Monthly Archives: July 2013

Lecture location and other IMPORTANT course info

Remember that next class is in the Media Commons Theatre, NEXT Wednesday (August 7).

For those who’d like to talk to Tom about the now returned Report # 2, he’ll be holding office hours next Tuesday (Aug. 6) from 11:00 – 1:00 in Rm 711.

Also, I’ve also posted an updated and final version of the Glossary of Technical Terms, which is the only required reading other than the books and stories listed on the “Books and Schedule” page on this blog.

As of this morning, the grades for Reports 1 and 2, as well as your top ten quiz grades, have been posted in the Grade Centre (assuming, that is, you haven’t had an extension on Report#2). Note that the grades are expressed a bit oddly. The grades for the reports are each out of 18.5, and the grade for the quizzes is out of 5; in order words, you can combine your three grades to see what you have so far out of 42% of the course grade. The Final Report (25%) and the final exam (33%) will account for the remaining 58%.


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Frankenstein’s unending cinematic appeal

After having undergone watching Splice, the Canadian-French film updating Frankenstein for the age of genetic engineering (and more or less cool special effects), I’ve come across this article about film projects currently in the works. Looks like Frankenstein and its derivatives continue to fascinate, nearly two hundred years later.

I can think of very few other novels that have had such an enduring impact on future literature and film, or a story that has been better at fertilizing the mind of other novelists and film-makers. H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is not strictly speaking an adaptation of Frankenstein, but it is obviously a descendant of Shelley’s novel, dealing with the same issues of scientific hubris, over-reaching, the attempt to re-shape living tissues and the creatures of such experiments run amok. Even the ongoing debate about genetically engineered foods is largely coloured by Shelley’s tale.

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IMPORTANT: Report #2 + more…

Just a reminder that you can pick up your Report #2 tomorrow in class. Remember that you need this copy back, along with Tom’s comments, in order to complete the Final Report.

Also, to follow up on Jesse’s excellent insight about Frankenstein‘s primary intertexts, here is a link to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” This is not required reading, but I do recommend it. It’s one of the great English poems and a particularly entertaining yet representative example of Romantic poetry and philosophy. Mary Shelley even has Victor Frankenstein quote a whole stanza from the poem (page 36 of our addition). It’s also a narrative poem–so perfect for our course. Actually, not only is it a narrative poem, it is also a narrative poem about narrative–or about the power of storytelling, the compulsion to tell stories, the rhetorical uses of stories, and the uses of stories as a mode of absolution and self-understanding.

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Reflections on *Frankenstein*: The Conflict of Generations, Multiperspectivism and the Art of Being of the Devil’s Party


Last class I spoke at length about the identity crisis faced by Frankenstein’s monster: having read Milton’s Paradise Lost (a book rather unlikely to be among the few literary possessions of exiled Frenchmen, but Shelley’s is obviously not too concerned with realism), the monster recognizes the evident similarities between his own coming-into-being and that of Milton’s Adam (in the poem, Adam recounts his own gradual coming to consciousness and his eventual growth into a fully functional, speaking and thinking man); but he also sees that his own situation is more like that of Lucifer/Satan. There are differences here too, of course: Lucifer is made great but he falls because he can’t bear bowing to authority in Heaven (“better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”–or so he makes the best of a bad lot);  Frankenstein’s monster is made lowly, but he strives to better himself and only falls because authority (his “father,” Victor Frankenstein) can’t bear to recognize him as his own and won’t acknowledge his own responsibility to his creation. In other words, the monster’s “fall” into crime and vengeance is not quite equivalent to either Adam’s or to Lucifer’s; it contains elements of both. By making the monster hard to identify exactly with either biblical character, and yet making both identifications explicit (the monster himself sees that he is like Adam and Satan), Mary Shelley touches on a peculiarly human condition, which we’ve already discussed in our reading of Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey”: the fact that humans also face an identity crisis. When we are good we seem to approach the condition of angels, the divine; when we aren’t we are very much like the animals we try to distance ourselves from.

