Produced by Scott Rudin and Miramax Films
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Screenplay by David Hare from Michael Cunningham’s novel
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Produced by Andrew Lazar and Miramax Films
Directed by George Clooney
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman from the book by Chuck Barris
Distributed by Artisan Entertainment
“CAUTION: Reading Virginia Woolf may be hazardous to your health.”
This warning should be slapped on Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours and its film adaptation by Stephen Daldry. Cunningham’s tendentious treatment of Woolf’s last years and her continuing literary influence is just honest enough to raise some alarms.
And now another caution: In the analysis that follows, I have felt it necessary to deal with the narrative’s conclusion, so you may want to skip the next several paragraphs until you see the film for yourself—and I think you should. It is vital to confront infections at their earliest stage, especially those that present themselves with such a glossily innocuous air.
Woolf was undeniably a brilliant writer whose narrative experiments with stream of consciousness opened new possibilities for the novelists who followed her. At the same time, her works served as carriers of a virulent subjectivism that continues to infect susceptible readers. For Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle, the individual was the only arbiter of meaning and morality in a world they were convinced was metaphysically pointless. In his memoirs, John Maynard Keynes recalled the Bloomsburians’ arrogant sensibility, dramatized in Woolf’s novels. Looking back on his youth, he writes with bemused detachment that, for them,
nothing mattered except states of mind, our own and other people’s of course, but chiefly our own. These states of mind were not associated with action or achievement or with consequences. They consisted in timeless passionate states of contemplation and communion, largely unattached to “before” and “after”. . . . How did we know what states of mind were good? This was a matter . . . direct unanalysable intuition about which it was useless and impossible to argue. We were living the specious present, nor had begun to play the game of consequences. . . . We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were. . . in the strict sense of the term immoralists.
If Keynes were writing today, he might express himself more succinctly: If it feels good, do it; consequences be damned!
Cunningham, however unintentionally, uncovers some of these damnable consequences, and Daldry’s film makes them indelibly graphic. Following the novel closely, the film weaves three narratives together, each centered on a woman confronting a moral crisis. There is Woolf in 1928, toying with the suicide she will ultimately commit in 1941. Woolf is played by Nicole Kidman, who wears a ridiculous prosthetic nose that is supposed to resemble Woolf’s but only succeeds in making her look like a cross-eyed loon. (This, of course, will guarantee her an Oscar nomination.)
The second narrative concerns Laura (Julianne Moore), a California mother carrying her second child, who feels stifled by the standardization of American life in 1949. She lives in tract housing with her beefy husband, Dan (John C. Reilly), who somehow manages to be both doting and insensitive. We meet him coming back from the florist on his own birthday with a bouquet to give to his dearest before he goes to work. Then, he makes breakfast for her and their three-year-old son as Laura lingers in bed reading, portentously enough, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Clearly, the man is a clod. No wonder Laura dreads getting into bed with him at day’s end. Of course, there’s also the little matter of her daytime smooch-ing with a neighboring housewife.
The third narrative deals with Clarissa (Meryl Streep, who should have played Woolf, having, so to speak, a nose for the part). A 1990’s Manhattan publisher, Clarissa shares her improbably spacious Greenwich Village apartment with Julia, her 19-year-old daughter, the product—if that is not too strong a word for it—of artificial insemination, courtesy of an anonymous “donor.” Rounding out this modern ménage is Clarissa’s lesbian lover. Clarissa’s professional claim to distinction is that she has published the work of Richard (Ed Harris), a homosexual poet who is dying of AIDS. When she was 18, she had a summertime affair with him and has remained devoted ever since, constantly obsessing about what would have happened had they stayed together instead of following their same-sex inclinations.
The film crosscuts back and forth among the women, each narrative circumscribed by the events of 24 hours, following Woolf’s attempt to render the essence of Mrs. Dalloway’s life in a single day. As their stories unfold, we discover that these three women are related by parallel experiences. Each has been balked by moral and social conventions. Woolf feels guilty about not being sufficiently grateful to her husband, Leonard, and not having borne children, as her sister Vanessa has; Laura feels guilty because she does not want the husband and children she has; Clarissa faults herself for not having transcended the trammels of the female sex and forged a permanent relationship with Richard, however conjugally irregular it might have proved. Furthermore, each faces the question of suicide: Woolf commits it; Laura considers it; and Clarissa witnesses it when she fails to prevent Richard from tossing his AIDS-wasted body from his fifth-floor window.
Then, at last, there is a more palpable connection—and it’s a real kicker. Laura, now in her late 70’s, suddenly invades Clarissa’s narrative on the occasion of Richard’s funeral. Until this moment, Cunningham has withheld a pivotal piece of information: Laura is Richard’s mother. She had abandoned him, her daughter, and her devoted husband not long after the lummox brought her those flowers. After the funeral, she soulfully confides to Clarissa, “It’s a terrible thing to outlive the members of one’s family.” Her daughter was run down by a car while still a young girl, and her husband died of a heart attack not long after. Her sorrow, however, seems manufactured. She has done far more than outlive them: She betrayed them, a deed that may well have had no small part in hastening them into eternity. Nevertheless, we are led to believe Laura is a sympathetic, if not brave, character for having defected from her family obligations. As she explains to Clarissa, she was suffocating in her suburban life. “It was death; I chose life”—for herself, that is. Cunningham gives Laura the surname Brown, echoing Woolf’s famous essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in which she advances the modernist cause: Mrs. Brown—i.e., the ordinary self—must be liberated from the tyranny of social convention encoded in earlier fiction. “At whatever cost of life, limb and damage to property,” Woolf had declared, “Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world.” Surely, the cost of three lives is a small sacrifice to offer on the altar of Laura’s all-consuming selfhood.
