Clueless: Adapting Jane Austen for a new audience.

Clueless-2

Adaptations are a beautiful thing – they bring new audiences to old content, sometimes even without their knowledge. Ask anyone growing up in the 90s and they’ll tell you about Clueless, the 1995 teen comedy which chronicles the life and times of protagonist Cher Horowitz. But what if I told you that Cher is simply Jane Austen’s famously naive heroine Emma Woodhouse (circa 1815) with a credit card? Allow me to demonstrate…

In Jane Austen’s Emma , The focus is on the determination of the protagonist to prove herself to the ‘older, wiser, more knowledgeable’ Mr Knightley. This is driven by Emma’s development of the societally challenged, Harriet Smith

In Heckerling’s Clueless, the Focus shifts slightly to the nature of Cher’s relationship with her peers and eventually herself. This charts her personal growth and journey to self-discovery.

In Emma, the story is told by Jane Austen, in a third person style, this allows the author to satirise the society she is commenting on as well as the supporting characters and especially the heroine herself.

In Clueless, the story is told from a first person perspective through voice-over and self-reflective monologues – the same satire is present, but explored in a visual way – by using exaggerated costuming and outrageously ‘perfect’ stereotypes juxtaposed by a contrasting voice over – for example, we see Cher and her friends frolicking in bikinis while her voiceover says ‘my life is way normal’

Included in both versions is the importance of appearance. In Emma this is characterised by manners, respect, gentility, propriety and elegance. While in Clueless, this is characterised by image, materialism, fashion, possessions and popularity

Left out of the adaptation is the novels focus on an intractable social hierarchy. In Clueless, Tai is able to stand up to Cher in an attempt to take over the ‘queen bee’ position in their social structure. She does this in a way that Harriet in Emma would never have been likely to display.

The more obvious omission is that of an entire character, Jane Fairfax – in Emma this character is a romantic rival, who, as it turns out, has already won the affections of the charming Frank Churchill – who has been naive Emma’s main romantic focus for the bulk of the novel – although focus is probably a generous term – she spends the majority of her time trying to fix up Harriet and Mr Elton.

In Clueless, Jane doesn’t exist – but it is the very obviously flamboyantly homosexual Christian who becomes the object of naïve Cher’s affections. Jane Fairfax does not figure at all.

So there you have it – does it make you look at the entire film differently? For me, I can’t see or read one without thinking of the other now. Forever inextricably linked, I wonder what Jane Austen would think….

Silence: Scorsese’s latest Christian epic fails to fire.

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Martin Scorsese’s latest passion project, Silence follows Portugese Christian missionaries as they attempt to bring their beliefs to a reluctant 1600’s Japan. The story is based on a heavily admired 1966 novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, it has taken Scorsese years to get it to the big screen and it’s obvious. The film has a run time of 2 hours and 41 minutes but felt far far longer.

The most appealing aspect of the film is its immersive sound track. Entirely diegetic, the audience is plunged into the isolation of a world far removed from the characters’ comfort zones. Kim Allen Kluge & Kathryn Kluge composed the unusual soundtrack, which melds birdsong and other ambient noise into the kind of textural soundscape that blends into the background. The audience truly is transported to the world of the characters, and this is not necessarily a good thing.

Some performances were incredibly dynamic, the Japanese cast in particular were fantastic. Unfortunately Andrew Garfield, while suitable scruffy, does not yet have the prowess to pull off his role. The Character of Rodrigues spends almost the entire film on screen, and a large chunk of that time, on his own. It’s a real shame that Garfield seems rudderless the second he’s left alone on screen. Scenes where the audience witnesses Rodrigues’ solo rumination on all things Christian are laborious, and the film is weighed down as a result.

