I’m quoting Christopher Null) they “are reading for a play off-Broadway or in their backyard.” With her pouty lips almost always apart, Anderson emotes in a single key. Stolz doesn’t do much emoting at all until the close when, in a debased version of Wharton’s constrained ending, he weeps over Lily’s dead body. As Newland Archer in “The Age of Innocence,” Daniel Day-Lewis equally avoids emoting but imparts a depth that Stolz cannot manage. Of all the players in “The House of Mirth,” the one who most stirs the blood is Laura Linney, the wicked and lovely Bertha Dorset, whose virtuoso mobility of expression demonstrates, if proof were needed, that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. Linney is the epitome of smiling vicious. Also convincing is Anthony LaPaglia, with his cool inflections, as Rosedale. Even Anderson achieves a certain frail dignity as Lily spirals downward. But I think it’s not enough.
On the “World Socialist Website” (of all places), “published by the International Committee of the Fourth International,” is a commentary by David Walsh on “The House of Mirth,” comparing it (inevitably) to Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence.” Walsh thinks Davies’s film “incomparably superior.” Scorsese has a larger budget to underwrite all the sumptuous food and clothing and décor of rich New York, managing “in the process to miss three-quarters of Wharton’s irony and savagery” and ending up with “a flat and ultimately disappointing work.” Like “rdconger, Ph.D.,” I’m tempted to say, “you have absolutely no serious talent for assessing a performance.” Can we have seen the same films? Yes, but with different criteria of value. What Walsh values (notwithstanding his silly claim that Scorsese misses most of Wharton’s irony), and what he finds, is explicit social criticism. Davies “paints a corrupt and remorseless social universe. The work is a devastating indictment.” In a closing scene, as Lily walks to the Dorsets’ house, she passes a street orator, discordant in the narrative and absent in the novel, who tells a cheering crowd in a thick accent: “Here today, I will tell you about the plight of the poor people of Russia under the tsar” — a heavy-handed interpolation. Scorsese’s lavish food and clothing and décor, scorned by Walsh, are a more subtle and telling counterpoint both to social inequality and to the cruelties (Scorsese’s “brutality”) of New York’s social world. Davies and Walsh look in as outsiders and find corruption they knew was there before they started. Davies doesn’t care at all about the ceremonious intricacy of the Lily Bart–Lawrence Selden minuet. Scorsese works from within and allows the viewer to figure it out. The seductive temptations of food and clothing and decor are not easy to resist – even for Martin Scorsese.
Why do aesthetic disagreements become vehement? I borrow from the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics: “we think that others ought to share our judgment. That’s why we blame them if they don’t…. The judgment of taste has … an aspiration to universal validity.” That’s why “rdconger” and “theninthgate” and David Walsh and the rest of us get all riled up.
Images: All from iMDB, here.