By making the monster play two roles in the creation story, Shelley allows us to ask some deep theological questions in the guise of a more or less safely secular story. For whether the monster is fallen angel or created first man, the structure of both analogies leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the God role must be played by Victor Frankenstein. This is, of course, a role he assumes quite consciously during his phase of scientific enthusiasm. But of course the reader knows, as well as the older, wiser, suffering Victor who tells his own story, that playing this God role is a losing proposition: it is a classic case of hubris and a perfect set-up for a tragic downfall. And the plot abides. I said that Shelley is thus able to treat theological questions in the guise of a secular story, because it could be argued that by questioning Victor’s obligations towards the monster, and even the monster’s view that Victor is his “lord,” Shelley is also implicitly questioning the way religion situates humans relative to God. These questions are made even more complex because we get not only the monster’s own account, but also Victor Frankenstein’s. So not only are the monster’s own interpretations double, but we also get the added perspectives offered by Victor’s own version of the events. Thinking about the monster, we are tugged between sympathy on one hand, and fear and disapproval on the other; thinking about Victor, we deplore his naivety (especially his misreading of the monster’s warning “I will be with you on your wedding-night” [123]) even as we pity him for the price he pays for his pride. Nor should we forget that both the monster’s and Victor’s tales are mediated through Captain Walton (though this is easy to forget while we read), and we should remember Victor’s motives for telling the tale in the first place: as a warning and example for Walton.

Viewing Frankenstein’s relations between characters structurally is an endlessly enriching way to read this novel. I’ve already suggested that it mimics some of the character configurations in Paradise Lost and Genesis, but you could also read the monster’s relationship to Victor as a national/political allegory, where the monster stands for the common folk and Victor for the oppressive king–for example; if we transpose this into the French context (not a huge stretch given the recentness of the French Revolution), I guess that would make Elizabeth a kind of Marie Antoinette? (It may be significant that Burke, whose name came up last lecture, found the image of Marie Antoinette facing the guillotine to be the very height of the sublime.) Anyway, I’m just riffing on a theme now.

Not only does it reveal philosophical, domestic, political and ethical concerns with family relations, social contracts, theology and more, it also makes possible readings that Mary Shelley probably didn’t intend, but which nevertheless inhere in the text. One is the Oedipal love triangle, in which the monster resents his male creator and secretly lusts after Victor’s mate (Elizabeth); in this case, Elizabeth’s murder seems even more pathological because the Freudian model assumes that the male child secretly wants to murder his father and sleep with his mother; in Frankenstein, some people read Elizabeth’s murder as a rape-murder (the text leaves this possibility open), and I suppose if you read the book this way the rape part of the attack is somewhat consistent with the Freudian model. But the murder isn’t really–unless it’s a perverse way to “kill” Victor by killing his one true love; but then it also means that the monster kills his own secret object of desire. I know this is a clumsy analysis, and I include here just as an example of how reading character relations as structures can help see the story in new ways. Another possible reading, this one from a pop-anthropology perspective, would be to see the monster as an incarnation of Victor’s deep biological (animal) self, and the murder of Elizabeth as a means of avoiding incest and inbreeding. Another stretch, but again a potentially mind-opening window onto this rich novel.

To me, a far more intriguing structural reading in this novel is the “homoerotic triangle” structure, which I mentioned in an earlier post: that is, the configuration involving two male and one female characters, and which allows the two males to approach each other in the relative social safely provided by their (real or simulated) attraction to the same woman. An example of this is the homoeroticism between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker; this relation can survive in covert form thanks to their shared attraction to Princess Leia (Luke doesn’t yet know she’s his sister, and anyway this doesn’t really change the structural logic). In Frankenstein, you could argue that such a triangle is formed between Victor, the monster and Elizabeth–and that by killing Elizabeth the monster forces Victor to respond to the erotic tension between himself and his creation. I call this tension erotic, but I don’t exactly mean that Victor and his monster really want to kiss etc but just don’t know how to broach the topic. That’d be an interesting story too, though. I’m not actually reading anything literally sexual into the story, for Eros includes a wide and various range of possibilities. Maybe it’s simpler to say that the conflict between the monster and his creator can productively be re-imagined as an erotic one, whose unspeakable nature (not only because it is male-male, but also because it involves father and son, human and monster, etc) makes it impossible to consummate except through violence and death.

Enjoy the end of the novel.

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“Love conquers all!” Not again… A reaction to the film adaptation of *Cloud Atlas*

After putting it off for months, I have finally dedicated three hours to watching Cloud Atlas, the mega-budget adaptation of David Mitchell’s excellent 2004 novel. The amazing trailer for the film appeared last summer while I was teaching this difficult and LONG novel as part of a Science in Literature class, and though I was suspicious of the “everthing is connected” interpretation suggested in this trailer, I must admit some shivers may have been observed along the spinal column when I saw it. I put off seeing the movie itself because I knew how hard the novel would be to adapt well (if you think Time’s Arrow does weird things with temporal structure, then look out!), and because the reviews didn’t exactly overcome my doubts. Even before seeing it, I wasn’t sure the Watchowskis were the right people for the job (though the third director, Tom Twyker, seemed a great choice: his Run Lola Run does some pretty cool stuff with time–without a 100K+ budget, too). To make the most of the novel’s spirit (never mind its letter), you’d need a Charlie Kaufman with Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze type collaboration. Or something.

