Sunday, 8 July 2012

Women Writers on Film: "An Angel At My Table" 1990, Jane Campion

The 1990's film An Angel at my Table depicts the experience of a woman writer in a rather different manner to Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle discussed in the previous post. Directed by Jane Campion, this film has a slower tone, dealing contemplatively and sensitively with the New Zeeland poet Janet Frame, starting with her procession from a childhood interest in literature to becoming an adult woman and a full-time writer. The film is broken up into acts, very much like that of a play. Janet’s originality of thought is established from the start of the film. As a child writing poetry for school Janet is told by her older sister to change a line of her poem from “touch the sky” to “tint the sky”, the implication being that there is a predetermined "correct" language of poetry set by other poets that must be adhered to, the older sister continues “there are always words that go together in poetry…rub out touch and put in tint, it sounds more poetic”. In the following classroom scene we see Janet sat on the lap of the avuncular male teacher, reading out her poem. We hear she has not changed the line and that the poem is received joyously by her classmates - expressing the way that even as a child Janet reclaims language for herself and what sounds right for her. This quality of single-mindedness is rewarded seemingly when her father gives her a smart new notebook for her to write more poems in.

Contrasting highly with the previous film's self-conscious use of mirrors, the first time Janet is positioned in front of a mirror it is to mimic the rather fey schoolmate Shirley who has been told she possesses a “poetic world of imagination” by a dippy female school teacher seemingly for the sole reason that she is pretty and daydreams! Janet is present at a performance of this favoured pupil singing accompanied at the piano. She sings with rather laboured emotion, her face in mock pain as she sings glancing up at the heavens. Like the Dorothy Parker portrayal, to feel the words is to feel pain, which is presented as being rather romantic. After that scene, Janet is seen in the mirror trying to capture this look of romanised anguish, which comes off as sweet and amusing as she is represented as a grounded unaffected child, the antithesis of Shirley or Dorothy. There is no pretence in her evident love of literature and poetry; it is something engaged in naturally with her friend Poppy and among her sisters by reading Shakespeare and passages of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. Writing is done daily in lessons at school and then taken up out of pleasure at home. Her dedication to literature is foreshadowed as being a tragic choice, expressed in that it is in the act of writing she is engaged in, and not with her sisters who have gone to the Baths, when her older sister Mertell drowns.

The representation of Janet’s life is that of constant struggle, struggles to live and struggles to work. Janet’s life of poverty and mental illness is not portrayed as being sexy; she is not the tortured soul playing out her miseries in front of an audience of bourgeois intellectuals like in Mrs Parker and The Vicious Circle – but instead as a mind-numbingly dull rural poverty of hand-me-downs, four children to a bed, brown rotting teeth and filth. These things are dealt with matter-of-fact, they are not glamorised or laboured, they are just there, present. Janet’s tatty clothes and lack of concern over her appearances separate her visually from the other girls at college during the films adolescence section, but it is her shyness and self-imposed isolation that really divides her form her classmates. Literature is also, for Janet, a means to escape the tired tedium of provincial boredom. But really it is clear from the start of the film it is a passion to engage with rather than escape from.

Unfortunately as Janet grows up this interest is experienced less and less as a social, oral shared activity. She is separated from her kindred spirit in Poppy and her sisters become more interested in boys than in work, her sister Isabelle sidelines finishing an essay in favour of “nearly going on all the way” with her boyfriend. Literature therefore becomes a solitary pursuit for Janet, not something to study at school then abandon when you are old enough, to be replaced with interests in sex, socialising and finally marriage and family. To act against conventional behaviours by placing literature above the expectation of a woman’s domestic life is to become separate from society. Going against societies' constructed notions of acceptability is dangerous. To be a writer is almost always an activity that forces one to be outside of normal society, in hours and habits if nothing else. Dworkin states that writers “do something real and significant, not contemplative or dithering. Therefore writing is never peripheral or beside the point. It is serious and easily seditious”.

The madness or supposed madness that hangs ever-present over both films, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle and An Angel At My Table is typical of the kind of labels women writers have always been given, the suggestion of mental infirmities is used against them in order to negate their talent and ability. Dorothy Parker's suicide attempts were put down (in the film and in real life) to a predilection for drink and masochistic relationships. Not that these did not factor, but more importantly, as a woman she had to work a lot harder than her male peers for recognition, respect, decent pay, for jobs and to survive the dangerous botched abortions without the back-up of the support of a stable domestic life. The path of writing was (and still is) more precarious for these women than it was for their male colleagues.

Unlike Dorothy Parker, for whom I feel Literature was a positive enabling force of catharsis, for Janet Frame, the isolation of the experience of working alone, becoming completely absorbed in literature led to her being somewhat underdeveloped in how to be what was expected of her in the world. Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, she spent eight years in an asylum for women, when in fact she was just a shy, rather nervous woman. Instead of being treated with understanding and gentleness, her vaguely unusual behaviour and habits were simply not tolerated and she was incarcerated. It is telling that Janet is presented in the film as almost preferring to be considered mad, and thus be aloud to just be herself, than to be in a society that misunderstands her - she ironically calls the asylum “my private rest home”.

Despite being very different films, both portray the act of writing for these women to be considerably important, and that eventually, after massive amounts of struggling to be taken seriously, both women are eventually granted autonomy and given due credit. Still, I think as Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle unfortunately proves, that still today, a woman’s desirability is placed as more worthy of attention for an audience than the play of words and the world of literature she produced. Both films also show that the lives of Janet Frame and Dorothy Parker were denied the same experience of domestic life that their male peers could enjoy. Is it that in relationships between men and women, there can only be space for one gender to hold the pen or possess the “metaphorical penis” - a question that could be put to the director Alan Rudolph who, in depicting Dorothy Parker as a tragic femme-fatale, strips her of some humanity and, most of all, forgets who she was, which was a poet and writer.

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