Has Cunningham no sense of family values? Fear not. He pays them mete, if modern, tribute. Consider Clarissa’s devotion to her daughter, the spunky and beautiful Julia (Clare Danes). This young lady is so marvelously balanced that Clarissa thinks “she could be a figure from the Fifties, if you made a few relatively minor alterations.” Would one of those be the presence of her father? Of course not: Such a thought would spoil the narrative’s progression from the unenlightened, moralistic past to the sunny, liberated present. Cunningham’s unstated— but clearly implied—thesis is that the last century has seen the liberation of the self from crippling convention. Woolf was driven to madness and suicide by socially imposed limits. As a young woman, Laura nearly suffered the same fate but fortunately “chose life.” Clarissa, intact (if not wholly unscathed), has escaped convention altogether.
The lesson is clear. We cannot allow traditional sex roles to stifle us. We must live for ourselves, honoring our own passionate “states of mind.” If you must bear the burden of children, it is so much more sensible to do so by personal decree. What better evidence do we need than Julia, the test-tube baby who grows up to be a marvel of physical and moral health? Meanwhile, the son of what began as a traditional marriage ages into a self-loathing poet, stunted of body and soul, writing endlessly and pathetically of the mother who ditched him.
Isn’t it touching how much faith people place in science’s ability to rescue them from what were once thought to be life’s immutable inconveniences? Want to ensure that your next child is a girl? Abort the male embryos until a double X shows up. Better yet, have the doctor control the outcome in a petri dish. Don’t want children? Have a vasectomy or a tubal ligation. Got AIDS? Go on protease inhibitors. Should any of these interventions fail, you can always cry malpractice and sue the scrubs off of the offending physicians. And isn’t it time we were liberated from that most intolerable of constraints, mortality itself?
In Cunningham’s vision, everyone will be free to pursue her own interests, “careless of consequence,” as Evelyn Waugh said of his damnably clownish rogues. In this brave new world, heedlessness will be counted a higher sort of nobility.
Even Virginia Woolf would blanch to see her art and thought serving such a narcissistic agenda.
Speaking of narcissism, we have a particularly mawkish example in the person of Chuck Barris, the television impresario whose delight in conducting on-air humiliation licensed the hideous likes of Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake.
George Clooney’s first directorial effort is an adaptation of Barris’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography. Charlie Kaufman is his screenwriter, and together they have created from Barris’s unpromising pseudo-memoir a darkly satisfying meditation on today’s entertainment industry.
In his book, Barris recounts his rise in the television gameshow business. He confides that he created The Newlywed Game, in which couples try to guess each other’s preferences, to “test my theory that every American would sell out his spouse for a new refrigerator or a lawn mower.” Then came The Gong Show, featuring talentless amateurs who were thrown off stage mid-performance at the sounding of a gong. Barris muses, “I never knew there were so many Americans waiting to get on TV and make a–holes of themselves on national television.” What fun!
These shows had but one redeeming feature, and that was quite unintended: They nakedly exposed the television industry’s contempt for its audience. Barris cleverly turned this contempt to profit.
Broadcast television was perfectly tailored to Barris. With his Jewish immigrant’s feelings of alienation and inadequacy, he has apparently always felt himself to be on the outside looking in on America’s Protestant feast, a psychic situation that engendered a peculiarly potent mixture of anger and self-disgust. Television, as he found it, offered him the weapon he needed both to gain admittance to the official WASP world and to get his revenge. His ethnic envy may explain his fantasy about working for the CIA. Barris (a manic-depressive Sam Rockwell) imagines himself inducted into the Company by an icily efficient WASP named Jim Byrd, played with droll understatement by Clooney. Byrd is everything you would ever want in an uber-WASP—emotionally buttoned-down, always in control, and virtually omniscient. Why wouldn’t the ethnically compromised Barris feel proud to be his pick to assassinate America’s enemies? Furthermore, these CIA reveries dovetail nicely with his sadistic shows, in which the point is to “kill” the contestant.
I can see why Kaufman would be attracted to this material. He demonstrated the same mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-pity in the way he portrayed himself in his screenplay for Adaptation. Here, with more detachment, he has given us a clearer look at the anger and angst barely below the surface of today’s popular entertainment, so much so that I should probably withdraw my reservations about Adaptation. Kaufman may be just the satirist we need right now.
Clooney has given Kaufman’s script a look and energy that is wonderfully sour and hallucinatory. And, bless him, he has had the wit to put his Aunt Rosemary on the soundtrack singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” at once a well-deserved tribute to one of America’s premiere vocalists, who died last year, and a refreshingly tart sign-off for his nicely turned satire.