(Incidentally, I’ll soon be teaching a course on adaptation. The blog, still inactive, will be here.)

In any case, why does this adaptation not quite get it? Because it’s not a total failure–not like the film version of Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which is just embarrassing. Like Fincher’s Benjamin Button, though, it does take a complex story with a very ambiguous philosophical and ethical vision and trims it down to a nice little moral: “we’re all prisoners in one way of another, but love conquers all!” Does it, though? does it really?

The idea that love can transcend time is very marketable, but does it make a good story? Not in this case: Mitchell’s novel is refreshing for saying so little about romantic love. Really, only Adam Ewing is truly in love in the sense that the film endorses for all its protagonists, and even then his wife Tilda never appears as anything more than a name in his journal.

Now, I wouldn’t expect a totally faithful adaptation of the novel, but did it have to be unfaithful in this particular way? I guess so. Again, the budget may have forced some concessions to the romcom masterplot. But to repeat myself: I’m irked with the adaptation not because it fails to be faithful. The movie would have been far worse had it tried simply to translate the novel to the screen. I’m irked because it chose the line of least resistance in its unfaithfulness; what I mean is that of all the ways it could have adapted the novel, it chose the most crassly commercial, the most overdone, the most emotionally manipulative. Part of the power  and pathos of Somni-451’s story is not that she finds love and loses it, which, as Tennyson has convinced us, is better than not having loved at all; it is the fact that even when she awakens to the limits her dystopic society has imposed on her and her fellow “fabricants,” love is never on her radar at all. There are other, more urgent things for her to worry about, and the very impossibility of her imagining love is probably the greatest thing David Mitchell has to say about love in his entire novel.

So why is this novel so hard to turn to film? Well, apart from the mind-boggling temporal structure (which gets more bizarre the more you think about it), this novel boasts six different narratives in six different genres and styles, all but one of them narrated in the first person. As I’ve mentioned in class, literature written in the first-person seems almost inherently uncongenial for film adaptation–or, at least, it’s much harder to do well. Think both film versions of Lolita, or A Clockwork Orange, or The Great Gatsby… to name just a few. As my examples suggest, the difficulty is increased when the narrator is unreliable. It can be done well (think Tristram Shandy), but this often requires a very innovative approach to adaptation–a total re-imagining of the text. Our translation assignment based on Thinks… may help suggest why first-person narrators don’t lend themselves particularly well to film, which approaches the condition of the objective third-person narration (though emotion and other inner states can be suggested through music, lighting, focalization, etc).

Another problem with the film of Cloud Atlas, though, is the huge effort the directors put into using the same group of actors in all six narratives. And this is not to linger on the odd choice of Tom Hanks and meh choice of Halle Berry…. There is something kind of unsettling in the film’s suggestion that we all get recycled through time and space–and not just some select souls who bear the same birthmark. Hugh Grant is one of the best things about Cloud Atlas (now there’s something I never expected to say), but his reappearance across time and space as a bad guy (the same goes for Hugo Weaving) seems to suggest that good and evil always recur in the same forms. Isn’t the transmission of the birthmark enough? Do we really need to see so much Hanks? Do we really–I mean really–need to see Jim Sturges made up as a Korean? Speaking of too much sameness, it would have been nice, too, to see more variety in the style of the filmmaking. Why not some imitation ’70s colour and wash for the Luisa Rey parts? Or black and white for Robert Frobisher? Or something! Some kind of alternation from the constant lushness, that sharp, colourful Wachowski aesthetic…

But my main annoyance was the almost total lack of humour in the film. Come on! Why so serious? The “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” thankfully, is inherently comic so the filmmakers weren’t able to avoid having fun with it (and thank goodness for Jim Broadbent), but reducing the rest of the rich, often hilarious narration to a few voiceovers of a contemplative nature totally dispenses with Adam Ewing’s endearingly naive clownishness and Henry Goose’s malicious wit; Robert Frobisher’s immature, arch-poetic flourishes and his over-the-top cattiness; Bill Smoke’s Tarrantino-esque hit-man philosophizing and the tasteless but still funny jokes in “Half-Lives”; and Zachry’s rich classification of post-apocalyptic redneck terminology for poop and sex. Only Somni-451 is not funny, though even it has moments of wit. But fear not: where there was humour the filmmakers have made sure there were fights. Even gentle Adam Ewing gets to do some head-smashing!

