Tag Archives: Howard’s End

two color line

Our Attraction to Places

door 2

For a devoted cadre of individuals, a home is the defining feature of a satisfying life.

“People centered” versus “place centered” offers a categorical and crude binary.  We are never as simple as we might imagine.  Even so, I am surprised at how often a person clearly becomes energized by where they reside or where they have been.  For some, a physical place defines  a person’s functional world more clearly than the interpersonal contacts they have. Houses are especially expected to function as refuges where the familiar becomes the comfortable: settings where markers of identity take shape and make a “home.” Journalists are fond of noting that someone’s residence has become an extension of their personality.  We often hear that a room is a “reflection of an individual’s personality.” The photographs that prove it may not even include the occupant.  The living spaces are said to ‘speak’ for themselves.

Howards End exterior
                                   Howard’s End on film

The master director James Ivory organized his most successful narratives around places: for example, the stately homes in his dramatizations of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1992) and A Room with a View (1985). Ivory’s opening shot for Howard’s End wordlessly explores what a place means to one character’s identity. She strolls around the outside of her country home as dusk, the warm light inside revealing her animated family playing cards. The view from the outside is a visualization of her ideal.  See loves the idea of the house. Only later when we meet the family do we see the tensions.

Even as a teen, Ivory recalls how he loved to visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. Every detail is perfect in these three-dimensional miniatures of drawing rooms and bedrooms. They are a good representation of the “domestic perfection” that he and producer Ismail Merchant loved to put on the screen.

anne of green gables

There is no shortage of stories where a home is the key character. Theater of all forms needs a scenic dimension, even if it is as prosaic as the contemporary houses in Steven Spielberg’s domestic dramas. Anne’s Shirley’s Green Gables modest farmstead on Prince Edward Island and Mr. Blanding’s problematic “dream house” being constructed in Connecticut (1948) are essential to their stories.  More baroque is Rebecca’s shadowy Manderley (1940), or the vast spaces of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle), where the aging roof has as many holes as some of the plot lines.

Homes can also be a malevolent character in a story: a narrative decision against type that violates usual expectations.  Films like Poltergeist (1982), Netflix’ current The Watcher (2022) or The Amityville Horror (2005), all play with the familiar theatrical trope of home as a safe refuge.

james ivory 3
 Ivory at home in the Hudson Valley

We can approach the specialness of place from another angle as well. It is revealing to see what people choose to hang on their walls. Set aside a few obligatory photos of the family for a moment.  Is the art mostly portraits?  Landscapes or seascapes? Are the pictures in place to act as reminders of past or fantasized experience?  And might it also be true that, for introverts, a “perfect” landscape like a Thomas Cole painting gets a prime spot because no person intrudes?  I have a hunch, but nothing more than that.  I suspect that it may be easier for many of us to idealize a place more than an individual.

For the modern art establishment, landscapes are especially passé. We expect interpreters of our world to give us a sense of lived experience: whether hopeful or disturbing.  But the shopkeeper at any tourist spot will tell you that the popular art and reproductions that sell are usually conventional versions of the local scenery: perhaps the hillside villages of Cinque Terra above the Mediterranean, or the colorful mud pots of Yellowstone, or perhaps an over-the-top Kinkaid cabin in the woods.

The subject of shelter is a natural human concern. As the blight of far too many homeless remind us, humans need the protections of a closed and familiar space.  Only 64 percent of Americans own a home. But as any viewer of the large number of home shows on television will know, the culture has passed the “need” level for shelter decades ago. In our media homes are now presented as stage sets: actual or aspirational. Many are especially prone to building trophy kitchens, even if they almost never cook and would be quick to dismiss Julia Child’s unglamorous  workaday space preserved at the Smithsonian Institution.  Indeed, a visitor transported to the present from America of the 1950s would be tempting to conclude that we have their turned homes into temples of affluence. Its easy to find fetishized “residences” in nearby suburbs where perhaps only the gardeners have ever walked around the properties.  Celebrating their acquisition in print and pixels is its own reward.

