Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Eye of the Storm

Patrick White

Andrei Tarkovsky says something to the effect in his diaries that you should only ever adapt second division literature for films (that does not appear to have prevented him working on Dostoyevsky though the project never came to fruition). With that, possibly sage like, advice in mind, I could only approach the film of Patrick White's 'The Eye of the Storm' with trepidation.

If you attempted to show forth the book in all its multi-dimensional giftedness, you would have to fail, where every sentence is akin to a painting wanting you to pause and be interrogated by its meanings and where nothing is explicated if it can be simply shown. White, himself, wanted to be a painter and the art of painting is to slow you down, draw you back and in. Even though both film and painting are visual arts, they exist in a tension of momentum. White wanted to be read slowly, with contemplative pauses, with scrutiny of the reader's visual, visceral, felt response. Film, however, slow, and too slow is deadly, wants to move you on; and, why, as a medium, it has difficulty with showing those inward experiences when time is arrested and another world is glimpsed, enfolded in this one, that is a major dimension of White's art. To do this effectively, you do truly need to be a genius film maker, like Tarkovsky, yet always live with a certain, ever present failure.

Thankfully, however, the greatness of White's art is to embody this contemplative script in another White, the artful describer of social comedy. We come to illumination, if we do, fully embodied, we may find this body a frightful encumbrance, wanting to shake it off, with all its dragging features of physical decay and emotional freight, but alas it is who and where we are and the light we glimpse comes through and with the body, not by escaping it. Whatever the temptations to Gnostic flight that many of White's characters possess, we can only find redemption in and through the world - the sparks of each and everything can only be freed from their weight by being intentionally valued in their own right and used aright. White was an intuitive student of the Kabbalah (as his greatest novel, Riders in the Chariot, shows) and he knows that unless all is redeemed, every last blade of grass, to switch religious metaphor, nothing is.

So the makers of 'The Eye of the Storm' triumphantly focus on this aspect - the social comedy of a family that is anything but loving and allow the 'other White' to glimpse through if you have the eyes to see, whilst delivering a thoughtful (and darkly humorous) entertainment where the dreadful and very alluring Mrs Hunter approaches her death and her two children, disappointed in life, come hoping to cling onto their inheritance, so that they might be comfortable at least in their own disappointed old age (or just perhaps find diversion enough to move beyond the simply comfortable to the being comforted).

The cast (Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush) being brilliant carry this all of with aplomb - a dark comedy of manners - where the possibility of new insight is continually being rebuffed and the established habits remaining, for all their obvious dysfunctionality, in place except within the central image - of being at the eye of the storm. This is beautifully woven into the film as a flashback of a moment that both explains why Mrs Hunter lost the affection of her daughter and thus accompanying the social comedy - and yet is displayed as the one moment in Mrs Hunter's life when she stepped out of her manipulative self-consciousness and was free. She, on an island, alone, shelters from a storm, emerging, intact, to find her beach house destroyed, nothing artificial standing in the face of the storm. Now in the 'eye' all is peace, temporary but real, and she celebrates aliveness on the beach, everything is momentarily renewed.

Its strangeness, estrangement, from the rest of the film is slotted in adroitly and works - an image of freedom enjoyed but for never being woven back into the pattern of Mrs Hunter's life remaining always a tantalising what if, plucking at conscience, consciousness but never breaking through - except perhaps now in Mrs Hunter's last moments, granting an easeful death (not loosed from comedy as it comes as she rises with its memory from her commode)! Truth has a way of following us about even against the toughest practices of evasion.

Finishing the film, I realised it was one of the few of White's core works that I had only read once, so am reading it again, and that, in itself, testifies to the qualities of the film - though gloriously repaid, reading a White novel is a commitment for both their length and their density!

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