I’m not sure how I feel about representations of proselytism on film, but challenging subject matter has never deterred me before so why stop now.  As someone who walks the line between atheism and agnosticism I struggled to comprehend how anyone could maintain an unrelenting faith in God while witnessing firsthand the avoidable deaths of innocent people. When I combine my own feelings about religion with overwhelming feeling I got from the film, which was that Christianity wasn’t something the Japanese people seemed to show any meaningful interest in (Fun fact, in modern Japan, Christians account for less than 2% of the population). Overall the film felt like a waste of my energy in working so hard to relate to its characters. The beautiful landscapes, and the way the diegetic soundscape complements but never overwhelms the story are the only things that really go any way to me recommending the film to others.

The Music of ‘La La Land’

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I’m a fan of musicals. In fact, fan might not be the right word, I’m a voracious consumer. It would be difficult for me to name a musical film I haven’t seen (I even sat through a polish musical about murderous mermaids at last years MIFF and loved every creepy second of it) and when you add to that my not-so-secret love of musical theatre, I start to head into obsessive fanatic territory.

It will surprise no one that I was eagerly awaiting the release of 2016’s La La Land. Damien Chazelle, the films director, captured my imagination with his previous film, 2015’s Whiplash, and I was first in line on Boxing Day to see for myself what he was going to do with my favourite genre.

Immediately I was struck by the impact of the films soundtrack, and my physical response to the film’s score. Rarely have I found that a films soundtrack has no impact on my experience with a film, even more rare is it that a films soundtrack can be so essential to the viewing of the film that it one would simply fail to exist with any real relevance without the other. I was not surprised to learn that Chazelle and the composer of the films score, Justin Hurwitz had not only worked together previously on Whiplash, but that they had both attended university together and had long been working together to get La La Land made. When watching the film, it becomes plain that the movie and music play off of each other. Music has been written with scenes in mind and scenes have clearly been choreographed and directed with the score in mind.

I found the most impactful moment in the soundtrack to be “Epilogue” This is the moment in the film where the two central characters see each other again after a long period of absence, where both of them have managed to achieve their dreams albeit apart. The song has no lyrics at all and (in one of a number of nods to classic movie musicals that have preceded it) is in fact essentially an overture in reverse. The song re-uses elements of the score the audience is already familiar with in order to create a romanticised look for the audience at what might have been for the characters had they been determined to stay together. Full of celebratory orchestral builds and choir vocals, the audience is primed to expect a traditional happy ending, however the song finally slows and sombrely returns to a sparse version of the tune that was played when the characters first met. Even without the visuals of the film this song is completely characteristic of the trajectory of the character’s relationship and I believe that it stands alone as a piece of music capable of inflicting emotions on an audience without lyrically or visually directing the audience to feel a certain way or believe in any particular thing.

Physically for me, the music of the film led me on a corresponding journey with its characters, my heart swelled with joy in the early numbers, the innocence of hope and the optimism of new love shine through in the music, often without the need for lyrical explanation. Similarly, toward the end of the film I was left utterly heartbroken (I ugly cried for longer than I should have) but I was also eerily at peace with the trajectory of the character’s lives. I wasn’t sad because I didn’t get a traditional happily ever after – I was sad because I was immediately able to draw parallels between my own dreams and the story of Sebastian and Mia’s dreams. I understand all too well that some sacrifices need to be made in order to achieve success. The arc of the story felt (almost too) real to me and the tonal shift in the films score must take partial responsibility for my capacity to accept such an ‘un-Hollywood’ style finale.

Voyeurism in Rear Window

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Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by voyeurism, and it was a recurring theme in his films throughout his career. This is often characterised by having both his characters and his audiences repeatedly peer in through windows. Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window is the prime example of this fascination, with the entire film utilising windows both as portholes to characters and audiences increased knowledge and also as barriers to intervention & connection.   

One key scene in the film exposes both the positive and negative impacts of voyeurism. Driven by curiosity and the insight into into the neighbourhood provided by their ceaseless watching, Lisa (Grace Kelly) sneaks into Thorwald’s (who Jeffries is determined has murdered his wife) second-floor apartment, with Jeffries (James Stewart) watching from his window. Jeffries is in obvious distress and is overcome with panic as he sees Thorwald (Raymond Burr) enter the apartment and notice the irregularities within. Completely impotent, Jeffries anxiously fidgets in his wheelchair, and grabs his telephoto camera to watch the situation unfold through the window, which is now acting as a barrier, preventing Jeffries from having any real impact on the events happening such a short distance way from him.

