- “Intimate Disarray”: The Henry James Movies
The difficulty of . . . “high” art is used first to establish its aesthetic superiority to “low,” or obvious, art, and then to naturalize . . . superior taste. . . . Artistic complexity is a class distinction: [it] excludes the masses. . . . Popular texts are to be used, consumed, and discarded.—John Fiske
Academic high culture . . . constantly defines itself against the suspect pleasures of the middlebrow.—Janice Radway
Not all filmmakers and critics experience John Fiske’s gratitude that popular culture refuses to appropriate complex texts such as Henry James’s (Understanding 120). Nevertheless, moviegoers have recently rejected two of the newly released James films as popular cultural texts. While The Wings of the Dove crossed over from art-house to mainstream distribution, Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square did not. Indeed, Wings garnered three Academy Award nominations, after which it opened nationally in multiplex theaters, and is the last of the three to be distributed on video; Portrait and Washington Square, on the contrary, opened briefly in “selected cities,” according to ads in the New York Times, played for several weeks in university towns and large cities, disappeared, and went immediately to video. While reviews helped fuel modest success or failure, the films’ uneasy position in a segmented industry accounts for their problematic reception. The audience for films of Henry James’s novels, like the readers of the novels themselves, has never been a mass one.
Indeed, mass culture industries, Fiske says, seek to “appropriate” the people’s culture even as the people “expropriate” the products of the industries. Despite Fiske’s sentimental concept of cultural consumers, he is clearly correct [End Page 286] that “while popular culture is never mass culture, it is always closely bound up with it” (“Popular” 331). The growth and diversification in the book and periodical industries in the late nineteenth century made fiction available for mass culture and for popularity. Yet given the demographic and appetitive diversity of the late nineteenth-century audience for books and the late twentieth for films and the segmentation in both historical periods of the book and film industries, popular or “lowbrow” culture, to use a term Janice Radway usefully explores, has now virtually eclipsed “highbrow” culture. While James’s novels have entered the canon of high modern, elite culture, the films’ status within a segregated culture industry might more appropriately be characterized as “middlebrow,” a problematic cultural category whose industry functions are unstable and whose institutions diversifying. The failure of the Henry James movies is thus overdetermined. In a matrix of cultural forces, the questions of industry segmentation, commodity culture, and the rage for popularity converge to create two box office flops and one moderate success.
Yet Henry James longed for popularity even as he despised—and despaired of achieving—it. James anxiously hoped to reach a mass audience even as he suspected its “vulgarity”; he craved “publicity” in the “public market of magazines, bookstores, and libraries” yet modeled “discretion” in his interactions with publishers; he manipulated his status as a transatlantic author in order to publish his tales simultaneously in British and American periodicals and then, again, to control copyright through the timing of book publication. Recognizing his books as a commodity, he recommended to other artists that they produce “vendible [and] placeable” artistic objects (Anesko ix, 5, 11). Indeed, James was destined “to affront the publicity” he had the “weakness to loathe” (Salmon 2–13, esp. 3). Nevertheless, Edith Wharton suspected that James had “secretly dreamed of being a ‘best-seller’” (191). When The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima flopped, he bemoaned to his friend, William Dean Howells, that after the promising receptions of Daisy Miller and Portrait, the two new novels had “reduced the desire, and the demand, for my productions to zero—as I judge from the fact that though I have for a good while past been writing a number of good short things, I remain irremediably unpublished” (HJL 209). In the face of his apparent eclipse, James acted like a modern professional writer dependent on publication for his income: he tried to increase his sales by hiring a newly created cultural intermediary—an agent—and sought the buzz and...