Bechdel Test Canon: An Angel At My Table
As I hazily recall in a friend’s retelling, Jodie Foster was so moved by Jane Campion’s The Piano that she exclaimed to a confidant from the nearest payphone that these are the kinds of films women should be making. Prompted by the same friend’s urging, I included Campion’s Two Friends in the first installment of the series and return to her work here with 1990’s An Angel at My Table.
Amy Taubin admires the New Zealand director for exploring female subjectivities. As Kelsey Wallace’s screed against the nominees for the 84th annual Academy Awards suggests, such explorations are rarities unto themselves. They take on a new significance when those films center on the subversive, at-times radical sexual politics and lived experiences of women and girls and the filmmaker insists upon developing her own distinctly tactile yet impressionistic visual style.
I also invoke the Academy here because of their love of honoring (certain kinds of) biopics. A number of acting awards, and occasionally prizes for script, direction, and picture, go to films that map out the lives of real people. In general, I’m weary of the biopic as a genre. For one, it unfairly singles out “exceptional” people. We don’t usually see films about “regular” people, unless they struggle with a mental or physical disability. This of course makes them exceptional in a number of films, which is dehumanizing.
Also, it’s difficult to distill a person’s entire life into two hours. Onscreen, these people encounter the same hardship: the burden of genius, which can result in a madness that is often facilitated by drugs. Some massive tragedy occurs—the death of a loved one, usually—and these brilliant people are set right again. This highly formalized narrative turns complicated individuals into types. And in the case of someone like mathematician John Nash, a film like A Beautiful Mind reduces him to a noble savant when his personal life was much more disturbing. Thus I’m often left wondering two things when I finish a biopic: One, how well do I actually know the subject after watching a fictional film about them? Two, do biopics reinforce the myth of disability as an individual, treatable concern that only exceptional people can overcome?
I returned to these questions after seeing Campion’s magnificent Angel. Originally aired as a miniseries, the film focuses on the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame. Screenwriter Laura Jones adapts three of the author’s autobiographies as source material. Three actresses miraculously play Frame as if they inhabit the same body—Karen Fergusson as a girl, Alexia Keogh as an adolescent, and Kerry Fox as an adult for roughly 2/3 of the film’s running time.
Relative to Campion’s more overtly transgressive work, Angel is fairly straightforward—conventional camera angles, slightly dreamy color palette, linear narrative. Some may find this seeming lack of experimentation disappointing, particularly because Frame famously explored postmodern narration and magic realism in her own work. I maintain that the film doesn’t require such trickery and that, in fact, Angel’s clear-headedness and unadorned filmmaking makes it all the more powerful. Throughout her early life, Frame encountered madness and oppression. It often happened to her. As a working-class schoolgirl, she internalized speculation and prejudgment from teachers and classmates for her shyness, unusual appearance, and artistic gifts. Such misunderstanding would have more dire consequences beyond ostracism when she went to teacher’s college. In 1945, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, institutionalized for eight years, and almost given a lobotomy.
A number of films dwell on the barbaric conditions of mid-twentieth century asylums and psychotherapy’s misogynistic impulses, notably Peter Mullan’s 2002 feature The Magdalene Sisters. Campion spends little time on this part of Frame’s life, perhaps because she believes it doesn’t define her. Sure, Frame wrote about this period of her life. She rose to cultural prominence as a result. But it wasn’t who she was. She had a career in the asylum. But she pursued it in earnest after she left, which is far more exciting.
Campion also doesn’t spend much time expositing on Frame’s process. This may seem like a strange decision. However, watching a writer work is boring, and insufferable with voiceover narration. And what do we actually learn about the subjects in these scenes? The only thing you might learn about me if you watched me type is that I’m an especially violent nail biter when I’m struggling with a thought or a deadline. Writing—any solitary creative process, really—is near impossible to capture on film without reducing an internal revelation to a function. It is far more illuminating to watch Frame make a dentist appointment, lose her bags while traveling abroad, swim naked before her lover, pose for a newspaper photographer, or try on her dead father’s shoes. We can guess at how they inform her work, but never know conclusively.
Though told almost in miniature, Angel feels far more epic in its devotion to small moments than courtroom scenes that turn history into playacting and battle sequences that turn soldiers into figurines. Perhaps that’s because Frame wrote for nearly 30 years, witnessed the film’s release, lived just shy of turning 80, and remains an influence. These are the films women should be making. They are often the films I want to see, particularly if they fail to receive Academy recognition.
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