Thorwald then turns off the lights, shutting off Jeffries link to Lisa. Interestingly, Jeffries continues to focus on the window into the the pitch black apartment, rather than raising an alarm or noticing a neighbour contemplating suicide. The tension increases as the audience is powerlessly forced to guess what exactly could be occurring within the blackness of the window across the courtyard. Jeffries appears to feel unbearable distress as he realises that he is entirely responsible for Lisa’s predicament, especially now that he can no longer afford her any protection by watching over her. The pressure valve is released as police go to the Thorwald apartment, the lights come back on, and any danger Lisa may have been facing is temporarily dismissed. Despite the fact that Lisa is taken to jail and potentially came very close to a grisly end, Jeffries appears utterly awestruck by her fearlessness.

Hitchcock uses this window-peeping voyeurism throughout the film to such an extent that the moral lines between innocent and guilty are blurred. Despite the fact that Jeffries’ story has a seemingly peaceful and happy ending, and through their windows his neighbours appear to be closer than ever, a sour taste remains for the audience regarding Jeffries’ behaviour throughout the film. Additionally, can we as the audience actually trust that what we’re now seeing through these windows is truth? I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Nerve: Heavy on visuals, light on plot

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In what could be considered to be the best attempt thus far to portray the internet on screen, Nerve endeavours to caution its audiences against the dangers of online immersion but succeeds mostly in presenting how thrilling it can be to embrace it.

With their adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 young-adult novel of the same name, the directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, return to familiar fodder. The duo are the same minds behind the thought-provoking 2010 documentary Catfish, which was an entirely different take on the allure and malleability of internet identity that Nerve attempts to tackle.

For Vee (Emma Roberts), an artistic and introverted high-school senior dreaming of leaving her Staten Island home behind in order to pursue her art, a braver version of herself seems to be the perfect plan. So when a friend introduces her to a real-time internet game in which “Players” accept dares from “Watchers” to win money and prestige, Vee can taste her ticket to a new life. It certainly doesn’t hurt matters much that her initial dare is to kiss a stranger, and that the stranger in question is a totally dreamy Dave Franco, and the two soon pair up.

The “Watchers” can’t get enough of them, submitting dares of increasing recklessness for increased cash until it becomes apparent that the two if them are trapped. The details of why and how this happens aren’t as clear as I would have liked, somehow, the people who are mysteriously filling bank accounts can also immediately drain them also? But the film has bigger problems, the screenplay lets down the actors immensely, left with little more to work with than a long line of (admittedly pretty great) stunts before petering out to a contrived ‘they all lived happily-ever after’ end.

The film is visually great though, the graphics added to give the audience the “Watcher” experience are done very well. Shots framed as if the audience is inside of phones or computers, overlaid with text and imagery allowing the audience to be a part of the characters’ online interactions is the most realistic depiction of online identity thus far. For me, this gives Nerve an edge over other films, like 2010’s Chatroom and this year’s Netflix release, XOXO, where the use of the internet becomes central to the plot. In Nerve, the cinematography allows the audience to become “watchers” while watching in a very naturalistic way. New York City is the perfect setting for a film that needs to have a high-stakes feel and the abundance of neon lighting lets the audience feel that we could easily be looking at the future.

Roberts and Franco have a palpable chemistry and their interactions are electric, they just don’t occur often enough. Too much time appears to have been spent on the graphics and the feel of the visual aspect of the film, and as a result the screenplay has suffered. Without much to go on, Roberts comes across for the bulk of the film like a wide-eyed innocent, which makes it all the more confusing at the end of the film, when it becomes apparent that she has orchestrated the downfall of the game that has thus far kept her powerless. Franco does his job ably, his character’s trajectory of mysterious bad-boy redeemed is a path well trodden. Disappointingly, supporting characters get almost nothing from the script, Juliette Lewis is under utilised as she frantically runs around in the background as Vee’s unfathomably clueless mother.

