294 The Browning Version

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domino harvey
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Re: 294 The Browning Version

#51 Post by domino harvey » Mon Jan 30, 2012 7:20 pm

Every Mamet film that isn't Oleanna (such a shame, given how good the play is) is varying degrees of amazing

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Re: 294 The Browning Version

#52 Post by Brian C » Mon Jan 30, 2012 11:44 pm

We haven't made it past zedz's original estimate of 7 yet, but I'll make 6.

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Re: 294 The Browning Version

#53 Post by zedz » Tue Jan 31, 2012 11:25 pm

Well, this is all very heartening! In the real world, I've only ever come across three steadfast supporters, versus a dozen or more snide detractors of various stripes. The detractors include people-don't-talk-like-that anti-Mametites (particularly bizarre in relation to this film); just-another-heritage-film passive aggressive shruggers; haters of Rebecca Pidgeon (you never know when one of these is going to turn up); misguided defenders of Rattigan's honour and many more. But then, I've also met people who can sit seething all through State and Main, never cracking a smile.

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Re: 294 The Browning Version

#54 Post by britcom68 » Sun Sep 30, 2012 10:33 am

zedz wrote:Well, this is all very heartening! In the real world, I've only ever come across three steadfast supporters, versus a dozen or more snide detractors of various stripes. The detractors include people-don't-talk-like-that anti-Mametites (particularly bizarre in relation to this film); just-another-heritage-film passive aggressive shruggers; haters of Rebecca Pidgeon (you never know when one of these is going to turn up); misguided defenders of Rattigan's honour and many more. But then, I've also met people who can sit seething all through State and Main, never cracking a smile.
One of my professors made a comment just the other day to this affect! Apparently, Mamet and Terrance Rattigan are to be treated much the same as they directly influence the performances of the actors performing their works through the rhythms and sharp sense of humor that isn't too broad and doesn't leave room for any of the laughs to follow. Mamet's "State and Main" is supposed to have this same flow to it with zinging from many of the cast, but it comes off wonderfully cynnical at times because of its speed and dry delivery. If that Mamet script were played more broadly and with different timing in the dialouge it would feel more forced and trying too hard to get laughs, consider the very mixed adaptation of "What Just Happened" or mocumentary "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

This professor also went on to say that Mamet, Wes Anderson and Terrance Rattigan have more in common than it seems at first viewing, what he called "Asberger's directness." The example was that Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums was similar to Rattigan's "The V.I.Ps" (from the Taylor and Burton Collection) where real emotions are often conveyed from what isn't said instead of what is. But The Browning Version can't be compared similarly to Anderon's Rushmore. If anything, Browning Version might be compared to Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" or possiblly "Fantastic Mr. Fox" or "Tennenbaums" but the struggle of Redgrave's character is not as ironic as Anderson has made Bill Murray is so many of their colaborations. My experience with The Browning Version is that it has much more in common with Tom Ford's helming of A Single Man than the Wes Anderson films. Thoguhts?

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The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#55 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Jan 20, 2014 9:11 am

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#56 Post by Sloper » Mon Feb 03, 2014 6:52 am

So here are a few questions I’ve been mulling over that might help start discussion:

Why is this film called The Browning Version (and don’t say ‘because that’s what the play was called’)? Obviously the title suggests that Taplow’s gift is of central importance, but why exactly is that? Why doesn’t the title refer more directly to the act of kindness itself, or to the teaching profession, or to the central character, or indeed to his ‘version’ of the Agamemnon?

Bruce Eder, in his commentary track, calls this film ‘somewhat misogynistic, and decidedly anti-marriage’. Is he right? It might be worth comparing the portrayal of Mrs Crocker-Harris in the 1994 Mike Figgis remake (any love for this one? not from me I have to say…), which tries quite hard to give her redeeming features.

Speaking of Figgis, in his interview on the Criterion disc he comments that Asquith’s film is very obviously based on a play, though he doesn’t mean this as a criticism. How ‘stagey’ do you find this film? And if someone did criticise it for being too theatrical, how might you defend it - what makes it work as cinema?

Michael Redgrave has to do a difficult job, here, of playing an almost inhumanly repressed character while at the same time making him sympathetic and suggesting something of his inner life - and, at times, breaking out into actual fits of sobbing passion. Does Redgrave manage to do this without being histrionic or mannered or artificial? Perhaps this is a stupid question to ask about one of the most celebrated performances in British cinema... But while watching Redgrave as the Crock, I can’t help imagining what Laurence Olivier would have done here; much as I like Olivier, I think he would have overplayed every last moment of this role. How does Redgrave avoid that pitfall (if you think he does)?

What do you think of the ending? The play ends with Hunter and the Crock arranging to meet in September, and then the Crock phoning the headmaster to say that he intends to make his valedictory speech after, not before, the more popular Fletcher. Is that final speech a step too far - does it over-egg the Crock’s redemption, which was only hinted at in the play? And if that isn’t a step too far, can the same be said for the concluding dialogue between Crocker-Harris and Taplow?

