Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Revisionist Lear

We watched A Thousand Acres, a modern retelling of King Lear on an Iowa farm. I think, on the whole, that I liked this film, though when I try to write about it I find myself focusing on its shortcomings instead of its merits. It's solidly in the drama category, revolving 100% around the relationships of all the characters, and it does that very, very well. Among some people, drama also means "something that will leave you vaguely disturbed for several hours", which also applies here. Michelle Pfeiffer is the perfect Regan, full of cold hate, while Jessica Lange is a Goneril of a different color, a self-described "ninny" who's capacity for repression seems unbounded.

Warning: spoilers follow.

So, if the acting is great, and you've got a great play to read from, why doesn't it come together? My reaction is similar to the one I had to Gregory McGuire's Wicked, or John Gardner's Grendel: radical reinterpretations of classics are invariable doomed to be very self-conscious works. Instead of just surrending to the story, you find yourself playing literary critic and armchair psychologist at the same time: "Oh, there's the Edward character! Or is it Edgar? Gee, I'm finding myself more identifed with the Goneril figure than I anticipated. Is that right? What are we saying here?" That can offer its own fun, but when the story unwinds as slowly as this one does, the mental commentary becomes the focus, a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000," only dark in tone instead of light.

Also, I kinda feel like a reinterpreted classic needs to stay "in bounds," meaning that if it's going to make good guys into bad, or bad into good, it has to stay roughly true to the "facts" of the case: it's cool to show me things from the other person's side of the story, but very uncool to stack the deck. And that's where I felt cheated in A Thousand Acres. Through the first half of the movie, I felt a lot of complexity in the situation, and found myself identifying with everyone: sad for Lear, sad for Cordelia, but also feeling sympathy for Regan and Goneril, too. I found myself saying, "Gee, there really is more to this story than I first thought."

I could even live with the first initial rumblings to physical and sexual abuse; that seemed plausible and fair. But that's also the point at which the balanced portrayal suddenly becomes heavy-handed and lopsided. Now the movie is all about the incest: Lear is a bastard, and Regan's hatred is heroic, case closed. The feminism becomes progressively overpowering: farm wives are ninnies, men are dogs. And Lear's madness gets a complete downgrade: he isn't a mighty monarch struggling with existential angst, he's just lost in dementia. Goneril is supposed to be the mitigating factor -- the one who's love is stronger than her hate -- but that comes across feeling more like a sign of her weakness than a sign of her strength. In the end, it feels very messy . . . which is how life is, so I suppose that just heightens the drama. But I felt unsatisfied.

We also have a "recovered memory" of abuse, which is a phenomena so thoroughly questioned now that its seems either naive or irresponsible to include it. (Although I guess this film was made ten years ago, so I have to forgive some of that.)



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