I enjoyed this film. It’s fun and thrilling and even if it does start to take itself a bit too seriously towards the end. Whether fortuitous or by design, Nerve will appeal to the Pokemon Go generation, where masses of people are eagerly signing up for these games in order to lose themselves in an augmented reality. The film looks a lot better than its characters’ sound, but the way the film breaks ground in its depiction of new media allowed me to forgive the screenplay’s transgressions.There were moments where I felt like Nerve was about to head in a darker direction, it didn’t (probably to protect a rating that would allow allow maximum teen consumption) and I really wanted it to. Overall I felt like Nerve could have, and probably should have delved deeper, particularly given the relevance of its subject matter.

 

Everything is Copy: the perfect tribute to an imperfect woman.

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In making a documentary about a dead loved one, there is a huge risk that the subject may come out smelling like a rose, a perfect human specimen in every way. Thankfully, in Jacob Bernstein’s tribute to his mother Nora Ephron, Everything is Copy, the audience gets much more from the film than warm stories and fond memories. This is the story of a life filled with contradictions. Right up until her death, Ephron is revealed to have been to be as hard as often as she was soft, as mean as she was kind and in the end, she contradicted a career trademarked by honesty with the concealment of her Leukemia diagnosis, the blood disorder was ultimately responsible for taking her life in 2012.

“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”

This quote, from the subject herself, is the ethos Ephron forged her career by, passed down from her mother, the notion that “Everything is Copy” informed elements of most, if not all of Ephron’s work, from her early essays in Esquire, all the way through her work as a playwright, screenwriter, producer, director and blogger.

The piece is a combination of home movies, archival footage and readings of Ephron’s works, alongside a litany of anecdotes from friends, colleagues and family. These old high school friends, ex-husbands and family members combine with famous faces, the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, and the late Mike Nichols to weave together the story of a young, die-hard New Yorker who rose from the mail room at Newsweek to become a noted essayist, a genre-defining romantic comedy maven, and feminist pioneer.

In examining Ephron as a feminist icon, Everything is Copy shows the audience that Ephron’s relevance to the feminist movement is not necessarily the result of any particular cultural or political stand she took, but because she was willing to frankly discuss women’s issues in a public forum. In writing about her own life she unapologetically explored feelings of physical inadequacy, concerns about aging, fake orgasms, and even death. Nothing appeared to be off limits for Nora Ephron. This complete openness has in turn influenced a new generation of female writers and film-makers, Diablo Cody, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Weiner and Lena Dunham are only a few of the writers who credit Nora Ephron and her work as critical to their success.

Bernstein explores his mothers impact on her circle of friends. Almost every person interviewed tells him the same thing, ‘she was tough’ and the implication is that she had to be. Ephron’s trademark mix of hubris and candor, combined with her acute insight into male-female dynamics turned her into a national celebrity with the publication of Heartburn, a thinly veiled fictional account of the very difficult breakdown of her second marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. The novel was a smash hit, and went on to be adapted for the screen by Mike Nichols to moderate success in 1986. Thankfully though, Bernstein is able to keep the focus of his film on his mothers larger than life personality and the impact and influence she had on those around her.

In examining his mothers career-long use of her own ups and downs as writing material, Bernstein also questions his mothers reasoning for keeping her Leukemia diagnosis a secret from all but a few of her closest confidants. The documentary translates as a vehicle for Bernstein to make peace with her decision to shut the world out of her final chapter. It settles on the fact that her illness was the one story she wasn’t able to control in her usual way, and her new method of control became to make it not exist. It is in this moment of understanding Bernstein delivers the most powerful lines of the film, “I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” Bernstein concludes “that the things you want to keep are not copy, that the people you love are not copy, that what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you.”

How refreshing, to see a story about a woman on screen who wasn’t perfect but was dearly loved anyway, who knew what she wanted and went and got it, or as Mike Nichols notes in the film, “went and did it, which is far more important”. Bernstein’s tribute to his mother is both heartbreaking and stirring, and the treatment given to her story captures a larger-than-life force of nature who was unapologetic and often brutally honest in her pursuit of success.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation: a true crime tragedy that struggles to relate to a new audience.