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#57 Post by MichaelB » Mon Feb 03, 2014 9:54 am

Sloper wrote:Bruce Eder, in his commentary track, calls this film ‘somewhat misogynistic, and decidedly anti-marriage’. Is he right? It might be worth comparing the portrayal of Mrs Crocker-Harris in the 1994 Mike Figgis remake (any love for this one? not from me I have to say…), which tries quite hard to give her redeeming features.
I only saw the Figgis film once and wasn't too impressed with it, so I can't recall specific details. But one maybe too obvious point is that Asquith, Rattigan and Redgrave were all somewhere on the sexuality spectrum between bi and homo, at a time when consenting sexual acts between men were a criminal offence in Britain (which would remain the position for another sixteen years). That said, I'm not convinced that a misogyny charge stands up, largely because Rattigan and Asquith take the trouble to make it clear that Millie Crocker-Harris' admittedly behaviour does have a rational component: she's clearly suffering from sexual frustration. (Why, we don't know, but we can certainly make a pretty plausible guess.)
Speaking of Figgis, in his interview on the Criterion disc he comments that Asquith’s film is very obviously based on a play, though he doesn’t mean this as a criticism. How ‘stagey’ do you find this film? And if someone did criticise it for being too theatrical, how might you defend it - what makes it work as cinema?
It's always seemed to me that Asquith was very much an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" kind of director. The Browning Version is considerably more opened-out than The Importance of Being Earnest, where you can practically see the proscenium arch over the screen, but that approach works brilliantly because Asquith recognised that Oscar Wilde's comedy is supremely artificial - and therefore any attempt at rendering it more "cinematic" would work against it (as others later discovered). Similarly, with his adaptations of Rattigan plays (adapted by the playwright himself), I'm sensing a reluctance to tamper with the material too much - for instance, in The Winslow Boy, we don't get to see the climactic trial: as in the stage version, we're merely told the verdict later.

I'm not familiar with the stage version of The Browning Version, but it seems to me that a similar process is at work, with Asquith prioritising the script and cast over any showier elements, despite the fact that he was more than capable of generating cinematic fireworks if he chose to do so. In fact, this is why Asquith is such a fascinating character - he couldn't have been more upper-class (the son of a Prime Minister, he spoke in a cut-glass accent that made the Royal Family sound like chimney sweeps) and yet he was an ardent socialist who wore a self-consciously proletarian boiler suit on set, and whose films, despite seemingly epitomising polite, "well-made" British literary adaptations, often contained decidedly left-wing sentiments - in Fanny by Gaslight, Stewart Granger's character yearns for the abolition of the class system, while Rod Taylor's Australian tractor mogul in The V.I.P.s expresses the hope that future VIPs will earn their status and not just have it handed to them.
Michael Redgrave has to do a difficult job, here, of playing an almost inhumanly repressed character while at the same time making him sympathetic and suggesting something of his inner life - and, at times, breaking out into actual fits of sobbing passion. Does Redgrave manage to do this without being histrionic or mannered or artificial? Perhaps this is a stupid question to ask about one of the most celebrated performances in British cinema... But while watching Redgrave as the Crock, I can’t help imagining what Laurence Olivier would have done here; much as I like Olivier, I think he would have overplayed every last moment of this role. How does Redgrave avoid that pitfall (if you think he does)?
I completely agree with your Olivier point, and think that Redgrave does indeed avoid that pitfall - even with the addition of his climactic speech (which wasn't in the play). It's a very striking performance in the context of early 1950s British cinema, which still tended to fight shy of realism. I was intrigued to see that he won a Best Actor award at Cannes, which suggests that it came across equally powerfully to a jury comprised partly of non-English speakers.

A quick caveat: I don't have a copy of The Browning Version immediately to hand, and last watched it the better part of a decade ago, so apologies in advance if I don't tackle specifics in detail.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#58 Post by jindianajonz » Mon Feb 03, 2014 11:19 am

Sloper wrote:Why is this film called The Browning Version (and don’t say ‘because that’s what the play was called’)? Obviously the title suggests that Taplow’s gift is of central importance, but why exactly is that? Why doesn’t the title refer more directly to the act of kindness itself, or to the teaching profession, or to the central character, or indeed to his ‘version’ of the Agamemnon?
Wasn't there a line in the film that indicated the Browning Version of Agamemnon was a rather stuffy, dated translation of the text (or something along that line?) I'm not familiar at all with the Agamemnon, and googling it a bit now shows that Browning was a rather respective author- I think Redgrave calls him one of Englands greatest poets in the film, though I could see a character like the Croc placing undue respect on a stale and well-worn tome. My impression is that Crocker-Harris was living the "Browning Version" of his life; i.e. following the dusty, by-the-book path dictated by others, instead of the "Crocker-Harris Version" which is vibrant, exciting, and most importantly self-created and self-fulfilling.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#59 Post by MichaelB » Mon Feb 03, 2014 11:31 am

There are also plenty of deliberate parallels between the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and Crocker-Harris's situation.

Incidentally, Robert Browning's stature is rock-solid - there's no unwarranted elevation going on here. He's been regarded as one of the major 19th-century English-language poets since he was still alive, and I'm far from the only person who had to memorise 'The Pied Piper' at school. I doubt I could reel it off word perfect now, but I can certainly still recall most of it.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#60 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Feb 03, 2014 12:59 pm

MichaelB (as usual) is right: Browning has long vied with Tennyson as the great Victorian poet. And far from stuffy, his poems are usually monologues by disturbed, broken, licentious, or immoral characters.

