Monday, October 15, 2012

Brief Encounter

Joyce famously defined sentimentality as "unearned emotion." David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), the movie version of Noel Coward’s Still Life (1936), currently revived in all its black and white glory at Film Forum is an unearned emotion party. That which doesn’t exist is always a hands down favorite over the known and the predictable--in a sentence the theme of this grand old war horse. But from there on all bets are off. The story is told as an interior monologue, an imagined rendition to the one person in the world that our heroine could talk to, her stolid husband, Fred (Cyril Richmond), who does his Times crossword puzzle in his pinstripes and is looking for a seven letter word based on a line of Keats--which turns out to be “romance.” The movie begins where it ends as Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) are interrupted by reality in the form of a chatty acquaintance. In the throes of impossible love or passion ( the Liebestod, that Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde suffer from), the world seems to recede which turns out to be a perfect segue way to the comic romantic subplot in which Stanley Holloway plays the randy stationmaster. We see only the garish lips of the woman talking like Billie Whitelaw’s mouth in the film version of Beckett’s Not I and incidentally the interiority recalls O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, just as the final sequence in which Laura almost throws herself in front of a train, Anna Karenina. When Laura exclaims that she rather be dead, Alec says “If you die, you’d forget me and I want to be remembered.” What begins to be apparent is that Lean earns his unearned emotion in this masterpiece, which is to say that genre art can rise to brilliance. Love Story is not a good example of this, but Brief Encounter, Romeo and Juliet and the Ring cycle all are (indeed Laura and Alec walk out of a cheesy romance called Flames of Passion). Our two forlorn lovers meet when Laura gets something in her eye and the iconography of subjectivity starts with this brilliant device which involves the distortion of vision, all to the background of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 2. Laura’s husband refers to her as looking piqued and indeed she is suffering from an illness known as the romantic agony in which clocks appear everywhere, a train shooting through a station becomes a symbol for consummation that never occurs and a fedora lying on a foyer table connotes personhood.  But speaking of consummation, one wonders if there are any brief encounters left to be had in our disenchanted post-modernist universe. Today you hook up before there’s a chance to manufacture any of the feverish and resplendently unrealistic fantasies that characters like Laura and Alec suffer from and then you “sext." 

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