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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Love and Friendship, Unlocking the Cage, & my first Sundance experience

I just got home from attending my first Sundance Film Festival, and it was a fantastical wild ride! 

I Tweeted about my first impressions on Sunday, as follows:

I was fortunate to get an e-waitlist ticket to see Love & Friendship last nite at Sundance, amidst a packed house of over 1400 in the audience. I had hoped it would be good, but I was a little worried that it would not do justice to Lady Susan (which as previously noted is the actual Austen source), despite the title.

Well- it was clear after 5 minutes that the writing, directing, and acting were ALL shockingly great!  And, what's more miraculous, the absurdly high level was maintained throughout! All Janeites will LURVE it, sorta in the same way we all feel such fondness for Clueless- this film perfectly captured Jane Austen's dry darkly wicked humor in Lady Susan.

It's impossible to say which I loved more- Whit Stillman's additions to JA's words, which were on a par with the quality of Andrew Davies's ear for Austenian dialog -- or Kate Beckinsale's Lady Susan, which has to be seen to be believed - they were both that perfect!

I'll write a more detailed post in the next day or two, but I wanted to get the word out right away- mark my words, this film will snag some 2016 awards nominations!

 In response to the above, my friend Diane Reynolds wrote: "Arnie, Thanks for the heads up. I can't wait to see this film. Also, please tell us you are warm! Or at least enjoying Sundance, as I am sure you are."

Here are my further meditations on my first Sundance experience:
I just got back last night, it was fabulous in so many ways, and I was properly dressed, including hiking books and thermal underwear, so I was never cold!  And the sun actually did dance the last two days of my visit—Park City, Utah really is a perfect dreamworld setting for the dreamworld of a cutting edge film festival filled with extraordinary new films of all kinds.

First and foremost for me was that on Monday was the premiere of Unlocking the Cage... .... the new documentary made by the team of the  legendary pioneering documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (now aged 90, whom everyone calls "Penny")....  ...and his equally talented wife and co-creator of documentaries the past 40 years, Chris Hegedus....

The film is really fantastic, as it manages to turn a potentially very dry topic---the bringing of civil lawsuits based on subtle legal arguments about "personhood"---into a compelling and affecting courtroom drama, in which the audience gets completely caught up in wanting to know "what happens" to the plaintiffs, who happen to be a half dozen sadly mistreated and imprisoned chimpanzees in NY State.

As I've written before, my very personal interest in the Nonhuman (animal) Rights Project (NHRP) arises because it was started long ago by my close friend Steve Wise, whom I met in 2006 when I read Though the Heavens May Fall, Steve’s nonfiction account of the landmark 1772 Mansfield Case (which Margaret Kirkham first identified--completely correctly, in my view---in 1982 as the source for JA's title Mansfield Park), and then I found out Steve lived only a 15 minute drive from me when I was still living in South Florida. We became friends, and for 9 years he, I, and two other like-minded guys enjoyed the luxury of a monthly lunch together, the first time since college that I was part of a group of close male friends like that.

The film shows that the NHRP has reached (as Steve quotes Churchill in the film) "the end of the beginning", by virtue of the multiple lawsuits which he and his incredible team of mostly volunteer lawyers brought in 2014-5 in NY State. Some of them are still in progress, more are to come, and one of them already induced a very foresightful judge, Barbara Jaffe, to seriously consider a habeas corpus petition on behalf of chimps held (imprisoned) at SUNY Stony Brook --who are still in custody, alas, but now in Louisiana, by another entity making profit on these poor animals, which demanded return of their “property” from SUNY Stony Brook, which wanted nothing more than to get out of the bright spotlight that Steve’s lawsuit had shone on their shameful practices.

Anyway, the film is really spectacular, and I believe it will have an even greater impact on public consciousness worldwide about animal rights than Blackfish and The Cove. I think it’s good enough to warrant Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for this year, so I look forward to seeing the same wonderful group of filmmakers and legal eagles onstage on TV next year!

And, given that Mansfield Park is, as Patricia Rozema so beautifully crystallized it, an "extended meditation on servitude", I am certain that Jane Austen would have been thrilled to know that the Mansfield Case provided inspiration for a far future legal breakthrough 243 years later, which has now been so artistically and expertly presented to the wider world, for the same purpose I believe JA had in writing her novels--to change the world---to shine a light on hypocrisy, ignorance, and even evil, and to prompt good people to join together to cure those afflictions. Jane Austen's role in the rise of feminism is a quintessential example, as she inspired many generations of smart women to believe, like Eliza Bennet, that they are not inferior to anyone else, and are entitled not to have their happiness determined by anyone not connected to them!

