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representation, cinema, memory

2009 March 25
by J S

i am SO upset i couldn’t make it to class today. it was literally one of those things where you walk to the bus station, see the bus leaving, yell and run after the bus, but it just keeps going, and then the bus service won’t pick up the phone when you try to call them. big time downer… especially because there was no way i, film major and irrepressible cinephile,  would ever want to miss a class like today’s! well, i’m just going to have to console myself by writing an extra long blog post with my thoughts on the matter

so, lets start with schlondorff’s the handmaid’s tale. it seems like in general most people were not too enamored with this one. neither was i. i really thought it missed the point of the book. here are my specific complaints

  • the script totally blew. some of the exchanges between faye dunaway (serena) and natasha richardson (offred) made we want to laugh/cry at how poorly written they were. harold pinter had apparently written a lot of the script, then it was changed dramatically to suit the film’s low budget. no excuse…
  • i’m really disappointed with schlondorff’s directing, especially because he is usually so sensitive to the psychological/visual grotesqueness and bizarre sexual mythology of fascist society. i guess the director of die blechtrommel (see it!) really lost a lot of creative steam in the fallout of the new german cinema.
  • they put way too much money into making this a character piece (which, i would argue, the book is not at all) and hiring stars like dunaway and duvall, who are veterans of the seventies “high” american cinema and as such are dripping with that classic luminary, magnetic subjectivity. casting those two made me focus my attention on the actor’s performances, and thus on their conveyance of subjectivity. combined with the film’s utterly conventional cinematography, bland Main Line-like domestic setting, lack of experimentation or reflexivity in image or montage, and crappy script, this focus on acting worked to genre this movie as a typical american melodrama. NO! what a disservice to atwood’s text…..
  • the last scene? COME ON!!
  • things i did like: the Triumph of the Will-like framing of the particicution scene was probably the best part. the intercut news footage. the use of exterior location shots of buildings that despite having not been built by Gilead, have a certain futuristic medieval stoniness to them. the film needed so much more of that.
  • and i think we can all agree on the ridiculousness of the promotional materials. “see it while you can” ha!

alright. so what would a good remake look like? to answer that question i think you really need to investigate what the text is about, how it conveys its message, and the specificities of the film medium to which you will be adapting the text.

on monday my group had an awesome discussion about the book’s textual politics. these are the notes we wrote on the board. (thanks prof. dalke for preserving them digitally – otherwise they would have been lost!)

to elaborate, we talked about how one of the central themes of the book is a speculation on the processes of representation and remembrance as they are enacted through oral and textual media. how representations, like memory, are formulated in response to the impermanence of things and the instability of time and consciousness. the book is a memoir of subjection; it is an attempt on offred’s part to orally represent and thus remember what has happened to her – particularly the changes in her subjectivity associated with her engagement with repressive political powers. the book/offred’s tapes are memories after the fact, shreds of consciousness reconstituted through textual representations in an urge to create an intact if fragmented whole. in the context of Gilead’s (as well as 1985 America’s) repressive patriarchal culture, which erases memory, consciousness, and the body through the control of discourse and text, these acts become highly political, highly defiant.

yet as resistant as offred’s/atwood’s project is, it is aware of its enormous limitations. the past is gone; it cannot ever be fully reconstructed. it is inherently changed by any efforts to represent it; not only that, the forms through which it can be reconstructed (text, discourse, language) are deeply affected by the influence of the ruling ideology. hence the disjuncted, imagistic, uncertain nature of the language used in the book; the presentation of time and events as displaced and ambiguous; and offred’s persistent sense of alientation, doubt, and enclosure. the historians’ conference at the end of the novel deepens the meaning of these disjunctures, showing that our writing/telling of history itself is a process of representative reconstruction flawed by the same discursive and temporalized displacements which characterize offred’s unstable textuality.

and of course this has to do with sexuality too. what discourse doesn’t? (i’m not gonna lie… our group on monday did come up with the academic pun “(t)sex(t)uality.” i would use it, but w(right)ing like that tends to make one look like a compl/eat (am a)Cher.) anyways, much of the text deals with offred’s struggle to reclaim the subjective relationship with her body that has been destroyed through appropriation by the ruling discourse. as the text narrates offred’s fragmented experience of selfhood and time, its vivid if disjointed rhythms and images also contain the traces of offred’s increasingly alien, abstract relationship with her body and her sexuality.

so how can this all be translated into film? well, first of all, i think film is actually the perfect medium for telling stories like this, and that’s partially why i’m so disappointed with schlondorff’s adaptation. it made use of none of the features of the filmic medium which resonate with these themes.

