Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reconsidering a Film: A Place in the Sun

While I wouldn't have listed this film as a favorite, I would have said I loved it prior to watching it for this project.

Now? Eh. Not so much.  I like the IDEA of it and I like the look of it and I like the actors but the movie as a whole? It's troubling.

First, and perhaps this has something to do with the technical trouble I had watching it, I found it over long and that it dragged in places. But, again, I had a lot of tech trouble and it took something like three tries to watch the film.

Second are the concerns Athelas raises in her post so I won't rehash them here. In my memory, Elizabeth Taylor's Angela is a much rounder character as is Shelley Winters' Alice. The movie, of course, flattens them a good bit which is just inexcusable in an over two hour film.

These two issues may also have a lot to do with my particular literary field. I don't do naturalism. If we take a quick look at what Wikipedia says we find:

"There are defining characteristics of literary naturalism. One of these is pessimism. Very often, one or more characters will continue to repeat one line or phrase that tends to have a pessimistic connotation, sometimes emphasizing the inevitability of death. . . . Another characteristic of literary naturalism is detachment from the story. The author often tries to maintain a tone that will be experienced as 'objective.' Also, an author will sometimes achieve detachment by creating nameless characters (though, strictly speaking, this is more common among modernists such as Ernest Hemingway). This puts the focus on the plot and what happens to the character, rather than the characters themselves. Another characteristic of naturalism is determinism. Determinism is basically the opposite of the notion of free will. For determinism, the idea that individual characters have a direct influence on the course of their lives is supplanted by a focus on nature or fate. Often, a naturalist author will lead the reader to believe a character's fate has been pre-determined, usually by environmental factors, and that he/she can do nothing about it. Another common characteristic is a surprising twist at the end of the story. Equally, there tends to be in naturalist novels and stories a strong sense that nature is indifferent to human strugglet" (

While this entry is problematic in a number of ways (kinda obvious that literary naturalism would have defining characteristics, just for example), it does give a good brief idea of what naturalism is. And, while naturalism sounds super cool in theory (who doesn't like a good pessimistic story about someone fated to die by the end?), it doesn't so much work for me in practice (that detachment part kills it really) hence my affinity for postmodernism. With pomo you get pessimism and objectivity but there is a push and pull with the reader/viewer. Naturalism just doesn't care if you care. And that doesn't lend itself to engaging the reader/viewer.

So, yeah, entertaining but problematic. I'd say I want to read the book to see how it deals with these concerns but it's basically 900 pages long and I'm already reading another book to confirm that it's bad.

Athelas: 2 things:

1. I thought you'd not seen this one before but I went to look to see if I'd watched it recently and found this:  At least you're consistent in your opinion of it :)

2. Would you look to see what the book says about why we should watch this before we die? I didn't so much pack that ginormous book in my suitcase :)

You never had a chance, George.

Ah, naturalism. How fraught our relationship is. Once I saw that one of our Liz Taylor memorial picks, A Place in the Sun, was based on a novel by Theodore Dreiser, I pretty much knew what I was in for: an irresistible and cataclysmic downward spiral. And once I saw it was based on An American Tragedy, I had a feeling that women would be instrumentalized in a way that would make me uncomfortable. Right on both counts.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with book and film, George Eastman is related to a wealthy family, but has enjoyed none of the benefits. His mother is involved in some sort of evangelical movement (a subplot that I bet gets a lot more attention in the novel), and his father has died. George goes to hit up the wealthy side of his family for a job, and gets one in the bathing suit factory (I think that's what they manufacture???). Though he swoons over Elizabeth Taylor's character the second he sees her, and who can blame him, he quickly understands she is not meant for him, and for reasons unimportant to anyone, begins a flirtation/seduction of another factory worker.

And here's where I feel the movie is unfair to both Shelley Winters (factory worker Alice) and Elizabeth (Angela). They are not human beings so much as alternate fates for George. Shelley represents the chains of his class and his past--a life in shadows, to use the metaphor the movie appropriates. And the film HATES her. She is irritating and dim-witted and dowdy. Elizabeth represents the possibility of what life could be like--beautiful and free and powerful. But neither of the female characters are important for anything other than the lifestyles for which they are meant to serve as a metonym. I felt bad for Alice. She was in as much of an impossible situation as George, but I feel that with the way her character is portrayed, our sympathies can't really lie anywhere else but with him. And we are given no reason why a woman as vivacious as Angela would ever fall in love with someone as dour and diffident as George.

Naturalism seems to me disingenuous as a genre. It proclaims that human beings are subject to a universe that is inherently disinterested and capricious, but all the naturalist texts and films I've watched (including A LOT of recent horror movies) seem to lend themselves pretty readily to a more social critique. I think this movie could be all about capitalism. Eastman sells things, including Angela, and George is meant to both want those things and to be forbidden access to them. That's how capitalism works--and the dehumanization of Angela and Alice could fit nicely in this reading. But because the movie doesn't need them to be fully realized human beings in the first place (naturalism has no place for character), what I think could have been a really gut-wrenching and feminist text becomes a Greek tragedy without the fatal flaw.

What do you think Nat? I know you love this movie, and I found it really entertaining, but still troubling. Was I biased the second I saw this was based on Dreiser?