28 March 2018

Virginia Woolf's Final Decade


Today is the anniversary of Virginia Woolf's death in 1941. Tomorrow, I defend a doctoral dissertation with a chapter on Woolf's 1937 novel The Years, and I have spent much of last few years studying Woolf's writings and life in the 1930s especially. Here, a few thoughts on that.

Woolf's last decade is under-appreciated both by general readers and by scholars, although there seems to be growing scholarly interest in her final, not-quite-finished novel Between the Acts. ("Under-appreciated" is, of course, relative — Woolf is one of the most-studied writers of the 20th century, and many of her contemporaries don't have even a small percentage of the attention for their entire ouevres that Woolf has for her least-read writings.) The relative lack of interest in Woolf's life and work after The Waves has various sources, many of them having to do with why readers are attracted to Woolf in the first place. Her achievement with Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves is one of the great literary triumphs of the 20th century — these books reconfigured the novel as a form and the language as a medium. (Orlando, her first bestseller, isn't far behind as an achievement.) She wrote hundreds of essays, with many of her most powerful statements about aesthetics and literature being in the essays of the 1920s, and she finished the decade with A Room of One's Own, one of the most influential essays of the century. It's no surprise that the 1920s is the decade focused on by the majority of Woolf scholarship, and that decade's work what most readers are familiar with. That focus, though, does have an effect on how Woolf is perceived as both a person and a writer.

10 March 2018

BPM and The Young Karl Marx


BPM: Beats Per Minute (120 battements par minute) tells the story of AIDS activists with ACT UP Paris in the 1990s, and its scenes of ACT UP meetings are among the most compelling representations of everyday political planning and argument I know of other than the extraordinary land reform debate scene in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. (There's also a powerful debate scene in Loach's later The Wind that Shakes the Barley, but Land and Freedom is even more remarkable in my eyes because it so patiently dramatizes a kind of conversation rarely even imagined by most of its likely viewers. Almost any other director would pare such scenes down to soundbites, but Campillo lets us watch discussions play out and doesn't simplify the arguments into pro/con battles. We see the characters react, think, respond.

Even in a movie like Land and Freedom, the narrative starts with a focal character and brings us into the story via that focal character. One of the most revolutionary moves BPM makes is to flip this structure. We begin with the group, and only slowly get to know the two characters who will turn out to be the protagonists. It's a risky choice, because as audiences we're conditioned to latch on to individuals and to expect a story to be told through them, so a narrative that only slowly moves toward an individual story (or small set of parallel individual stories) may be frustrating, even bewildering. "Who should I root for?" the viewer asks. "What figure should I attach my sympathies to?"

What BPM requires is that we first sympathize with the group and only later find our way toward individual stories. By doing so, we don't reduce the group's complexities to a few individual personalities, but instead, even when the film is heartwrenching within an individual story, we always have the larger context at the back of our mind. This is one solution to the Brechtian problem of what to do with the intellect when individual sentiment threatens to overwhelm knowledge of the larger field shaping the individual story: we don't need to be distanced from the individual story, nor does it need to be defamiliarized; instead, a narrative web needs to be woven carefully enough that the parts are never separate from the whole.