Concerning his translation of the play, he didn't call it a translation but a "transcription" since his version is literal almost to the point of madness. It keeps the original word order as best as it can without, as he says, "doing violence to English," although I'm not sure he managed even that.

Just as a comparison, here are three different translations of the first lines of Aeschylus' play: Browning's, a highly-regarded modern one by Robert Fagles, and Anne Carson's idiosyncratic version:
Robert Browning wrote:The gods I ask deliverance from these labours,
Watch of a year's length whereby, slumbering through it
On the Atreidai's roofs on elbow, -- dog-like --
I know of nightly star-groups the assemblage,
And those that bring to men winter and summer
Bright dynasts, as they pride them in the aether
-- Stars, when they wither, and the uprisings of them.
And now on ward I wait the torch's token,
The glow of fire, shall bring from Troi a message
And word of capture: so prevails audacious
The man's-way-planning hoping heart of woman.
Robert Fagles wrote: Dear gods, set me free from all the pain,
the long watch I keep, one whole year awake...
propped on my arms, crouched on the roofs of Atreus
like a dog.
I know the stars by heart,
the armies of the night, and there in the lead
the ones that bring us snow or the crops of summer
bring us all we have--
our great blazing kings of the sky,
I know them, when they rise and when they fall...
and now I watch for the light, the signal-fire
breaking out of Troy, shouting Troy is taken.
So she commands, full of her high hopes.
That woman--she manoeuvers like a man
Anne Carson wrote:Gods! Free me from this grind!
It's one long year I'm lying here watching
waiting watching waiting--
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my
paws like a dog.
I've peered at the congregation of the
nightly stars--bright power creatures
blazing in air
the ones that bring summer, the ones that
bring winter
the ones that die out, the ones that rise
up--
and I watch I watch I watch for this sign of
a torch,
a beacon light sending from Troy the news
that she is captured.
Those are the orders I got from a certain
manminded woman.

So Browning's version is not a sort of conventional stuffy old translation like maybe Pope's Iliad might be considered. It's an experimental version of the play, not unlike Nabokov's notoriously literal translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Tho' that's not to say it isn't meant to stand in for stuffy old tradition--I just don't know anything about its popularity as a school text during the time of the play/movie. As for its literary quality: yuck.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#61 Post by Mr Sausage » Tue Feb 04, 2014 1:01 pm

Sloper wrote:Why is this film called The Browning Version (and don’t say ‘because that’s what the play was called’)? Obviously the title suggests that Taplow’s gift is of central importance, but why exactly is that? Why doesn’t the title refer more directly to the act of kindness itself, or to the teaching profession, or to the central character, or indeed to his ‘version’ of the Agamemnon?
My own stab at this question turns on a couple things in the movie. The first is Taplow's deliberate mistranslation, early in the movie, of a line of the Agamemnon that gives a certain force and spice to it and leads to a reflection that the book is not merely a text full of untranslated Greek, but a living, breathing play as well, with real passion and vitality in it. Later, when Taplow gives Crocker-Harris the book, he remarks it's not very good, tho' Crocker-Harris is more charitable and notes that Taplow should "enjoy it," that is, get actual pleasure from it. Whatever its faults, I think Browning's translation is meant to link with Crocker-Harris own unfinished translation to build an idea about translation: without the Greek, the text is no longer an exercise in philology, but a play, filled with passion, emotion, people--real life, basically (I reread it before watching the movie, and goddamn if Aeschylus' play hasn't retained every ounce of its power).

So Browning's version is not empty form, but real meaning. It's not hard to see the sterility of the classroom translation exercises in terms of Crocker-Harris' equally sterile life, and see his unfinished translation in terms of a life that's no longer being lived. The Agamemnon had long stopped having any real meaning for him, being just a way to get schoolboys to translate some Greek words, but evidently it had real meaning and vitality for him at one point. Taplow chose Browning's translation, I would guess, because he had Crocker-Harris' revelation about his own translation attempt freshly in mind, so a translation of the Agamemnon had significance for both of them (it's not unusual to buy someone a gift because it reminds you of something they once said or did, however tangentially). But it does serve as a reminder to Crocker-Harris that the Agamemnon still means something, and perhaps that he also still means something, tho' I wouldn't claim the book creates an immediate epiphany. It is an emotional catalyst, with a number of associations bound up in it, and it has a certain symbolic value for the viewer, but a modest one.

