EMBALMED

One of the pleasures coming from writing about movies is that you read material you might have otherwise avoided. Doubt if Id have ever gone back to Henry James The Bostonians. Probably because Ive always been a bit scared of his psychological complexity, that its too deep sleepy. How wrong that is. The novels a most circumspective yet arguably ardent read; I laughed out loud repeatedly, rereading again and again some of James loaded, precisioned sentences for their pungent sexual observations. We think of “equal rights” as contemporary, which it certainly is not. Serialized for a magazine in 1885, later published as book, The Bostonians asks the question Can women ever hope to achieve equal rights if men believe the power of the penis is being usurped? James imparts the answer through the novels center—Olive Chancellor, a “tragic, visibly morbid” lesbian. The derision of Olive, unfailing throughout, is sexist enough to turn satire into mock. (James gentlemanly equates women liberationists the way current redneckers ungentlemanly do—with dykes.) While the book gets more ruinously funny as it goes along, I often felt guilt for my sex: its unfair to put lesbianism at the core of “the woman question,” as James calls equal rights, because it maligns the major issue. Both biting and amazing, James tone about his novels women suggests what we often hear many women say about themselves—that theyre their own worst enemies. Of course, had James made Olive straight, the book wouldnt have been the powerful comic-thriller battle of sexual possession. In the fight for Verena, the young, red-haired feminist speaker, Olive is pitted against her own cousin, the “fine headed, magnificent eyed” Mississippi chauvinist Basil Ransom. Bursting with recognition, rage, provocation, egotism, its a glorious battle. The movie The Bostonians is a morticians dream of embalmed babbled. Such a darkie that Chicago critic Don Selle wrote, “Its the lights-out method of shooting.” Before Forster saved them from near obscurity, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala were never considered exciting collaborators, and with James, they seem even more insistently unexciting. Theyre courteous, formal but thoroughly intimidated; theyre afraid of James too. Why else would they rob us of the novels deliberately unsettled ending? Were led to believe that it will all work out. James didnt say that, or even suggest it; he left the war of “the woman question” on the battle field, but not without a sexist victor in at least one duel. Theyve also robbed us of the novels incisive humor, which is badly needed to get passed the intolerably mopey performance by Vanessa Redgrave as Olive. And Christopher Reeve, as Basil, might have scored much more successfully had he not an impossible-to-get-passed hairdo. James prose is a flame, igniting many different kinds of fires in ones social consciousness. Sympathetic to feminism, Im also a realist; part of ones manumission is that you prepare for the worst. James might grant that The Bostonians forewarns about the rise of male-manipulated Stepford Wives as The Blond Reich.

BACK  NEXT  HOME

ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com

Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.