Thursday, June 05, 2003

Some Thoughts on 'Possession', Academia and RPF

I was writing down some notes to myself in case I ever decided to review Possession for GMR. At one point I had said I'd do an omni of the book and film, but the book and film are such totally different animals -- I mean, the book is a thousand percent better in almost every way -- that I realized I would have to write them up separately, if at all. Yet despite my loathing for Gwyneth Paltrow's acting and my overall disdain for the adaptation of the novel, I harbor a secret affection for that movie, and this morning I realized why:

It's an RPFer's dream. Really, so is all biography-based literary research, but in Possession, all the erotic fantasies of the researchers pay off. The two poets being studied, Ash and LaMotte, not only have an affair but a child together; they leave behind concrete and irrefutable proof of their romance for the ages. Unlike speculation about William Shakespeare and Elizabeth I, for instance (if you buy the theory that De Vere wrote the plays, which I don't, or that he boinked QEI, which I also don't), it is not doomed to remain forever in the realm of academic speculation where people pore over a few lines of poetry in a feeble attempt to prove that Person A loved Person B and left concrete proof of it in a poem. (Or, to borrow a more recent example from , it's not like the way we are doomed to wonder forever whether Viggo was talking about Sean or Orli or someone else entirely in those Coincidence of Memory poems about traveling through what sounds like New Zealand with what sounds like a lover.)

The first time I tried to read Possession, I was in a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. My book group decided to read the book and I never finished it. It was unbearable to me, too close to the sort of thing I was actually working on, which seemed pedantic and stupid and socially worthless, and ultimately (along with a very hostile climate to women and a terrible job market) led to my dropping out of the program. I didn't go back to Possession for more than five which point I read it and it became one of my five favorite novels ever. I thought maybe I just needed some distance from academia to be able to laugh at it, but I think it was hitting me at a much deeper level.

Because it is just so SATISFYING to read a bunch of poems and some biographical material on a writer and believe that a deeply intimate part of his or her life has become transparent to you. Sure, it's supposed to be about the words themselves, the history, the themes, the things that make the writing more universal than one person's life, but there's also the thrill of making concrete connections...of knowing that Shakespeare was writing about the Globe Theatre burning down in the same lines from The Tempest where he reflected philosophically on the transience of life, the universe and everything, or of realizing that Wordsworth was describing a specific incident that happened at Tintern Abbey rather than writing in general about the effects of industrialization on the region.

And it's just as much fun to try to read across less literary material, to try to glean from actors' interviews and public statements what they're not saying and who they're not naming, to piece together from gossip and rumors something resembling a portrait of someone's psyche. When you've got someone who talks about himself a lot, who gives a lot away, you end up with so much to play with. (Viggo Mortensen is an academic fan girl's wet dream -- you get the interviews AND the poetry. And, of course, the photos, of him as well as by him.)

So anyway, I was thinking about why I like the odious Gwyneth in Possession even though she's nothing like I'd pictured Maud from the novel and I don't even want to think of her as Maud from the novel, and I realized: it's not that I like her as the character at all. It's that I like the idea of the star of A Perfect Murder in a movie that sanctions what I'd describe as stalker-like behavior, even if the objects of obsession are dead -- they dig up a GRAVE, for chrissakes! -- all to learn the truth about the love lives of a pair of celebrity writers.

What happens in the novel is much more subtle; there's a lot more attention to the poetry itself, to the ways in which writers reveal and hide things all at once and the pitfalls of biography-based literary criticism. But the movie isn't subtle at all. In fact we barely hear any of the poetry except as keys to a mystery. And the whodunit is solved in grand fashion: they done it, they wrote poetry about it, they had a child together which is incontrovertible proof that it happened. It's kind of like thinking about Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris and Jane Morris. Or Eric Clapton and George Harrison and Layla, I mean Patti.

You know what I'm in the mood for right now? Ken Russell's Gothic. Byron/Shelley slash! The only major difference between that and Matt/Ben fic is that Byron and Shelley are both dead. Which might protect the director from libel laws but doesn't change in principle what's being done to the characters in question. Unless, of course, someone has incontrovertible proof that Byron and Shelley were which case, I really, really want to see the pictures.

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