Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest edition of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. The theme for our July issue is "Heat," and in addition to Fran Hoepfner's piece below about "A Room with a View," they also have new essays on "Miami Blues," "The Lost City of Z," "Thelma & Louise," "Kiss Me Deadly," "Rebecca," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Fahrenheit 451," "Jezebel," "Rango," Oliver Stone, and a piece exploring how heat functions in the screen adaptations of Tennessee Williams' plays.
Summer is restless and stupid and hot. I have written about this before (and before that) and I’ll write about it again. The season itself is bad, I think, and yet, year after year, I cannot help but set wildly high expectations for myself. I’ll go to the beach every weekend. I’ll run 10 miles. I’ll shave my head. I’ll have a passionate, short-lived affair with someone I’ll never see again. What do I expect? It’s always the same, and it’s always lackluster. I get sunburned, I get sick of running, I’m growing out my hair. An old girlfriend peels herself away from me—this is before I got my AC unit and we stuck to each other if we embraced for even a second—“We should really make a summer bucket list,” she suggests. I can’t even make that happen. Anyway: I’m really making the most of my July so far, can’t you tell?
This summer, I’ve already turned down minor league baseball games and park outings and even just going for a walk around the block, in favor of lying on my stomach and curating my FilmStruck watchlist. OK, fine, I’ll stop bragging. What I will say is that I added A Room With a View to my watchlist because I thought, “Is this The Age Of Innocence?” And you know those memes that are like, “EXPECTATIONS VS. REALITY”? One is me running 10 miles; one is me sleeping all hours of the day. One is The Age Of Innocence; one is A Room With a View. The answer, of course, is that it was not The Age Of Innocence. It was A Room With a View. Insert meme here.
So if A Room With a View is not The Age Of Innocence—and for what it’s worth, when you’re expecting a Scorsese and wind up with an Ivory, that might be one of the only expectation vs. reality situations in which you’re not settling—I will tell you what it is: A 1985 period drama directed by James Ivory, based on a novel of the same name by E. M. Forster. “Ivory?” you might ask, “as in Merchant and?” to which I would say, yes, of course. And maybe, if you are between the ages of 19-22, you might instead ask, “Ivory? As in the guy who wore a Timothée Chalamet dress shirt to the Oscars this year? The screenwriter of Call Me By Your Name?” To which I would say, yes, it’s the same guy. The script, in turn, was written by longtime Merchant/Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who captures, in Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch, the elegant moodiness and confusion that is often part of being a young woman. Lucy has come to Florence with her cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), whose first line in the film notably summarizes my entire summer thus far: “This is not at all what we were led to expect.”
This summer hasn’t even had the decency to have consistently good weather. Rain one day, hot rain the next day; 90 degrees and sweltering the day after, only to be followed by a dip in temperature so baffling I find myself wearing a jacket to take out the trash. I can’t predict it. I can’t control it. So you see, another thing about curating my FilmStruck watchlist: it is perhaps the only thing I have in my life right now that gives me any remote sense of stability. I put what I want on there, and no one can say or do otherwise.
In the past month of my life, I have moved not once but twice, quit my job, endured a breakup, and watched a half-dozen friends move to the opposite side of the country. This is fine; I am fine. I mean, there are 28 films on my watchlist and I occasionally spiral, unsure of what to watch, shut off my laptop in a fit of indecision and stare at the ceiling until 3 in the morning, but again, I am fine. Today, rain; tomorrow, sun. The day after, who has any idea? I brazenly entered my late 20s earlier in the year with the confidence of, I don’t know, two women looking to enjoy a nice vacation to Florence and, say it with me now: “This is not at all what we were led to expect.”
