Tuesday, March 11, 2008

the hours, by steven daldry

This week, Film Club continued examining films about writers, looking at Steven Daldry's 2002 film The Hours. Like previous Film Club picks Adaptation and American Splendor, The Hours is interested in both telling the story of a writer's life (in this case Virigina Woolf) as well as retelling a story that that writer has written (in this case, Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway). (As a side note, it's a little bit surprising to me just how many movies split along these lines, once you start looking for them: next week we'll be looking at a fourth, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991).)

It gets a little more complicated than that, in that this split in and of itself is not Daldry's conceit, but rather originates in a second book, Michael Cunningham's The Hours. So even though Daldry's film retells the story of Mrs. Dalloway (in a way), it's not an adaptation of Woolf's novel in the strictest sense, but rather an adaptation of Cunningham's re-working of it, in his own novel.

Cunningham's novel (which I haven't read) retells the story of Dalloway (which I also haven't read), but transplants it to the contemporary era, specifically via the figure of Clarissa Vaughn (played nicely by Meryl Streep). The party-throwing, flower-buying Vaughn is presented as a modern-day analogue to Dalloway:

...although this analogy is complicated rewardingly by the fact that Vaughn exists in the same world as Woolf, and Woolf's novel, and is at least partially aware of the parallels between herself and Woolf's character. (She's referred to explicitly as "Mrs. Dalloway"—a literary friend has given this to her as a long-running, semi-affectionate nickname.)

The film also, albeit less explicitly, explores the way Woolf sees herself as a Dalloway analogue (or possibly sees Dalloway as an extension of herself). Furthermore, the film adds in a third analogue, Julianne Moore's Laura Brown, a bookish 1950s-era housewife, who is reading the novel Mrs. Dalloway, and clearly relates to the protagonist's ennui.

Much of the film's energy and appeal is generated by establishing parallels, echoes, and relationships between these three narrative strands. (The fact that this works at all means that editor Peter Boyle deserves a healthy share of credit: since the narrative strands are in distinct time-periods, and (mostly) don't overlap, the creation of these "echoes" often hinges upon effective use of cross-cutting.)

This could have been done as an experiment in postmodern gamesmanship, (keeping us firmly in Adaptation territory), but ultimately it tries to naturalize some of its strangeness. It also resists the tendency to treat the relationships between these characters as synchronicities or weird recurrent patterns in the universe (it would be rewarding to contrast this film's treatment of parallels between characters and narrative levels in the recent work of David Lynch (Mulholland Dr. (2001), say, or especially Inland Empire (2006)). Its usage of these parallels and echoes, ultimately, is in service of something more user-friendly, romantic even: an investigation of the appeal of an enduring fictional character. The film treats Clarissa Dalloway as a kind of template, archetype, or form—a persistent pattern which any number of women can overlay upon their own experience. In doing so, they align themselves, additionally, with Woolf, the figure from whom the character emerged.

This goes a long way, actually, towards explaining the lasting force of the notion of character itself.

Skunkcabbage's write-up is forthcoming.

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