I thought the speech at the end was amusing since Crocker-Harris earned everyone's respect and veneration--and a standing ovation--by admitting that he has been a total, utter failure. I think that irony saves it from being too obvious.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#62 Post by jindianajonz » Tue Feb 04, 2014 1:56 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:I thought the speech at the end was amusing since Crocker-Harris earned everyone's respect and veneration--and a standing ovation--by admitting that he has been a total, utter failure. I think that irony saves it from being too obvious.
I had the same feelings- the applause at the end didn't sit well with me, since Crocker-Harris hadn't really accomplished anything (how often would you give somebody a standing ovation for failing you?). On a literal level, it seems to be adolescent glee and self satisfaction upon learning that they had been "right" about the Croc all along, which really isn't a terribly happy ending. I think the ending works much better on a less literal level, in the sense that the students are applauding the fact that he's finally refound himself, and perhaps has "vanquished" the strict tedium of the Croc.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#63 Post by Mr Sausage » Tue Feb 04, 2014 2:01 pm

I'm more inclined to think they're applauding the man for finally showing some real, honest vulnerability and humanness.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#64 Post by swo17 » Tue Feb 04, 2014 2:10 pm

That moment seems genuine to me. In opening up about his shortcomings, the Croc is finally revealing himself--to many in the crowd for the first time--as a human being. They're applauding him for the effort, as well as to console him. Though the students may not have liked what he had become, that's not the same thing as disliking him as a person. And in that moment, they catch a glimpse of a version of the Croc that's worth applauding.

EDIT: What Sausage said.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#65 Post by jindianajonz » Tue Feb 04, 2014 2:30 pm

You guys are right, and I'm sure that's how Asquith intended it to be understood. I was just trying to express that I am a bit incredulous to the idea that a large group of high schoolers (is that correct? I'm not familiar enough with the British school system) would rally to console their nemesis so quickly. The applause at the end seemed unearned and a bit sappy on a literal level, though I do like Sausage's observation that it is intended to be a bit ironic.

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The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#66 Post by Mr Sausage » Tue Feb 04, 2014 2:50 pm

I never meant ironic in a mocking or undercutting way. It's ironic in that it's an ovation for something that isn't usually celebrated, an unexpected reversal considering the speeches that typically earn that response. But the ovation is earnest enough and I fully believed it. To get such an admission of sorrow and frailty from what had always been a totem of unbending force would absolutely get the reaction it did, considering that everyone there would know exactly how difficult and deeply felt it was, to say nothing of how admissions of weakness typically earn sympathy.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#67 Post by MichaelB » Wed Feb 05, 2014 6:07 am

Mr Sausage wrote:I never meant ironic in a mocking or undercutting way. It's ironic in that it's an ovation for something that isn't usually celebrated, an unexpected reversal considering the speeches that typically earn that response. But the ovation is earnest enough and I fully believed it. To get such an admission of sorrow and frailty from what had always been a totem of unbending force would absolutely get the reaction it did, considering that everyone there would know exactly how difficult and deeply felt it was, to say nothing of how admissions of weakness typically earn sympathy.
And it's also worth stressing that this is ten times harder to do in a mid-century British public school* context, where you're taught pretty much from birth to suppress your emotions at all costs. So the impact of the speech would have been that much greater on this particular audience, because they'd have recognised just how truly unusual it was.

Asquith (Winchester) and Rattigan (Harrow) would have understood this with every fibre of their being, and although Redgrave's school wasn't as loftily elevated, he taught at an independent boarding school in the early 1930s before becoming an actor - so he'd have had first-hand experience of the system from the inside as well.

(NB: A "public school" in Britain is actually a very exclusive and expensive private school. Don't ask me why.)

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#68 Post by Sloper » Wed Feb 05, 2014 5:23 pm

MichaelB wrote:I'm not convinced that a misogyny charge stands up, largely because Rattigan and Asquith take the trouble to make it clear that Millie Crocker-Harris' admittedly behaviour does have a rational component: she's clearly suffering from sexual frustration. (Why, we don't know, but we can certainly make a pretty plausible guess.)
Don't you think, though, that even this explanation for her monstrous behaviour taps into an ancient and persistent form of misogyny that demonises women for their sexuality, or demonises sexuality in specifically feminine terms? It's worth quoting the key speech here, when Crocker-Harris says that the 'grave wrong' he has done his wife is to marry her (this is from the play, but I think it’s pretty much the same in the film):
You see, my dear Hunter, she is really quite as much to be pitied as I. We are both of us interesting subjects for your microscope. Both of us needing from the other something that would make life supportable for us, and neither of us able to give it. Two kinds of love. Hers and mine. Worlds apart, as I know now, though when I married her I didn't think they were incompatible. In those days I hadn't thought that her kind of love - the love she requires and which I was unable to give her - was so important that its absence would drive out the other kind of love - the kind of love that I require and which I thought, in my folly, was by far the greater part of love. I may have been, you see, Hunter, a brilliant classical scholar, but I was woefully ignorant of the facts of life. I know better now, of course. I know that in both of us, the love that we should have borne each other has turned to bitter hatred. That's all the problem is. Not a very unusual one, I venture to think - nor nearly as tragic as you seem to imagine. Merely the problem of an unsatisfied wife and a henpecked husband. You'll find it all over the world. It is usually, I believe, a subject for farce.
Eder claims, without going into detail, that this speech is a coded indicator of Crocker-Harris' homosexuality. That’s obviously a valid reading of the film, and something we might go into further in this thread.