And I got to meet and spend time with many members of both Steve's legal, and Penny's & Chris's filmmaking, teams, as well as their friends and love ones who, like me, tagged along for the ride. So it was very personal and lovely in all those ways as well.

And then, of course, as I’ve already written, I got to see Love and Friendship (I'm only sorry I didn't get to see Stillman, Beckinsale, or Sevigny in person), and I will blog some more about it soon--I've noted that every single review of the film I've seen online has ranged from positive to ecstatic, it's unanimous --- this film is going to take the Janeite world by storm when it hits the theaters.

I forgot to mention in my first post that Janeites will see a very familiar face in Love & Friendship that may take you a minute to place where you first saw it--- it’s James Fleet, who played the banally evil John Dashwood in the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense & Sensibility!

And write down this name—Xavier Samuel ….   ….He is going to take his place in the pantheon of convincing, smart, and swoon-inducing Austenian film heroes ---- right alongside Firth, Rickman, Wise, Miller, and Hinds—for the next generation of Austen film fans.

And finally, Diana, you really will feel like you're listening to yourself when you hear Chloe Sevigny speak her lines as Mrs. Johnson--her voice has a very similar timbre to yours, but more important, your and her sparkling delivery and cadences are both so tactfully "Austenesque"!

But, and with no offense to you or Sevigny, I must keep repeating----- Kate Beckinsale's delivery of her lines, and her range of accompanying facial expressions, was off the charts spectacular from beginning of the film to the end. She achieved the same onscreen charismatic magic as the likes of Thompson, Ehle, Firth, etc..  I just listened to a brief YouTube interview that Stillman, Beckinsale, and Sevigny jointly gave at Sundance….   …..and Beckinsale described Lady Susan thusly:

"atypical for an Austen heroine….rapacious and very naughty and spirited and a bit evil”

It was very much in the same witty spirit as Jane Austen's 1814 comment to sister Cassandra after seeing another diabolical character onstage in a Don Juan adaptation in London: 

I must say that I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty & Lust." 

It seems obvious to me that JA, in 1814, was reminded of her own creation a decade or two earlier, Lady Susan, who perhaps was actually in part based on Don Juan, as well, of course, as on Milton's Satan! 

So, to those who still believe that Jane Austen turned away from the over the top absurdist violence of her Juvenilia, as well as from the placing of a charming sociopath at the center of Lady Susan, and letting her get away with all her scheming, I say that the opposite is true--i.e., I say that the mature Jane Austen took on, and succeeded at meeting, the greater artistic challenge of incorporating and hiding that Satanic brilliance just under the surface of her six novels---and she winked very broadly at just that when she gave her greatest offstage schemer, Lucy Steele in Sense & Sensibility, the married name Lucy Ferrars---as in LUCIFER!!!

And, ironically given his brilliant achievement in Love & Friendship, it appears to me from what I have heard Stillman say in that same interview, that he has been misled by the Myth of Jane Austen into thinking Lady Susan was a passing phase for JA. And it's perfectly understandable, as that is still the conventional wisdom about most Austen scholars today. But perhaps he (and they) can be convinced otherwise with suitable "persuasion"--that is the task I've taken on!   

Stillman is a very sharp elf, as the interview (and of course all his films) show. E.g., apropos the question that I and others have raised about the seemingly strange title choice, Stillman pointed out (correctly) that Lady Susan was not JA’s own title, it was JEAL’s—so now I am not only okay with Stillman’s logic, I now concede my own initial error on this point, and really like his choice!

And, more substantively, he also made great sense when he spoke of choosing to adapt Lady Susan rather than add to the long queue of adaptations of the six novels. He referred to LS being in a very real sense incomplete, and so this did logically grant fair license to a respectful yet adventurous adaptor like Stillman to bring it to fuller life. And he really did succeed spectacularly!

And finally, there was one other special Sundance experience for me—I attended a screening of three short films, one of which was amazing:

"Swimming in Your Skin Again / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Terence Nance) — This intensely musical film is about the spiritual anchorages of life in and around Miami. The story is drenched in the heat, spirit, and landscape of southern Florida. "

Based on this short (and it's not his first film), I think Nance.....    ... is a budding cinematic genius----in 20 minutes he provided an extraordinarily rich and affecting ride to the audience, using only his ingenuity with simple sound and visual equipment. I believe, with a proper budget, he could make some really extraordinary full length films. Keep an eye out for him!

So Jackie and I are definitely going to go to a Sundance or two in the next few years, as I now understand what we've been missing all these years!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Christina Boyd said...

What a great first! Lucky you.