Monday, December 11, 2006


Though remaindered books are one of my chief resources, lately remaindered videos have also been showing up on the same lists, as though movies were a kind of book -- which I have always thought was true. I suppose videos are “remaindered” for the same reasons as books -- more copies made than sold for unknown reasons. Maybe high expectations, low performance -- at least in the short term. Yet these are often high quality works. Sometimes hardbacks are remaindered because a paperback is being issued. The two that came this week had the common denominator of strong women as the central character. Otherwise, one was shot in France by Americans and the other was shot in England by the BBC. Both came from books. Is that why not enough copies sold? Are they “chick flix”? Oh, how I hate that category. Certainly these women are not chicks. The two movies are pretty well known and were remaindered for less than the price of a movie ticket, shipped for less than the price of popcorn.

Charlotte Gray” is a World War II romantic tale with Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup. (Are these “chick flix” because of the romances? Can’t be because it’s written by a woman -- this author is a man who had won much praise for a previous war book.) It’s accurate to my fuzzy eye, grounded by the Michael Gambon role as Crudup’s crabby old father, and in period with proper clothes, locomotives and the completely charming French village, largely untouched by the last century except for the people, who were remarkably generous about living through the Nazi occupation again for the movies. (Of course, they were paid.) Can it be called a romance when the progress of Cate’s character is largely from fantasy to reality, away from the dramatic gesture to the virtue of simple endurance? Even the reviews of the book think the Cate character is “up in the clouds” (as I am often accused of being). Maybe the male author thinks that’s what all women are like. Or maybe he was TRYING to write chick lit, since chicks buy books.

IMDB comments suggest that tough reviews brought this movie to its knees, maybe unjustly. Only one person suggested that the movie was about the “femaleness of obsession versus compulsion” (Obsession means being preoccupied, having one’s mind troubled by something. Compulsion means having an irresistible urge to do something. Is “versus” the right word to express their relationship? They seem more like partners.) I take the phrase to mean that women respond to expectations far too seriously and at their own expense. (I think I’ve learned this lesson well-enough, with the result that now I often make everyone mad at me by not fulfilling their expectations.) The nitpickers on IMDB (almost all male) showed a stubborn unwillingness to suspend disbelief, sometimes making very good points. (Why does Charlotte type a fake letter from French parents to small French sons in ENGLISH?) Other times they’re just trivial. (The sounds of the train on the tracks is “American”: the roadbeds in Europe are built differently -- who knew? Do we really care when we’re at the movie to gaze at Cate?). One suspects such critics are just showing off. On the other hand, there are some plot holes, but no more than usual. Since this movie is adapted from a book, I’m very curious to read the original. It’s available through Amazon for a penny.

The second movie that came this week, “The Railway Station Man,” was also a book, which I’ve ordered. It was ten cents for the book. Three dollars for postage. Is this a great country or what? Clearly one ought to buy stock in the Post Office or UPS rather than a publishing company.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland only need the flimsiest of plots to justify their relationship. The tape is marked “extremely mature” for “extreme nakedness” and I’d heard rumors that the actors made real love for the cameras (not in this version), which isn’t hard to believe except that the Sutherland character has had one whole side blown away and replaced by protheses, so it seemed unlikely that he would be the one engaging in “extreme nakedness.” That turned out to be true: Christie ran into the surf naked but with her back turned to us. A secondary character (John Lynch) is inspired by observing her to plunge in separately, providing Christie with a human center for her paintings. Normally they are empty, storm-swept, and bleak north sea headlands, created by applying the pigment, then rubbing it off. Now she adds a thin boy, ecstatic for the moment.

The repeated theme is from Ecclesiastes, building up and tearing down, creating and wiping out. The tale ends in holocaust as much as “Charlotte Gray” but with a bleaker after-story, if you’re looking for romance. If you’re looking for obsession/compulsion, Christie’s character emerges with her identity as an artist made strong and whole: now, like her paintings, she is centered by love for a blown-away man. I assume this movie did all right at the box office and the video is remaindered because tape is being replaced by DVD. “Don’t Look Now” with its famous love scene between Christie and Sutherland hovers in the background.

If the heroine hadn’t been played by Julie Christie, the movie would have been stolen by Donald Sutherland. His swing-dancing style -- wooden leg, hook and all -- is powerfully sexy -- not handicapped in the least, though he has to reach down to unlock his knee now and then. I’ve never considered him particularly appealing in other movies, but I sure did this time. These two bristling, sometimes frozen, people turn away from each other even as they turn each other on. The author, Jennifer Johnston, writes about the Irish troubles quite a lot, but the movie simply lets all that slip around the edge, only providing the tracks for the collision.

Sometimes when I watch such movies I worry that they are so powerful that they will sneak into my writing. So far, since I’ve been sticking to nonfiction except for short stories, the problem hasn’t been major. Perhaps it’s a good idea to write these little blog bits about them, partly to analyze them enough to make them separate into elements and partly so that when I’m rich and famous some day, my biographer can read these entries and extrapolate something brilliant to say. Otherwise, how can he or she ever guess that one of the major influences on my literary interior has been Piper Laurie in “The Prince Who Was a Thief?” Now THERE was a chic-flic!


Anonymous said...

"Sometimes when I watch such movies I worry that they are so powerful that they will sneak into my writing" - is that necessarily a bad thing (particularly if no-one else is watching these movies)?

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I don't really know. I guess my goal is to mine for reality in my own life rather than to recycle what others saw. I guess there's really no way to push out some of the images and assumptions, though. Once in a while I see a movie without any consciousness of even viewing it earlier, and realize that this on the screen is something that I thought actually happened to ME. It was so vivid and so emotionally engaging that I lost the line. It does seem as though a writer ought to be in more control -- but how much of good writing is really abandonment to the strange forces deep within, the same ones that bring dreams?