However, that phrase, 'by far the greater part of love' and the fact that Millie is designated as 'unsatisfied' suggests that the distinction being drawn here is not between hetero- and homosexual love, but between physical, sexual love and a higher, 'Platonic' form of love. There is a kind of passive aggressive quality to this speech, in that it appears to be making excuses for Millie but in fact draws an unflattering contrast between her sensuality and Andrew’s more elevated conception of love. And the rest of the film clearly suggests that if only the Croc had been given a little more of the 'greater' kind of love - the kind embodied in Taplow's gift, Hunter's empathy and the school's appreciative cheers at the end - he might not have turned into the tragic character he has become.

In short, while there’s certainly room for debate on this point, I do think that Millie is figured as the villain of the piece, and that her craving for material satisfactions (not just sex, remember, but money and status) is blamed, to a great extent, for turning Crocker-Harris into what he is now.

Having said that, I think that other factors are shown to have played a part in Crocker-Harris' disintegration, and the 'unsatisfied wife' is by far the least interesting of them. Another key feature of the speech quoted above is the play between 'tragedy' and 'farce': here, the Croc is saying that what appears to be tragic in his life is 'usually a subject for farce', but again the real point being made is quite the opposite. Such unhappy marriages may indeed ‘usually’ be the subject for farce, but in this case the effect is very much tragic.

A recurring motif in the film is the joke that is not really a joke, the clearest example being the headmaster's tactless reference to 'the soul-destroying lower fifth'.

'I have not found that my soul has been destroyed by the lower fifth, headmaster.'
'I was joking of course.'
'Oh. I see.'

Or there's the Croc's alternative nickname, 'the Himmler of the lower fifth', revealed to him by the new teacher (his replacement) who seems to think it's funny - and yet for the Croc, it is devastating.

Crocker-Harris is the kind of sad, henpecked, repressed loser that makes an easy target for casual jokes. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this (all-round wonderful) film is that it illustrates, in the most detailed, persuasive, and moving terms, that underneath this comical figure’s absurd outer shell there is a real, suffering human being, capable of love and tenderness. Rattigan may well have been influenced by this passage from Chapter 29 of Middlemarch, one of my favourite pieces of writing - here the narrator is describing the inner life of Dorothea’s cold husband, Edward Casaubon:
He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity... For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self - never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted... Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
There are so many phrases in that paragraph that have haunted me ever since I first read it, and many of them came flooding back to me while watching The Browning Version...as did Robert Browning’s poem, ‘Andrea del Sarto’, a dramatic monologue by a (fictional version of a) real-life artist, in which he struggles to come to terms with his own failures as a painter and as a husband (his wife is only interested in his money, and is cuckolding him). You can read the poem here. Again, there are many parallels with Crocker-Harris if you look for them, though the lines that stick in my head are these, where Andrea compares his technically faultless paintings to the imperfect but transcendent works of other artists:
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate'er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world.
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
Both Middlemarch and ‘Andrea del Sarto’ communicate something of the tragedy of being a failed human being - of being impotent, I guess, in various senses. But there is nonetheless a kind of detachment about them, a judgemental attitude towards their subjects. What’s particularly special about The Browning Version is that it takes a character of this sort and puts him at the centre of a full-blown tragedy. For all that we see Crocker-Harris being laughed at, we are not (I think) ever invited to laugh at him ourselves.

The brilliance of Asquith’s direction - and it goes hand in hand with Redgrave’s acting - lies partly in his ability to make us see things from Crocker-Harris’ point of view, often by drawing our attention to some tiny gesture, a glance or a momentary darting of the eyes, which shows us that this man is anything but the ‘dead’, unfeeling, oblivious, walking joke the other characters see. The film shows us how painfully conscious he is of what others think of him and are saying about him. He knows perfectly well that everyone thinks his soul has been destroyed. And when he finds out that the children call him ‘the Himmler of the lower fifth’, this is not just water off a duck’s back: he realises the full significance of the nickname, and his fundamentally kind, sensitive soul is shaken to the core by the realisation that the children not only dislike him but fear him. What this tells us is precisely that he is a good person, a nice man, who for all his failings as a teacher had never meant to incite actual fear in his pupils.
Mr Sausage wrote:Browning's version is not empty form, but real meaning. It's not hard to see the sterility of the classroom translation exercises in terms of Crocker-Harris' equally sterile life, and see his unfinished translation in terms of a life that's no longer being lived. The Agamemnon had long stopped having any real meaning for him, being just a way to get schoolboys to translate some Greek words, but evidently it had real meaning and vitality for him at one point. Taplow chose Browning's translation, I would guess, because he had Crocker-Harris' revelation about his own translation attempt freshly in mind, so a translation of the Agamemnon had significance for both of them (it's not unusual to buy someone a gift because it reminds you of something they once said or did, however tangentially). But it does serve as a reminder to Crocker-Harris that the Agamemnon still means something, and perhaps that he also still means something
swo17 wrote: In opening up about his shortcomings, the Croc is finally revealing himself--to many in the crowd for the first time--as a human being. They're applauding him for the effort, as well as to console him. Though the students may not have liked what he had become, that's not the same thing as disliking him as a person. And in that moment, they catch a glimpse of a version of the Croc that's worth applauding.
Great discussion on the significance of Taplow’s gift, and of the applause at the end. In a way, what I’ve just been talking about is a kind of translation process: the translation of farce into tragedy, of the soulless dead man into a painfully alive human being, the Himmler of the lower fifth into a kind and idealistic teacher who is wracked with remorse at his failure: ‘I knew what I had to do. And I have not done it.’ All these examples, like the Browning version itself, serve to define translation as a process, not of exact replication, but of finding the inner essence of something and drawing it out. (Though Sausage's earlier point about Browning's 'transcription' is very interesting…) The film presents the tragic 'version' of the farcical character - and at the end, Crocker-Harris shows that version of himself to the whole school. It’s as if he translates himself for them, and they applaud for the same reason we’ve been rooting for this character throughout the film: because they see that his failures don’t cancel out his essential goodness, and because in seeing that version of him they come to love him, as we have. Sentimental it may be, but in my view the sentiment is thoroughly earned. It’s a redemptive ending in the most profound sense.
jindianajonz wrote:I am a bit incredulous to the idea that a large group of high schoolers (is that correct? I'm not familiar enough with the British school system) would rally to console their nemesis so quickly. The applause at the end seemed unearned and a bit sappy on a literal level
I can understand your scepticism about the ending, and I know that quite a few people have responded to it that way. On a literal level, it might not seem terribly convincing, but for me the moment works as a cathartic release after the tension that has built up in the course of the film - and the crowd's reaction is, as I've just been saying, strongly associated with our own. Notice how the camera focuses on Taplow and Hunter in that climactic moment; they're rooting for Crocker-Harris, and they're inwardly applauding his actions (as are we) long before everyone else starts clapping. So when the applause does erupt, it sort of feels inevitable. But whether this works or not is heavily dependent on the subjective response of the viewer to what has gone before.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#69 Post by knives » Wed Feb 05, 2014 5:33 pm

