Monday, November 21, 2005

Can He Be A Sensible Man, Sir?

"'He must be an oddity, I think,' said she, 'I cannot make him out. There is something very pompous in his style -- '" - Pride and Prejudice

My defect, I freely admit, is a propensity to hate movies admired by Mr. Roger Ebert. His defect, it seems, is wilfully to misunderstand them.

When a movie is based on another work, it may be too much to expect a movie reviewer to know something of the source material. (I didn't expect, to take an example which I hope will not be too ridiculous, that Mr. Ebert should be familiar with the comic-book source of X-Men in reviewing the movie version in 2000. Doubtless, however, his review would have displayed more sense if he had been. Indeed, his opinions seemed so peculiarly derived, and so inelegantly expressed, that they could hardly have conveyed less matter while still in written form.) Mr. Ebert's views on the recent remake of Pride and Prejudice show every defect of a mind determined to be thought clever while giving as little attention as possible to the substance of a question. Mr. Ebert begins his essay by quoting the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice; he surmises that everyone knows it. But such explicit inclusion of Miss Austen's work does not reflect well on either Mr. Ebert's style, which is disordered, or the movie he is discussing, which appears so far from the original as to make comparisons fruitless. Throughout, Mr. Ebert attempts the archness for which Elizabeth Bennet is justly famous, but it is unfortunately quite beyond his powers. The following sentences sound as if they ought to sparkle:
Romance seems so urgent and delightful in Austen because marriage is a business, and her characters cannot help treating it as a pleasure. Pride and Prejudice is the best of her novels because its romance involves two people who were born to be in love, and care not about business, pleasure, or each other.
But what do they mean? The first sentence may be discarded for its imperfect understanding of what a good marriage means to Miss Austen's characters. The second must be derided for its want of sense.

Mr. Ebert also remarks upon the visual style of the film, saying that it appears to be set sometime in the 1700s, which makes it unlike the "usual" Victorian romances. Mr. Ebert, I suppose, could not tell Elizabethan England from Victorian, let alone make such finer distinctions as telling, say, Restoration London from Regency Hertfordshire. Perhaps "Merrie Olde Englande" is all one to him. Mr. Ebert goes on to say:
The crucial information about Mr. Bingley, the new neighbor of the Bennet family, is that he 'has' an income of four or five thousand pounds a year. One never earns an income in these stories, one has it, and Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) has her sights on it. Her candidate for Mr. Bingley's hand is her eldest daughter, Jane; it is orderly to marry the girls off in sequence, avoiding the impression that an older one has been passed over.
It seems uncharitable to argue with Mr. Ebert's supposing that the difference between having an income and earning it is owed to some unwonted delicacy of address on the part of the movie-makers, but viewing the distinction in such a way betrays Mr. Ebert's ignorance of the society he is, however indirectly, writing about. It will not have occurred to him that to the landed gentry of this period, the idea of earning one's living at a trade was quite literally unthinkable. Next to this, it is a quibble that it is not Mrs. Bennet's ideas of order, but rather the rules of society, which require that the elder Miss Bennet must be married before her younger sisters are eligible to be so. But this remark, too, is meant to be cutting, while all it exposes is the dullness of the wit that made it. One may say that the movie and the novel have different purposes, and the one ought not to be scorned because it fails to be the other; or that the audience for which the movie is intended does not care for reading satirical novels of Regency England, but if Mr. Ebert will not take the trouble of exerting himself to understand a little of Miss Austen's art and the world that shaped it, how can we take seriously his remarks on whether this version, Pride & Prejudice, is worth the time it takes to see it? Suffice it to say that Mr. Ebert finds Miss Knightley delightful, and Mr. McFadyen worthy of her, but Pride & Prejudice is not a story that Miss Austen would recognize as her own. The shift in tone from the delicate acerbity and sharp-eyed observation of the novel to the high-stomached, almost Gothic romance of the movie version, indeed, might reduce Miss Austen to helpless giggles. It certainly appears beyond Mr. Ebert's ability to illuminate, or perhaps discern.


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1:36 a.m.  

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