Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Cinephilic Career: Rewatching "My Brilliant Career"

I have mentioned previously in these blog posts, as you know dear unreaders, that I was a teenage and twentysomething cinephile. It was in Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to take an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, that my cinephila went global.

Bloomington was a wonderful place to be a cinephile in the 1970s and 1980s. You could see Woody Allen films and films like Taxi Zum Klos (1980) at the Towne Cinema. You could see classic Hollywood films at the Princess Theatre and the Bloomington Public Library, the latter thanks to the wonderful Bloomington Film Society. You could see first run American films and documentaries like Not a Love Story (1981) at the Indiana Theatre, the Von Lee, and the College Mall Cinema. You could see classic Hollywood and classic foreign films in film class showings in the evening and in the cinema in the Indiana University Union on the weekends. You could see films outdoors at the late and lamented Y&W Drive-In Theatre north of Bloomington. I saw Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) there. And you could see classic and contemporary foreign films thanks to the Ryder, one of the countercultural newspapers that arose in the 1960s in Bloomington, Indiana.

During my years in Bloomington I made the pilgrimage to every cinema house in the city even the College Mall Cinema where I think I saw ET (1982). But it was to the Ryder Film Series, which showed mostly foreign films in various places around the beautiful Indiana University campus and in Bear’s Back Room, the large back room at Bear's Place on Third Street near what was then the Education School and Aristotle’s, purveyor of IU textbooks, that I went to spend most of my cinephilic hours watching Ryder’s foreign cinema offerings.

I think I went to almost every film Ryder ever showed during my years at IU along with my friends Cynthia, Guy, and Ulli. We would often meet at Bear’s before the film, eat a pizza, drink a few beers, and debate, as was our custom at the time (and remains mine to the detriment of my not so brilliant career and interactional life), about almost anything intellectual under the Bloomington sun and moon but especially about cinema and film. Then we would go, filled with joy and anticipation, to see the film in that wonderful back room at the wonderful Bear’s Place.

It was thanks to Ryder and Bear's that I think I first became aware of the Australian New Wave that was taking the cinephilic world by storm in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was at Bear’s, if memory serves, that I first saw Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Weir’s The Last Wave (1977), Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), the first Australian film to be accepted into competition for the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and Gilliam “Gill” Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), the second Australian film to be nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Margaret Fink, the producer of My Brilliant Career, had purchased the film rights to Myles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel (though Franklin often denied that there was an autobiographical element in the book) My Brilliant Career (1901) in the early 1960s and spent some fifteen years trying to find financial backing for an adaptation of the novel. Fink and her production company, writer Eleanor Whitcombe, director Gillian Armstrong, Production Designer Luciana Arrighi, Costume Designer Anna Senior—did you notice all of those women?—DP Donald McAlpine, the New South Wales Film Corporation, and distributor General Union finally brought My Brilliant Career to cinema screens around the world in 1979.

My Brilliant Career stars the then unknown Judy Davis, it was only her second film, as the free spirited Sybylla Mervyn and Kiwi actor Sam Neill, in only his sixth film, as Harry Beecham, the man Sybylla falls in love with and the man who falls in love with her.

I hadn’t seen My Brilliant Career since I saw it in Bloomington in the late 1970s or early 1980s until I re-watched it recently thanks to DVD company Blue Underground’s (2005) release of the film in the US on DVD. As I re-watched the film I found that my memory of the film I had seen so long age was hazy, very, very hazy. What struck me about the film as I re-watched it was how, in so many ways, it, and presumably the book it was adapted from, seemed so indebted to Jane Austen while, at the same time, it seemed to undermine what we readers and viewers have come to expect from a Jane Austen book, a Jane Austen adaptation, and the female Jane Austin heroine.

Like the family of Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the family of My Brilliant Career’s heroine Sybylla Mervyn has fallen on hard times, much harder times than the Bennett’s who still live in relative luxury when compared with the life the Mervyn’s live amidst dirt poor squalor, wind storms, drought, and dirt on the frontier of New South Wales. Like Elizabeth Sybylla is hardly your standard beauty--she calls herself ugly at one point--is clever, and is trapped in a man’s world where a woman is expected to marry and bear children. In order to cure Sybylla of what her mother and grandmother see as Sybylla’s inappropriate dreams of a life as an artist, the wild of spirit Sybylla is sent to her wealthy grandmother’s New South Wales manor house to cure her of these delusions and, of course, to find Sybylla a husband. There Sybylla learns the niceties of Victorian manners Elizabeth is already familiar with, attends, with the help of her aunt, to the feminine arts of skin care, hair care, and fine clothing, and attends balls filled with the sounds of classical music inside the great house while the peasants outside dance the jig. Speaking of music, My Brilliant Career makes excellent use of variations on Robert Schumann's very appropriate, since the film is, in part, a coming of age tale, "Scenes from Childhood" throughout the movie.

But you can't take the wildness of independent spirit out of the Outback frontier female Sybylla any more than you can take it out of the reared in polite society Elizabeth. What makes My Brilliant Career different from Pride and Prejudice and virtually every Hollywood romance since is that at the end of the film Sybylla gets her man but she doesn’t want him. She, instead, wants to have a career, a brilliant career as she imagines it, as a writer. The film ends with Sybylla sending her book about “my people” off to an Edinburgh publisher. The other thing that makes My Brilliant Career somewhat different from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is that in My Brilliant Career we, viewers, are constantly reminded of the poverty of the Australian frontier and of the poverty in a Victorian Australia that has forced men to take to the road and beg for food to eat. We see much less of the poverty of Georgian Britain in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

What is hard to realise and understand today in the wake of the French New Wave of the 1950s, the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, and the new Hollywood of the 1960s itself influenced by the French New Wave, is that in 1979 the ending of My Brilliant Career, an ending which turns what film viewers normally expect to see in a women’s film upside down, as Molly Haskell points out in her seminal book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (second edition, 1987), was radical. So radical, as Haskell notes, that even feminists were angry at Armstrong and company for not allowing Sybylla to get her man. Romanticism, it seems, is a powerful ideology even among those who fancy that they have jettisoned it forever.

The Blue Underground DVD of My Brilliant Career, by the way looks pretty good and sounds acceptable and even has the original mono audio mix. It is hard to believe that this film, with its lavish interior sets, its lush costumes, its gorgeous New South Wales exteriors, and it’s lush cinematography, cost only around $A800,000 thousand dollars to make. For those of you interested in commodity aesthetics My Brilliant Career, according to Film Victoria, grossed more than $A3 million at the Australian box office.

Suggested Readings
For a couple of interesting readings of My Brilliant Career check out:
My Brilliant Career, 22 December 2007, Shooting Down Pictures,
Coralee Cederna Johnson, The Humanist Approach to Film: My Brilliant Career, Wildwood Press, 20 August 2007,
Listen to Judy Davis talk about why she doesn't like My Brilliant Career but why she admired Gillian Armstrong's direction of the film here:
For another Austenish independent Dominion frontier ugly duckling to swan romantic hero bildungsroman check out the Anne of Green Gables series of books by Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery. The first book in the series, Anne of Green Gables, was published in 1908. The heroine of the Anne books, Anne Shirley, like Sybylla Mervyn wants to be a writer.

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