If we are to assume that he is gay though isn't it a 'crime' that he'd have her be tied down to her? That split you note would still be a part of coded homosexuality (especially since they could not go out and say that he was gay). It's not entirely uncommon for not sexually compatible people in a hetero marriage to still care for in a platonic way, but obviously sexual fulfillment is not something he'd be able to cater for. It seems very cut and dry in being a genuine comment to me.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#70 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed Feb 05, 2014 7:04 pm

Sloper wrote:Having said that, I think that other factors are shown to have played a part in Crocker-Harris' disintegration, and the 'unsatisfied wife' is by far the least interesting of them. Another key feature of the speech quoted above is the play between 'tragedy' and 'farce': here, the Croc is saying that what appears to be tragic in his life is 'usually a subject for farce', but again the real point being made is quite the opposite. Such unhappy marriages may indeed ‘usually’ be the subject for farce, but in this case the effect is very much tragic.
While it's certainly not farce, I'd say the comparison with the Agamemnon shows just how much this movie isn't tragedy, either. First, because it's not a tragically structured narrative considering the resolution is a rise rather than a fall (tho' as a realist work this rise is tinged with the uncertainty and indefiniteness we associate with human character). Second, because there's no grandeur or elevation in it. As Crocker-Harris says, the situation is too banal to serve as anything other than farce. When set next to the Aeschylus' play (whose basic characters map onto it), the movie becomes bathetic, with a situation that doesn't rise above meanness and pettiness. Indeed, when you displace elevated genres like tragedy or Romance into common-life you arrive at farce (think: Don Quixote and his endless blunders). And yet the triumph of the movie is that it displaces high tragedy without becoming farce: it mines genuine pity and sadness--even triumph--out of the low, petty situation, and even lends its central figure an unexpected dignity.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#71 Post by Sloper » Thu Feb 06, 2014 5:55 am

knives wrote:If we are to assume that he is gay though isn't it a 'crime' that he'd have her be tied down to her? That split you note would still be a part of coded homosexuality (especially since they could not go out and say that he was gay). It's not entirely uncommon for not sexually compatible people in a hetero marriage to still care for in a platonic way, but obviously sexual fulfillment is not something he'd be able to cater for. It seems very cut and dry in being a genuine comment to me.
I think that's a legitimate way of bringing the two readings together. So in your interpretation, Crocker-Harris suppresses his real (prohibited) desires and seeks something like platonic love in his marriage, but Millie is unable to receive or reciprocate that kind of love in the absence of sexual fulfilment - or simply unable to receive or reciprocate it under any circumstances.

It's interesting that Hunter shows no real sign of being sexually attracted to Millie, and indeed the text suggests (especially through that line, 'At your urgent invitation', which prompts her to slap him) that he was virtually coerced, by Millie, into having the affair with her. Contrast that dynamic with the one that develops between the two men, in which Hunter virtually coerces Crocker-Harris into making a date with him in September - though in this case, the way in which the Croc eventually responds to the invitation, giving Hunter his new address (this moment is so touchingly played by Redgrave) while Millie looks on in impotent horror, suggests the possible forging of a new and truly reciprocal relationship. The text seems to figure it as a purely platonic relationship, nonetheless, but as you say knives it's hard to see how it could possibly go any further than this.
Mr Sausage wrote:While it's certainly not farce, I'd say the comparison with the Agamemnon shows just how much this movie isn't tragedy, either. First, because it's not a tragically structured narrative considering the resolution is a rise rather than a fall (tho' as a realist work this rise is tinged with the uncertainty and indefiniteness we associate with human character). Second, because there's no grandeur or elevation in it. As Crocker-Harris says, the situation is too banal to serve as anything other than farce. When set next to the Aeschylus' play (whose basic characters map onto it), the movie becomes bathetic, with a situation that doesn't rise above meanness and pettiness. Indeed, when you displace elevated genres like tragedy or Romance into common-life you arrive at farce (think: Don Quixote and his endless blunders). And yet the triumph of the movie is that it displaces high tragedy without becoming farce: it mines genuine pity and sadness--even triumph--out of the low, petty situation, and even lends its central figure an unexpected dignity.
You make a really important point here, and you're right that it's inaccurate to describe the film overall as a 'tragedy', mainly because there is a rise at the end - not quite enough of a rise to fit any defintion of 'comedy', but too much of a rise to be tragic as well. If we were trying to classify the film at all, 'tragicomic' might be the most apt label to assign.