But I’ve hedged the question. What predilections motivate many of us to warm to places more than persons?

black bar

Revised square logo

flag ukraine

Very Verbal People

Leo McCary Wikipedia.org.
Leo McCarey                           Wikipedia.org.

Some of us are waterfalls of language. But we can be too sure that a constant flow of dazzling fluency will solidify our relations with others. 

I had a friend who had an aversion to people who constantly filled a room with talk.  It was probably the eastern mystic in Paul, who was constantly chagrined by people who had dedicated themselves to replacing whatever silence they encountered with their own observations.  I never asked him why he recoiled from these conversational marathoners.  But I think I knew.  He favored words chosen carefully.  He liked comments that had a point, but not ten points. Most of all, he recoiled against Very Verbal People who turned their opinions into a circus of logorrhea.  Speaking before fully processing what you wanted to communicate wasn’t his style.  Not surprisingly, his care with words and comfort with silence made him a wonderful listener and a good colleague.

Even so, there are times when we do love verbal people who light up a space with their wit and responsiveness.  For most of us that room is usually a theater.  It helps when we can witness a conversation that has been worked out and honed by a room full of crack writers. It helps as well to have actors who can deliver the perfect response with a naturalness that lets us forget that their words came from a script.

The performer as a Very Verbal Person is something of a showcase for the possibilities of language, a model that we may admire for putting a difficult person in their place or, better yet, restoring the will of someone damaged by the worst that life can give.  A good script perfects what is never quite so clear in real life.

My favorite cases include the Schlegel sisters in James Ivory’s 1992 film, Howard’s End.  E. M. Forster’s  two young women are confined by the conventions of the day to stay close to their modest home in turn of the century London. But they are full of ideas and thirsty for conversation, even if the potential conversant is simply a clerk who shows up at their front door to retrieve a misappropriated umbrella. Their curiosity makes them seem fully alive.

There is also the pleasure of hearing the complex overlapping dialogue of a Robert Altman film, especially his classic M.A.S.H (1970).  Its the same satisfaction a viewer gets from vastly different television classics like WB’s Gilmore Girls (2000) or The West Wing (1999).  Writer Aaron Sorkin’s breakthrough series about the Bartlet administration is defined by Sorkin’s love of dialogue structured as a series of intense interrogatories and responses. No voiceless and moody reaction shots here, which is supposedly the stuff of television. In Sorkin’s world characters are always duty bound to frame their feelings as complete counter-arguments.

The surprise in the otherwise more conventional Gilmore Girls lies partly in the fact that the actors were running through scripts that were often twice the number of pages as similar hour-long shows.  Indeed, the long-running series now in re-runs owes its best scenes to the rhythm and pacing common in 1930’s film farces.  Who knew that Lauren Graham would be an heir to the traditions of the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell?

In these and other entertainments the fun is in watching Very Verbal People trade rebukes and put-downs using a logic entirely their own. The point obviously was not the real-world relevance of the logic, which only makes sense within the manufactured world of the narrative, but the pleasure of seeing people completely comfortable with the task of explaining any and everything.

And so it goes for Irene Dunn and Cary Grant, playing a couple who have drifted into a split in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). The pair have talked their way into a divorce that neither wants:

Jerry: In a half an hour, we'll no longer be Mr. and Mrs.  Funny, isn't it.

Lucy: Yes, it's funny that everything's the way it is on account of the way you feel.

Jerry: Huh?

Lucy: Well, I mean, if you didn't feel that way you do, things wouldn't be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.

Jerry: But things are the way you made them.

Lucy: Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you're the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.

All of this boils down to our love of the idea of total fluency.  We spend a lot of our waking hours trying to imagine the right thing. . .anything. . .that will resolve the challenges of dealing with prickly others.  Its only natural to admire the Very Verbal People who make it look so easy.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu