Saturday, September 16, 2006

Picked Flick #39: The Hours

The Hours, both Michael Cunningham's novel and Stephen Daldry's film, continue to frustrate and upset me, in ways that are at this point indistinguishable from fascination. Sometimes that fascination is purer, more awed. At other times, both the book and the movie emanate a powerful mediocrity, a distinct aroma of cliché, of unmet ambitions. I often furrow my brow at the relentless lyricism of Cunningham's prose, which, in this book as in others, strives rather arduously for showy, synesthetic images where more modest narration would happily suffice. He writes as though with each paragraph he hopes to secure our vote, some badge of our readerly devotion, even though the heady conceptions of his books sometimes trip over all the stylistic filigrees. And yet, Cunningham broaches subjects and themes that are difficult to articulate, or even to acknowledge, and he is capable of real astuteness in how he treats them: the ways in which death can feel impolite, just as caretaking can be officious and desperate; the worrying, thin line between liking someone enormously and loving them merely adequately, and how a shift from one to the other can be more painful than any dislike or hatred; the ways in which people look to art, especially books and music and movies, for telepathic prompts for their own life-choices.

The movie version of The Hours shares the arresting ambitions and the psychological acuity of the book, as well as its prosaic and vaguely elitist excesses. To my mind, in recent popular cinema, American Beauty is the movie's closest cousin, both of them built atop scripts that can seem courageously lucid and dismayingly glib within single scenes or transitions, both directed in a glossy, theatrical, actor-friendly style that serves and also sabotages the material by playing up the artifice. You can hold your ear up to American Beauty or The Hours and hear a worrying howl from deep within the upper bourgeoisie, demanding and deserving to be taken seriously, but you can also somehow hear the production teams slapping their own backs about the casts they've hooked, the certainty of prizes, the Big Issues they broach. However, while the moods and structures of American Beauty, for all of its technical audacity, feel smaller and more market-tested as the years go by, The Hours totally engrosses me. I keep sitting before it, open-minded, sometimes open-mouthed. It becomes clearer, for one thing, that the movie has darkened the book considerably. Disapproval of Richard Brown's esoteric, self-obsessed novel is more general. Vanessa Bell is more unhinged, almost repulsed, by the ravenous loneliness of her sister Virginia Woolf. Laura Brown already intends suicide as she drops her son with an indifferent neighbor. Clarissa Vaughan lets slip a major, unwitting insult to her daughter, and instead of nursing a fond, fumbling reminiscence with Louis Waters on her comfy living room couch, she erupts and nearly dissolves in her cold kitchen, where the light is the color of frost, the faucets detonate for no reason, and Louis looks on, agitated and annoyed, from practically a mile away across the countertop. This last scene is my favorite in the movie: its scary unraveling of Meryl Streep, usually so composed and sometimes to a fault, encapsulates the wholly credible and almost lymphatic unease beneath the film's mannered language, the roiling score, the sometimes precious match-cuts.

I suppose it's no mystery that such a disciple of modern film actresses as myself would get swept up in this movie. I have been known to listen to the Kidman-Moore-Streep commentary track on the DVD while I clean or cook. Still, The Hours collects so many disparate, exciting actors into such a range of parts that it's almost hard to get a bead on the performances: secondary players like Miranda Richardson and Eileen Atkins grow more interesting over time; my regard for all three star turns cycles up and down; and character approaches that click well in one scene, or against one particular co-star, feel subtly wrong in or against another. In some ways, the movie cuts more to the point of Cunningham's novel than his own prose really can: the whole piece activates such complex, elliptical relationships among notions of acting, essence, ritual, privilege, performance, gender, art, sex, and death that it somehow deepens the themes to see the bodies, scrutinize the faces, smell the money, feel the flatness of the screen. A major concern of The Hours is the ambivalence of love, the working out of conflicted emotions over time, even over generations. Fitting, then, that I keep wrestling with this book and this movie, frowning at their shortcuts and platitudes, hooking onto their sublime moments, assigning both texts in course after course, wondering where our attachments to art really come from, how fraught they can be with disapproval as well as wonder. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 2002 Miramax Films and Paramount Pictures.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

So finally I get a peak into what you feel about Cunningham's work. What's strange is that I agree with you, in a way, yet his work still hits me so hard and that can't be denied.