I feel that there may be a slight contradiction between your claim that there is 'no grandeur or elevation' in the story and your later comment that the film does lend its central figure an unexpected dignity. The point of contention may have to do with how much dignity the film lends to Crocker-Harris' situation. For me, part of the film's intent is to raise the problems of this small, seemingly insignificant man to the level of tragedy, and to suggest that what has happened to him is comparable to what happens to, say, Agamemnon. It's not a million miles away from what Joyce does in Ulysses, where the most banal, everyday troubles take on tragic (and, in that case, epic) proportions. After all, those ancient Greek epics and tragedies inspire pity and terror, not because we really give a damn what happened to some mythical figure once upon a time, but because these stories of extreme situations resonate with the more banal tragedies we find ourselves embroiled in every day. It's a long time since I read the Agamemnon, but this film seems to suggest that the play is resonant, not because unfaithful wives literally kill their husbands when they return from a long drawn-out war, but because people in that sort of close, intense relationship can become alienated from each other and 'kill' each other in a psychological, emotional or spiritual sense.

So, in short, no this isn't technically a tragedy or a farce, but I think it is playing with those genres in order to suggest that what has traditionally been regarded as tragedy in fact occurs in banal, seemingly farcical, situations in the real world. But as I say, and as I said to jindiana yesterday, these disagreements probably come down to fundamental differences in how we respond to the story being told - one of the film's many virtues is that it is open to so many different kinds of response. It feels deeply and truly tragic to me, despite the redemptive ending, or perhaps partly because of it; but I recognise that not everyone will find the Croc's situation quite so 'elevated', and that such responses are no less appreciative of the film's virtues than mine is. I hope that makes sense...

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#72 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu Feb 06, 2014 6:55 am

With Ulysses there's the parodic aspect, with much of it being mock-epic. Joyce was famously uninterested in tragedy, even elevating Ben Jonson above Shakespeare. The humour is all in the disjunct. It's not any more epic than The Rape of the Lock, even if real human feeling gets in. This reminds me of the endless conversation we were forced to have in highschool English about whether Death of a Salesman could be a tragedy if its characters are so 'low'.

I don't know if it's a contradiction to say that one of the characters achieves a kind of dignity while also saying that there is no grandeur or elevation in the film. Everything about the film is so quiet and muted, so internalized, and indeed ironic (again he achieves his dignity through admitting to things that are undignified, something you more expect from a comedy) that I have trouble calling it tragedy in an emotional sense. Realism has difficulty inhabiting traditional genres. That said, I have no problem believing that, much like my highschool teacher was convinced Arthur Miller was establishing where modern tragedy takes place, Asquith's movie is demonstrating the shape of modern tragic drama: it's not elevated or loud or foreordained, it's quiet and filled with endless petty negative choices, it borders on farce without being particularly funny, yet it's sad to its hidden core if you look deeply at it, and in spite of this there is also dignity there. It's pretty thoroughly realism--it has an uneasy relationship with traditional genres--but it is a realism that has no interest in maintaining its bathos for satiric purposes. I think Crocker-Harris' dignity at the end is essential: it's the thing that stops this from being, say, Madame Bovary--the thing that makes it a movie that looks sadly on ordinary life without believing life is defined by its pettiness. It's not driven by the grand emotions like tragedy is, but neither is it bereft of them like farce.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#73 Post by knives » Thu Feb 06, 2014 2:54 pm

Yeah, I also they married because they liked each other (not to mention culturally it was the right thing to do), but obviously Millie is portrayed as having sexual needs which most people do have, but obviously a gay Crocker-Harris could not meet such needs. Therefore I'd probably argue the film as permissive of Millie's adultery by not seeing it as such. I'd argue the film views their marriage as only a legal one with none of the romantic requirements fulfilled. So for me with that logic in mind the film's attitude toward women is perfectly reasonable. Marriage on the other hand I'd probably argue as it being against if push came to shove.