Charlotte, and in turn Lucy, are not talking about my wayward late 20s, though; they are discussing their room in an Italian pensione (fake word) in Florence. It was meant to have a view, you see. (A room with a—you get it.) A view of the Arno, a river I know about mainly from the daily crossword. But they don’t have a view. Charlotte audibly complains about this at dinner that night, well within earshot of the pensione’s other inhabitants: Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench), a bawdy female novelist (literally can you imagine); the kind, gossipy spinsters, the Misses Alans (Fabia Drake and Joan Henley); the amiable Reverend Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow—ICONIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!); and the Emersons, an oddball father (Denholm Elliott) and his brooding but hot as hell son, George (Julian Sands).
And here’s where the magic happens: the Emerson boys have a view, and they’re willing to give it up to Charlotte and Lucy––free of charge. What they wanted (which was not what they got) could be what they get, if only they accept a gracious favor. Charlotte, obviously, says no.
Though Charlotte’s reasons to refuse can easily be traced to a British rigidity, there’s an emotional self-punishment here that feels recognizable. When someone does a good thing because you’ve more or less asked for it, it feels correct to say no. To stay the course, keep carrying the burden, and so on and so forth. The face reddens, the jaw clenches. “Women like looking at a view,” Mr. Emerson generalizes, in a way that both offends and humors me, “Men don’t.” To accept feels wrong, it feels like stepping outside of oneself and bridging a gap. Charlotte does not want something owed to two men she has never met. Later, after the dinner, the Reverend Mr. Beebe and Lucy convince her she ought to accept. It’s what they all want, as indelicate as it is. A Miss Alan says: “But things that are indelicate can sometimes be beautiful.” Touché.
Lucy and George make out in a field of barley. This is scandalous, insane, beautiful.
If there’s one thing that rarely lives up to expectations, it’s the comfort of returning home after a vacation. For Lucy, going home is a punishment. There is no relief in the distance between her and Charlotte, or her and George, for that matter. Not only is it summer in England, the heat pooling in the crevasses of their long-sleeved linen clothing, but at home, there is Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Cecil is a nightmare. He’s the worst possible amalgamation of what every person who describes themselves as a nerd on dating apps is like in real life: loud, boastful, pretentious, chaste, rude, and stuffy. He doesn’t like being outside. He hoards Lucy like a possession to be trotted out. He loves to read aloud from a book, the Victorian era version of making someone watch an eight-minute long video. He has never had fun and he’s not interested in the idea of it whatsoever. At one point, he mentions the concept of a joke, and I know he’s never even heard one before.
Cecil is reality to a tee. Nothing you want but everything you deserve. I hate him. He’s my favorite character. In keeping with this month’s theme, it’s funny to think I thought A Room With a View would be a traditional period piece, when in actuality it’s a very dressed up jocks vs. nerds narrative. The more you know, etc.
Because summer is hell, and hell is always finding new ways of making itself worse, Cecil does the worst possible thing imaginable: he invites the Emerson father and son to stay in a home for lease in their village. Why the fuck does he do this? According to Cecil, as a prank (Author’s note: this is not a prank). On who? Uh, the landlord? Rich people should not be allowed to ever think they are funny. This is borderline life-ruining for Lucy, who was hoping she could use the time at home to get over her crush. No such luck! For now she is home for the summer with both a fiancé and a crush and a wayward younger brother, and everyone looking to her to do the right thing. Whatever the hell that’s supposed to be.
My worst opinion on A Room With a View is that I wondered for many weeks after seeing it if Helena Bonham Carter was miscast. It’s strange to watch her at only 19, when she has occupied a certain witchy middle age for the entire time I’ve known her on screen. Lucy, to me, was so passive and formal and rigid. “Don’t you know Helena Bonham Carter is a total freak?” I wanted to ask. (Again: “This is not at all what we were led to expect.”) It wasn’t until I started my rewatch that I finally got it. There is a moment in which Lucy excuses herself after an odd conversation with Mr. Emerson, saying Charlotte will want her back. “Poor girl,” he notes. She takes offense. “Poor girl? I think of myself as a very fortunate girl. I’m thoroughly happy and having a splendid time,” she tells him. I’m thoroughly happy, she says, no trace of a smile on her face, and having a splendid time, she adds, every muscle frozen into the utmost perfect posture.
