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Telling Stories Without Climaxes
Why there are no good films of Mansfield Park and other troubles for women's stories
This Thursday, I’ll share your responses to my piece on friendship founded on “boring” tasks and simple accompaniment. I’ve also written a piece for Breaking Ground in defense of snow days as a contradiction to a culture fixated on control.
I loved reading your stories last week about women who changed who you thought you could be as a woman. One thing that stood out to me is the way your experiences didn’t fit into the story structures we often default to. For example, Amy told a story about her advisor setting limits, but the story didn’t involve a dramatic showdown, just the slow, patient maintenance of boundaries.
It’s hard to imagine as a movie. As a poem, maybe. With a repeated, firm chorus amid intrusive stanzas.
I thought of Amy’s advisor while reading Jessa Crispin’s film criticism in Caesura. Crispin looks at a variety of films set in different periods, but which all seem to have the same woman at the center:
They fit into what Angela McRobbie has identified as the “perfection/imperfection/resilience” story arc of feminist women's media, stories of women proving their worth by being perfect, having relatable flaws that they embrace as part of their journey of self-discovery (usually something like a crooked tooth or a reliance on a socially acceptable substance and not like a hygiene issue), and creating resilience out of their hardship but excelling in the meritocracy through their excellence. […]
They follow the dominant story feminism has pushed for decades (to the detriment of any wilder or more radical visions of life, gender, or meaning): the world is against you because you are a woman, but you'll prove them wrong, just by being yourself, you'll see. Life is presented as a mountain to scale, a competition to win, and one must be on your best behavior to achieve your position at the top. And if you are unable to achieve success, it will be because of misogyny, not any structural barriers like a decaying social welfare system or our decrepit institutions.
I recognize the story arc Crispin is describing, both in movies and from times I’ve tried to apply it to my own life. It’s sometimes a fit, but I can get stuck when I see myself as a heroine in this mode, but there’s no one I can defy in order to solve a problem.
It shouldn’t be our only story, but it can be hard to adapt other tempos into film. My fellow contributing editor at Plough, Joy Clarkson, commented on twitter:
I’ve just read Mansfield Park for the first time, so I felt qualified to offer my hypothesis, which covers Persuasion, too:
Fanny’s interior life is better served by a novel than a film. If you want to tell a story about the interior virtue of a quiet character, I think you’re better off with a heightened style like a musical or a show with dance woven in.
The film that did work for me on this topic was Terrence Mallick’s A Hidden Life, about the life and death of Bl. Franz Jägerstätter.
Though, to an extent, having your protagonist martyred by the Nazis (even if it’s what happened in real life) is a kind of heightened style. The crisis of extraordinary evil throws patient goodness into relief, so that what might have been hidden is singled out.
The director, Terrence Mallick, takes his title from the closing words of Middlemarch, and I am curious how his style would work for George Eliot’s novel, which ends:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
What art (outside of novels) has done a good job representing these hidden lives?
I’d love to hear your recommendations, especially if you’ve seen artistic forms that serve these kinds of stories well. E.g., a sonnet’s turn can be a dramatic shift of metaphor or emphasis, without having a climax in terms of plot.
P.S. My husband and I co-wrote a game, Back Again from the Broken Land, that is entirely set after the climax of a story. It’s a Tolkien-inspired game that takes place after the defeat of the Doomslord, as your small adventurers take their long walk home and see if they can make peace with the Burdens they carry. This is our last week on Kickstarter.