- Henry James Goes to the Movies
At a critical narrative moment in Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove—the last time we see Milly alive—Merton is admitted into her presence, and before long several cats are admitted into ours. I know this is a metaphor, but I'm still tempted to suggest that these cats are strikingly literal: in this scene, Softley takes James's big bag of secrets—the recessivethings that, however tacit, persist as fascinating obscurities—and shakes it out on the floor. Meow: Milly knows all about the Croy Ploy and Merton knows that she knows, and, as the scene dissolves in tears and denials, we are left to frame the question of what to make of a diminished thing. Milly's last scene remains useful, however, as a cinematic site for charting the differences between James's fiction and its cinematic adaptation. What narrative reductions are necessitated by film's technical constraints? In what ways are cinematic amplifications—in Softley's case, a dilation of the recalcitrant queerness of desire—a function of those very limitations? Is Jamesian "queerness" accessible through "scenic" construction alone, or is it fundamentally distorted if the supplement of "picture" is eliminated? What is an adeptadaptation? Are Jamesians the best people to pose such questions, given our investments in the literary?
Henry James Goes to the Moviesis a remarkably rich collection of fourteen essays (plus an invaluable filmography and critical bibliography) that address the matter of cinematic James in diverse ways and from an array of smart critical perspectives. Generally, the project articulates the dissonance not only between these narrative genres but also between James's historical moment and the ideological agendas that govern cinematic re-emplotment. While some of the essays engage cultural values without due attention to the medium of film, the best ones inflect their critical questions through a dazzling analysis of how the cinematic scene works.
The book is organized into five sections. In the first, "Filming James, 1961-1984," five scholars address two broad and essential preliminary questions: what expectations do we bring from the James text to the screen? And conversely, how did the cultural baggage associated with film stars and directors affect the contemporary reception of James's stories? Anthony J. Mazzella explores the technical means by which Jack Clayton's 1961 film, The Innocents, rendered visually the intricate uncertainties of "The Turn of the Screw." An intelligent reader of the tale, Clayton avoids a reductive interpretation about ghostly matters: in order to materialize the insubstantial and the ambiguous, he inaugurates a narrative syntax of dizziness and subjective disorientation in a series of [End Page 299] shots of empty spaces. Mazzella recounts these scenes that repeatedly frame "the elusive concrete, [the] ghosts that are and aren't there" (15).
Priscilla Walton's "Sexual Tensions in The Other House" returns this lurid and unjustly neglected novella to our attention to trace the latent thematic connection of pathologized lesbian sexuality between this story of a murdered child and Jacques Rivette's Celine et Julie vont en bateau . Both film and tale analyze the heterosexual economy. In diverse ways, their homoerotic subtexts complicate the dominant heterotext "and efface the limits of conventional sexuality" (66). Ultimately, Walton has more to say about The Other Housethan about Rivette's film, but she is right to situate the film as "a sort of palimpsest through which to read James's novel" (60). Her essay illustrates how a queer deconstructive turn might negotiate the vexed dialogue between a narrative trajectory that affirms normative sexuality and a covert undercurrent that disrupts that process. Matthew Jordan's essay on "Mourning, Nostalgia, and Melancholia" demonstrates how "The Altar of the Dead" haunts the unfolding of Truffault's "The Green Room," and he entertains a certain resonance between the "reworking and forgetting" of psychic process and the film's incorporation of its literary source in its deep structure. At issue is the "dilemma of having too much memory" (77) and the melancholic's concomitant desire that...