This was not, in my assumption, a passive and formal and rigid girl; this was a weirdo trapped in the social norms of turn of the century England. “Mother doesn’t like me playing Beethoven—she says I’m always peevish afterwards,” Lucy tells Mr. Beebe at one point. Has a more goth sentence ever been uttered? In a documentary produced 30 years after the film’s release, Bonham Carter herself says she imagines she got the part because she came in looking so disinterested, slumped over, and moody. Lucy Honeychurch is a young woman burdened by the rigorous expectations thrust upon her from every side. She ought to marry Cecil. She ought to stay at home. She ought not to travel alone or live in London or be by herself or anything that exerts any type of independent thought. No wonder she’s in a bad fucking mood all the time! Maybe that’s why the Emersons seem so appealing. They answer to no one.
In an act of desperation, she lies. (When a description of a book or a movie tells you it is about repression in society, that is code for lying.) Even in the opening moments, the milliseconds before “This is not at all what we were led to expect,” Lucy opens and closes her mouth. She wants to say something. She wants to express her disappointment. But she shuts it before Charlotte says something. There isn’t supposed to be anything wrong. Everything is precisely as it’s meant to be, even if it’s a lie.
I did not expect there would be an extended scene of full frontal male nudity but what can you do!
On a warm summer’s afternoon, George, Mr. Beebe, and Lucy’s brother Freddy (Rupert Graves—a crush!) go for a naked swim in what the Honeychurch siblings refer to as their sacred pond. The scene is miraculous: playful and happy and free. It’s everything Lucy isn’t. Earlier in the film, she mentions to Cecil that she used to swim there until she was caught.
I don’t want to go so far as to say that it’s the act of stumbling upon these naked men running around with their flaccid dicks that breaks Lucy, jumpstarting what is essentially a nervous breakdown causing her to lie to everyone she knows including herself about what she wants to do with herself and her life and her engagement and whatever the fuck George wants, but…it certainly doesn’t help.
Summers end. Heat abides. “Is it even the longest day yet?” is asked quietly on an outing to the beach. No, but it comes quicker than you realize and then it’s cold before you know it. Maybe it’s the not knowing about the weather that’s the only constant we have right now (extremely right now). As the days get darker and colder and windier, Lucy goes to see Mr. Emerson and speaks, almost plainly, about how abominable George has behaved towards her.
“He only tried when he should not have tried,” Mr. Emerson says, sympathetically. George’s sin was acting in his self-interest, and what he believed (correctly) to be the self-interest of Lucy. Isn’t it stupid, doing what you want sometimes? In spite of everything else, including the whole world? Feels like the most summer action you could take. Mr. Emerson goes one step further, and he breaks the news to Lucy: he and George are leaving and heading back to London. And it is only when faced with something truly unexpected—a surprise, a change, an abrupt action for which she is the direct catalyst—that Lucy cries. It’s the storm at the end of a hot summer day. These are not delicate, poised tears streaming one by one down the side of her face. They are heavy, hurtful sobs. She can’t control it. She’s free.
Because none of it is fair. The summer is long and awful. Unfair. She can’t love who she wants to love. Unfair. She’s forced to love someone she can’t stand. Unfair. She has to wear, like, a long-sleeved dress in the summertime! UNFAIR! Summer ought to stand for a specific type of freedom—emotional, physical, let those bellies hang out, etc.—and yet it’s unnaturally burdensome. It’s repressive. It forces us back within ourselves, questioning and nervous and moody as all fuck. And so, to cry—to full-on heave, honestly, at this particular misery, both an over- and an underreaction—is quite possibly the most liberating thing Lucy can do. This is the sacred pond, renewing and refreshing and horrible, baptizing her in something new.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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