How does one make such an adaptation work? Well, for one thing, I’d say less attention to story and more to discourse; less to the letter, and more to the spirit (which is, in the novel at least, a strange brew of Nietzsche, Nabokov and New Age–can you picture it? of is the alliteration just too suspect?). It’s hard to translate puns from page to screen, but there is such a thing as a visual pun, and many films have used them well. Had the filmmakers paid a bit more attention to tone, and done a bit less editing…. Ah, who am I kidding? I’m not saying some things aren’t really well done, because some are, and some connections that I overlooked in my readings of the novel were suddenly brought to my attention by the film. It is worth seeing. But the novel…. All I can say is that this film gives you a sense of the novel in the same way a personal ad gives you the sense of a living, breathing lovely but kind of crazy companion.

Oh well. Here’s looking forward to the adaptation of Madame Bovary…

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The five canonical tempos, from literature, then film

We’ve talked a lot about how narrative produces various tempos, for various effects, by shifting the relative “speeds” of story time and discourse time. For instance, a stretch, better known from film as slow-motion, occurs when discourse time seems much longer than story time (e.g., an action lasting three seconds is described in minute detail over a long paragraph, as in this passage from Joseph Conrad’s great novel The Secret Agent (1907):

Mr Verloc did not see that.  He was lying on his back and staring upwards.  He saw partly on the ceiling and partly on the wall the moving shadow of an arm with a clenched hand holding a carving knife.  It flickered up and down.  Its movements were leisurely.  They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to recognise the limb and the weapon.

They were leisurely enough for him to take in the full meaning of the portent, and to taste the flavour of death rising in his gorge.  His wife had gone raving mad—murdering mad.  They were leisurely enough for the first paralysing effect of this discovery to pass away before a resolute determination to come out victorious from the ghastly struggle with that armed lunatic.  They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to elaborate a plan of defence involving a dash behind the table, and the felling of the woman to the ground with a heavy wooden chair.  But they were not leisurely enough to allow Mr Verloc the time to move either hand or foot.  The knife was already planted in his breast.  It met no resistance on its way.  Hazard has such accuracies.  Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms.  Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, turning slightly on his side with the force of the blow, expired without stirring a limb, in the muttered sound of the word “Don’t” by way of protest. (Joseph Conrad. The Secret Agent. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1998. 262-63.)

Some remarkable examples of the same tempo, but in film, are available in these excerpts from the amazing BBC series Planet Earth (be warned that this video contains some disorienting, rapidly-flashing images). Or you could watch any John Woo movie: Woo is a unapologetic and unironic user of slow-motion for emotional effect. Using slow-motion is a bit of a liability for a film maker, I’d think. What is intended to be serious and intense could easily look grotesque (so many awkward facial expressions) or parodic (how many parodies of this iconic scene are there? For a sense of the answer, type “Chariots of Fire slow motion” into Google videos and you’ll see what I mean).

A summary, known from film as a time-lapse, is the opposite temporal relation: when story time is relatively longer than discourse time (for example, five months are narrated in two sentences). For example, the following sentences report in a short discourse time (a few seconds worth of reading) what would take Verloc at least a minute to walk:

Chesham Square was at least sixty yards away, and Mr Verloc, cosmopolitan enough not to be deceived by London’s topographical mysteries, held on steadily, without a sign of surprise or indignation.  At last, with business-like persistency, he reached the Square, and made diagonally for the number 10. (Conrad. Ibid. 14)

Planet Earth gives us another stunning filmic version here. Movies often use time-lapse to give the impression of time’s passage without literally spanning that amount of time. The opening credits of the American version of House of Cards uses time-lapse photography of Washington D.C. The film Adaptation uses an extreme time-lapse (simulation) to show the history of the world from the emergence of bacteria to the protagonist’s attempt to adapt Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief to film. The same tempo is used to a much less contemplative effect in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, during a threesome scene at fast-forward speed to the tune of the William Tell Overture (more famously associated with the television series The Lone Ranger). The effect of speeding up the sex scene is, among others, to strip it of eroticism in order to emphasize humour and, to a certain extent, the mechanical, almost automatic, and even inhuman attitude the protagonist has towards sex and women. If you want to see the scene, you’ll have to find it yourself!