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#74 Post by Drucker » Sun Feb 09, 2014 6:02 pm

I'm going to try to remark on some of the earlier discussions and add a bit of my own points.
Sloper wrote: Bruce Eder, in his commentary track, calls this film ‘somewhat misogynistic, and decidedly anti-marriage’. Is he right? It might be worth comparing the portrayal of Mrs Crocker-Harris in the 1994 Mike Figgis remake (any love for this one? not from me I have to say…), which tries quite hard to give her redeeming features.
As I was watching the film, the villainy of the wife certainly stuck out to me, but like an earlier film club film, Miss Julie. In it, the mother in the film is seen as evil and is a fierce feminist. To me, there was less ambiguity there. Her feminism and resistance to traditional marital roles was the main source of friction in her marriage, and her innocent husband just wanted her to be a good old regular wife. She resisted this and caused the pain her family had to endure.

I think this film is much less cut-and-dry, and the idea that it is "decidedly anti-marriage" seems over the top. During the dinner party, after the women step outside, one even remarks about the difficulty of merging mind and body. But I got the impression from that moment that the Crocker-Harris marriage was an exception, and those two opposites were very difficult to bring together. But that didn't seem a universal denouncement in marriage. Their marriage seems to be an unfortunate example of opposites perhaps initially attracting, but finding there was nothing more beneath the surface. The young couple from the cricket match seem to be fine, however. And Hunter being single surely isn't in an enviable or ideal situation.

Any supposed misogyny was lost on me, as well. If I'm cheating and looking up the dictionary definition: "hatred, dislike, or distrust of women." While this might seem to miss the point, Crocker fully trusts his wife! He is certain she has never lied to him. The wife feels she has been wrong. Individually. She feels trapped and enslaved in a loveless marriage that gives her no fulfillment she seeks. Now, she can be extremely cruel, but her feelings are made clear as Crocker acknowledges his role in shaping her current feelings in his conversation with Hunter.
Sloper wrote: Speaking of Figgis, in his interview on the Criterion disc he comments that Asquith’s film is very obviously based on a play, though he doesn’t mean this as a criticism. How ‘stagey’ do you find this film? And if someone did criticise it for being too theatrical, how might you defend it - what makes it work as cinema?
One of the things that really stuck out to me throughout the film was the use of lighting, especially on Crocker. There seems to be at play a use of light and dark that seems to showcase Crocker's feeling and there seems to be the idea of light as a source of power. At the first dinner we see Crocker and his wife sit down for, Crocker is in total darkness while his wife is in the light. At this point, she still holds all power in the relationship. But as the film progresses, there are examples of Crocker "coming into the light" as it were. When Crocker delivers his monologue to the teacher replacing him, he walks towards the windows and is shown in more light. He is opening up and becoming more emotional as he begins to come to terms with where his life and career really are. When he breaks down in tears in front of Taplow, he is nearly entirely in light. There are times when he also steps back into darkness, saying "not so very apt" after reading a translation, as if he is going back into the character he has been as a teacher for the last 18 years, the character at the end that he realizes is inadequate.

Lastly, the scene towards the end where Hunter is trying to extend himself to Crocker, though Crocker resists the pleasantries, he is obviously overwhelmed by the gesture. And in this scene, he seems to rock back and forth in his chair from light to shadow.

I am not familiar with plays really at all, but there was plenty of strong staging and uses of light which really helped strengthen the appearance of Crocker's revelation about his life and his wife's use of power. Whether these would also work in a play, I don't know, but they sure seemed cinematic to me.

I also have a question/point I'd like to make about the Britishness of the film. It reminded me a lot early on of David Lean's 1940s films, which almost seem to celebrate British manners while also laughing at / mocking them a bit. One of the lines early in the film that made me laugh was "Do you want to see the timetable for next term?" While now I see that it was, indeed, exactly the kind of thing the character would say, it made me laugh early on.

Those Lean films, as well as a film like Life and Death of Colonel Blimp are films I just remember chuckling at with regards to the character's extreme love of manners and, pardon me for saying so, almost stereotypical "Britishness" (or at least my perception of it) during various points. But this film seemed to very sharply critique those same manners. Notice the disdain shown for the headmaster during the cricket match as he goes around feigning politeness at everyone, smiling through his teeth while he's about to deliver the devastating news about the pension to Crocker. The headmaster obviously has no love for Crocker, shown with the pension episode, his snarky comment to someone before talking to Crocker, and his hoping that Crocker wouldn't get the proper floor to make his speech at the end. The wife, too, is criticized sharply for her efforts to play up her role in society ("Do you know who my uncle is?") and her own pleasantries during the cricket match while, in reality, treating her husband awfully in many ways.

Am I reading too much into it/mis-reading it entirely to think there's something British about this?

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Re: The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951)

#75 Post by jindianajonz » Mon Feb 10, 2014 12:52 pm

Regarding the charge of mysogeny, I did see a few hints of it throughout the movie. I thought that Crocker-Harris' attitude towards her was a bit condecending and paternalistic- his acceptance of Millie's relationship with Hunter seems very much like a father accepting a daughter must go off and get married, and his wise, analytical understanding of their relationship and "different kinds of love" is much more sage than Millie's cruelly adolescent response to their relationship troubles (i.e. run to somebody else's arms and inflict as much pain as possible along the way). And as others have said, the fact that the underlying cause for Millie's behavior may be female hysteria only lends credence to the charge of mysogeny.

But like the question of whether this film is anti-marriage, I think each person's response is heavily dependent on whether they view Millie to be a singular character, or representative of women in general.

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