andre bazin is one of my favorite film theorists. his realist theories were extremely influential in the 40s and 50s in france and kicked off the french new wave. he was later dismissed by the psychoanalytic and marxist critics of the seventies and later, but academics are beginning to discover him again. bazin has one of the most unique and nuanced theories of realist film aesthetics i’ve ever encountered. very, very basically, he discusses the unique nature of cinema as an indexical medium – its signifiers are directly, physically shaped by their referents, in the same way that footprints in snow are the direct traces of an absent physical referent. film is probably the most indexical medium ever created. its images, insofar as they are signs, are also physical records of time and space – ontological change – directly touched by a real yet now-absent referent. it is precisely this absence that gives indexical signs their profound power. we are made conscious of both the reality of the referent and its extinction, its loss, its pastness. bazin discusses film in sort of spooky language – he frequently employs metaphors of mummification, corpses, and embalming – because he is aware that film, as much as it is an attempt to preserve the moment, is a visual incarnation of the process of death.

bazin was “problematic” (sorry, that term annoys me) in a lot of ways, particularly in his assumption that the process of spectatorship is a dialectic of existentially struggling to impose one’s subjectivity on the image vs. consciousness of the subject’s death via the passage of time. i’m not gonna get into that 🙂 but i do think that his core theory is extremely relevant here, and that even his approach to spectatorship works in this case, because of the themes of the book we’re addressing.

i think that a film adaptation of handmaid’s tale would do very well to employ a framework of bazinian realist aesthetics. extreme long shots that immerse the spectator in the moment, its reconstruction, the impossibility of its pastness. a minimum or lack of crosscutting and suturing editing techniques, alienating the audience and constructing us as irredeemably outside the film: we watch as self-conscious witnesses, not as entertained voyeurs. handheld cameras, naturalistic acting, and brechtian “breaks,” as in the fourth wall effect discussed in the class notes from today. an absolute minimum of non-diegetic music (oh yeah… the dated, synthy late-80’s soundtrack was another hugely annoying aspect of the schlondorff version). i would love to see this movie if it had been directed not by volker schlondorff but by another one of his more radical comrades from the new german cinema – perhaps the stone-cold werner herzog, my favorite director.

well… let me back up a second. i think a self-conscious, alienating realist aesthetic is necessary to convey the dissipating consciousness and fragmented, repressed textuality of the book. but what about its sexuality? films that follow strict bazinian lines tend to feel cold, ugly, not sensual at all – take christian mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days, a recent undisputed masterpiece of bazinian aesthetics, but utterly grim, bleak, antithetical to sensual pleasure. although the handmaid’s tale is in many ways a dark story of inhuman oppression and reduction of the body, i would not want a film to oversimplify its sexual politics by presenting them as unequivocally sterile and bleak. as i said earlier, the book is very sensual, in its abstract, repressed, and ever-shifting way. Gilead itself is sensual, infused with the compelling artistry of fascist aesthetics. The handmaid’s enclosing garment, which to me was one of the most striking images of Gilead’s bizarre sexual mythology and offred’s troubled relationship to it, was so horribly neglected in the film… reduced to a $9.99 Sears clearance dress. in order to do proper service to atwood’s vision, a film adapation would need to highlight the visual, tactile, sexual ceremoniousness, abstraction, as uncomfortable and dark as they are. the books is deeply conscious of the meshes that interface the sterility, grandeur, and decorum of Gileadan public life with the claustrophobic enclosedness of oppressed female sexuality and domesticity.

i also think that the film would need to be highly informed by feminist film aesthetics. it is a feminist novel. it concerns a woman’s attempt to find the language to express her experience. a lot of feminist aesthetics actually work quite well with bazinian realism: an antagonism to the voyeuristic gaze and to suture. a consciousness of the breaks and disjunctures, temporal, spatial, and signifying, that compose the film form. more than any of these, a desire to remodel how desire, consciousness and text are conveyed through film. a huge part of my critique of the schlondorff version was its uncritical, heteronormative depiction of offred as a sexualized, desired object. NO! instead of surveillantly roving over offred’s body, employing sexualizing medium shots and other voyeuristic techniques, and the camera should have done service to offred’s gaze. the camera’s scope of vision should have been dramatically limited and curtailed, like hers was by the “wings”/blinders that were part of her handmaid’s garment. we should have had many more extended-duration extreme close-ups, emphasizing offred’s interiority and enclosedness, as well as long silent shots of her in stillness, and close-up shots of the body that has become increasingly alien to her – hands, feet, limbs, shot not voyeuristically but in a disjointed manner that highlights their fragmentation.

there’s so much more to be said here, but i’ve been writing this for hours now and i think it’s time to quit. i can’t tell you how excited i would be if someone actually made an adaptation like this. let’s hope it happens someday.

film stills are as follows:

1. tarsem singh – the fall (2006)

2. leni reifenstahl – triumph of the will (1936)

3. tarsem singh – the cell (2000)

4. maya deren – meshes of the afternoon (1943)

5. maya deren – meshes of the afternoon (1943)

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  1. The Ceremony from Offred’s Perspective | Gender and Technology Spring 2009

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