In a scene, a tempo only theoretically possible in written narratives but easily done practically in staged or filmed narratives, discourse time is equal to story time. A very literal example is the movie Nick of Time (1995), one of Johnny Depp’s less memorable ventures, whose running time of 90 minutes matches the story time. In theory, this is supposed to add tension to the thriller: no convenient fudging of time being allowed, the idea that every seconds counts becomes most literally foisted onto the viewer. Unfortunately, the thriller is pretty lacklustre, so the whole “real time” device is a bit wasted. The closest you can get to this tempo in written narratives is in passages with a lot of dialogue (where the condition of the drama is approached), but even so, we can never know exactly how long it took for each speaker to speak, or how long they pause between speeches, etc. Still, we can be more or less happy with the knowledge that the time it takes Mr. Vladimir to say the following in the world of the story is more or less equal to the time it takes to read it on the page:

“You can be facetious, I see…. That’s all right.  It may enliven your oratory at socialistic congresses.  But this room is no place for it.  It would be infinitely safer for you to follow carefully what I am saying.  As you are being called upon to furnish facts instead of cock-and-bull stories, you had better try to make your profit off what I am taking the trouble to explain to you.  The sacrosanct fetish of to-day is science.” (Conrad. Ibid. 31).

No need for a filmic equivalent here, I think. Any continuous shot played at normal speed will give us this scenic tempo. By the way, writers have found all kinds of tricks for mimicking “real time.” A famous instance is James Thurber’s justification for the (strictly speaking unnecessary) comma in “After dinner, the men went into the living room”: this comma is “giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up” (source: Lynn Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Chapter 2). A bit facetious, but the point is worth considering: by slowing the “flow” of the sentence, the comma seems to bring the discourse time closer to story time.

Then there are two tempos which strictly speaking have zero or infinite duration (depending on your choice of nominator and denominator). First, there is the pause (or achrony), in which the story is suspended while the narrator provides description, waxes philosophical, or what have you. In the following passage, the pause begins in earnest with the second paragraph about the shop:

Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.  It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening.  Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business.  And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

The shop was small, and so was the house.  It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London.  The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes.  In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar. (Conrad. Ibid. 3.)

This tempo is almost ubiquitous in written narratives but difficult to do well in film, except in films that are metafictional. One such example is from Alexander Paine’s movie Election, when the frame freezes while Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is in mid-speech, allowing the narrator (Matthew Broderick) to give us some information and back-story on Tracy. See the story here (this is a still from the film, so if you want both story and discourse, you’ll have to check out the movie itself: it’s on Netflix, and well-worth watching both as a comedy and as a satire of suburban life and American politics as well).

The reciprocal tempo is ellipsis, where there is no discourse but (we can infer) some amount of story time. In comics, we find this whenever we encounter a “gutter” between panels, and actually the same goes for film (ellipses between shots) and written narratives (there is always an interval of time between the words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.). This tempo becomes more interesting when the story time is long, however. Here is the transition between Chapters III and IV in The Secret Agent:

Mrs Verloc’s voice ceased, and the expression of her motionless eyes became more and more contemplative and veiled during the long pause.  “Comfortable, dear?” she asked in a faint, far-away voice.  “Shall I put out the light now?”

The dreary conviction that there was no sleep for him held Mr Verloc mute and hopelessly inert in his fear of darkness.  He made a great effort.

“Yes.  Put it out,” he said at last in a hollow tone.

                                   CHAPTER IV

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in mediæval costumes.  Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer. (Conrad. Ibid. 60-61.)

We know from the change of setting (Verloc’s bedroom to what seems to be a bar) that some indefinite amount of time has passed during a space of non-discourse, but it takes several pages for us to discover that “a month” has passed (75).

The last film we viewed in class, Martha Marcy May Marlene, uses ellipses quite effectively, especially because it isn’t always clear whether the amount of story time is relatively short (thus separating two moments during Martha’s life with the cult) or relatively long (thus separating Martha’s life with the cult from a moment in her post-cult life living with her sister).

Of course, this movie does many other things with story/discourse that aren’t explanable as tempo: it also plays with the order of events, repeatedly giving us analepses (shift to a moment earlier in the story) and prolepses (shift to a moment later in the story) (these, by the way, are not exactly the same as flash-backs and flash-forwards, which have more to do with straight-up memory than with actually shifts in narrative order). Incidentally, The Secret Agent also uses, extremely sneakily and very effectively, a monumental time-shift (or anachrony) of this kind. Aside from tempo and order, there is also the temporal category of frequency, which has to do with the relation between how often events occur (in the story) and how often they are narrated (discourse).

All this I have picked up from theorists like Gerard Genette, Mieke Bal, and others.

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Final Report instructions now on Blackboard

I’ve just posted a draft version of the handout explaining the Final Report. I’ll be handing out hard copies tomorrow in class, as well as taking questions about the assignment.

On a related note: if you haven’t yet submitted Report #2, and if you haven’t received an extension from me, tomorrow is your last chance to submit it.

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