Joe Cinque

In 1997 when university student Anu Singh was arrested and tried for the murder of her devoted partner Joe, the story was front page news. Singh was found to have drugged him with Rohypnol laced coffee and then injected him with a lethal dose of heroin after a dinner party. Finally sentenced to the reduced charge of manslaughter via diminished responsibility by reasons of mental health, Singh served only four years for her crime. The crime and its resulting trial were so sensational that they spawned a best-selling nonfiction novel, Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and now the story plays out for a new audience 19 years later on the big screen.

In his feature film debut, director and co-writer Sotiris Dounoukos adapts Helen Garner’s very successful novel and makes some interesting choices both in his writing and in his direction. Where Garner’s novel focused on the trial, witness accounts, and the fallout beyond conviction, Dounoukos takes his audience back to the beginning of a romance, his story then evolving chronologically, ultimately culminating in it’s tragic ending.

This approach to the content is an understandable one. Coverage of court proceedings surrounding the crime at the time had been significant and multiple news stories and “true-crime” dramatisations have abounded. And while it is fair and reasonable to attempt to tell this tale from the angle of love gone wrong, or even a community turning their backs on one of their own, as the director suggests, it appears that Dounoukos and his co-writer Matt Rubenstein have forgotten that almost two decades have passed the Australian public by, and that some more background information on characters would give any audience (not just those familiar with the story of Joe Cinque) the greatest opportunity of being able to appropriately empathise with either lead character.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation was one of the most sought after tickets at this years Melbourne International Film Festival, perhaps in part due to the sensational subject matter. In interviews and forums after all sessions of the film, Dounoukos went to great pains to explain to audiences that the focus of the film is intended to be less about Anu Singh’s crime and eventual conviction, but more about the fact that Cinque had a community of people surrounding him both socially and in his workplace, and no-one stepped in to prevent his death.

This intention does not completely translate on the screen. A significant amount of time in the film is dedicated to making sure the audience knows that Anu is to blame (and not just for her crime, every other negative thing that happens to either lead character is pinned on her), but does little to provide an explanation as to how she became so mentally fragile. Interestingly, a similar criticism was levelled at Garner’s book upon release, in that readers were unable to understand Singh’s motives. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to remediate this for the screen. The audience is unable to connect with Anu and as a result the story devolves into a tale of how sad and tragic the loss of Joe’s life was and still is. The lack of connection the audience is allowed to have with Anu becomes even more perplexing when factoring in that the director was a law student alongside Anu Singh at the time of the crime and was in the same graduating year as her.

It is important to note here that the performances by both lead actors, Maddie Naouri as Anu and Jerome Meyer as Joe are admirable, considering the content they have to work with. Maddie Naouri in particular does a good job of bringing a scarily quiet and pathological ‘broken-ness’ to Anu and Jerome Meyer manages to strike a balance between dead man walking and a loving partner desperate to help her. It’s just such a disappointment that the audience doesn’t ever get the chance to truly know these characters or to understand their motives.

The biggest problem with the choices Dounoukos has made with his content is this: Without context, background or character development the audience is unable to connect to these characterisations of real people. Even more so, being almost twenty years after the fact, it is likely that a portion of the audience for this film will not be privy to the history behind it. This is troubling, because what is left on the screen is a very sad story about a man, for whom it is difficult to feel true empathy because it’s impossible to understand why he’s there with Anu in the first place. Through no fault of his (or the actors) own, Joe becomes almost two dimensional in the shadow of the “big bad” Anu Singh and her wicked sidekick Madhavi Rao.

In closing, Joe Cinque’s Consolation somehow manages to do less for Joe Cinque than Helen Garner’s original treatment, and even that wasn’t considered to be definitive. Audience members who have a relationship with the content prior to viewing may take something home with them, but for new audiences and perhaps more essentially, international audiences, the film is unlikely to translate into anything meaningful.