4:09 AM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Well, as I say, ask me tomorrow and I'll probably say something totally different! (I'm just about to start Specimen Days, about which even Cunningham fans seem a little skeptical... were you?)

4:25 AM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I've yet to read Specimen Days, but I brought it with me to school and was about to pick it up. I'll get back to you in a week!

12:20 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

I really enjoyed reading this entry, especially since you focused on your own personal reaction to the book/film and even how your opinion goes up and down on it constantly. Personally, I adored both Cunningham's prose and the film adaptation back in 2002. That year (and spilling over into Oscar time), I was obsessed with The Hours. Watched the film three times in the theatre, and wanted it to win practically every award it was up for. Even now (like you), I watch the film on DVD with the actress commentary on a continuous loop, sometimes while doing schoolwork or other chores.

But in the years since, although I still adore the novel, I've really cooled in the film, which I find less and less satisfying with each successive viewing. I can't get behind David Hare's long-winded monologues that feel unconvincing and awkwardly constructed (although the actors try very hard to sell them.) One scene I especially dislike now is the one between Kidman and Dillane at the train station, which is pitched to the rafters.

Then again, like you said, that are so many moments that do work. I especially love the cameos by Toni Collette and Miranda Richardson, who steal each scene they are in. I get the chills from Philip Glass's score, and each of the three lead actors have their strong moments (Streep remains best in show for me, though.)

As you can see, I'm very mixed on the whole thing. The strange thing is that I still watch the film every few months, even though it would make more sense to revisit the novel (considering I like it more.) Okay, I'm getting rambly, so I will stop now.

1:44 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Ali: My experience, to a tee. I agree about the Kidman/Dillane train-station scene, which is also my least favorite in the movie. Agreed that Streep is "best in show" among the leads. And I can't figure out why I watch the movie so often, either.

I just closed the covers last week on my fourth read-through of the book. If I had it with me, I'd provide some of my marked examples of sentences that work for me and sentences that jar me right out of the novel. But that would be unbearably nerdy, right? ;)

(P.S. You guys are both very kind to be so patient with the fits and starts of this blog and always return with comments!)

4:19 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger par3182 said...

a word of warning re. specimen days - trainwreck.

my favourite thing about the hours (film) is the beautiful child that plays julianne moore's son; he's so quietly haunting (and there's no way he grew up to be ed harris - nature ain't that cruel).

i see where you're going with the comparison to american beauty but damn, that's harsh. it always amuses me that american beauty's tagline was "look closer" 'cause there's just nothing there.

9:23 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

shocking confession of the day:

i have never listened to the commentary.

9:27 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: Are you punishing yourself for something?

10:24 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger adam k. said...

WHAT??? I seriously am shocked that Nathaniel never listened to the commentary on this DVD. To those who have, did you find Kidman's comments kind of pretentious? I sure as hell did. Streep and Moore were much cooler. Streep, in particular, is always glorious to listen to.

I agree that this film is like American Beauty, but less trite. I kind of hated it when I first saw it (it did NOT live up to the novel in my view, but then few films ever do). Later, I began to appreciate it more (Kidman's train station scene is pretty uneven, though... loved "IT IS MINE! I'M DYING IN THIS TOWN!"... hated the bit where she's sitting and talking about her humanity). Eventually, I settled into a healthy ambivalence.

It's so cool, though, to hear others talk about this film. It's one of those that I really can't get a handle on emotionally... I'm not even sure whether I like it.

But in any case, the novel's much better than the film.

11:26 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it suddenly the 'in' thing for film writers to take a sideline stab at American Beauty at every opportunity? (Along these lines, why are people still going on about its being overrated when I can't recall the last time I heard/read of anyone recommending it without a severe swipe at the script or the plastic bag or whatever makes the swiper sound that much more superior?)

I sense no parallel between Daldry's film and Mendes' - which is useful, since otherwise The Hours would look that much paler and more washed out in comparison, and I wouldn't be anywhere near as fond and respectful of it as I am now. That said, I've never subjected the movie to a second viewing - I don't know that my above mentioned fondness or admiration of it would survive that intact.

3:15 AM, September 19, 2006  
Blogger Emma said...

Beautiful write up. I heard part of Glass's score on the radio the other day and dissolved into tears. That's how powerful it is.

7:59 AM, September 25, 2006  

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